Saturday, August 6, 2011

Building a Dulcimer

Thought it might be interesting to show the steps involved in building a new Mountain Dulcimer, from scratch. There are as many ways to build a dulcimer as there are builders, but I think its accurate to say most employ variations of the same basic steps.

To be fair to all the many talented builders, and accomplished Luthiers, and provide a little background, I have been in this trade but two years. During that time I have the experience that comes from building 10 Dulcimers, and one Scheitholt, and the pleasure that comes from listening to my instruments being played and enjoyed by skilled musicians.

I have a lifetime of woodworking experience, and have played the guitar most of my life, so the challenge to build a stringed instrument at some point had to prevail. Like most woodworkers, I have to experiment with new techniques, materials, and tools, but my main objective is to build the best dulcimer I can, with the least investment in tools, and most emphasis on tradition. The Dulcimer is all about American Tradition. 

Step1:  Plans  Every design needs a plan. Can be something simple scrawled on a notepad or scrap piece of wood, or something elaborate with full-sized templates. Plans give me the ideas needed to build the dulcimer in my head, before I cut the wood.



Step2:  Forms:   Wood is a wonderful material, with a mind of its own. For that reason, we need forms to bend, shape, and join pieces of wood needed to make our design. Its actually fun to see the wood take form and start to shape our dulcimer.

They are various ways to prepare wood for a form, depending on the wood type, thickness, and degree of curve needed. Guitars have a distinct curve requiring a combination of bending iron, water, and/or steam, to obtain the desired shape. The shapes of most Dulcimer designs, however, can be achieved by soaking the sides in water, then fitting them into the form to dry.

Step3:  Head/Foot:  For me, these are the most time-consuming steps, and most critical. Both the Head and Foot need to be perfectly shaped, and attached to the sides. The measurements must be accurate and consider the height of the sides, width and length of the fret-board, and type of tuning heads/pins to be installed.
Shaping the Head is fun. I love free-styling on the band-saw and belt sander. This is also the point I begin getting impatient. Note the "story stick". Every project has at least a couple. They are like 3-dimensional plans with notes and measurements for the most important steps.

The sides, top, and back were completed before starting the new dulcimer steps. I do these in my spare time and store them in a safe place. Once the head and foot are done, I match up the sides with the right back and top (sound-board) to assemble the basic form.

This is where I need to slow down, double-check the measurements, then start a new day with the assembly.

Step4:  Basic Form Assembly:    This is where the shape is determined and the groundwork done to install the top and back. The assembly has been measured for the fretboard length and top and back width and length. Now I install the glue runners and temporary braces and mark the back for trimming on the scroll saw. The temporary braces maintain the body shape while the back is being installed.
Back installed along with permanent upper and lower braces. Now ready for top with fret-board installed.

Step5:  Fret-board and Top/Soundboard:  I guess one reason I never attempted building a stringed instrument sooner had to be the fret-board.
It never occurred to me that I could duplicate the machined precision required for accurate tuning. As it turns out, my first attempt has become my drawing card and model for all my dulcimers. Even though I use different Variable String Lengths (VSL), my technique is the same. What feels good to me is apparently popular based on the comments I receive. My technique also employes the use of a zero fret and nut.

Summary:  The soundboard is also a key component because of the impact it has on the sound quality and resonance. Two factors play into the determination of a top-quality soundboard; (1) wood type, and (2) composition. Wood types with dense, straight grain, such as spruce, cherry, cedar, and redwood, are most preferred. The composition relies on consistency in thickness and weight. Ideal soundboards will have long, straight grain and will be very light weight.


The photo shows examples of cedar, oak, walnut, and cherry in 4" wide strips, and joined. The technique used when joining is known as book-matched with matching grain facing in or out depending on the desired style.

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