As 2020 Comes To A Close

Appalachian Mountain Dulcimers by Doug Berch in progress.

As the year comes to a close, I have several dulcimers in the home stretch. My dulcimer design continues to evolve, and I have recently begun preparing to build a new model or two or three in addition to my standard and baritone dulcimers.

Over time, I have learned that I was not made for embracing mass production, and I no longer worry about how to make more dulcimers in less time. Instead, I am continually taking steps towards older technology and methods of luthierie, woodworking, and finishing techniques that have stood the test of time. The older methods work well, but some of them (not all) take more time and require skills that appeal to me more than the skills required to use modern technology.

In the coming year, I hope to be using primarily old-school, non-toxic finishes. Tests on wood samples are beautiful visually, and I am near completion on the first dulcimer that will be the test for how a new “old” finish sounds. As I carried the dulcimer across the workshop the other day, I could easily feel voices from the radio resonating in the dulcimer, and that is always a good sign!

I am also honing the skills to leave more wood surfaces as they look and feel straight from a hand tool rather than how they look after sanding. This is common in violin making, but less often seen in modern fretted instruments. Sandpaper will still be a part of my life, but it is not needed as much as one would think. Scrapers and files can leave a lovely surface and are quiet and far less messy.

This is how I like to work. It makes me happy.

I wish you all a happy and healthy Holiday season. Please keep yourself and others safe.

I regularly post about dulcimers in progress on Instagram and you can follow me there for thrills and chills!

Preparing Shellac

I was preparing shellac this evening and snapped a few photos because I thought the colors were so pretty.

I’m preparing two types of shellac. The first is dewaxed platina. Platina shellac adds little color to the wood and the wax naturally found in shellac has been removed. The lack of wax allows the shellac to adhere to just about anything. It can be used as a sealer, a complete finish, and above or below coats of almost any other wood finish. This is the type of shellac I have long known, loved, and used successfully.

The stuff shellac is made of.

I’m also preparing button lac so I can experiment with it as I have not used it before. Button lac contains wax and is processed using heat during manufacture. I have heard the heating process makes button lac create a tougher finish and I have heard conflicting information about the wax being a good or a bad thing as far as resistance to moisture. The presence of wax means I can’t use this shellac with other types of finish as the wax would prevent proper adhesion.

I am considering offering a shellac based finish, French polish, on a new model of dulcimer I hope to be making in a few months (more about that soon!) so it is a good time to explore other options the wonderful world of shellac has to offer.

Preparing shellac is simple; the shellac flakes or buttons are mixed with alcohol and once fully dissolved, you have shellac.

I’ll be adding 2 ounces of button lac to 8 ounces of alcohol to make a 2 pound cut. The “cut” is the ratio of shellac to alcohol. I usually make a 2 pound cut of shellac and add more alcohol to some of it when I want a lighter cut.

Weighing two ounces of button lac.

The dewaxed platina shellac comes in fine flakes that dissolve easily in alcohol. The button lac comes in large buttons, hence the name button lac.

Crushing buttonlac with a hammer.

I crushed the button lac with a hammer so it will dissolve quicker. I love the color of this stuff! I look forward to seeing what it looks like on samples of different types of wood.

Crushed buttonlac wrapped in coffee filters to filter out some of the wax.

I have been told it is good to filter out most of the wax from button lac. One method I’ve read about is to wrap the button lac in coffee filters to hold back the wax as the shellac dissolves in alcohol. It sounds like an idea worth trying. If it doesn’t work I’ll try the other method; I’ll let the wax settle to the bottom of the jar and decant the clearer liquid.

The shellac is mixed with alcohol and needs a day or two to fully dissolve.

The alcohol has been added to the shellac. This photograph was taken a minute or two later. It will be a day or two or three before the shellac is completely dissolved.

Shellac disollving in alcohol for about two hours.

This is how the shellac looks about two hours later after being lightly stirred. I’m already seeing wax in the bottom of the jar of button lac so I think I’ll be decanting it once fully dissolved.

It will be interesting to see if I end up using button lac on dulcimers. I will be doing many tests before that happens, if it happens!

You can see relatively frequent photos of my dulcimers in progress by following me on Instagram.

Preparing A Dulcimer Fingerboard For Receiving The Frets

Custom dulcimer with ebony fingerboard by Doug Berch

On the bench today is a custom chromatic dulcimer with an ebony fingerboard. The spruce soundboard has been stained and lightly distressed to add some character. I’m a character and so are my dulcimers. So it goes.

Many dulcimer makers fret the fingerboard early in the construction process. It is much easier to install the frets when the fingerboard is separate from the dulcimer; one can hammer or press the frets in without any thought of possibly crushing the dulcimer beneath them!

I know several dulcimer makers who get good results fretting the fingerboard before gluing it to the dulcimer but I prefer fretting the fingerboard after assembling the dulcimer and applying the finish.

Experience has shown me that applying the finish to a dulcimer sometimes results in slight movement of the soundboard and fingerboard. By fretting after applying the finish I can level and/or add relief to the fingerboard and have it come out exactly as I prefer it to be.

I use a scraper and a few sanding blocks to prepare the fingerboard for fretting. The scraps of wood lying on the dulcimer prevent bad, scary things from happening to the soundboard while working on the fingerboard.

The movement of the fingerboard and the correction I am talking about is measured in thousandths of an inch. As a player I find these small increments can make a surprising difference in how much I enjoy playing a dulcimer.

Fretting towards the end of a build requires more work but I am often told my dulcimers are very comfortable and easy to play and this is a part of how I make them that way.

Adding Flavor And Color To A Dulcimer

Adding some age and color to a dulcimer soundboard

Wood is beautiful. Trees work hard to make it. I try not to interfere with the natural beauty of wood. There is nothing I could carve, stain, paint, or inlay that would look better than the wood itself.

Occasionally a piece of tonewood, to my eye, needs a little help showing off its true beauty. Applying the finish to a dulcimer enhances the beauty of the wood but sometimes adding a little extra color can make the grain and figure “pop.”

I add color to a dulcimer, or to part of a dulcimer, using three methods:

  1. Staining the wood.
  2. Adding a touch of color to some coats of the finish.
  3. A combination of both methods.

In the photograph above is a soundboard made from an excellent piece of spruce; light, stiff, and plenty of medullary rays.

I could have left the soundboard as it came from the tree but I thought adding a little color would highlight the beauty of this particular piece of spruce. I also want to simulate some aging; sometimes a piece of wood just looks a little too “new.”

The photograph shows the soundboard after several minutes of applying a water based stain. After preparing the wood for finishing I wipe it down with a wet rag and once dry do the final sanding and burnishing. This helps prevent the grain from rising as I apply the water based stain.

I wipe the soundboard down again with water and rub the stain into the dampened wood with a rag. By moistening the wood the stain is less likely to blotch and it is easier to blend the stain into the wood.

After the wood has fully dried I’ll decide if the color is pleasing or if I will add or remove stain to get the desired look. Since I’m using water based stain I can rub the surface with a wet rag to blend and remove color if need be.

This is a bit like finger-painting!

After arriving at happiness with the color of the stained wood I’ll decide if I want to add any color to the finish; I figure things like that as I go.

Yes, another adventure in dulcimer making!

What’s On The Bench – 7/5/2017

Dulcimer in the home stretch

On the bench is a curly walnut dulcimer having its head attached with hide glue.

It is important to attach a head onto a dulcimer, because if you don’t, it will go searching the night to find a head and the one it chooses could be YOUR HEAD!

But I digress.

This dulcimer is one of three I am currently working on. The other two dulcimers are ready for final preparation before receiving the finish and tomorrow this dulcimer will be ready to join them.

I wait until I have 3 or 4 dulcimers ready to go through the finishing process at the same time. I put the woodworking tools away, clean the shop, and dedicate the space to finish work for about a week.

After all coats of finish are applied the dulcimers hang on the wall for several days so the finish can further cure before being rubbed out.

While the finish is curing I start work on the next 3 or 4 dulcimers.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

You can see my work in progress by following me on Instagram.

L’ÉBÉNISTERIE – A Silent Film About Woodworking (1932)

Last week Kari Hultman posted a short French silent film about woodworking on her blog, “The Village Carpenter.” If you haven’t checked out Kari’s blog you should go there very soon.

While watching this amazing film I looked around the website where it was hosted. I wished I had paid more attention during French class in high school.

I found several  interesting videos about woodworking, music, lutherie and more.

Here is a link to a silent film called “L’ÉBÉNISTERIE.”

L'ÉBÉNISTERIE - A Silent Film About Woodworking (1932)

It shows the woodworking process beginning with felling trees and ending with finished furniture. We watch an apprentice learning to use a frame saw, planes and other tools. There are shots of joinery, veneering, staining and finishing.

 Chopping down a very large tree

 Ripping with a frame saw

Planing at the bench


Outdoor Lutherie


Outdoor Lutherie


I’m pretty sure this was a staged photograph but I like the idea of working outside on a beautiful day.

I occasionally prep and finish dulcimers on the front porch when the weather is cooperative.



Steel Wool, A Magnet, A Rubber Glove And A Dulcimer

A quick tip I thought I’d share. I prefer a finish leaning towards the matte side of semi-gloss.  I use nylon abrasive pads for cutting between coats of varnish but I prefer the look I achieve by using 0000 steel wool when rubbing out the final coat.

Steel wool leaves fine steel dust on the dulcimer that needs to be cleaned up.

Where has that rubber glove been?

First I vacuum the dulcimer and bench. I follow this by placing a strong magnet inside a rubber glove, a plastic bag, a paper towel or whatever ever I have at hand. I gently move this assemblage over the surface of the dulcimer and pick up the dust left by the steel wool. Then I switch to a tack cloth to grab any steel particles that may still remain.

The rubber glove , plastic bag, paper towel or poodle I used to wrap the magnet gets thrown away and I am left with a clean magnet that is ready for its next adventure.

Magnets having fun.



Scraping and Sanding And Dulcimers, Oh My!

After 7 days of nursing a wretched cold/flu/plague I am feeling up to putting in an hour or so of shop-time every now-and-then. This brings me great joy!

Work stopped last week just as two maple and spruce dulcimers were  about to be prepared for finishing.

As a part of the dulcimer making process preparing a dulcimer for finishing reminds me of the cross-country trips I took as a younger musician. Just when I thought I was in the home stretch I’d come to the border of say, Kansas or Pennsylvania; there was still a long way to go.

The same is true with preparing a dulcimer for finishing.

I’m not complaining. It is that I am surprised every time I get to this point that perplexes me!

I can’t remember where I found these two article on scraping and sanding. Enjoy!


Scraping - fast, efficient, and shavings galore!

Sanding - forgiving, messy, dusty, annoying yet expected by the average consumer


When The Dulcimer Shop Becomes A Finishing Room

I have mentioned before that my shop is very small, what realtors would describe as “cozy.” I have enough room to comfortably work on three dulcimers at a time during the primary steps of construction.

As the dulcimers come closer to completion I work on each one individually until it is time for the finishing process to begin. The size of the shop doesn’t really allow much else to take place while I am doing finishing work. I’ve tried and the results were not pretty.

The workbench becomes a finishing table. It usually looks something like this:

Finishing a curly cherry dulcimer

The finishing process takes several days. A lot of the time is taken up by waiting for coats of finish to dry and cure. Drying happens quickly. Curing is the process of the finish hardening and becoming more stable and solid.

Here are two dulcimers taking a break while the finish dries and cures. This gives them time to chat and catch up with each other.

Dulcimers taking a break while the varnish dries

Preparing the dulcimers for finishing is the longest part of the process. This begins in the traditional manner by using scrapers to smooth and clean up most surfaces.

Scraping the sides of a cherry dulcimer

I use sandpaper to clean up most of the tool marks left by planes, scrapers and files. Sanding is a process of making increasingly finer scratches until they can no longer be easily seen. Sanding is also very messy.


A few hundred years ago luthiers did not have sandpaper and they used planes, files and scrapers as their primary tools for preparing surfaces for finishing. The results are beautiful but do not produce the slick and polished look that people have come to expect from modern manufactured items.

Disembodied hands using a card scraper

Handmade objects looked as if they were made by hand and showed signs of the craftsmanship involved in making them. This does not imply that handmade objects looked shoddy; it was a different aesthetic.

I prefer the look of planed and scraped surfaces that show the use of tools used by skilled hands. I am debating whether I will exclusively use these techniques some time in the future.

I use a variety of finishes depending on the wood used and the visual and tonal qualities desired. I usually use shellac and a variety of oil varnishes and varnish oils, often in combination.

I lean towards more or less non-toxic, traditional finishing materials. This choice is again primarily aesthetic; they provide the look and sound I prefer.

But there are other reasons…

I have used modern solvent-based finishes. They work well but can cause interesting short and long-term side-effects.

Once while working with lacquer and lacquer thinner this crowd of happy folks kept showing up.

The happy solvent-based finishing folk

I enjoyed their jovial song and dance but after a while I realized that I was “not in Kansas anymore”, and if I continued using such products getting back here might become increasingly difficult in the future..