Chaos, Inspiration, and Dulcimer Making

Curly walnut dulcimer made by Doug Berch

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

People who have followed my blog over the years might be aware that in 2012 my lower back decided to suddenly and loudly let me know it was not happy. This experience led to various adventures involving insurance companies, doctors, physical therapists, surgeons, my amazing wife Cynthia, and wonderful friends.

For five years I have been able to work between one-third and half the time in the shop I had previously. This meant I have made far fewer dulcimers and each dulcimer required more gaps in time between start and finish. I have found this frustrating but I also believe everything that happens is a gift, though some gifts I would not have asked for and if possible I would return or exchange them.

One of the gifts of the last 5 years has been the chance to reevaluate what is important to me and how I want to live my life.

Organization is not something that comes naturally to me. A visit to my shop will make this obvious, yet in that small space where I work everything I need is close at hand and I feel comfortable, the kind of comfortable one feels when wearing a favorite old shirt.

Before having to limit my time in the shop I was considering ways of organizing the shop and streamlining my workflow to increase productivity. This felt counterintuitive to my personality but getting out of one’s comfort zone is often a good idea. On the other hand, sometimes one’s comfort zone is just right the way it is.

I am not a production oriented luthier. Before having to slow down I had found a comfortable rhythm of work and enjoyed it. Each time I tried to do more work than felt comfortable either the work suffered for it or I suffered for it. That is not how I choose to live.

Rather than getting more work done circumstances have dictated I get less done. A positive aspect of this has been a chance to “enjoy the scenery” more while working. I have also had time to refine my dulcimer designs, improve some of my hand-tool skills, and study various lutherie traditions. As a result Spanish guitar construction techniques have greatly influenced my methods of work these past few years. Ironically, I have also found ways to streamline workflow and increase productivity!

But really, the inspiration for this blog post is yet another upcoming adventure. In the middle of November I will be having back surgery number 3, a bi-level lumbar fusion that should help ease the most annoying aspects of what I have dealt with.

I will not be able to work in the shop for several months following surgery and when I make my reentry I will be starting out slowly and gently. I’m sure the downtime during recovery will be yet another gift I would not have asked for!

I was hesitant to go public with news of the upcoming surgery at this time but found I have already had to talk about it more than planned. I have had to turn down gigs and tell people inquiring about ordering dulcimers that it will be some time before I will be able to make them.

Once completely recovered I will most likely return to work full-time or something closer to full-time again. That alone will bring a great increase in productivity. I am very much looking forward to that! I love my job.

I also hope to travel again and go to festivals, see friends in distant places, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.


The Joy Of Honing

The joy of honing.A few days ago my finest waterstone shattered. I can’t complain; it had given me over ten years of service and was $30 well spent.

This afternoon a replacement waterstone came in the mail and I took it out for a spin.

I find honing an edge to be a relaxing experience and a form of active meditation. These days I do most of my honing freehand so there are no jigs and gizmos to deal with. I like waterstones because I get a lot of tactile feedback on what is going on between the steel and the stone.

I like feeling two surfaces gradually becoming a single, sharp edge.

A blade becomes sharper and I become more relaxed.


More Adventures In Dulcimer Making

Baritone Dulcimer in progress

Yes, another thrill-packed day in the adventurous life of a dulcimer maker.

Not long ago I wrote about my reasons for no longer taking advance orders for dulcimers.  One reason I did not mention in that post was that sometimes things go wrong while making a dulcimer. If it isn’t already sold there is no time constraint to figure out a way to solve the problem.

Last week I was in the home stretch of making a custom baritone dulcimer. There was a small cosmetic problem that revealed itself after applying the first coat of finish, a streak along part of the seam where the fingerboard joined the soundboard. I think that while scraping the side of the fretboard some of the glue-line was revealed and when the finish hit it there was an obvious change in color and refraction of light.

A straightforward method to solve the problem did not present itself.

I thought of a few things I could try but had a feeling they might just make the problem look worse. I was right.

Before I messed with it I showed the dulcimer to my wife, Cynthia. Cynthia has worked at Elderly Instruments for around 40 years and is a purchaser who buys and handles many fine fretted instruments on a daily basis. Whenever I have a concern about a cosmetic issue with a dulcimer I show it to her. She almost always say that what I am concerned about it not an issue and then I can relax.

This time Cynthia said, “I see it, and it isn’t really that bad. It just isn’t up to your usual level of work.  I don’t think it will really be a problem for anyone.”

But it was a problem for me so I tried to make it better and made it worse.

I contacted the recipient of this dulcimer and explained the situation. I offered to let them have it while I build another for them. He was fine with waiting a few months for me to make him another.

And that is what I am doing. The photograph above shows the sides and endblocks that will soon be life-long friends.

As for the baritone dulcimer with the cosmetic flaw; I think it is going to be an excellent dulcimer. I am going to stain and overcoat it with black finish. Problem solved, and I always wanted to make a black dulcimer!

Thoughts About Selling Dulcimers That Don’t Exist

Dulcimer in progress

I have decided to take a break from taking advance orders for custom dulcimers.

Five years ago about half my dulcimers were sold before I made them. Someone would choose from various options I offer and give me a deposit to begin making their dulcimer. I prioritized these custom orders and built them in the order they were received.

While building these custom dulcimers I also had time to build dulcimers that were not already sold. I usually had three to five dulcimers on hand for sale.

Five years ago I suddenly had to deal with some serious lower back issues that added unexpected flavor and color to my life. It has been an interesting journey and it is not yet over.

I am currently able to work in the shop about one-third the amount of time I would prefer to be working. Some days or weeks I am able to work more, some less, some not at all, but it averages out to working about a third of the time I used to.

During this time I have also had a surprising increase in custom orders.  All but one dulcimer I have sold in the past 3 years was ordered in advance.

My time in the shop has become completely focused on custom work. I keep thinking I will have time to build some dulcimers to put up for sale but it just hasn’t happened.

Most of the custom dulcimers I build are pretty much the same as dulcimers I would ordinarily build but the new owner chooses particular wood, string length, number of strings, fret patterns, and other options that I offer. Occasionally someone asked for a unique feature that had to do with playability for their particular style and when I felt it worked with my sense of instrument design then I would do that as well.

The tricky part of this is that when I do have dulcimers on hand for sale they are sometimes not exactly what someone wants. If it has no dots in the fingerboard someone will want dots in the fingerboard. If it has 3 strings someone wants one just like it with 4 strings or vice-versa.

In the near future I will be offering dulcimers for sale and I am thinking there will usually be something available that will appeal to someone. If someone wants something specific I will keep a list and contact them if I make something like what they want. I’ll also be happy to contact people and let them know when I have more dulcimers available.

In the long run I think this will work better for everyone. When I put a dulcimer up for sale people can try it and know exactly what they are getting. I can ship it and you can return it if you decide you don’t care for it. I have sold many dulcimers this way and so far no one has decided not to keep it.

With a custom order the dulcimer is yours. Unless there is a problem with it covered by my warranty the dulcimer is not returnable. Again, I have sold many dulcimers this way and almost everyone was 100% happy. One person was less than 100% happy but still liked the dulcimer.

I think this is a good track record.

So in the near future I will be only selling dulcimers that exist.

If you are on my waiting list please don’t freak out! I am happily working on your dulcimer and you will get it on schedule.

I feel better already.

It Doesn’t Take Much

Clamp, wedge, and plane in early May

It doesn’t take much to do some of the things we want to do.

As a teenager I was in a theater company that cobbled lighting together from parts found at the local hardware store. It worked.

Some of the best musicians I have heard played on what many would call substandard instruments.

I have seen the work of craftspeople who could make just about anything with a collection of tools that could fit in a bag and travel with them.

When beginning any endeavor it is easy to get bogged down by all the things one thinks are required. Usually someone, somewhere, has found a way to do more with less.

I was reminded of this a few minutes ago while planing the side of a fretboard. I have an oak 2×4 with a face planed true that serves as a planing beam for the wood used in fretboards and braces.  I also use this oak 2×4 as a caul for laminating fingerboards to fretboards to assure everything stays flat.

Not seen in the photograph is the far end of the oak 2×4 where I drilled a hole and fit a bench stop; a peg that keeps the wood from sliding forward while planing.

When I want to hold the wood more firmly on the planing beam I put a clamp at the other end and push in a small wedge as seen in the photograph. It works.

This is very basic technology that has been around forever. No high-dollar special jigs, tooling, vises, vacuum clamps or computers are required.

I encourage anyone who wants to do anything constructive to find a way to do it with whatever is available to you.

If you wait until you have everything you think you need you may be missing hours of creative fun. And being creative can make the list of things one thinks one needs much smaller than one thinks.


Dulcimer Adventures On Instagram

Here's The Kind Of Thrill-Packed Entertainment You Want!

I have recently started posting photos of dulcimers in progress and snapshots from my fascinating life on Instagram.

Instagram will provide a more immediate experience of what I have been covering in my “What’s On The Bench” posts. It will almost be like you are there!

You can follow me on Instagram by clicking here. You can also click on the Instagram widget on my pages and posts.

There will still be lots of Thrill-Packed Entertainment right here at so stay tuned!





Music Theory And Dulcimer Playing

Music theory and dulcimer playing

Most  musicians I admire understand music theory. They may understand music theory intuitively or they may have formally studied the theory of music but either way they know what is going on. These musicians may or may not be able to articulate what they are doing or thinking musically but they can tell if  a note sounds right or wrong, hear underlying rhythmic, harmonic and melodic patterns, and have the ability to express themselves with a large pallet of musical colors to choose from.

In current dulcimer culture there are a relatively small number of players who embrace the idea that the mountain dulcimer has strings and frets that produce notes; a majority of players think of strings and frets as lines and numbers on the tablature they play from.

Tablature offers quick gratification; you tune the dulcimer, put your fingers where the paper tells you, and music comes out of the dulcimer. This is a valid approach to playing the dulcimer enjoyed by many players.

If a dulcimer player prefers to have a broader understanding of why the tablature tells you to put your fingers in certain places they will need to learn the theory and structure behind the arrangement. Once this structure is understood the dulcimer player can generalize the information and begin to see and hear coherent patterns in other tunes they play. This in turn makes learning to play by ear much simpler; music becomes rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic (harmony, chords) patterns rather than appearing to be a random assemblage of rhythm and pitch.

In 40 years of teaching dulcimer very few students have wanted to take this plunge. When teaching classes on how music theory applies to the dulcimer usually half the people in the room have said they didn’t learn anything. In this context “not learning anything” usually means they didn’t leave the class with tablature and a new song under their belt. About a quarter of the people usually say they got some interesting ideas from the class. The last quarter usually get excited and say they finally understand how the dulcimer works as an instrument and they have ideas on how their playing can grow beyond current limits.

There is no right or wrong way of playing the dulcimer. If  you want to play from tablature and feel musically fulfilled then there is no need to go further. If you want a better understanding of how music works, if you want to learn melodies by ear and would like to know what chords will work with a particular melody and want to be able to converse with other musicians about musical ideas then getting a basic grasp on music theory will open many doors for you.

My only formal training in music theory took place during my first year of high school. Compared to many musicians my knowledge of music theory is fairly basic. Still, this knowledge was enough to enable me to learn to play the dulcimer and hammered dulcimer. I was able to learn and understand how dulcimers worked as musical instruments and find my way around them.

There are many books available on basic music theory and I link to one available on line for free to help you get started.

Rock on!


Cleaning The Shop

Cleaning the shop

My shop is pretty small, just a small room with a bench, my hand tools, and wood. Most of the tools that plug-in live in the basement.

Still, this small workspace manages to accumulate an impressive amount of sawdust, wood-shavings, cut-offs, as well as a strange assortment of things that mysteriously appear for reasons unknown. Take for example an empty quart pickle jar that I found while excavating scrap-wood from a corner. I don’t know how the jar got there. I don’t eat pickles. I do not need a pickle jar in the shop, yet somehow it is there.

I have a theory; everything lost ends up someplace else. Perhaps somewhere in the world someone is missing an empty pickle jar. And somewhere in the world someone is perhaps cleaning a kitchen and wondering how a #49 drill bit I lost ended up in a silverware drawer.

It all makes sense to me.

This time around I am doing what I call a “deep cleaning” of the shop; I am rearranging things to make work and storage more efficient. I just set up a table so I can clutter a horizontal surface that is easier to reach than the floor. There are fewer cardboard boxes with mysteries therein. I can almost walk across the room without stepping over anything. I can see the top of the bench around a half-built dulcimer. In an hour my shop will be a happier little paradise than it was earlier today.

Coffee break is over, time to get back on my head!


2016 – The Adventure Continues

A new year, another adventure

January 10th and there is finally some snow on the ground. Rain will come later today. The sump pump in the basement has been running. A strange Winter in a Country and World going through strange times.

This year I am hoping to post more about music, and if I can get the gear working I’ll post the occasional recording and/or video of your’s truly playing for your dancing and dining pleasure.

I’ll also continue posting about lutherie, dulcimer building, etc. I have a few interesting commissions for dulcimers underway and I’ll keep you posted about what’s on the bench.

And I may at times write about something that just comes to mind. I think in stories. Stories shared can sometimes tell more than descriptive language.

I hope you are all enjoying your own adventures!

Learning From The Past

Epinettes Des Vosges

Design is a constant process, at least for me.

The past is an archive of knowledge that inspires new ideas.

I have collected many images over the years that I browse through when considering a new dulcimer design or when looking for a solution to a design problem.

Here are several images that have recently come to the top of the pile when looking for some new ideas. I can not remember where most of these images came from but I share them with you for your inspiration.

I thank the craftspeople and luthiers before me for their effort and continuing legacy.

I see no need to abandon the past while moving forward. To do so would be a great loss. Tradition is not static; it evolves.



Lambert epinette and other cool stringed instruments.

Langeleik postage stamp

Things with strings.