I.D. Stamper was a dulcimer maker from Letcher County Kentucky. He sold his first dulcimer while working in Louisville at the children’s hospital. Sometime later after moving back to Letcher County he lengthened the dulcimer to “as long as he could get strings for”. He found that long neck banjo strings were just the thing and from there it’s history. He developed a style all his own, and many have tried to duplicate the sound but fall short. I believe I.D. understood the concept of optimizing the variables, as in the length to optimize the slack on the strings to get that wonderful swoosh sound that he created. You see there are builders that believe that simply changing the string size can accommodate the tone change, as in using a shorter VSL to make a baritone dulcimer. I suppose for the modern dulcimer that will suffice, but for the full range of dynamics in the traditional dulcimore, optimizing the string length is critical.
I have enjoyed I.D.’s songs immensely for some time now. I have both his film and sound tract from the seventies at hand and watch and listen to them frequently. The guys in the Hindman Studio have a long Stamper dulcimer on display that they have strung up, and Don Pedi got to play! That was enough inspiration for me to consider making a 36 inch. I did not have stock long enough to do anything that long. My rough cut material is just 36 inches long, so I’d have to buy something for the sound box. The width was a challenge too. I wanted a solid top and bottom for this, and it was going to be wide. I.D. used plywood in some of his dulcimers but I couldn’t see myself doing that. The alternative was store bought kiln dried poplar. Width cut on the table saw and finished with the hand saw. I left it very heavy, about 5/32 inch thick. I was concerned with any flex on a panel that wide. I, for the first time, included two cross braces in the bottom. I had to go to my stock for a 1 inch by 1 inch fret board. There are checks at both ends. I noticed when finishing the peg head there was a check in that as well but decided to go with it after investing that much time in carving and filing.
Once I got it together I gave it six coats of oil. I had several maple pegs lying around and decided to use them here because there would be very little tension on them tuned that low. The nut and bridge are hickory and I got a supply of nickel plated desk pins for string anchors. A set of John Pearse long neck banjo strings are tuned to the sweet spot that falls about F or F#. The action can be best described as a pillow case and a sheet! Now I have to learn to play it…….
I have likened visits to historic Hindman, Kentucky as a kid in a candy store. That is the best description I can muster. Placing a one hundred year old Thomas dulcimore in your lap and strumming it has to be one of the most wonderful experiences possible. As I admire the piece I have fantasies of a young man holding one of my dulcimore in the year 2133 feeling the same way. Teasing other modern dulcimer builders when asked why he prefers traditional dulcimore will respond, “been making them this way for three hundred years, no reason to change now!”
Use of sound post
You pluck a string. The string vibrates. How much more simple can it be than that? Well we have to ask how long is the string, what is the mass of the string, how much tension is on the string, and lastly, how much energy was used to pluck it? Interesting!
And what about the variables my friend, what are the dynamics at work? Is it possible to change the tone we hear by adjusting the resistance between string vibration and the waves in the air? After all, isn’t it those waves that move your ear drums that cause you to determine if it is a sweet sound or not so much?
If we look at the dulcimore in a perspective of dynamics not unlike hydro or aero, we understand the optimal sound quality is that of the path of least resistance. The tone of the instrument is in effect what is not restricted from the path. Very soft wood will dampen the tone making it dull, the upper tones are killed. Very dense wood offers little resistance to the upper tones making it bright. The optimal density wood carries most of the vibrations with little resistance, giving it a full voice. Of course we can alter most of these variations by nut and bridge material and position, as well as string selection.
What am I trying to say? I don’t know. This is something that has been on my mind for a while and writing it down some times helps me to see it a little better.
Way too often I find myself working in circles. I find it hard to concentrate on several items at once, and usually mess something up. I’m not working on anything important so it really doesn’t matter, but it gets me down some times. There are just so many dulcimores, and so little time, or so it would seem. In perspective, I can make one or two dulcimores a week. I just need to decide ahead of time what to work on. One decision I have made is to limit the models. Bobby has the right idea, small, medium and large, and if it gets too demanding, quit. I didn’t like the Cousin Tilly at first, but after discovering the voice, it’s starting to grow on me. We try to get the dulcimore to conform to our idea of what it should sound like instead of listening to the voice of the dulcimore. It is a little like a wild animal, it just wants to do what it wants to do! I feel I have the Betty pretty well down to a science. I may make a more precise jig when I get back from Florida. The Tilly jig will suffice. This will leave the baritone model, and I may just wait till after the Homer get together to worry about that one.
In the book about Homer Ledford, Dulcimer Maker, he talks of not being completely satisfied with the aesthetic aspects of the instrument. He likens the design of the “dulcibro”, and the way it curves all the way around with no tail block to break it. This would have required a total redesign to accomplish because the tail block is an integral part of the dulcimer design. Instruments that do not have the tail block are made in jigs or forms.
I must say that I’ve never seen a “dulcibro”, but my take on a rounded back end is a little different. My idea is more in line with the fiddle back, or even the mandolin. Simply curve or bow the base of the lower bout on the back panel. This works best with the tear drop design because there is only one bout to be dealt with. I suppose there will be testing on the hour glass design as well but so many dulcimore, so little time!
The forms are cut out, routed and sanded. Holes are drilled, t nuts inserted, and cross supports made. Bow form is glued to the cross support and the contact piece sealed with shellac. A panel thinned down to about .100” is placed under hot running water for a few moments and then is placed in the jig. The eight ¼” bolts are slowly tightened all the way down, and the panel is inspected looking for any signs of failure. I really didn’t know if a thin panel could be tortured in this way! But it can, and after drying I pulled it out of the jig and hand sanded the fiddle back pleasantly pleased with the concept in my hand.
I’m sure many will question why a “fiddle back”? “It won’t sit in your lap correctly” I’ve already heard them say. Well, actually it does! The feet can be glued on to make it table top ready, or if you like the fiddle back look without the feet, a opossum board can be used.
I got to visit the guys in Hindman yesterday. Doug is a master luthier and has two apprentices Mike and John. I met Doug and Mike at a dulcimer get together earlier in Winchester. Doug also has a studio in Winchester, that’s where he is from. Mike if from Hindman…. now on the my visit!
There is a fellow George Gibson who collects antique instruments and has graciously loaned them to the Hindman studio. (George was born in Uncle Ed Thomas’ cabin!) On loan is a Thomas, an Amburgey, a Ledford and many other makers. There are several samples of scheitholt, banjo, and other string instruments. I got to hold and photograph the three previous makers dulcimers. It made for and incredibly wonderful experience, I can only describe it as a kid in a candy store!
So what a great day! Wait, who walked in the door? Don Pedi! You have what back in your room? Do we mind waiting a few moments while you go get it? He returns with a black case, opens it and takes out a crudely attempted start of a refinish on a Pritchard! Poor thing looked sad, but sounded wonderful.
In one day, I go from reading books and looking at pictures, studying what I can on the internet, to holding in my hand instruments made by the greatest makers in history! And yes I have pictures to prove it, and a signature on my Homer knock off by Don Pedi. He was concerned about writing on the top, but I assured him he added $25 to the value of it!
There have been some circles that are of the opinion that ultra light has a volume unlike any other. I would agree to the extent that everything has a limit on a given scale. There are variables that determine the tone of a dulcimore. With that being said what you believe sounds good throws in yet another variable; one that can’t be tweaked or dismissed in any fashion!
Fancy weighs in at about 20 ounces. The variable here is the thinness of the sound box. Finding that right amount of material that will be strong enough to hold up as a dulcimore, yet light enough to get that ultra light sound. I’ve tried to quarter saw all the sound box stock, but the wood is not the best quality out there. (It is free) I’ve resorted to an alcohol dye to stain the ebony finish so as to not wreak havoc on the thin poplar backs. The iron acetate is vinegar based and will warp the back.
In addition to the alcohol based ebony dye, I’ve started a shellac finish. I love this stuff. The smell is nothing to be alarmed about, and historically as old as time! You can seal, lightly sand and wax it with steel wool, or go as long and as polished as you like. It is durable and very good looking, nothing plastic about it! Once you get the base on right, the finish is forgiving.
I am also brass pinning the loop strings on this one and will conform to a solid bass string. I will just have to get accustomed to the tinny sound of it! It is truly traditional, whether you acquired your strings from banjo or piano stock, both had loop ends. The guitar end strings were later. At the other end, the tuning pegs have a decorative bead at the base of the thumb piece. And again the bone nut and floating bridge will make it even brighter!