Free-Form Dulcimer Making

Bartione dulcimer soundboard layoutI have basic patterns for my dulcimers but the the exact shape and size of each dulcimer varies slightly from one dulcimer to the next. I have embraced a fairly free-form style of building and use very few jigs, forms, and fixtures.

By building free-form I feel like I am sculpting a dulcimer rather than making a bunch of parts and assembling them. The frame of the dulcimer (sides and end blocks) and the fretboard become the reference points for laying out the rest of instrument. I can make small changes to the shape and size of the dulcimer by feel and eye and work with it until everything seems right to me.

The thickness of the top and back and the bracing pattern are determined in a similar manner.

Free-form building is not the most efficient way to make dulcimers in a timely manner. If I made all the parts to a set pattern and assembled them in fixtures I would make more dulcimers in less time but I wouldn’t enjoy the process very much.

Laying out position markers and soundholes on a baritone dulcimer These photographs are of a baritone dulcimer in progress. The final shape of the dulcimer is traced on the soundboard and the soundholes are laid out using a template. I have also laid out the placement of the position markers on the fingerboard. A scraper serves as a short straight edge for drawing the layout lines.

Making sure everything is where it belongsAlso important are notes to myself to make sure everything goes where it is supposed to go. There is a reason I do this. Guess what happened the last time I didn’t do this!

It Doesn’t Take Much

Clamp, wedge, and plane in early May

It doesn’t take much to do some of the things we want to do.

As a teenager I was in a theater company that cobbled lighting together from parts found at the local hardware store. It worked.

Some of the best musicians I have heard played on what many would call substandard instruments.

I have seen the work of craftspeople who could make just about anything with a collection of tools that could fit in a bag and travel with them.

When beginning any endeavor it is easy to get bogged down by all the things one thinks are required. Usually someone, somewhere, has found a way to do more with less.

I was reminded of this a few minutes ago while planing the side of a fretboard. I have an oak 2×4 with a face planed true that serves as a planing beam for the wood used in fretboards and braces.  I also use this oak 2×4 as a caul for laminating fingerboards to fretboards to assure everything stays flat.

Not seen in the photograph is the far end of the oak 2×4 where I drilled a hole and fit a bench stop; a peg that keeps the wood from sliding forward while planing.

When I want to hold the wood more firmly on the planing beam I put a clamp at the other end and push in a small wedge as seen in the photograph. It works.

This is very basic technology that has been around forever. No high-dollar special jigs, tooling, vises, vacuum clamps or computers are required.

I encourage anyone who wants to do anything constructive to find a way to do it with whatever is available to you.

If you wait until you have everything you think you need you may be missing hours of creative fun. And being creative can make the list of things one thinks one needs much smaller than one thinks.