We have out-of-town family visiting for a few days, but I still found a little time to slip into the shop to cut out the profile. I’m beginning to see this dude!

Hunting a Gator

With the functional part of the peghead completed, it’s time to find the gator hiding in this block of wood. This part of the process is truly magic to me and I do not rush it. Besides, walnut is not the medium for whittlin’ out a head — I have to use power tools. One little slip, and it’s back to the drawing board. At no other time is the woodworking adage “measure twice, cut once” more appropriate.

The first thing I do is continue the graceful lines in the back of the scroll, using my belt sander to make it nice and smooth.

I spend some time researching gator heads. It’s amazing the number of images that are generated in a search for “gator head” or “alligator head” or similar search terms. Some are cartoonish and some are photos. Most of the cartoonish ones depict an angry gator with an open mouth and lots of teeth. I admit that having a closed mouth is easier to carve. Practically speaking, however, an open mouth may weaken the wood, making it more susceptible to damage. Furthermore, an angry gator would be inappropriate for this instrument. The word “dulcimer” is from the latin words dulce and melos, which translates to “sweet song”. All this to say, we want a docile, contented reptile who will perhaps hum along with the tunes.

Of the three photos printed above, I like the profile on the bottom of the page, but I like the eyes on the middle one. I will shoot for a somewhat realistic head, but inevitably, it will take the shape it wants to. I just have to know when to stop carving.

I create a rough sketch of the profile.

And We’re Off!

I like to start with the peghead first. The width of the peghead will determine the width of the fretboard. Since this will be a carved peghead, I need to add extra wood to make sure I have enough to work with. However, the tuning peg box is still the same basic shape that I fell in love with years ago.

This process has evolved since I first built these instruments. Back then, I would shape a solid block and then chisel out the peg box. I had almost no power tools to work with and my resources were the old-timers from the hollers of Appalachia. My fancy-schmancy power tools certainly speed things up, but ultimately, I still must work each component by hand until it feels right.

A Florida-Flavored Number 50

Becky, a fellow member of the Naturecoast Dulcimer Players, has ordered a new dulcimer — one with a gator head carving in the tuning scroll. I am particularly excited about this build: this year marks the 45th year since I learned the craft, it will be the 50th dulcimer I have constructed, and Becky has connections to Knoxville and to Maryville College! The gator head is appropriate in this case because she is a graduate of the University of Florida. She has decided to match it up with gecko designs for the main sound holes and sunrays for the upper holes.

I needed to order the tuning pegs, so while I waited for their delivery (along with a couple of other lutherie tools), I designed and built a couple of jigs to make the construction process easier and safer. I documented the construction of these jigs in a new section of this site called Woodworking. I thought it might inspire any fellow woodworkers who just happened by.

Unfortunately, as soon as I completed the jigs, I needed to head to Tennessee for a couple of weeks which prevented me from beginning construction. I used some of the time there to build those web pages, which are still in need of a bit of tweaking.

Today, I begin the process of choosing the lumber (all walnut), deciding thicknesses and other prep work to get this thing under way.

Stay tuned!

The Lucky Diamond Dulcimer

From time to time, I am asked to do some dulcimer improvement or repair work. For the most part, this will involve procedures such as adding a 6 and-a-half fret, fixing a buzz in a fretboard, or even creating a new fingerboard.V

I will take on most of these jobs if I feel confident that I can affect the repairs without glaring changes of the basic structure of the instrument. I feel that creating a dulcimer is, first and foremost, an art form and a reflection of the builder’s eye, expertise, and passion. Nevertheless, it’s important that the instrument can be actually played; not relegated to “wall art”.

In May, I was contacted by Mike, the owner of a local clock repair shop, about restoring a “Lucky Diamond” dulcimer. I was curious, and of course was keen to accept a challenge.

It turns out that this is a somewhat famous instrument with an interesting history. Lucky and Louise Diamond were furniture builders in Maryland who began building fine dulcimers back in the early 1970’s. Their dulcimers were specially designed to be loud enough to hold their own while jamming with other instruments. In conducting my research, I found several excellent references referring to the Diamonds, their creations, and their lifestyle. One was a Washington Post article that appeared in 1978. Another one was an eBay listing for a Diamond dulcimer with fascinating eye-witness accounts of experiences with the Diamonds culled from some forum postings.

The damage to the dulcimer is obvious. Mike said that it was leaning against a wall and got knocked over accidentally, snapping off the peg-head. This apparently happened years ago, but once he found out about me (through a mutual friend) he decided to see if it could be restored. What makes this extra-special is the builder’s info written on the inside, which includes “Built for Mike” and the date 1977. That also means this dulcimer was built only a year after I created my first one.


I couldn’t start work on the Diamond dulcimer immediately. Other projects, trips to Tennessee, and a busy campaign for School Board intervened, but eventually I carved out some time to devote to the project.

This wasn’t going to be easy. The peg-head must be rock solid — otherwise, the tension of the strings may supply enough force to pop it back off, or at least prevent the strings from holding a pitch. Contributing to the problem (and the reason for the clean break in the first place) was a design flaw–the peg-head was attached to the body by an internal block of wood whose grain ran from side-to-side rather than from the peg-head into the body.

I always try to preserve the original integrity of an instrument which means that I hesitate to employ any corrective shaping or additional coat of finish (that may or may not match). This necessitated that I glue the peg-head in exactly the right place. I surmised that some sort of dowel was needed to reinforce the peg-head. To match it up perfectly, I drilled one hole and filled the hole with cotton. Then, I saturated the cotton with ink and correctly aligned the pieces together. I then drilled out the resulting mark.

My first attempt used a half-inch dowel and regular wood glue, and was not nearly strong enough. I did not own forstner bits, but realized that’s what I needed in this situation. I also acquired the strongest glue I could find: JB Weld epoxy. Once again using the cotton/ink procedure, I drilled out a 1″ hole and prepared the larger dowel.

I carefully slathered on the epoxy…

and secured the pieces together.

Notice in the picture above that there are holes for six pegs. This dulcimer is technically a deluxe six-string instrument (three-strings doubled), but it came to me with only four pegs. This is just as well, since I needed to minimize the string tension to help preserve the repair. The dulcimer also was missing its bridge.

After fabricating a bridge and adding four new strings, she was once again ready to make some music.

The Pick of the Litter

 Finally worked my way to the final details of the pegs, nut, bridge, and strings. I had decided to go traditional and install violin pegs. It would really look sharp, but make it more difficult to get into exact tune.

To help alleviate this, I allowed for the installation of fine tuning beads at the tail-end of the instrument. Sliding these up and down just a little will pinpoint the pitch. I had seen these on another dulcimer, but this is the first time I have included them in one of my constructions.


I tracked down Jasmine, the inspiration for this dulcimer, and introduced her to the new addition to the family.









Unfortunately, the reamer that I used to install the pegs was not the right size. I thought I could sneak up on it, but the force from the strings wouldn’t allow one of the pegs to keep it tight and in tune. Three of them seemed to work fine, but I really like a 4-stringed instrument. I rummaged around and dug out some old metal friction pegs that needed some polishing and a bit of finagling to install, but finally managed the task.









Dulcimer #47 is in the books–I have a new instrument to lug around with me. Hmmm…now I need a new carrying case. New project!

Down the Home Stretch

 Thanks to careful design, everything is fitting together nicely.







The first coat of polyurethane.

This’ll be finished sometime this weekend.


Putting It All Together

With the peghead completed, it was time to do some shaping, adding sound holes and gluing things together.


Carving makes me a little nervous. One false move and the whole piece can be ruined. The woodcarving knives that I’ve had for a long time are basically cheap junk. To work the large-scale removal, I used a multi-tool and chisels. I then purchased a new variable-speed Dremel tool and a bunch of different carving bits.

I took the peghead to a Civil War reenactment, intending to whittle beside the fire. Ha! The walnut was so hard to work with that the minuscule slivers I was able to trim were frustrating at best. I paid for that with blisters after about an hour and decided that life was too short for that. I’ll stick with the power tools, thank you very much.

I didn’t stop very often to take pictures of the head in these mid-stages.

The eyes worried me. I tried to shape the eyeballs, but it was either out-of-round or lop-sided. Eventually, I decided to make pits and find a different medium for the eyeballs.

Here is an early experiment. Uh, no–this thing is going to be a bit cartoonish anyway, because I only marginally know what I’m doing. This is hysterical and wrong, but on the right track.

So I went to Michaels In Ocala and found exactly what I I thought would work. I drilled into the eye sockets and
inserted a couple of half-beads, then shaped and added eyelids, and finally got the effect I was looking for. At first, though, the eyelids were straight across and looked a little brooding or judgmental. I imagined myself playing the instrument, and he’d be dogging me, saying “You should be a better player after 40 years…”

So with a little whick of an exacto blade, I gave him a slightly more quizzical look. I also shaped the ears and went to work on the nose. I used a small power rasp to simulate hair.




 Whew! I think I can live with this

Choosing the Wood

I want this instrument to be unique and reflective of my passion for the craft of lutherie. Since I work mostly in walnut, I’ve decided to use that for the back and sides (as usual). The top, however, will be my favorite type of wood: wormy chestnut.

All the American Chestnut trees contracted a blight back in the 1930s and never recovered. These trees were some of the largest in the old-growth forests that existed in places such as my native Smoky Mountains. During a hike back in college, I saw the carcass of a 150′ chestnut tree that must have been at least 12′ in diameter. Occasionally, these have been logged, but because there is no new growth, the lumber becomes more and more rare (and expensive).

I’m actually down to a few boards that I’ve set aside years ago. How I acquired this stash is another story:

Around 1985, I was teaching 4th grade at Crystal River Primary School and waiting tables at a fine-dining restaurant called “The Prime Minister”. One evening, I had a customer — an older gentleman dining alone — who proved to be a good conversationalist and we hit it off immediately. We discovered that we shared a woodworking hobby. I told him of my dulcimer-building and we talked about the types of wood with which we had worked. After mentioning that wormy chestnut was my favorite, he looked at me kinda funny and said, “I have a warehouse in Orlando in which I have 60 board feet of wormy chestnut. Tell you what–I’ll give you the lumber if you’ll build me a dulcimer with some of it.” Of course, it was a deal I couldn’t pass up. We stayed in contact over the next several weeks (I built the dulcimer with the chestnut I had on hand) and we made the exchange at a mall in Leesburg. This is part of the last few feet of this gift.

Here are the boards resawn with the tablesaw and bandsaw, then bookmatched and glued. After cutting the sides out, I discovered that there were worm tracks in the walnut. I could flip them and use the unblemished side, but my new mantra is “embrace the imperfections” and the walnut worm tracks will complement the wormy chestnut. Maybe the mantra should be “embrace the worms”.

Things are beginning to take shape.