What’s On The Bench – 9/29/2015

Cleaning up the sides of a dulcimer with a scarper!Here is the setup I use for holding a dulcimer on it’s side.  I briefly mentioned this clamping method in a recent post about using a spokeshave to bring the top and back flush with the sides. I was scraping the sides of this dulcimer and saw a photo opportunity to show a little more detail about the clamping setup.

I use two cabinetmaker’s clamps clamped to a work-board. By clamping only one jaw of the cabinetmaker’s clamp the other jaw remains adjustable.

Before using this setup I would hold the dulcimer between my knees and under my chin. This method worked well but clamping is a little easier on my body and does hold the dulcimer more solidly.

I occasionally consider making a dedicated fixture for holding dulcimesr on their sides; something along the lines of a Moxon vise, but the cabinetmaker’s clamps work fine and I prefer to have fewer tools with multiple uses than multiple tools with fewer uses.


Hide Glue and Dulcimer Pegheads

I’ve written before about my love of hide glue. Hide glue works well as an adhesive but it also has unique properties that allow assembly techniques not possible with modern glues.

Hide glue is excellent for making rub joints, a joint where after applying glue the parts are rubbed together a few times until the glue begins to stick. No clamping is required because hide glue pulls the joint together as it dries.

How a Dulcimer builder gets sticky fingersAbove is what my bench looked like earlier today while I was gluing up some pegheads. Some of the things in the photograph have nothing to do with gluing pegheads but they were lonely and asked if they could be in the picture. I didn’t have the heart to say no.

In the foreground towards the right, next to a partially shown shopping list, are the two parts of a peghead just after being glued. In the background is the mini-crock-pot that serves as an electric glue pot. Peeking out of the top of glue pot is the white lid of a small jar containing, believe it or not, hide glue. The jar sits in a bath of hot water. It is a filthy little jar and does not get to watch TV before bedtime if it refuses to take a bath. Hide glue also needs to be heated in a double boiler at around 140° F to melt and become usable. That is another reason the jar is in a bath of hot water.

Also on the glue pot are two brushes; one for applying glue, the other for adding hot water from the pot when cleaning things up, adding a little more hot water to the joint, etc.

In front of the glue pot is a flask of water used for replacing water in the glue pot and the glue jar as evaporation takes place. I found the flask at a salvage store and thought it was less likely to get knocked over than the glass I had used before. That ended up being true. The flask also looks cool and makes things look more impressive and scientific than they really are.

On the work-board are some peghead parts, a template, and a flat sanding block used for lapping the surfaces of the joints for a perfect fit. On bigger parts I do this with a swipe of a plane, on smaller, odd-shaped parts it is sometimes easier to lap them.

And now, for no particular reason, is a picture of a cute duckling.

I'm so cute!



The Spokeshave – The Dulcimer Builder’s Friend

Dulcimer Builder's Friend - The Friendly SpokeshaveLast night I was trimming the back of a dulcimer to meet the sides.

After chopping off the bulk of the overhang with a chisel I switch to spokeshaves. Even though dulcimers do not have spokes one can still shave them with a spokeshave. Do not use shaving cream!

For most of the work I use a flat-bottomed spokeshave but for the curve in the waist and the recurve near the tail I use a round-bottom spokeshave. From there I switch to a scraper to bring the back flush with the sides.

One of the things I enjoy about trimming the back to the sides with a spokeshave is that I get to listen to the resonance of the dulcimer; the friction of the spokeshave against the overhanging back is a bit like bowing a violin.

Trimming the back to meet the sides would be faster if I used an electric router but I don’t enjoy doing it that way. Routers are loud, messy, gnarly little beasts!

My wife Cynthia came home last night and thought she saw a good photo-op.

Doug Berch - Dulcimer Builder and FashionistaI use a cabinetmaker’s clamp clamped on its side to hold the dulcimer while working on the sides.

And yes, fashion is my life.


Thoughts On The Creative Process

Creative PassionWhen I was in the first grade of elementary school I was given an assignment to color a picture of a blacksmith taken from a coloring book. The outlne-drawing of a blacksmith in his apron standing by an anvil on a tree stump fascinated me. I knew what a blacksmith was and what a blacksmith did but I had never actually seen one in action; blacksmiths were not a common sight in Brooklyn, NY in the early 1960’s. Go figure.

I remember meticulously coloring in the picture with brown for the tree stump and apron, black for the anvil and hammer, etc. I remember being surprised at how well the picture turned out. I was not very good at drawing, even when filling the spaces of a coloring book, and this was the finest piece of  art I had ever made.  I was six or seven years old and had just had a peak experience.

And then the teacher yelled at me.

In that moment of shock I looked at the paper in front of me and to my surprise I had done nothing but scribble all over the page with one or two crayons.

The teacher asked me why I had scribbled all over the page and I honestly said that I had not done that. She said I was lying. I was confused and had no ability to articulate what had taken place, that as far as I knew I had done a masterful job of coloring the picture and was very moved by the experience. I was very surprised to see the scribbling I had produced.

I was a young child and the concept of what had happened was far beyond my understanding. She was a middle-aged teacher with grey hair, orthopedic shoes, and a voice reminiscent of the sound made when sanding wooden floors. We were at an impasse.

A note was sent home, my parents had to meet with the teacher and the end result was that nobody was happy.

A few years later I was at a day camp. In the cafeteria was a piano. I had never played a musical instrument but sat at the piano and was amazed that I could make music, very beautiful music. I played and listened as if I was an observer rather than the one playing the piano; the music just flowed out effortlessly.

And then someone yelled at me.

In that moment of shock I suddenly heard that all I was doing was banging on keys randomly and loudly. This was not beautiful music. Well, maybe to John Cage or Edgar Varèse it was beautiful music but to most people, including myself, it was obnoxious noise.

Memories of these two experiences stayed with me. As I grew older I realized there was a difference between internal and external experience. I realized that one can become immersed in an interior world, sometimes spontaneously. I learned that concentration and meditation were part of our make up as humans.

I think these childhood experiences are universal. I have heard of others having variations of this kind of experience, of being young and spontaneously entering a realm of creative fire. Like me, they also had no way to articulate the experience at the time.

I believe that everyone is creative and that everyone manifests their creativity one way or another as a normal occurrence in everyday life.

Perhaps those people who are viewed as being creative have a passion to bridge the inner and outer life and familiarity with that territory manifests more noticeably in what they do.

Perhaps when someone yelled at them it was an experience shocking enough to wake them up but not shocking enough to permanently dampen that spirit.

The Fascinating World Of Dulcimer Back Braces

Yes, the life of a dulcimer builder is filled with action and adventure.

This afternoon I made it most of the way through the process of bracing the back of a curly walnut dulcimer. I have no standard pattern for bracing; the number and dimensions of top and back braces depends on the particular dulcimer. This is more a matter of feel than science, but it works for me.

On this particular dulcimer I wanted a fairly massive center brace. On a guitar this would be where the center seam reinforcement strip would go but this is a dulcimer, not a guitar. This brace will strengthen the center seam in the back and will also significantly stiffen the entire dulcimer lengthwise. I sometimes use this kind of center brace when using a very light or thin soundboard.

First the center brace is planed flat on all surfaces.

Planing the dulcimer center brace.

After planing the brace gets glued to the back. I use a warped board as a clamping caul. By putting the convex side of the warped board face down I can clamp the entire length of the brace with one clamp at either end. Forcing the warped board flat assures plenty of clamping pressure along the entire length of the brace.

Ain't this a clever idea!

The next step is cutting through the center brace to make way for the cross braces. This dulcimer will have two cross braces. I was too busy sawing and chiseling to stop and take a photograph.

Next comes beveling the edges of the center brace with a small plane. You can see the space for one of the braces just ahead of the plane. This photograph was taken just as the work began and there were plenty more curly shaving by the time I was done.

Artsy lutherie photograph.

In this last photograph the two cross braces are fitted and ready for gluing.

Dulcimer back braces fitted and ready for gluing.

After the braces are glued they will be shaped to final dimensions and the back will be ready to go on the dulcimer. I won’t forget to put the label in first. I won’t forget to put the label in first. I won’t forget….