What’s On The Bench – August 5th, 2018

Fingerboards for two custom dulcimers.

On the bench are two dulcimer fretboards in cherry.

The one on the left has had the strum hollow cut and refined and the location of the position markers laid out. It also has an ebony end cap in place.  An inset of Spanish cedar is inlaid in the fingerboard just ahead of where a bridge/pickup will go. I find using a softer wood or shim ahead of this type of pickup makes the amplified sound more natural. This fretboard is chromatic up to the 7th fret/first octave and diatonic the rest of the way.

The other fingerboard is fully chromatic. The layout lines for the strum hollow are in place and this one will also have position markers and an ebony end cap

On the right is the glue pot that keeps hide glue warm and happy. The Erlenmeyer flask holds water for adding to the glue as necessary. I picked up the Erlenmeyer flask at a salvage sale because I thought it would be more difficult to knock over than the glass jar I previously used. This has indeed been the case but I still manage to knock it over now and then.

What’s On The Bench – 11/20/2017

Slotting an ebony dulcimer fingerboard.

On my calendar was recovery from back surgery this past week but there was a change of plans; a dental issue came up and surgery was postponed. Instead I am taking antibiotics and will have minor dental surgery in a week or so. The back surgery will probably be within a month or so after that.

Let it not be said that I don’t know how to have a good time!

I’m a firm believer that what is happening is happening and what is not happening is not happening so I am rolling with it.

In the meantime I am up to my usual tricks and getting some work done in the shop.

In the photograph above is a simple setup for cutting fret slots. The miter box is made from scraps of MDF and the depth stop on the saw is a strip of wood held in place with three colorful spring clamps.  The wooden cam clamps hold the miter box to the work-board and holds the fretboard in place while sawing.

This  low-tech setup works remarkably well.

I have templates for fret patterns I commonly use. The templates eliminate calculating and measuring out the fret positions.

This fingerboard is for a custom chromatic dulcimer with a scale length I have not used before; 743 centimeters! That is a very long string length but is what the person who will be playing this dulcimer prefers.

Since I didn’t have a template for this scale length I had to calculate the fret positions and lay them out on the fingerboard. Fortunately, there is software that does the math. In the 1970’s I had to spend a long time with a calculator to work out fret positions. The constant often used to calculate an equal tempered fretboard, 17.81715385, is still permanently installed in my memory.

I laid out the fret positions using a very accurate ruler, machinist’s square, sharp knife, and patience. I triple checked the measurements before sawing the slots.

Sawing the slots with the miter box was the fun part.



You Say Dulcimer Fretboard, I Say Dulcimer Fingerboard

Adventures of a dulcimer builderA dulcimer doesn’t have a neck but it has something under the fingerboard that sort of serves as a neck. Calling it a neck doesn’t really make sense but when the dulcimer has a fingerboard on top of the object that shall not be called a neck then appropriate terminology becomes even more confusing.

For no particular reason I refer to the lower portion of the assembly as the fretboard and call the fingerboard overlay the fingerboard. When describing a fretboard with a fingerboard on it I refer to the assembled unit as a fretboard.

In the photograph above I’m gluing the fretboard assembly to a dulcimer soundboard.

The soundboard is clamped to a flat workboard. Two clamps come in from the sides holding scraps of wood that rest against the sides of the fretboard at either end. This makes it easy to accurately place the fretboard in the right spot and helps prevent it from moving while I apply the clamps.

I use an old trick to clamp the full length of the fretboard down using only two clamps. A long, warped piece of wood is used as a clamping caul with the concave side facing down along the length of the fretboard.  When I clamp both ends down the flattening of the warped wood exerts pressure along the entire length of the fretboard.

You can follow more of my my action-packed adventures as a dulcimer maker by following me on Instagram.

My Acoustic High-Precision Thickness Planer

My Acoustic High-Precision Thickness Planer

Nothing original here, just an old trick that makes quick, quiet work of squaring and evenly thicknessing wood.

A few drops of super glue temporarily hold two wood runners to the bottom of a plane, in this case a Stanley #5 1/4 for those who care about such details. The plane can not take off wood below the height of the runners so repeatedly planing wood to the same height becomes easy. The top and bottom of the workpiece will also be parallel.

In the photograph I’m planing spruce brace stock for dulcimer backs. The rough brace sits on my planing beam; a flat and straight beam of oak with a bench stop at one end. I use this planing beam when truing and jointing fretboards and fingerboards, thinning bindings, and brace stock. I also use the planing beam as a caul when gluing fingerboards to fretboards.

Yes, it is a fascinating life I lead.


What’s On The Bench – Filing Frets

Dulcimer Fretwork

In the photograph above are some of the tools I use when filing frets after they are installed on a dulcimer.

On this dulcimer the ends of the frets have already been filed flush with the sides of the fingerboard. The next step is to assure there are no high or low frets as these are one of the causes of buzzing and other annoyances.

I draw a line along the top of the frets with a marker and lightly file the tops with the flat, fine diamond sharpening stone. When the lines from the marker are gone I know the tops of all the frets are level.

I choose the color of the marker based on the dulcimer’s aura. This one needed blue. Only kidding. Or am I?

The tops of frets need to be round and define a singular point of contact when the string is pressed down behind it. I mark this point by again drawing a line with the marker along the crowns of the frets. I use the triangular file to file the sides of each fret so it slopes towards the line until there is barely a hint of the line left. The corners of the file have had the teeth ground off to help avoid gouging the fingerboard. The metal shield placed around the fret I am working on also helps.

The small metal square is one of several in different sizes I use as straight edges to assure the tops of the frets are still level as work progresses.

The block of wood with a file embedded in it at an angle is used to bevel the ends of the frets. The small, skinny file with the orange handle is used to deburr the corners of the frets at the edge of the fingerboard. The same file is use to round the end of the frets. Skipping this step usually results in blood loss for the player; the ends of the frets become sharp after filing.

After completing all the above the crowns of the frets are further rounded and polished with fine sandpaper, steel wool, and then buffed until they shine.

Free-Form Dulcimer Making

Bartione dulcimer soundboard layoutI have basic patterns for my dulcimers but the the exact shape and size of each dulcimer varies slightly from one dulcimer to the next. I have embraced a fairly free-form style of building and use very few jigs, forms, and fixtures.

By building free-form I feel like I am sculpting a dulcimer rather than making a bunch of parts and assembling them. The frame of the dulcimer (sides and end blocks) and the fretboard become the reference points for laying out the rest of instrument. I can make small changes to the shape and size of the dulcimer by feel and eye and work with it until everything seems right to me.

The thickness of the top and back and the bracing pattern are determined in a similar manner.

Free-form building is not the most efficient way to make dulcimers in a timely manner. If I made all the parts to a set pattern and assembled them in fixtures I would make more dulcimers in less time but I wouldn’t enjoy the process very much.

Laying out position markers and soundholes on a baritone dulcimer These photographs are of a baritone dulcimer in progress. The final shape of the dulcimer is traced on the soundboard and the soundholes are laid out using a template. I have also laid out the placement of the position markers on the fingerboard. A scraper serves as a short straight edge for drawing the layout lines.

Making sure everything is where it belongsAlso important are notes to myself to make sure everything goes where it is supposed to go. There is a reason I do this. Guess what happened the last time I didn’t do this!

An Important Fretting Tool

I install the frets on a dulcimer just before setting it up. Since the dulcimer is built to be resonant hammering in the frets can get very loud!

Hammering frets into a dulcimer can get very LOUD!

I consider hearing protection an essential fretting tool.

It might not be an issue for some when fretting a neck or a dulcimer fingerboard that is not attached to the body but when the fingerboard is over the soundboard it is an entirely different story!

A Dulcimer In The Home Stretch

Violin makers sometimes refer to an instrument that is assembled but rough as a “corpse.”  Though it is an odd term it does seem appropriate – the instrument has not yet been brought to life.

Last night I was working with a dulcimer in such a state. All the major components are in place but there are many rough edges and raw surfaces to be dealt with.

The contours of the peghead need to be blended into the fretboard and any shaping and sculpting of the peghead happens at this stage. Most of this involves using a knife, file, scraper and planes.

Tools used for trimming, fitting and shaping the peghead.

The sides need to be cleaned up and the binding trued to the sides. I don’t know how I would get things done without using scrapers!

Scraping the side of a dulcimer.

Fun, fun, fun!


A Dulcimer I Made A Long Time Ago

I started making dulcimers on my parents’ kitchen table when I was 17 . When I left home I worked out of a few different shops, houses and apartments. Sometimes where I lived and worked were the same place and occasionally the same room. I was young and the world was mine.

I stopped making dulcimers when I was in my mid-twenties. I was traveling  a lot  and moving fairly often so I focused on performing rather than dulcimer making. I missed dulcimer making but it just wasn’t practical to have a shop during those years.

Me in my early 20's. Fashion was as important to me then as it is now!

I had stopped at dulcimer #78 in the Winter of 1983. 78 dulcimers with my name in them made between 1975 and 1983 are out there somewhere.

Some internet sleuthing brought up another dulcimer I had made in 1981 that was up for sale. No, I didn’t buy it but I downloaded the pictures. During that time I used variations on a lute rose pattern as soundholes on several dulcimers. I also used  teardrop or flame style f-holes on quite a few instruments back then.

Here are two pictures of dulcimer #50 from the listing I found:

Doug Berch dulcimer #50 circa 1981

Doug Berch dulcimer #50 circa 1981 - back

I remember making this one for a woman in Vermont. I made several dulcimers with sympathetic strings. On this dulcimer the sympathetic strings ran over the soundboard on the bass side of the fretboard. From the picture I can see that the sympathetic strings as well as their tuners and bridges are no longer present. It also looks like the peghead had been broken off and repaired with wood screws.

Speaking of the peghead; I must have thought the shape of this peghead was a good idea at the time. What was I thinking! I was young and didn’t know any better!


Involuntary Aesthetic Decisions

I put a lot of time into choosing which pieces of wood become a finished dulcimer. Sometimes I spend hours deciding which board (or boards) will provide the top, back peghead, fretboard, endblocks and sides for a particular dulcimer.

sorting wood in the attic

I am currently working on two walnut dulcimers. One is curly with beautiful red, brown and orange highlights, the other remarkably clear and straight grained. Both dulcimers are beautiful in their own way.

Yesterday I braced the backs, glued in the labels and glued the backs to the two walnut dulcimers.

This morning, after almost completing flush trimming the back  of one of the dulcimers I saw that I had put the curly back on the plain dulcimer and vice versa!

Here is an artist’s rendition of how I felt when I realized what I had done:

Artist's rendition of how I felt when I realized I had put the wrong back on a dulcimer

I checked to see if I could remove the backs  and put them on their originally intended dulcimers. The bodies were shaped slightly differently from each other and once trimmed the backs could not be switched .

Here is a lovely dancer performing an interpretive dance of how I felt in that moment:

Interpretive dance showing how I felt when I realized I could not do a dulcimer back transplant.

All is not lost though.

Both dulcimers look very nice and I am sure they will sound and play just as expected. They simply won’t look the way I had intended.

I thought I had enough coffee this morning. Oh well.

It's Too Bad Rusty Brains Don't Squeak!