Just Saying Hello

Dulcimers hanging around the shop.

This is a quick post to say hello and let you know why I haven’t posted much lately.

I’m dealing with some lumbar issues once again. Why? Because everyone needs a hobby!

But seriously, I have congenital issues that cause problems with my back, and I have had to rest my back for the last 2 months. The good news is rest has been helping and symptoms have become milder. I had steroidal injections a few weeks ago and will get another in 3 weeks. The hope is that rest, combined with injections, will work well enough to avoid having another back surgery. So far, so good.

Folks waiting for dulcimers have been very understand, and I appreciate their patience. The dulcimers in the above photo have been patiently waiting for me to get back to them, and that will be the first thing I do when I get back to work. I appreciate dulcimers that wait patiently; sometimes they can be impatient and rude when not getting enough attention!

Only kidding. Or am I?

I’m not a person who is wired to sit around and do nothing for extended periods of time, so during a break from making dulcimers, I have been working on the design of a new model of dulcimer. I’ll share more about that when I am able to start work on the prototype.

Another project has been rearranging things in the shop as I am able to help prevent my having to twist and bend as much while working on dulcimers, as that will make it possible for me to get back to work sooner than later.

I miss working in the shop; it is my happy place. But life is big, and life is full, and I am enjoying the ride.

I hope you are doing well and that you are happy and safe.

A New Toy, I Mean Tool, In The Dulcimer Shop!

A tiny little table saw.

Sometimes a tool is a toy and a toy is a tool. This new tool is a bit of both!

I don’t feel the warm and fuzzy feelings for power tools that I do for a good hand tool. Though I appreciate the functionality of power tools, I feel a few steps removed from the work I’m doing when using machines. An exception might be when I use a bandsaw to resaw wood. That’s a lot of fun! Otherwise, there is noise, sawdust, and scary sharp things moving very fast, and that doesn’t make me happy in the way a fine chisel or plane does.

Still, machinery has its place, and I do have a few basic woodworking machines that help with some tasks.

Though remarkably versatile and practical, table saws are not tools I enjoy using very much. I have a portable table saw that makes a few tasks easier, but it is too powerful, loud, and scary to fit in my comfort zone.

To make life less scary and more fun, I have considered buying or making a miniature table saw for a few years but never got around to it. My thinking was that a small model makers table saw would be perfect for making binding and a few other tasks.

Recently, while researching the two brands of miniature table saws I was considering, I learned of a third called Jarmac. The Jarmac table saw was made of mostly aluminum and steel rather than plastic, and that appealed to me.

After shopping around, I saw one on eBay and decided to place a bid, and I won!

It is a nice little machine, though I have not yet thoroughly road tested it. The saw takes a 4-inch blade and the arbor of the saw is half an inch; an uncommon size blade. The blade that came with the saw was not in good shape, though I think I can sharpen it and make it usable again.

I found a 4-inch carbide blade that fits the saw and works well for crosscutting, though it is not very useful for ripping. I just found a source for a thin, hollow ground blade that should work better for ripping and have it on order. The motor on the saw is rated at 1/16 horsepower, and such a small horse will be happier turning a thinner blade!

Changing the blade was an adventure. A previous owner had overtightened the nut that holds the blade on. The nut is proprietary to the saw and made from aluminum, and removing it without ruining the nut or the saw was not easy. I had to buy two new wrenches in sizes I didn’t have, use some WD40, and gently but firmly try to free things up. After an hour of thinking, tinkering, and occasionally uttering words not suitable for print, I got the nut free, and though the nut looks a little rough around the edges, it still works.

This is a fun little machine that I can put on the bench when needed and put under the bench when not needed. I placed a dime in front of the miter gauge to give you an idea of the actual size of the saw. Perhaps the next mouse I catch in the live trap will be interested in apprenticing, and I can have it make binding in exchange for peanut butter and cheese.

I frequently post about dulcimer making, music, and other stuff on Instagram, so please follow me on Instagram if you want to keep up with my thrill-a-minute lifestyle!

As 2020 Comes To A Close

Appalachian Mountain Dulcimers by Doug Berch in progress.

As the year comes to a close, I have several dulcimers in the home stretch. My dulcimer design continues to evolve, and I have recently begun preparing to build a new model or two or three in addition to my standard and baritone dulcimers.

Over time, I have learned that I was not made for embracing mass production, and I no longer worry about how to make more dulcimers in less time. Instead, I am continually taking steps towards older technology and methods of luthierie, woodworking, and finishing techniques that have stood the test of time. The older methods work well, but some of them (not all) take more time and require skills that appeal to me more than the skills required to use modern technology.

In the coming year, I hope to be using primarily old-school, non-toxic finishes. Tests on wood samples are beautiful visually, and I am near completion on the first dulcimer that will be the test for how a new “old” finish sounds. As I carried the dulcimer across the workshop the other day, I could easily feel voices from the radio resonating in the dulcimer, and that is always a good sign!

I am also honing the skills to leave more wood surfaces as they look and feel straight from a hand tool rather than how they look after sanding. This is common in violin making, but less often seen in modern fretted instruments. Sandpaper will still be a part of my life, but it is not needed as much as one would think. Scrapers and files can leave a lovely surface and are quiet and far less messy.

This is how I like to work. It makes me happy.

I wish you all a happy and healthy Holiday season. Please keep yourself and others safe.

I regularly post about dulcimers in progress on Instagram and you can follow me there for thrills and chills!

Dulcimers In The Time Of COVID-19

Walnut and sassafras dulcimer by Doug Berch

My day-to-day life during the COVID-19 pandemic is in many ways similar to my day-to-day life before the COVID-19 pandemic.

My dulcimer workshop is on the second floor of the house and I have a few power tools in the basement. There are stacks of wood on the porch and in the attic. There is not much of a line between my life and my work and this makes me happy.

As my health allows (an ongoing adventure) I make dulcimers, make music with dulcimers and other instruments, give music lessons via live streaming, go for walks on a nearby trail, and spend a lot of time at home.

My wife has been able to work from home during Michigan’s “Stay-At-Home” order and we easily adjusted to spending more time together during the day. The biggest challenge, which was actually very small, was figuring out how we could both be comfortable in the house while simultaneously talking on the phone or having streaming video chats with people who are not each other. No biggie. We got married years ago because we like being together and that hasn’t changed.

I have been posting less on this blog because, like many bloggers writing about a certain topic for many years, there are fewer new adventures to report. Life and work go on and on.

I have been using Instagram far more for regular updates of work in progress. I am still hoping to post videos of my music here as I get better at making them with my phone. On a good day when the planets are aligned I have been able to record videos where you can see me, the dulcimer being played, and hear the music I’m making with clarity and decent sound quality. Unfortunately, the planets are not aligned on all days and I often get frustrated trying to make a decent video. I’m working on it.

Most importantly, I hope you are well and safe and getting by as well as one can during this strange and challenging time.

We are all in this together. Let’s take care of each other.

The Flaws Are The Beauty

The flaws are what often make something beautiful.

Wood is a precious substance.

I try my best to treat wood with the respect it deserves. A tree worked long and hard to grow, often under adverse conditions, and eventually gave its life before becoming pieces of wood.

Trees do not grow with the intention of becoming wood. Trees grow without concern for what will become of them when they die.

I have demanding yet flexible criteria for choosing the wood I use for making dulcimers. When a piece of wood does not meet my criteria it does not mean it is a bad piece of wood; it just doesn’t suit my intended purpose. To call a piece of wood that does not meet one’s particular needs a bad piece of wood is like saying someone is a bad person because they are not the way you want them to be. In either case there is a disconnect from the reality right in front of us.

As with people, the flaws in trees often create beauty. The pain and difficulties of life shape and color growth, inspire adaptation, and instigate changes of direction. What is left behind is a portrait of the journey.

The wood in the photograph came from a walnut board that became a dulcimer several years ago. The grain in this part of the board was far too irregular to use for most parts of a dulcimer. It would not have performed acoustically or structurally in a manner I would appreciate.

These pieces of wood will become overlays on dulcimer pegheads. The pegheads on my dulcimers are strong enough without an overlay so any lack of structural integrity in the overlay will not be an issue. The voids around the bark inclusions will be filled as necessary to create a flat surface. Or maybe not. I haven’t gotten there yet. I’ve done this kind of thing before and I let the wood make the final decision.

There are few things I do to make my dulcimers “pretty.” There is nothing I could do that would be more beautiful than the wood itself.

You can see frequent updates of my dulcimers in progress on Instagram.

A Brief And Gentle Reentry Into The Dulcimer Workshop

Luthier's razor blade scraper

Today I did a little work in the shop for the first time since having back surgery on February 5th. It was wonderful being in the shop again!

I did some work on a curly walnut dulcimer that was left close to completion in February. I leveled, crowned, and polished the frets and started working on the nut.

This was gentle work with small tools but after about half an hour my body told me it was in my best interest to stop and to my amazement and surprise I listened! Slow and steady wins the race. A stitch in time has a silver lining. A dark cloud gathers no moss.¬† I’ll stop now.

It will be a month or so before I can begin to work in the shop part-time with some regularity. My body is healing well but there is still a long way to go.

In the photograph is a small piece of micarta that will become the nut for this dulcimer. I use the indentation in the side of a razor blade as a scraper to rough in the rounding of the top of the nut. Add this to the long list of cheap luthier tricks!

That’s the news from here.