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.