It Starts With A Tree

Future Cherry Dulcimers

I’ve taken some wood down from the attic and have been truing it up for resawing. I true up wood with hand planes. I get a good work out, make lots of shavings, and enjoy the smell of freshly planed wood.

It is easy to disassociate materials from their source. When eating a hamburger one usually does not think of the cow from which it came. The same thing can happen with wood; one can forget it was once part of a tree.

One of the reasons I enjoy working wood with hand tools is the sense intimacy with the timber I am working. Each piece of wood and process of working it is unique. As a luthier I feel I have a better understanding of the structural and acoustic potential of wood as I work it by hand.

The cherry billet in the photograph still has bark on what had been the outside of the tree. This piece comes from a board that was originally about 12 feet long, perfectly quartered, and rough sawn. I made a few cherry dulcimers from this board several years ago. This last remaining piece has a few flaws I need to work around but most likely there is enough for a dulcimer or two in there.


Dulcimer Back Braces

Small planesI don’t have a standard pattern for dulcimer back braces. I don’t have a standard pattern for bracing dulcimer soundboards either. The bracing pattern, number of braces, and size of the braces depends on the sound I am after and the wood involved. It would be easier and faster to standardize things but that wouldn’t be any fun at all. I also find the results I get from taking the long route make a big difference in the sound of the dulcimer.

In the photograph above you can see the four planes I use to dimension the back braces. The braces are brought to approximate size and then shaped after being glued to the back. This dulcimer back has three spruce cross braces and a Spanish Cedar reinforcement over the center joint.

After getting the braces roughly to shape I do most of the final shaping with a paring chisel. In the photograph below you can see the paring chisel and the cute little shaving it makes. You can also see what a neat and highly organized workbench looks like.

Walnut dulcimer back, paring chisel, and a very neat bench

After using the paring chisel the shaping of the braces is complete, though sometimes I will sand the braces as in the completed back shown below; it just depends on what I feel like doing. Sometimes I prefer the crisp, clean lines left by edge tools, other times I go for the smooth and rounded look left by sanding.

Walnut dulcimer back with Spanish Cedar and spruce bracing

Next comes fitting the braces into the side linings and gluing the back to the sides.


Poplar Shavings

After planing poplar for the current run of dulcimers I tracked some shavings throughout the house. As many who hand-plane know, wood shavings can be captivating.

So here are a few poplar shavings, about 2 inches wide and 32 inches long, sitting by the window and getting some sun with their beauty inadequately captured by the camera on my phone.Poplar shavings by the window.Coffee break is over, time to get back on my head.

Bending Beautiful Bubinga Binding

Though I have done it countless times I am always amazed when a straight. flat, piece of wood turns into the curved shape of a dulcimer. Heat and moisture make wood pliable. It’s that simple.

Today I bent bubinga binding for two dulcimers in the works. After sawing bubinga into appropriately dimensioned strips I clean and true the surfaces with a low angle block plane and trim them to length with a chisel. Here is beautiful bubinga binding before being bent. Can you say “beautiful bubinga binding before being bent” three times fast?

Beautiful Bubinga Binding Before Being Bent

A quick spray with distilled water and the beautiful bubinga binding strips are taped together so they are easy to manage when going into the heated bending form. Since these will all be bent to the same shape this is a quicker method than bending them freehand on a hot pipe.

Here they are in the bender. Though you can’t see them in the bending form I assure you there is beautiful bubinga binding being bent.

Beautiful Bubinga Binding Being Bent

And last but not least here is bent beautiful bubinga binding!

Bent Beautiful Bubinga BindingToday’s post has been presented by the letter “B.”


It Must Be An Interesting Life Being A Black Walnut Tree

A black walnut tree and it's friend Fernando.

I’m taking a break from hand planing several pieces of black walnut destined to be parts of dulcimers and some other instruments.

The pieces I’m planing comes from two 3/4″ thick quartersawn boards sequentially cut from the same tree. The boards look similar except one has some dark mineral streaks (I love dark mineral streaks in walnut!) and part of a knot near one end.

After sawing the boards into pieces of identical dimensions I noticed the pieces sawn from the board with mineral streaks weighed considerably more than the other. I didn’t put them on a scale but the difference in weight was remarkable.

When I started planing the pieces another dramatic difference  became noticeable; pieces from one board were much easier to plane than the pieces that came from the other.

The pieces from the lighter weight board were easy to plane and I quickly produced a beautiful surface. The heavier pieces proved very difficult to plane and I was getting tear-out regardless of which direction I came from. I had to switch to a high-angle smoothing plane and use a lot of muscle to get a good surface on those pieces.

I don’t expect complete consistency from boards coming from the same tree but I have never had two boards sequentially cut from the same tree be so different.

Every tree tells a story.


There Is No Bad Wood, Only Misunderstood Wood

Most stringed instruments are made of wood that has been quarter sawn.  Quarter sawing is a method of sawing a log that yields boards with vertical grain.

Quarter  sawing a log yields boards with vertical grain

Quartered or vertical grain boards are stronger and more stable than wood sawn off quarter. These are important concerns when making stringed instruments. The soundboards, backs and sides of stringed instruments are very thin. When making dulcimers I regularly work wood down to 2mm or so. Using quarter sawn for the fingerboard helps it stay stiff, straight and stable.

Like any luthier or woodworker I spend a lot of time (and money) finding the best wood I can. “Best” is a relative term here; the best wood for what I do may be very different from what would be best for what someone else is making.

I look through the stacks at the saw mill for wood that is quarter sawn, has little or no run-out, good structural integrity,  a mass, stiffness and resonance I find appealing and good color or figure. Usually there is a certain amount of balance and compromise among these various qualities when selecting wood. Trees do not produce wood to order and wood is rarely “perfect.”

I often use wood with “character flaws” as long as they will not interfere with strength, stability and sound. Some of this wood has produced very pretty dulcimers and I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to make this kind of wood work well.

I save some of the wild and interesting pieces of wood to use as pegheads. I have made some beautiful pegheads using wood with burl, wild grain patterns, voids and knots.

After milling wood for dulcimers I end up with a lot of scrap. I have some friends who go through my scrap pile because they can use these pieces for marquetry, jewelery making and other projects.

Anything left gets slated for firewood.

Off-cuts and rejected wood that sometimes gets saved from the fireplace and becomes part of a dulcimer

On the other hand I regularly go through the firewood pile. I recently dug out a cedar soundboard and a cherry fretboard that were rejects. The cedar became lining strips and the cherry produced some fine brace wood after some selective cutting and trimming.

Wood is sacred. I never want to waste any.


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