I had a very good time at The Gateway Dulcimer Festival this past weekend. I taught eight classes on playing mountain dulcimer and performed as part of the Saturday night concert. There were also some late-night conversations with old friends and some new friendships formed. This is the stuff that makes this all worthwhile.
My back and legs are doing much better. I was concerned about driving eight hours each way but my body held up well. I stopped and took breaks, stretched, and enjoyed the ride. Though there is still a way to go the difference in my ability to walk, stand and work has improved significantly during the past month or so. Joy!
This afternoon I am fretting a Claro walnut dulcimer. In the photograph are the three tools I use when hammering frets: a brass hammer, fret cutters, and a small saw for cleaning and checking the depth of the fret slots.
I install the frets on a dulcimer towards the end of the building process. After applying the first two coats of finish I hang the dulcimer up for several days or more so the finish can cure During this time the wood can make any movement it may make as it adjusts to wearing new clothes. Applying finish to the thin and light wood of a dulcimer changes the equilibrium of the wood’s response to the environment.
Though subtle, any slight movement of the wood during this time can alter the flatness of the fingerboard. I can now check and correct any fluctuations that may have occurred in the fretboard before installing the frets.
Many dulcimer makers install the frets before the fretboard gets glued to the body. There is a good reason for this; it is much easier to hammer or press the frets into the fingerboard when one is not concerned about smashing the top of the dulcimer!
I have never been happy with the results I have had when fretting the fingerboard before gluing it to the soundboard. I have tried this and though the results were acceptable I knew I could do better.
Many people comment that my dulcimers are very easy to play. Getting the fingerboard exactly the way I want it to be lays the foundation for making a dulcimer as comfortable to play as possible. If the fingerboard is leveled correctly and the frets are properly installed and leveled I can set up the dulcimer with very low action if that is what the player desires.
I have developed a variety of techniques for fretting without damaging the dulcimer. It is a slow, time-consuming process but in the end I have a dulcimer that plays the way I want it to play.
After installing, leveling, shaping, and polishing the frets I continue with applying the rest of the finish to the dulcimer.