Peg Head and Fretwork

Squeezing in time to build the pieces in between teaching responsibilities and holiday activities. My new Ryobi multi-tool helped speed up the process with the peg head.

The fretboard is the most important component. I use a fret position calculator from Stewart-MacDonald’s website to determine each fret’s location within 1/100th of an inch. I test-fit the completed fretboard onto the soundboard.

I went to my stock pile to find the back piece. I planed down the narrower board and bookmatched it using my resaw jig. I will thin and cut out the shape as soon as possible.

A Celebration of Maryville College

45 years of Construction

Dulcimer #51 was inspired by a contact from my college days. Bill Doyle, who lived down the hall from me in Dorm 1 (now Gamble Hall) sent me a message out of the blue saying he wanted a custom-made dulcimer. I had to warn him that this may take awhile — I had just come out of retirement to return to an elementary classroom, so my time was going to be constrained. I had also begun to construct a jig to bend the dulcimer sides and I needed to finish that before I could reconfigure my shop for dulcimer-mode. He said that would be fine, and I appreciate his patience. This one will be an anniversary instrument since it was exactly 45 years ago, this month, that I took the “How to Build an Appalachian Dulcimer” class during the 3-week Interim period at Maryville College.

I finished the side-bending jig and have posted the process in the “Woodworking” section.

I have finally begun construction of the dulcimer in earnest. The jigs I have built will help me speed up the process, so that will help counteract my scarcity of time.

The heart of a dulcimer is the fretboard. It must be perfectly straight and flat, and all the frets must be perfectly placed. That is where I start. I had a rough-cut blank hanging around (actually 2) so I employed a planer-jointer and a bench sander to bring it down to size.

I cut the strum hollow after measuring the scale length of the frets and then hollowed out the underside of the fretboard. Here it is beside the other rough-cut blank. I then turned to the construction of the peghead. This is another piece that must perfectly align with the fretboard. Here, I am using a jig that I designed for resawing lumber into thin pieces. I just needed to remove about 1/8 inch from this board and the jig made quick work of it.

I then cut out and sanded the pieces of the peghead to fit the template that I usually use. I measured the width needed to match the fretboard and prepped a couple of pieces to fill in the middle. I like to get to a gluing stage before turning in for the evening.


I am very pleased to present my 50th dulcimer, constructed 45 years since I built my first one — to Ms. Becky. Thank you for the opportunity to build this for you. Enjoy!

Tuning Stuff

It was time to install the friction pegs which was quick and painless because I had prepped for them when I put together the peghead.

The fine tuners were next. The only other time I added fine tuners at the other end was for the Dog Head dulcimer I made for myself. For that one, I found plastic beads in the shape of dog bones. I have seen pictures of dulcimers that used plain beads and I knew that would work. My preference, however, was to have the fine tuners reflect the theme of the instrument, if at all possible. I hit on the idea of using actual alligator teeth to accomplish this. I purchased 15 teeth from a really funky website.

Unfortunately, there were several problems, even though the teeth were the perfect size. Two-thirds of each tooth was hollow and I felt that the tension of the string might break through. Also, there was a little curve to the teeth which made it difficult to work in a 1/16″ drill bit. Finally, when I tried to drill anyway, the teeth were way too hard to make a hole. Rather than try to track down a dentist for assistance, I decided to mount the teeth onto small blocks through which each string would pass.

Since I really needed to drill a hole perfectly straight through each block, I purchased a drill press clamp that helped me hold it in place. I then meticulously shaped each block to fit the curve of each tooth and epoxied a tooth on each block, ensuring that the teeth did not extend over the edge of the blocks to bite the dulcimer player.

After adding strings, tuning, and setting up the instrument, Dulcimer #50 was finally complete!

Prepping for the Strings

After the second coat has dried thoroughly, I gave the dulcimer a coating of paste wax, applied lightly with 0000 steel wool and wiped off to a smooth and slick finish. I then installed the tiny screws that serve as end pins for the strings.

For the past several years, I have been using a “Zero” fret as the nut, basing the scale length measurements of the frets from that point. What I needed was a string guide to hold the strings in place and point them to the correct tuning peg. On the other end, of course, is the bridge. My preference has always been a “floating” bridge which is held in place by the tightened strings. Mathematically, a 28″ scale length does not measure exactly 28″ from the nut to the bridge. For perfect placement, the bridge will be just a little past the 28″ mark. You know it’s in the right place when your tuner shows exact notes (exact pitches) as you move up the fretboard. I feel that the ability to adjust for this is important — hence, the floating bridge.

Finishing Coats

I love this part. The walnut is pretty enough in its raw form, but really pops when the finish is applied. I use Minwax satin finish hand-rubbed polyurethane for all my instruments. This time, I deviated from this by using a foam brush to do the gator head because of all the convolutions in its shape. I give the dulcimer 2 coats of the polyurethane, wiping it down lightly with 0000 steel wool between coats.

Sloping the End of the Fretboard

Since I am using friction pegs, I like to employ fine tuners on the other end. Many times when a dulcimer is slightly out of tune, the friction pegs can make it difficult to make small adjustments. (The fine tuners harken back to the days of playing cello — MANY days ago — with wooden pegs that necessitated the fine tuners). After making sure I allowed enough space for the floating bridge, it was a simple matter of adding a slope to the end of the fretboard. I did some touch up sanding to the end and the basic construction of Dulcimer #50 was complete.

Adding Sides

The side pieces had been resawn from the same board, so they are bookmatched just like the top and back. I first needed to thin them down to be able to bend them easily. For this, I employed a belt sander with increasingly finer grade sandpaper. I then used masking tape to trace the path of the sides along the gluing strips from slot to slot. This gave me the exact length of each side and I cut each side accordingly. I worked on the left side first, using my traditional bending method. I boiled water in a kettle and gently but firmly made the needed bends in the resulting steam. While it was still warm and pliable, I added glue to the strips and clamped the side in place using homemade violin clamps.

For the right side, I decided to experiment a little. Several months ago, I acquired several handmade bending jigs for constructing guitars, ukeleles, and mandolins. I decided that some of the bends on the guitar jig was similar to the bends that I could use for the dulcimer side. I just had to figure out how to use it. Some websites and a couple of YouTube videos were helpful. After cleaning up the jig (it apparently hadn’t been used in a while), I dampened both sides of the side piece and sandwiched it between the metal sheets provided. I then clamped it partially into place, not wanting the severe bend needed for a guitar, and plugged it in.

The three 150 Watt bulbs heated the side pretty quickly. It was ready in about 20 minutes. One of the bends was in the wrong place so I had to fire up the kettle anyway to steam it into the proper shape. I have never had a side that retained it’s shape like that. I determined that I could re-create this jig for a dulcimer and get the exact bends I need. I used the clamps to secure the right side. The only thing left was to engineer the tail end of the dulcimer.

Finishing holes — Install Fretboard

I decided to finish the lizards by woodburning the feet. This will ensure that the design wouldn’t be weakened by too many cuts. I also had to redesign the sun sound holes because I could not get the scrollsaw to fit into the tiny holes of the previous design. After shaping the suns with the razor files and cutting out the fretboard channel, the top was complete.

I then glued down the fretboard on the top using a jig I made many years ago. The next step was to glue down thin strips of walnut as a gluing flange for the side pieces. I have always liked the top and back to extend over the sides about 5 mm.

I cut slots in the peghead and tail stock to accept the side pieces, and glued them in place on the top.

I then matched it up with the back piece.

Building Holes

To cut the sound holes, I transferred the designs onto the top, ensuring that the holes were mirror images of each side. I then used a scroll saw to rough out the holes.

I then used small razor files and sandpaper to finish the lizard holes.