What’s On The Bench – July 23rd, 2020

Splitting and shaping spruce for dulcimer soundboard bracing

On the bench is the setup I use for making dulcimer soundboard braces.

I use several small, light braces to help control stiffness, tonal response, and protect the area around the soundholes from developing cracks.

I usually use spruce for the soundboard braces regardless of the type of wood used for the soundboard. Spruce is light, stiff, and strong. This is why spruce is often used for making soundboards, boats, and airplanes!

The spruce I use for soundboard braces comes from soundboard off-cuts.

The braces are narrow and thin and get shaved down further after being glued to the soundboard. I have no standard dimensions for bracing; I determine the final size and shape of the braces by how flexible the soundboard feels in my hands and what kind of response it gives when tapped in different areas.

I split the stock for the braces with a knife or chisel. Splitting, as opposed to cutting, assures the grain will run the full length of the brace, making the brace stock as stiff and strong as possible. Some of the braces could be confused for large splinters, so having long, straight grain is, in my opinion, essential for them to do their job well.

After splitting the brace stock, I carve away any rough spots preventing them from being rectangular with a knife or chisel and finish them up on a plane clamped upside down in a vise. The braces are simultaneously cut to length and beveled on the ends with a sharp chisel.

While writing this post, I remembered I had written about this same process before, but over the years my methods have changed and evolved. Such is life, and that’s a good thing.

I regularly post photos of dulcimers in progress on Instagram. I have yet to become a lifestyle influencer, but if you like seeing dulcimers being made, you might enjoy following me there.

The Heart Of A Mountain Dulcimer

I consider every component of a dulcimer to be integral to the instrument’s sound, playability, beauty and structural integrity.

The choice of wood, the thickness of the top, back and sides, bracing and other structural elements are unique to each dulcimer I build. I adjust each component as the dulcimer is constructed to bring them into harmony.

Though every part is integral to the final result I consider the fretboard to be the heart of the dulcimer. The fretboard transmits the music within the musician to the body of the dulcimer.

Fingers and fretboard - photo by mustafa farhad - dergah. Org

The fretboard is the primary soundboard brace.  It also acts as a bridge and transfers the vibrations of the strings from every fret directly to the soundboard. By altering the material, weight, and mass of the fretboard I can adjust  volume, tone and sustain.

The choice of wood for the fretboard is as critical as the choice of wood for the soundboard. The fretboard needs to be resonant, stable and strong enough to carry the tension of the strings.

I treat the hollowing-out of the fretboard, the carving of the strum-hollow and the shape of the tail-end of the fretboard in a similar manner to shaping the internal braces, thicknessing  the sides and graduating the top and back.

This process takes time but it brings me great joy.