Doug Berch

Dulcimer Maker And Musician

cropped Dulcimer Builders and Makers 1 23

Tag: Wood

The Smell Of A Dulcimer In Progress

I can hear the jokes already….

But seriously, any woodworker knows that different woods have different fragrances.  “Fragrance” is a word that often seems associated with a smell one find pleasant while “smell” is often associated  with a smell that might just be a smell, for better or for worse.

The inspiration for this post came moments ago while cutting the binding channel on a dulcimer made of Adirondack spruce and big-leaf maple with walnut linings.

Suddenly the shop smelled like chocolate!

Maybe someday I'll make a dulcimer out of a chocolate tree!

While each wood has a distinctive fragrance I had never worked that combination simultaneously; what a discovery!

If not for the heavy snow falling at the moment I would be on my way to get some chocolate!


Dulcimers – Finding The Right Wood

I envy my woodworker friends who make things other than musical instruments. Even the pickiest of them often come home from a sawmill with beautiful, usable wood. For stringed instruments the choices quickly narrow down. For most parts of a dulcimer I will only use quarter sawn wood.

Quarter sawn log

I generally have a hard time finding quartered wood because it is more expensive for the mill to cut. Often I may only find the few boards that came out quartered during the sawing process.

Typical sawing pattern

Once I find quartered wood I dig through the piles to find stock of usable dimensions. Often lumber will be too narrow, too short, or too thin to yield enough slices when resawing. After finding quartered lumber of usable dimensions I check the wood for run out, bang on it to get an idea of how resonant it will be, check for flaws, etc. If I’m lucky I’ll find a few pieces that meet my requirements. At that point I look for grain and figure that I find appealing.

Here’s some walnut that will soon be milled for fretboards and other parts.

Quartered walnut that will become dulcimer fretboards and other parts

Once it is squared up and rough sawn I let it age and work out any internal tension that may cause it to warp before bringing it to final dimensions. Usually a certain percentage of the wood, hopefully low, will not prove to be stable enough to use.

I usually do my own resawing on a 14″ bandsaw but recently these two guys, Horatio and Zebediah showed up at my door asking for work. “What kind of work do you do,” I asked. “Resawing wood the old way, the good way, the hard way,” they replied in unison, which kind of  freaked me out a bit.

Resawing lumber

It seemed that fate had stepped in. I was able to help these two joyful wanderers find suitable employment while freeing up some of my time to search for more wood!

A Simple Foot Powered Jig Saw

I might have to get around to making one of these. I have a deep appreciation for simple, effective technology and this certainly looks like it fits the bill.

A simple foot powered jig saw

simple foot powered jig saw


Why this jig saw was considered “less desirable for ladies’ use” is perplexing.  This was written in 1875 but it still makes no sense to me.

This plan came from “Fret Sawing and Wood Carving (1875)” available for free at the always wonderful Internet Archive.

A Palm Full of Wood Shavings

I was joining a two piece maple dulcimer back this afternoon.

I shoot the joint with a jointer plane; a Stanley #7. The throat is set tight and I hone the blade with a back bevel which roughly gives me a 55 degree cutting angle. Having the plane set up this way lets me make very light passes and leaves a surface free of tear-out on most hardwoods.

After shooting the joint I saw this small pile of thin, fluffy maple shavings sitting on my bench. I picked them up. The sun coming through the window fell on the shavings.

A Palm Full of Wood Shavings

I find so much joy in this.

Some Curly Wood I’ll Resaw Today

When I shop for wood I never know what I’ll come home with. Usually I plan on getting something specific but often I find that what I want isn’t available. Sometimes I’m lucky and come home with something unexpected and wonderful.

That is how I came to acquire this Curly Sapele or Mahogany. I’m not quite sure which it is but I find them to be interchangeable in workability and tone.

Curly Mahogany

And here’s and interesting piece of somewhat Curly Walnut. It will yield some fine quartered billets.

I am happy it was not steamed as so much Walnut is these days. I don’t mind the sapwood and I like the natural colors. Steaming evens the tone of the sapwood and heartwood but it takes away a lot of the more subtle colors. The photograph doesn’t show some of the more subtle hues.

Curly Walnut

And last but not least some Curly Cherry with wide curl. Nothing magnificent but beautiful none the less.

Curly Cherry

I prefer finding thick timber. I get more book matched sets and less waste than I do resawing 4/4 or 5/4 but I take what I can get.

I have been writing this post primarily to avoid cleaning the shop this morning so I’d best get to work!

Lutherie – How it starts.

Lutherie - How it starts.I can’t remember where I read something that transformed my thoughts about working with wood. In an article about the difficulty of working some species of wood someone wrote the following as best I can remember:

“Wood was not designed to be easy to work or have perfect grain, stability, or color. Wood was designed to keep trees alive!”

Though I more or less knew this reading this statement helped me understand that working with wood is not unlike gardening or farming; it is working with plants.

This deepened my experience of appreciating the subtleties of each piece of timber I came across.

I shop for wood at local sawmills. I enjoy spending hours digging through piles of lumber. Usually I come home with only a few pieces of timber. Most sawmills aren’t cutting wood specifically for instrument making. A lot of wood that would make great furniture simply isn’t suitable for a musical instrument.

Lutherie - How it starts.As a starting point I look for wood that is quarter sawn. Wood sawn in this way is more stable and maintains it’s integrity better when humidity and temperature fluctuate. This is very important in lutherie where very thin pieces of wood are used.

The fibers in a quarter sawn wood run the full length of the board adding stiffness, strength and the ability to be more resonant. Some species of wood will also show the most beautiful grain patterns when quarter sawn.

Quarter sawing wood is the least economical way for a sawmill to harvest boards from a log; there is a lot of waste. Wood is precious so it is good that all wood is not quarter sawn. Unless wood is sawn specifically for instrument making there will usually be only a few boards that come out quarter sawn per log. I look for them!

After finding the quartered boards I next look for boards that are clear of knots, pitch pockets and other things that are good for the tree but bad for an instrument. I then check for “run out.””Run out” happens when a board is sawn at an angle through the log. All those wonderful fibers are cut short even though they might at first look like they run the length of the board. “Run out” makes the board weaker and less resonant. Then comes pleasing grain, resonance (a good tap with a knuckle can tell me a lot about how suitable a piece of timber will be for an instrument) stiffness and texture.

Lutherie - How it starts.Once I get the wood home it goes into the attic for as long as possible. Though I have started making instruments again fairly recently I have been buying wood for several years in preparation for doing so. I let wood sit in the attic for at least a year before sawing it up it for an instrument. The wood is then stored in my shop for a few weeks to acclimate to the environment in which the instrument will be made.

Page 2 of 2

Doug Berch & Dulcimer Makers