As I get closer to the end of building a dulcimer the tools I use get smaller. Work begins by resawing at the bandsaw, then comes handsaws and bench planes, then comes smaller planes, chisels, knives, and scrapers.
The last parts to go on a dulcimer are the tuning machines. The screws that hold the tuning machines in place are very small and require small pilot holes. For years I drilled these with an “eggbeater” hand drill. This worked but the drill always seemed a little big for the job and sometimes getting the chuck to clear the tuners and the end of the dulcimer required some hand drill yoga.
Not too long ago while looking for a tool that was hiding somewhere in the shop (an all-too common event) I found a small Archimedean jewelers drill I bought years ago because it looked interesting. It was inexpensive and I liked it so I bought it even though I couldn’t think of a use for it at the time.
This little drill was just the right size for drilling pilot holes for the tuner screws. The blue tape serves as a depth stop because accidentally drilling through to the face of the peghead is not a good idea and something best avoided.
The drill works on the principle of Archimede’s screw. Sliding the collar on the spiral shaft causes the chuck to turn round and round.
Another problem solved by ancient science and another tool to play with! All in all a fun moment in the exciting life of a dulcimer builder!
I am continually drawn to older, simpler, lutherie technology . There are several reasons for this but mostly I am attracted to the older methods because they work well and I enjoy the experience of using them.
With hand tools the craftsperson’s body and skill replace many jigs and machines. Working this way makes me feel like I truly accomplished something every step of the way.
For several months I have been studying and improving the skills of using knives as they apply to being a dulcimer builder. With knives I can cut out tops and backs with cleaner edges than I can with a bandsaw. I can fit parts, trim and clean up hard-to-reach areas, shape braces, relieve edges, and more.
I have long been aware of a style of knife developed and used by guitar makers in the Paracho area of Mexico. These “curchillos knives” have evolved specifically for guitar making.
Curchillo knives are often made by the luthier and I have intended to make one for several years. I just never got around to doing it.
Last week I was having coffee with my friend Paul. Paul is a musician, craftsperson, outdoorsman and all-around wonderful human being. He also makes barrels of sauerkraut every year to give away at Christmas.
I mentioned wanting a curchillo and showed Paul photographs of them in an issue of American Lutherie and he said, “I can make those for you!”
Yesterday Paul and I got together and he gave me these two curchillo knives he made for me from an old saw blade.
I spent about 10 minutes with stones and a strop and both knives take and hold a very sharp edge.
The shape of the blade is perfect for carving and cutting out many dulcimer parts. I am a very happy dulcimer builder!
And I am thankful to have wonderful friends like Paul!
In the future I’ll be posting some of the work I do using these knives!
Here is a still-life of what was in front of me earlier while fitting a peghead to the end of a dulcimer:
I make most of the parts and do most of the assembly of my dulcimers on a solera. On the left of the solera is a dulcimer waiting for a peghead. On the right of the solera is a peghead waiting for a dulcimer. This could be a match made in heaven, but only if they fit together perfectly.
On the back corner of the bench is my glue pot with hide glue hot and ready for action. Hide glue works extremely well but requires tight joinery so mating surfaces must fit up against each other as precisely as possible.
I prepare both mating surfaces for gluing by making them flat and true. I use the file and scraper shown in the photograph to take down any high spots and check my progress using the blade of the machinist’s square as a short straight-edge. I also have some sanding blocks I’ve made that serve as fine files of specific shapes and sizes that sometimes come into play.
Since hide glue contains a lot of hot water the wood will swell a bit when the glue is applied. The peghead assembly also has a lot of end grain that will go into the joint and end grain can suck up enough glue to starve the joint.
I solve both problems by applying hide glue to both surfaces to be joined and let the glue dry overnight. This sizes the end grain by letting it soak up a lot of glue before the joint is assembled. Hide glue can be glued to itself so when adding fresh, hot, hide glue to the joint for assembly it will melt into the glue that sized the end grain.
Before I glue the joint I check both surfaces to see if moisture from applying hide glue the day before has caused any warping or swelling of the surfaces. If so, I level down those spots, add hide glue, put the joint together, and move on to the next adventure.
Those of you who follow my posts know that during the last few years I have dealt with some boring health issues. Slowly but surely I’m returning to being a dulcimer builder on a regular basis. As I am able to do more I have to remind my self not to do too much more; not the easiest thing for me to do. I love my job and I like to work. I’m catching up on orders and hope to have some inventory on hand in a few months.
This past Thanksgiving I realized that on Thanksgiving the year before I was using a walker and now I use a cane. This was a good reminder of how far I have come along and these moments are helpful to remember when having a day when I am unable to work as much as I had hoped I would. And speaking of using a cane:, several people have told me using a cane makes me look distinguished. Who knew it was so easy! I would have bought a cane 30 years ago!
I mill all my lumber by hand and I enjoy the process. Planing is a full-body experience; my lower body is as involved as my arms. When planing a long board I step along with the pushing of the plane. I am still not able to plane as much or for as long as I would like but I am able to do what needs to be done in multiple short sessions.
In the photograph above is a piece of walnut that earlier today was a rough piece of lumber. After several sessions of planing it is now ready to be sawn and shaped into parts for a some of the dulcimers I am working on.
This piece of walnut had some areas where the grain was moderately wild and changed direction here and there so for the final smoothing I used a high-angle plane to avoid tear-out. The plane shown below is a Chinese high-angle smoothing plane. When set for a very fine shaving this plane will smooth just about any wild grain or figure. It also can be used both pushed away and pulled towards the user. The crossbar is removable but I usually keep it in place as it provides a variety of grips that add versatility to the plane’s use. Sometimes I take the crossbar out if I am planing small parts.
Like all wooden planes I occasionally have to true the sole of this high-angle plane. If the blade is freshly sharpened and I have trouble getting a fine, thin, shaving it usually means the sole of the plane needs to be trued. I check the sole of the plane with a straight edge and true it up with a scraper or another plane.
Though being a dulcimer builder is known to cause one to have a life filled with excitement and adventure there are the occasional lulls one must cope with.
But today was a day of excitement; shaping back braces and gluing said back to a custom sycamore and spruce dulcimer!
Here’s a shot of the back braces in the early stages of shaping:
For those of you who are interested in tools, the chisel is a 1/2 inch Stanley 750 and the plane is the ubiquitous miniature rosewood plane found in many tool catalogs. It is a handy little plane and on this one I beveled the edges of the sole so I can get up close and personal with the edges of braces. In the background is a $10 baby crock-pot that I use as glue pot. This pot has no settings but fortunately was built to keep it’s contents at 140° F throughout the day, This is just the right temperature for hide glue. Hopefully the manufacturer won’t read this post; if this information got into the wrong hands we could end up seeing this crock-pot in catalogs as a specialty tool for 5 times the price!
After finishing up the braces and remembering to put in a label (yes, I have forgotten to put in the label) I glued the back to the dulcimer:
Woodworkers and luthiers have a saying, “You can never have too many clamps.” This is true, but in the case of gluing on this dulcimer back I used more than necessary. The back fit the dulcimer very well but I like to get even pressure all around the instrument and I kept reaching for another clamp and things got a little out of control. Still, if I had more clamps I could have glued something else up at the same time.