Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Tag: Fretboard Page 2 of 3

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!

Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers