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!
So inspiration hits and what are you to do? After playing some Homer Ledford’s a few weeks ago, I felt inspired enough to try one myself. I was reading his book at that time as well, and the impulse was over whelming. I had some 4/4 cherry I found at the peddlers mall a couple weeks ago for four dollars, and a piece of ten year old spalted cotton wood, so away I go!
Homer uses a fiddle side on his dulcimers. I’ve never made one like this before. Seeing the difficulty in the process, I’ve never even considered it. The old time Kentucky makers used this method sighting the need for expansion and contraction in the sides. A lot of wood joinery used any possible method to lessen the stress on the joints. Homes were not conditioned and the moister and heat fluctuations wreaked havoc on wood pieces. I understand why they did it; I just don’t understand the technique. The top and bottom of the dulcimer is glued solid to the peg head and the tail piece. The sides are glued to the top and bottom and left to float in the grooves of the peg head and tail piece. What expansion and contraction you do get loosen the joint even more! That is why so many of this type of dulcimers needed repair. If you glue the sides solid to the peg head and tail piece, the “unit” has less movement over all, and holds together better.
The fiddle sides are very attractive; I may look into incorporating it in my designs as a deluxe model. The lacquer is very nice as well. I didn’t consider it at first, I thought the material was modern, but it turns out lacquer is quite old. I just have to get past the smell, and working very quickly outside. What time you save coating the dulcimore quickly verses’ waiting on oil is burnt up in the rubbing out! Homer’s design also places the nut and bridge at the very end of the sound box. I can tell the difference in the tone, and am interested to see if the string anchor has anything to do with it. I’ve noticed that there are makers who break the string across another fret behind the bridge. I’m wondering if it has to do with a cleaner sound.
All in all I’m very pleased with how it turned out. There are several minor problems, but nothing I can’t live with! The glue must be cleaned off before the lacquer is brushed on! The oil must be applied to the fret board before lacquer! It was a great learning experience I really enjoyed, and I have myself a Homer knock off.