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.
I 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.
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.
Next comes fitting the braces into the side linings and gluing the back to the sides.
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.Coffee break is over, time to get back on my head.
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?
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.
And last but not least here is bent beautiful bubinga binding!
Today’s post has been presented by the letter “B.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Here is the bench with a stack of black walnut, curly claro walnut, curly maple and some reclaimed redwood waiting to become dulcimers tops, backs and sides.
And here is some vertical grain mahogany a friend gave me. He bought the plank 25 years ago! Some walnut is thrown in for flavor and color. It will become fretboards with fingerboard overlays of various woods.
This is the stage of making a dulcimer that is really more akin to woodworking. There will be lots of sawdust and shavings!
And so it begins.
Well, it began a while ago with wood from the attic, clouds of sawdust at the bandsaw in the garage and now sorting tops, backs and sides for the next several dulcimers.
Not seen in the photo are several sets of walnut and maple scattered about the floor.
The long boards were part of a gift from a friend. He showed up one day with a bunch of boards he bought 30 years ago. What a gift! One of the boards pictured looks to be sapele, the identity of the other is still a mystery. It might be curly ash. The feel and weight of it are nice and I think it would make nice backs and sides, whatever it may be.
Today I hauled down some wood from the attic. I needed some walnut and I remembered a particular board I picked up at a local sawmill a few years back.
Once said board was found I managed to get it down from the attic via the ladder and acquired only the mildest of injuries while doing so.
Had I accomplished nothing else today I would have felt the day was a success!
I navigated the board through the shop door and everything that either the board or I knocked over during the process was unbreakable. More success!
I often mention my shop is small, what a realtor would refer to as “cozy.”
Here is this hunk of walnut showing itself off in the middle of the shop.
Not all of the board is usable for lutherie but I will try to get as many dulcimer sides, backs, soundboards and fingerboards out of it as possible. Often the yield from such a board is small compared to the size of the board. Wood is sacred and I try to waste as little as possible.
Notice the spray-bottle of water and mallet on the bench next to the board? Those are for taming the board; it gets a squirt of water for a mild offense and the mallet is for my protection should things really get out of hand.