Though the basic pattern is the same, each dulcimer peghead I make is a little different from the others. Sometimes the size and shape of the peghead may vary and/or the more subtle details, like the shape or bevels on the edges, may be unique.
This is in part because I work on the peghead until it looks right to me on the particular dulcimer where it will spend its life. It is also because I thoroughly enjoy working with edge tools and files, and shaping the edges of the peghead present the opportunity to have fun!
For the long edges of the peghead, I begin the bevels with a block plane, on shorter straight sections I begin with a chisel, and on curved areas, I start with a knife.
A small scraper and a file clean things up and round or soften the edges as needed.
I regularly post photos of my work in progress on Instagram.
I assemble my dulcimer pegheads using two or three parts; a block glued to the head-block of the dulcimer shaped somewhat like the heel on a guitar neck, a peghead that sits on top of the block, and occasionally, a decorative veneer over the top of the peghead.
In the photograph you can see the parts and get an idea of where they will go. This peghead is made of walnut with a highly figured veneer glued over it. The veneer was made from wood that could have become scrap but I try to use every beautiful bit I have around.
The black marking on the peghead veener is black epoxy I used to fill a bark inclusion; a situation where the bark of the tree works its way into the wood, kind of like a tree with an ingrown toenail! The epoxy stabilizes the wood and fills small voids around the bark inclusion. I’ve done this before and it looks natural and beautiful once the epoxy is leveled.
I use a disc sander to clean up some of the mating surfaces but I don’t consider a machine-sanded surface good enough for these joints. Before assembly I will plane and/or scrape the joints so they mate perfectly. If I find a particular joint very tricky to clean up I might lap the parts on finer sandpaper glued to a flat surface and then scrape them from there. Sanding scratches leave small ridges and voids that prevent full wood-to-wood contact. With hide glue I can get a very strong and often invisible joint if I have direct wood-to-wood contact.
Peaking up behind the dulcimer is the mini crock pot that holds a container of fresh and yummy hide glue. The cardboard template gives me the rough shape of the peghead but leaves the final length and shaping of the tip free to be adjusted for the number of tuners or to avoid cutting off a particularly pretty piece of the wood that might fall outside a more standardized pattern.
All of this leads to more work but it’s the stuff that makes me love doing what I do.
On the bench is a cherry dulcimer ready to receive its peghead. In the photograph above is the block that gets glued to the end of the dulcimer to support the peghead. Layout lines are in place to guide the process of shaping the block.
The block is shaped and the gluing surfaces are flat and true for a perfect butt joint. I said butt, huh, huh, huh… Also in the photograph is the blank that will become the peghead and a cardboard template with the basic shape I’ll be using.
I use hide glue for gluing this joint. I could get an excellent, strong joint without clamping just by using a rub joint but I’m using a jack plane as a weight while the glue dries overnight. It is not necessary but it couldn’t hurt. Rub joints are made by applying glue to two perfectly mated surfaces and gently rubbing the pieces together until the glue begins to stick. After the pieces no longer slide I hold them in place for a minute or two and the joint is complete. As hide glue dries it pulls the joint tightly together.
Here you can see the completed joint and a good view of the sound port; a soundhole in the side of the dulcimer. I use sound ports to change the frequency of the air space within the soundbox, get a larger soundhole without removing more material from the soundboard than I prefer, and so the dulcimer can be used as a birdhouse should the need arise.
I don’t really need to use clamps when gluing up a dulcimer peghead assembly but I feel better knowing the clamp is there. Hide glue added to a clean and well-fitting joint grabs and pulls the joint together as the hide glue sets up.
Clamping the parts together at an angle is tricky but in the photograph you can sort of see the peghead and the block beneath it are pressed up against an angled block of wood covered with wax paper. The peghead is clamped to the work board and there is wax paper on the work board as well.
This arrangement keeps parts from sliding when downward pressure is applied to the joint. They probably wouldn’t slide anyway since I’m using hide glue but I feel better knowing there is no chance of a rude surprise.
The wax paper prevents someone from getting a dulcimer with a work-board and an angled block of wood stuck to the peghead. That would make the dulcimer difficult to tune and it would be hard to find a case that fits.
After everything is clamped up I clean up the squeezed out glue with a rag and warm water. This is another benefit of hide glue; it cleans up with warm water and a rag.
Here are two pegheads in curly walnut and one in cherry ready to be sawn out.
When making parts for more than one dulcimer at a time I sometimes leave notes to myself on the parts in pencil. The numbers in the layouts for the two walnut pegheads are to remind me how many tuners each will receive. There are also notes on the respective dulcimers to remind me which peghead goes with which dulcimer. I know it may be difficult to imagine that the wrong peghead could possibly end up on a dulcimer but imagine away….it has happened.
Once the pegheads have been sawn out they are brought to final shape by eye. My pegheads all look basically the same, an asymmetrical snake-head, but each is is slightly different. I enjoy sculpting each peghead until it looks right to me and depending on the grain and figure of the wood a different variation in the final shape looks more “right” for each individual peghead. It would be faster to just make them to a set repetitive pattern but what would be the fun in that?
Here are two of the pegheads in the home stretch.