Fretting Over the Eyes and Frets

I am particular about the eyes on these carvings. Through trial and error, I have settled on the half-beads with built-up eyelids. This is the trickiest and most time-consuming part of the whole dulcimer. It would be a snap if I were working with clay, but must use tiny pieces of walnut instead.

I make the eyelids clunky and oversized, knowing I can carve them all down to shape. To make sure the additions can withstand the Dremel tool, I use 5-minute epoxy and let it cure thoroughly before shaping. I did want the eyes to be more to the side, but sometimes these constructions will have “minds of their own” — these are more to the front. Nevertheless, it still works and I’m pleased with it so far. All I have left to do is the mouth and some touch-ups to finish the gator.

I’ve decided to set the head aside for now and work on the most important part of the instrument — the fretboard. I am a stickler for fret accuracy because if the instrument doesn’t sound right, it’s “wall art” and that is unacceptable. Not only does it have to be completely flat, but it also needs to have the final sanding finished before adding the frets. I was actually able to cut out three fretboards from a 1″ thick board and planed one of them down for this project.

I like to use a 28″ scale length, which establishes an octave at 14″ and another octave at 21″ from the nut. (or, more accurately, from the zero fret). For fret placement, I use a fret calculator from the Stewart-MacDonald website which prints out the intervals to 1/1000 of an inch. I use a ruler that is marked to 1/100th of an inch (which is about the limit for a physical ruler) and employ several magnifying lenses to ensure that the frets are right on the money.

Adding Texture

I decided to add some texture to the upper snout area — something I have never tried. I like it. I also added some eyes. Letting them dry overnight.


Still entertaining company, but found some shop time to start the shaping process. It’s important to clamp that puppy down when making the large rough cuts. Sometimes I tape down a piece of scrap if there’s a chance I might damage a semi-finished part.

I am able to hold the work while doing some of the finer cuts, but must be careful of slips. On my two previous gator heads, the eyes have been a little more straight-on. This gave the gator a somewhat cartoonish or cinematic appearance while still maintaining the essence of the beast. Though this one will not be a realistic carving either, I am moving the eyes more to the side. I like the look so far.


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 commissioned 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 most recent posts will be just below this introductory post. To see the progression of this build, go directly to the June 13th posting. You can then navigate the postings using the right or left arrows at the top of the post.

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.