And a Homer?

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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll 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.


Dulcimore Making


If there are to be any secrets in dulcimore making, it is in fact wood selection. Luthier’s (pron.:/ˈluːtiər/ LOO-ti-ər) have for centuries tried to find the mother load of tonal wood. It has been speculated that Stradivarius laid up a collection of the finest tonal wood ever found. We still marvel at the sound of his work, or was it his selection of wood? Walnut and cherry are the old favorites in dulcimore making. They were readily available and a wonderful wood to work and had a great tone to boot. My favorite is mahogany. No, not a local wood, but the same basic tonal and working qualities as the two previously mentioned.

   So what is it about the tone in wood? Well, everything! The vibration of the dulcimore sound box is what you hear. If the tonal quality is good, the resonance will be where it should be. If you have not heard a dulcimore “ring”, then you will not understand what I’m trying to explain. The tuning of these instruments were usually BBB or CCC, this is what they refer to now as bagpipe tuning. A solid poplar will ring when tuned this way, not as much in DAd. If we quarter saw the poplar from a one hundred year old timber, we get a little closer. I believe it’s easier to start with a good tonal wood. All wood is different. Just because it’s walnut or cherry does not in itself make the grade. The wood has to have the right density. Two dulcimores can come from the same piece of wood and one ring and the other not so much. It’s not in the making or design, although that does play a small factor in it. The tone of the wood, and how the vibration in the sound box works integrally, determines the resonance. We can ensure a better tone from quarter sawn wood.  Not an easy product to find, without spending a lot of money.

The design is easy. It has been figured out for a few hundred years. No reason to reinvent the wheel so to say! I’m of the opinion that the dulcimore is from the schietholt family. German craftsmanship satisfying the Scott/Irish traditional music needs. How you enlarge the sound box is up to you, mine comes from the hourglass design. It was to accompany the songs from the mother land, not carry songs on its own. The octave tuning made them right at home with the bourdonnement. It did in turn find favor with quick fiddle tunes along the way. Noter/drone is on its way back as we speak.

Once you’ve selected your wood, you will need to size the stock accordingly. The top, bottom, and sides are about one eighth inch thick. Top and bottom are usually eight inches wide and the sides are one and one half inch wide. Some makers prefer to glue up two mirrored four inch top and bottom pieces. Fret board is seven eighths to one inch thick by one and one half inch wide. I like to narrow mine to one and three eighths inches wide. The peg head, or scroll head if it’s carved, as wide as the peg head by as tall as the dulcimore is tall, and as long as design calls for. The glue blocks I make from poplar. I have found no loss of resonance from this soft wood. They are one and one half tall, the same as the sides, and angled to meet the design, cut away inside center for weight and ease of glue up.

We start with the sides. They need to be bent into the hour glass design. They can be steamed in a steam box for twenty minutes, then bent around a form and secured. Then, after drying, the back is glued on. Once glue has set, the form is removed and the glue blocks glued in, and after those are set, the front glued on to finish the sound box. The front has holes drilled for air movement; this is done before glue up! They can be anything you want, mine are full moons. They are cut in about the center of the widest part. I also drill three holes to align with the relief cut of the bottom of the fret board. If the bending iron is used, the sides are worked to match a template. The iron bent sides are first glued to the glue blocks, the back, then front glued on free style to complete the sound box. The sound box sides are routed flush, cabinet scraped, and sanded.

Sand the fret board with 220 grit sand paper, wet out with water, and allow it to dry. Sand the fret board again with the 220 grit. The nut slot is determined and sawed, and the fret placement is laid out. Staple holes are drilled, and the relief slot on the back of the fret board drilled. I chisel smooth the forstner bit holes in the back side, and sand lightly. The .050 thousands galvanized wire is steel wooled smooth and shiny. They are bent around a pair of needle nose pliers twice, and then cut off. Each staple is set into a heavy piece of steel and hammered down to about .035 thousands.  The staple is hammered into the fret board.

The peg head is rough sanded on the disc sander to the right width. A template is used to mark the outline, and peg holes. The ends of the opening on top are marked as well as a center line. The holes are drilled for the pegs. A forstner bit is used for the top hole. The band saw cuts out the curves and they are sanded.  I bolt the head to the table using one of the peg holes and a quarter inch bolt. The router is worked up to a one half inch rounding over profile. The chisel is used to clean up the hole, and relieve the base for the first and third string. I use a file to form the ball on the end. Sand the head with 220 grit and wet out with water and allowed to dry. Sand the head again with 220 grit sand paper.

The fret board is cut to length and glued to the sound box. After the glue has dried, the sound box ends are disc sanded to the proper width. The off cut from the fret board is relieved on the belt sanders end as to concave the end block in the center. It is rough cut to length and sanded. Glue the end block in place. Glue the peg head in place. Once they are set, belt sand the two smooth.

Sand the dulcimore to 220 grit sand paper. Wet it out with water and allow it to dry. Sand it again with the 220 grit sand paper. Wet out the dulcimore with iron acetate and allow it to absorb most of the wetness. Before it’s dry, wet it out again. This time hang it up and let it dry thoroughly. (Over night) Sand once again lightly with the 220 grit sand paper. Wet out the top half of the dulcimore with Danish oil, and keep it wet for about twenty minutes. It will get dry spots that need to be kept wet. After this long it will start to feel tacky, so you can wipe it off. Flip it over and do the same on the back side. Allow the finish to dry, usually over night, sometimes longer. Wet it out again just like the first time, but work the oil with 600 grit sand paper in a circular motion. It will not take much to smooth the surface of the wood. Again after twenty minutes or so, when it starts to feel tacky, wipe it off and do the other side. The next day wet out again, I do the whole thing at once wiping lightly just enough to keep it wet. The light coat will get tacky in fifteen minutes or so, and wipe it off again. This time buff it out a little. Again the next day, do the process the same. After ten days or so it can be waxed with 0000 steel wool and a soft rag.

The pegs are cut from one half inch stock. I rough turn them on a homemade mini lathe. The disc sander rough sands the peg into shape. The belt sanders end cuts a concave on both sides of the peg handle. I then roll the peg around on the belt to smooth all the edges. A small file is used to clean up the lower side of the peg handle and I have a jig I use to hold the peg while I finish sand it. I have a viola peg tapering tool to ream the holes. The pegs are fitted to the holes, and then drilled for the strings.

The nut slot is chiseled out smooth and measured. The bone is cut to fit, and the string grooves cut. The nut bone gets glued into the slot. Small holes are drilled in the tail block to receive wire brads that secure the strings at that end. The strings are fitted over the nut and across a drill bit to act as a temporary bridge. This is for two reasons; first to gauge the intonation of the bridge, and second to mark it when it’s set. The strings are removed from the tail end and the bridge slot is cut and chiseled flush and smooth, or left alone for a floating bridge. The slot is measured and a bridge bone is cut to fit, and string grooves cut. It is glued into place or scribed for the floating bridge and the final adjustments made. Strap buttons and feet are screwed and glued into place.

My Two Cents

…as the good Doctor said; it’s made with three strings and out of wood. If I may elaborate, in addition to the Professor’s observation, it has wooden tuning pegs. He didn’t fail to mention it, it was at the time the method used. There were not a lot of mechanical tuners in the mountains a hundred years ago! Most had 14 staples, and some had frets. The finish was oil or varnish, and after many years they would turn very dark. A few were painted, because that’s what the customers wanted.

So I have reasoned there is nothing wrong with the dulcimore. First, it is much easier to define, as I have. Try to define the “dulcimer”! Yes it has strings, as many as you like. Mechanical tuners sticking out every which a way. No limit to the imagination as to size, construction, and sound. You can build a guitar and call it a dulcimer, and no one will question it. But the dulcimore has a sound like no other. Described “bourdonnement” . I had to look that one up and update spell check while I was at it.

The masters have given their best experienced insights to the making of the dulcimer. Many will directly contradict the other, hard wood, soft wood, brace, no brace, even in the finish. But the dulcimore has the resonance like no other, and that’s why it sounds so sweet.

Gift from God?


    …so if God gives you lemons, make lemonade? If God gives you pallet wood, make dulcimores? “Why not?” Locally the fire wood industry has all but dried up. Not so many years ago, this pallet wood was collected and cut for fire wood. Many of those who burnt fire wood no longer do, and those who do are inundated by all the free storm wood out there. So the once sought after materials lay in waste, waiting for the dumpster to haul it off to the land fill! I’ve collected a few truck loads of poplar, maple and oak, enough for a year or so for myself. Precut and stacked to dry out completely in the corners of my little world. And knowing myself the way I do, I’ll collect several more in my pack rat mentality, squirrel holed away at the camp. Once I’ve stored up enough, I’ll start making dulcimores for sale with my steady supply of “free” material. I would recon that 30 to 40 percent is dulcimore quality. Some can be used for cases and music stands, and the balance cut to the proper length for the fire place. (Did I mention this material makes awesome fire wood?)

   The oak steam bends wonderfully into custom cases. The maple is great peg head and fret boards. The poplar is now my favorite wood. Really poplar has always been my favorite. Our state tree, (Indiana) it has a history and tradition locally unlike any other. I’ve seen whole houses built from poplar. And long before that, cabins made from the straight logs were the norm for hundreds of years. The poplar was used in dulcimore making because of its availability as well as the ease of working. Defined as a hard wood, it’s about as soft a hard wood as they come. Working all by hand was relatively easy with poplar. It was said by a prolific dulcimer maker that they had to be made out of poplar or they wouldn’t have any sound. I had reservations about the softness of the wood. I was concerned the durability would be sacrificed, but the tonal quality easily trumps that. First I leaned towards the mahogany. Guitars have been made that way for many years, but the integral design is much different in the two. Mahogany is bright and clear but not very loud! Whereas the poplar is tonally correct for the design, and has been all along.