Slowly but surely I am recovering from back surgery and lutherie has commenced in the form of cleaning and organizing the shop in short installments.
While cleaning out the shop I ventured into the quagmire of the closet; the dark, scary place where useful things mingle with forgotten somewhat-useful and mostly useless things from the past. Within this portal of doom lurk dead cans of finish, expired bottles of yellow glue, useless tools of questionable manufacture, parts of tools I do not own, mysterious objects that somehow made their way across time and space and into my workspace, etc.
And among these many things I found a small treasure; a box with 3 pounds of dry hide glue. This stuff is probably 3 years old and as good as the day I bought it.
And why, you might ask, do I consider this newsworthy?
Well, I also found a leaky box of very old epoxy that made an 8 inch round toxic puddle on one of the shelves. I have not used epoxy in years and I have no idea how long this oozing abomination has tainted the fine particle board shelf upon which it resides.
It is neither solid nor liquid but something in-between, something not of this world, something evil.
Hide glue does not do this! I’m adding this fact to the list of reasons I prefer hide glue.
Luckily most of the stuff I pried loose from this resinous swamp was going to get tossed anyway.
The real reason for this post?
I am avoiding going back upstairs to cleanup this awful mess!
Long story short; I’m recovering well from back surgery.
Short story slightly longer; a year ago at a festival I stepped out of the car, suddenly and unexpectedly doubled over in pain, and instantly knew life would be slightly more complicated for a while.
When I got home I visited an excellent physician who ran some tests and assured me that a relatively simple surgery would solve the problem.
I was also assured my insurance company would not cover the cost of the surgery until I spent a year trying other treatments which in my doctor’s opinion would not solve the problem.
For a year I was able to work about one-third of the time I usually work in the shop. People waiting for instruments on order were understanding and kind. Most advance orders did get completed and shipped and a few still waiting for completion are slated for the hands of equally considerate and understanding people.
In a few weeks I will be easing my way back into the dulcimer shop. I’ll be finishing up some orders, making instruments to have on hand as inventory, and finally completing a long-overdue modern rendering of an Ethiopian Begena.
During the past year my wonderful wife Cynthia drove me to quite a few festivals, workshops and other gigs during the times I could not make the drive myself.
During these trips Cynthia met friends around the Midwest she had only heard of and vice-versa.
Friends at festivals throughout the area keep asking if she will be coming to festivals in the future.
I think more people might show up at my gigs if she comes with me because they want to see her!
I understand completely.
Every few days I prepare a new batch of hide glue. Granules of dry glue swell up as they soak up water overnight. The glue is ready for heating the following morning. I use distilled water when using hide glue to avoid minerals that can discolor the wood.
The jar sits in water heated to 140°F inside the small crock-pot. My current glue pot is a small, inexpensive crock-pot that keeps the water at just the right temperature.
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Last night I was working on a walnut dulcimer with a butternut top and snakewood (sometimes referred to as lacewood) binding around the top and back.
Pictured is my immaculately clean and well-organized bench with said dulcimer after having the peghead joint to the fretboard cleaned up. This began by using a paring chisel with a very low-angle bevel. This chisel lets me take very fine and precise shavings. I was fortunate to find several vintage paring chisels of different widths at an antique mall several years ago and they are perfect for shaping braces, fitting joints cleaning up the rabbets for binding, and much more.
After getting the joint very close to flush with the chisel I switch to the file hiding behind some bent binding. Like many modern files this one is not dead flat but I am familiar with its unique quirks. Most of the tools I love to use have unique quirks. Most of the people I love have unique quirks too.
Also in the photograph is the template I use for laying out the rough shape of the peghead. I trace the basic shape on the stock but always end up fiddling with the exact shape and proportions by eye. It takes more time to do this than it would to use an identical peghead on every dulcimer but I enjoy the process. It also contributes to each dulcimer being somewhat unique.
This morning I was preparing the head-block on a custom dulcimer to receive the peghead. The sun was shining through the window and it said, “Hey Doug, this is a great moment to take a photograph.”
My first thoughts were, “The sun is talking to me! Is this a good thing? Should I cut down on coffee? What do I do next?” to which the sun replied, “Just take the picture!”
So smartphone in hand I took this shot of the rig I use to level and square-up the head and end-blocks.
Most of the assembly of my dulcimers takes place on a solera. I clamp a cabinetmaker’s clamp to the solera and use the cabinetmaker’s clamp as a vise to hold the dulcimer. (The last sentence used the word “clamp” three times. I just thought I’d mention that.)
With the dulcimer firmly mounted in the cabinetmaker’s clamp I use a low-angle block plane to level the block where the fretboard, binding, soundboard, back and sides come together. This area of the dulcimer has various parts converging at different angles and the grain is running in all directions. There are also areas where delicate edges could easily get chipped. If these edges get chipped they would look painfully obvious on the finished dulcimer.
I keep the low-angle block plane sharp and set it for a very light cut. The sides, binding and fretboard have already been cut almost flush with the head-block using a saw. This still leaves a bit of overhang that require leveling. I plane these areas from the outside edges towards the center of the block as this prevents chipping. Once these parts are level to the block I make several passes with the plane to assure the entire surface is flat.
I check the flatness of the block using the machinist’s square in the photograph. On a good day the task is complete and I start preparing the peghead assembly for gluing to the body. On other days I lather, rinse, repeat a few times till everything is right.
I could just go to the basement and fire up the disc sander I bought a few years ago but what would be the fun in that? It would be loud and messy and not nearly as much fun as doing it by hand. If I include the time of going downstairs and back upstairs it doesn’t take me much longer to do it by hand anyway.
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Linings are strips or blocks of wood glued around the inside-edges of the sides of a stringed instrument. The linings add width to the edge of the sides and provide a broader gluing surface for attaching the soundboard and back.
Some dulcimer makers use linings and some don’t. If the sides are relatively thick no linings are necessary.
I make my sides fairly thin so linings are essential to my design. I also put binding around the soundboard and extra thickness is required so I can cut the rabbets for the binding.
(Please note the word I used is rabbets, not rabbits! No rabbits are harmed in the making of my dulcimers!)
Wood for the lining strips usually comes from scraps accumulated while making soundboards, backs and sides.
I bend linings on a hot-pipe in the same manner as bending sides and find the process centering and relaxing. I am also continuously amazed that wood can be bent into curves using just a little heat and water.
Speaking of water, you may notice the yogurt container on my bench. It is filled with distilled water and I occasionally dip my fingers into the water and rub a little on the sides or linings while bending them. It doesn’t take much, just enough to create some steam when the moist wood comes in contact with the hot-pipe.
I use distilled water because it is free of minerals and chemicals that can stain the wood during the bending process. It took me a while to figure that one out!
The yogurt container used to contain organic yogurt. This is important! If the container had contained non-organic yogurt the water would be tainted. When the wood started to steam a toxic cloud would rise and transform me from a mild-mannered dulcimer player into a clawhammer banjo player.
Wait, I do play clawhammer banjo.
I’ll stop now.
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Dulcimer makers and dulcimer players build and play an instrument that has little standardization of design and playing technique. Opinions as to what constitutes a good sounding and playable dulcimer vary from builder to builder and player to player.
The final stage of preparing a dulcimer (or any fretted instrument) for the player is referred to as “the setup.” For most luthiers the final setup consists of leveling and dressing the frets, adjusting the height of the strings at the nut and bridge, compensating the bridge for accurate intonation, making sure the strings are seated properly at the nut and bridge, etc.
What constitutes a dulcimer being easy to play depends on the taste and technique of the player. Here are some general guidelines of setups for different playing styles but these are by no means definitive.
For fingerpicking many players prefer to play with lighter gauge strings with slightly high action. The lighter gauge strings will be more responsive to a delicate touch.
If a player is an aggressive strummer heavier strings are often preferred. Heavier strings produce more volume when strummed and are more taught than light strings so the action can be set lower without buzzes and rattles.
Flatpickers usually prefer heavier strings because they produce more volume and the higher string tension is more responsive to the attack of the pick.
Here is an interesting example of personal preferences for setup. Stephen Seifert recently played and taught in town and we had some time to visit and play together. He mentioned that when he had tried my dulcimers at festivals he found the action too low for the way he plays.
I had a dulcimer I had just finished but had not yet given a final setup. I had planned on significantly lowering the action and in its current state I found it uncomfortable to play.
Stephen tried the dulcimer and said, “This is perfect!.”
The setup can be easily changed. Think of it as similar to putting different tires on a car.
I am always happy to adjust the setup of my dulcimers to meet a players needs. If a dulcimer player plays in a variety of styles or is unsure of what will suit them I offer a standard setup that is quite versatile.
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What began as a custom order has become a new standard model.
When designing this dulcimer I strove for balanced tone and volume between the two fretboards and ease of playability. I am very happy with the results.
The body is based on the basic shape of both my standard and baritone dulcimers. I chose to use a gentle asymmetry in the curves of the sides in relation to each other and an obviously more pronounced asymmetry in the tail end of the dulcimer.
The pegheads are fitted with mandolin tuners. They work very well and guitar tuners seemed a little heavy in proportion to the peghead design.
Before giving this instrument to it’s new owner I played it for several days and soon found myself switching seamlessly between the two fretboards and coming up with some interesting musical ideas.
I have begun making some more of these and I hope I manage to keep one for myself!
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All the instruments that come from my shop have been completely made with my hands, heart, and on occasion, feet.
I have hammered in every fret myself.
I wasn’t looking for help making dulcimers but when these two guys showed up at the door I knew I needed to put them to work.
Passion motivated me to learn to play music and make instruments. Learning to draw was something I wanted to do but the passion never kicked in so it never went anywhere; a few false starts and then on to the next adventure.
I recognize a shape that is pleasing to my eye when I see it. Certain proportions and lines seem pleasant and harmonious and though I can’t draw them accurately I learned that I can sculpt them.
When designing an instrument or a part of an instrument I’ll begin by making a rough sketch to get a basic idea of the shape. Next comes laying out critical and/or preferred measurements such as scale length, the positions of the tuners, the angle of the peghead, the width of the bouts, depth, bridge location, etc.
From there I use French curves, flexible rulers, pieces of string, jar lids and other devices to create smooth transitions while using the critical measurements as a skeleton for the design.
At this point I’ll have patterns that are close to what I am shooting for but they are often still not quite right. This is when I transfer the patterns to thin wood, plexiglass or MDF and begin the process of sculpting the final shape. I’ll carve the patterns until the curves look pleasing and feel good to the touch. If all goes well I end up with a template and get to work making a dulcimer from it. If not I start over.
I tend to make my pegheads with only a basic pattern and create the final shape during assembly. This way I can sculpt the peghead to suit each particular dulcimer.
There re faster ways to get there from here but what would be the fun in that!
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