More Exciting Adventures Of A Dulcimer Builder

Wood warping, winding, and shrinking. Don't let this happen to your dulcimer!

The air conditioner in my shop died a few days ago.

Aside from keeping the shop from feeling like a literal sweatshop the air conditioner also removes excessive humidity from the Summer air.

Wood is hygroscopic and it is best to make dulcimers in a stable, humidity-controlled environment. The humidity level in my shop is kept at around 45% year round. A dulcimer built at around 45% humidity should remain stable when exposed to higher and lower humidity within reason.  Even so, a dulcimer will be happier if it is kept as close to the conditions of the environment in which it was made.

It is important to use a humidifier to keep your dulcimer happy during the dry Winter months when the heat is on or all year round if you live in a desert.  A simple instrument humidifier kept in the case is all that is needed.  If you like to keep your dulcimers out of their cases then a room humidifier will make both your dulcimers and sinuses happy.

Wood loses moisture much faster than it absorbs moisture and a dulcimer can dry out, crack, warp, and scream for mercy relatively quickly if kept in an overly dry environment. High humidity is usually not as much of an issue on a short term basis but extremes should be avoided.

As a general rule, if you are comfortable then your dulcimer is comfortable.

Last night my wife Cynthia and I bought another air conditioner. When we got home I was too tired to help with installing it. Today Cynthia came home during her lunch break at work to do the heavy lifting of getting the new air conditioner into a window. Cynthia has a good back and I do not.  She knew I wanted to get the shop back in working order as soon as possible. Talk about selfless acts of love!

I am a happy and lucky man.

What’s On The Bench – 07/9/2016

Walnut dulcimer back being thicknessed with a toothing planeI’ve started work on several dulcimers as the finish cures on another. A finish “drying” and a finish “curing” are two very different things. Many craftspeople learn this difference the hard way at some time in their careers; what seemed to be a dry finish turns out to be dry to the touch but not really hard and permanent. One finds fingerprints in the finish after handling or worse, finish sticks to the inside of a case, rubbing out the finish produces a gummy mess rather than the expected level of sheen, etc. It is one of the initiatory experiences that comes with learning a craft.

In the photograph is a toothing plane on a walnut dulcimer back. Toothing planes have a serrated or “toothed” edge and the blade is set at a very high angle. The toothing plane scrapes and cuts many small shavings and can be pushed with the grain, against the grain, and across the grain without tearing up the wood. Toothing planes make quick work of leveling and flattening wood with tricky grain and figure. They are also very useful when planing thin wood. The serrated lines left on the wood serve as a map showing which areas are flat and which need more attention.

After flattening the surface with the toothing plane I take down the ridges with a smoothing plane or a scraper. On historic instruments traces of a toothing plane having been used can sometimes be seen inside the body of the instrument. This indicates that the outside surface was smoothed and then the thickness was taken down on the inside surface where tool-marks would not be obvious and did not matter.

I do use some common woodworking machines to relieve the drudgery of some tasks and to help prevent wear-and-tear on my body, which is showing signs of wear-and-tear. Still, I do as much as I can by hand because it is how I prefer to work. Sometimes I thickness wood partly by hand and partly by running it through a machine. Sometimes I choose one method or the other. It keeps life interesting.

Dulcimer Back Braces

Small planesI don’t have a standard pattern for dulcimer back braces. I don’t have a standard pattern for bracing dulcimer soundboards either. The bracing pattern, number of braces, and size of the braces depends on the sound I am after and the wood involved. It would be easier and faster to standardize things but that wouldn’t be any fun at all. I also find the results I get from taking the long route make a big difference in the sound of the dulcimer.

In the photograph above you can see the four planes I use to dimension the back braces. The braces are brought to approximate size and then shaped after being glued to the back. This dulcimer back has three spruce cross braces and a Spanish Cedar reinforcement over the center joint.

After getting the braces roughly to shape I do most of the final shaping with a paring chisel. In the photograph below you can see the paring chisel and the cute little shaving it makes. You can also see what a neat and highly organized workbench looks like.

Walnut dulcimer back, paring chisel, and a very neat bench

After using the paring chisel the shaping of the braces is complete, though sometimes I will sand the braces as in the completed back shown below; it just depends on what I feel like doing. Sometimes I prefer the crisp, clean lines left by edge tools, other times I go for the smooth and rounded look left by sanding.

Walnut dulcimer back with Spanish Cedar and spruce bracing

Next comes fitting the braces into the side linings and gluing the back to the sides.

 

Cleaning The Shop

Cleaning the shop

My shop is pretty small, just a small room with a bench, my hand tools, and wood. Most of the tools that plug-in live in the basement.

Still, this small workspace manages to accumulate an impressive amount of sawdust, wood-shavings, cut-offs, as well as a strange assortment of things that mysteriously appear for reasons unknown. Take for example an empty quart pickle jar that I found while excavating scrap-wood from a corner. I don’t know how the jar got there. I don’t eat pickles. I do not need a pickle jar in the shop, yet somehow it is there.

I have a theory; everything lost ends up someplace else. Perhaps somewhere in the world someone is missing an empty pickle jar. And somewhere in the world someone is perhaps cleaning a kitchen and wondering how a #49 drill bit I lost ended up in a silverware drawer.

It all makes sense to me.

This time around I am doing what I call a “deep cleaning” of the shop; I am rearranging things to make work and storage more efficient. I just set up a table so I can clutter a horizontal surface that is easier to reach than the floor. There are fewer cardboard boxes with mysteries therein. I can almost walk across the room without stepping over anything. I can see the top of the bench around a half-built dulcimer. In an hour my shop will be a happier little paradise than it was earlier today.

Coffee break is over, time to get back on my head!

 

Ocean Of Wisdom

Ocean of Wisdom is my “greatest hit.” I first released it on a cassette in 1990. The cassette was originally going to be manufactured in the UK and picked up when I arrived there to do a six week tour. Three weeks before I was going to go to the UK I learned that the agent I had worked with did not have his act together and the tour would have been a disaster. The first gig would have been in the North of Scotland and the second gig would be a week later in the South of England. The rest of the tour had many holes in the schedule. The agent said he was still working on the tour and not to worry. Fine, except he had been working on booking me for a year and I had no confidence that in three weeks he would come up with the 15 or 20 gigs to make the tour viable.

I ended up releasing the cassette in the US in 1990. Since then several people have learned to play it and a few other folks have recorded it.

I wrote the tune while living in the San Fernando Valley. I moved there from Boulder, CO because a woman I loved got a job there.

I never quite understood Southern California culture. I grew up in New York City. Life in Southern California was like living in some strange parallel universe. In New York most people I met communicated with a direct and blatant honesty. I knew who was a friend and who was conning me.

In the LA area I found it difficult to differentiate politeness from being blown off by people. I did make some good friends but more often than not I would think I was connecting with people personally and/or professionally but it was just surface-level interaction. Calls wouldn’t get returned, agreements were not kept, etc. Again, I did meet and work with some great folks but that wasn’t the norm.

One day I was driving from The Valley so I could busk by the La Brea Tar Pits. Yes, I used to play and put out the hat next to a tar pit. I have led an interesting life.

While driving through Laurel Canyon I heard beautiful rumba music from Zaire via the magic of radio. During a news break it was announced that the Dalai Lama had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

When I got to the tar pits I set up my hammered dulcimer and this tune just sort of happened. It had been percolating during the car ride.

I rerecorded Ocean of Wisdom on the CD “The Sadness Of Common Objects” in 2007.

After a year in Southern California the relationship I was in came to an end and I moved back to Boulder. And six years later I moved to Michigan. I’m still here.

Sharpening Gizmosity

Warner "Little Wonder" Water Motor

I’m selling these gizmos short. The water motors not only power a grinding and buffing wheel; they can also power a sewing machine, wash bottles, and clean lamp chimneys.

In the case of “Divine’s Red Devil Water Motor” we also get to ponder if using this device requires selling one’s soul to the dark side. I think not, but what do I know?

Divine Water Motor