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.

This One Is For Me

I have been planning a new dulcimer for myself for about 5 years, but always seemed to have other projects that took precedence or I just chickened out on what was necessary to accomplish it. I wanted to do a carving on the peghead, and this just made me nervous. I have done two dulcimers featuring carvings: I carved a bear’s head on dulcimer #10 in 1980 (which I still have) and created a gator-head on a dulcimer that I did in the mid-eighties and traded for a 1926 Victrola.

So, I decided to throw caution to the winds and create a one-of-a-kind dulcimer with a motif. My inspiration was our “pound puppy”, Jasmine– a beagle mix who has been part of the family for about 11 years.

I started with the trickiest part–the peghead that I planned to carve. I used my template for a regular peghead and added some large blocks.

 

I had found a tiny toy hound dog that resembled Jasmine, and used it to create some templates (The toy held still a lot better than the dog did).

I began to cut away the parts that didn’t look like a dog.

Abandoning the peghead for the time being, I switched to creating the fretboard (with a 28″ scale length).

Cross-Country Delivery Complete

This is being posted after the dust has cleared from the Christmas Celebrations. I am happy to report that the bass arrived unscathed to Central Oregon on December 21 — one week after she was shipped.

This is Jon, the proud owner and co-designer of dulcimer #46 (I’m not sure if he’s named her yet). Jon is an accomplished musician and woodworker, who unfortunately had a run-in with his tablesaw last month and came out the worst for it. Here’s hoping for a rapid healing process.

Congratulations on your new baby!

Dulcimer #46 is complete!

After a coat of paste wax and installing the tuning machines, I attached the acoustic bass strings and carefully located the bridge in the optimum place.

On the evening of Friday, December 2nd, I joined the Naturecoast Dulcimer Players on the front porch of an historic house in nearby Floral City and played 2 hours of Christmas music for the passers-by. I had several arrangements of the music for the bass dulcimer, so I was able to put her through her paces. Richness and depth of the tone of this instrument is very impressive, if I say so myself.

head-cu

tail

finish-pose

playout

Assembly and Detail Work

Finally reached the point where the shaping and prep work is finished;  the assembly and detail work begins. First, the peg head and tail stock is glued to the top, then prepped for the back.

head-tail-attachglue

The back is clamped into place and the sides are sanded down thinly.

top-and-backside-prep

The sides are steamed to make them pliable, then glued to the strips and held in place by special clamps.

side-applysides-done

All parts of the instrument are hand trimmed and carefully sanded down. Two coats of polyurethane are hand-rubbed onto the dulcimer. Almost there…

head-closeupfinish-coat

Top and Back

Things are really taking shape now. Removed the top and fretboard from the gluing jig and used it to trace the shape onto the bookmatched back piece. After insuring that they are the same size, I test fit the pieces so far.

fretboard-gluedtest-fit

Next, I need to install the strips which will secure the sides. I have always liked the artistic effect made by the clothespins. This also reminds me of the pictures from the old Foxfire book that was my construction guide 40 years ago.

pinsstrips-installed

Sound Holes and Stuff

Jon has requested shamrocks for the sound holes. I found several different designs to use, but we agreed on a three-leaf shamrock, with the larger ones near the strum hollow and identical (but smaller) ones near the nut. These are especially nice because they are simple and elegant–and the leaves look like little hearts. After deciding on the exact dimensions that worked best with the dulcimer shape, I carefully measured and marked the position of each of the sound holes, drilling holes into each pattern to accommodate the scroll saw blade.holes-1holes-2

I was really disappointed when my Hitachi scroll saw refused to start a few weeks ago. Rather than doinking around with heavy-duty repairs, I replaced it with a Porter-Cable machine that had good reviews. These sound holes were the initiation for the new scroll saw.

holes-3holes-4

 

When the sound holes were cut, shaped, and sanded, I cut the top into the shape of the dulcimer and glued down the fretboard using a jig I made a million years ago.

fretboard-1fretboard-2

Top and Back, Head and Tail

I sandwiched pieces of walnut into a block and laid out the pattern for the peg head. I have always liked the graceful lines of my traditional peg head but needed to do a little modifying to accommodate the extra wide sides and the tuning machines.

head-patternhead-and-tail

head-prephead-trim

Next, I re-sawed a 5″ walnut board by taking slices of it–first on the table saw, and then on the band saw. By doing this, I can create a thin, wide, book-matched  piece for the back. Book-matching creates some interesting mirror-imaged grain patterns.

book-match-1bookmatch2

This plank had a little stripe of the walnut heartwood, and so I made the aesthetic choice to send that stripe up the middle of the back of the instrument. After sanding the back, a really wild pattern emerged. Then, when I sanded down the quilted maple top, a really extraordinary 3-dimensional grain pattern presented itself. This small picture really doesn’t give it justice, but it looks like little mountain ranges–and this piece is sanded down really smoothly. When I put the polyurethane on this, it may just blow my mind.

back-sandedquilted-maple

Next up–the sound holes, as I inaugurate my new scroll saw.

Fretwork

A few weeks ago,  I was approached by one of our English teachers, Kat Anthony, who wanted to create a photo documentary of the construction of a dulcimer for a class at the University of Florida. She has also agreed to take some shots for me to share in this blog. Kat is an excellent photographer, so all the artsy shots or any picture in which I appear will obviously not be from me.

Adding the frets accurately is of primary importance. A beautiful instrument with imprecise frets becomes wall art.

fretwork1fretwork2

artsy

fretwork3

finished-fretboard

 

 

 

Back to Bass-ics

Just as I was completing the re-fret project, I received an email from Jon in Oregon. Jon had been in contact with Johanna, a colleague in the Nature Coast Dulcimer Players and the original owner of my prototype bass dulcimer, created a year ago. After we established a dialog, he ordered a bass with shamrock sound holes.

This one will be made with walnut for the back and sides, and a beautiful quilted maple for the sound board.

Here, I cut and prepare the fretboard. It’s a long one with a scale length of 30″. As a matter of fact, everything will be a little oversized with this instrument to give it the depth of sound that we want.

fretboard-cuthollowing-fretboard

rulerstrum-hollow