Mountain Dulcimer – Walnut, Padauk & Zebra Wood – 2013

With David Rae and Anthony Damico, for Anthony Damico

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The mountain dulcimer (one of the few instruments originating in America) got its start in Appalachian folk music and even had a brief stint of fame thanks to the likes of Joni Mitchell.  After finishing a couple of electric guitars (including this cool lap guitar, also checkout his blog post about it) Anthony caught the inspiration to try his hand at one.  Anthony is taking the dulcimer, its South African woods to the beaches of Brasil – what a world.  An instrument is a tough project to take on, especially in a short three week window before his departure.  He kept the schedule – even undertaking the challenge of waking me up on several occasions to get things (mostly me) moving.

We roughly followed the design by Dean Kimball, taking some liberties where I didn’t understand why he recommended a certain path and usually coming to regret our diversion.  The big difference was our decision to steam the sides rather than bending them over an iron – (which still seems easier to me).  Despite my grave deficit of musical talent, between the two spoons I have in the kitchen and the two instruments I have built I now have worked on enough projects to start a small folk band – called “splinters and the kindling”.

Anthony is getting a head start on the band – check out him playing “let’s fly away” on the dulcimer.

Saw mill – getting the stock prepped:

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Yes, it was a dream come true – I got hoisted up on a forklift to scale a massive pile of maple.  Really glad this super nice Mennonite man was driving the forklift and not David else my ride down might have made a speedy exit.  David and I are working the out-feed as a sawyer fed the boards through a planer.  I intended to re-saw the boards with a handsaw, so it was a delightful surprised when he ran them through the band saw and planer for me.  While I would have mad muscles (in one arm) by the end, sawing and planing 30 feet of walnut would have taken a long day as well as  a dozen cups of coffee.  Pretty impressed with this place  in the DC/Baltimore area; go with some cash in your pocket, time to spare and a little bit of vision.

Building the Body (tops, bottoms and two sides):

Once we got back in the shop – we started assembling the top and bottom of the instrument.  In order to glue a wide enough piece, we had to ensure a really tight seam.

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Anthony planed the edges (almost/ sort of ) near square – I followed it up with a make-shift shooting board which uses the edge of the MDF (a cheaper version of plywood) as a reference to ensure that the side is planed perfect straight.  Well as perfectly straight as the reference edge is.  This was pretty satisfying.

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David and I are checking the fit – we bookend the boards so that the two sides of the dulcimer will be symmetrical.  David built a fancy jig (scrap nailed to a board) in order to clamp the pieces to together after we applied glue. Anthony hid in fear as David and I fired up the nail gun (it actually only shoots small pins).

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Since the wood on the sides and top is so thin, Anthony and I planed and then cut 1/4 inch strips of basswood which will be attached to the sides in order to provide a wider shelf for the tops to be glued too.  I am looking really satisfied with the awesome shavings off the wood.  Beat those curls!  Anthony took to  cutting and planing 12, 40 inch pieces, with an impressive amount of focus.  Basswood planes so nicely!

Steaming and Shaping the Sides:

Steaming wood is always a leap of faith.  We had some struggles getting the wood bent into the voluptuous lines I was envisioning.

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Anthony draws out the curve which gives the Dulcimer its shape.  David completes the 2×4 mold by using a jig saw following Anthony’s lead .  I watch nervously.  I rather like this Black and Decker jig saw – not too many bells and whistles.

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I thought that the mold looked sorta like a whale.

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Steaming first attempt. – David is setting the PVC pipe on an angle.  We will put a wallpaper steamer on one end, and let the wood bask in the hot air for about 20 minutes.  Like many things I own, including tooth brushes, irons and hair dryers, the wall paper steamer has found more use in the shop then in the house.

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The first attempt had too much spring-back (reverted back to being straight) – we adjusted by soaking the wood for 24 hours, applying the steam for a longer period of time – and letting the wood fully dry for 48 hours before removing the clamps.  Clearly the sub-zero temperatures in my shop were not helping the drying process – so David tested Marcie’s infinite patience yet again by biking the mold complete with 30 pounds of clamps back to the warmest corner of their apartment.

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The first mold found its way into the fire.  Finally Ahab’s revenge, whale enters the blaze.  The second mold will be hung neatly on my wall for future projects.

Building up the Fret Board:

This is when I stopped paying attention to the directions in the book, and let the musician (Anthony) kick in.

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Cut a small groove so the back of the fret board is suspended off the top panel.  It’s all about the vibrations.  The grain of zebra wood likes to run, so this was actually harder than it looks.  Also, it likes to splinter – this project has had me reaching for the tweezers almost as much as any other tool.

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Built a rounded groove where your hand will strum – Cut some kerfs with a dovetail saw, pared out the material with a chisel and then touched it up with a sanding attachment for my drill.  Breathing in all of this dust did not help my cold.  My vision was foggy for the next couple of hours until I finally figured out that I had to wash my glasses.

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Cut a groove on the back of the fret board, the hollowness will improve the sound echoing.  Like all who have handle it – the router plane amazed yet again.  This groove is 3/4 of an inch thick and goes about two-thirds of the way through the board.  Since it is on the bottom of the fret board – I broke a cardinal rule – and didn’t bother to measure how deep the cut went but everything turned out fine.  Also, despite the photographic evidence David was not participating in an ugly sweater contest.

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We epoxied in a thin strip of padauk into the top of the fret board for style and function.  This is just about when I fully realized how much I hated working with “exotic” woods.  We inserted one end of the tuning pegs into the padauk, and than set them gently in place.  This turn out to be a pretty good idea!

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Anthony set to work (while I was at the pub) gluing the frets in.  He carefully measured each fret, sawed a groove and then filed the edges of the fret smooth.  As Anthony mentioned a couple of times the dulcimer has an irregular fret placement and that seems weird.  I learned that.   The sight of the Zebra wood as the grain pattern began to take shape — I don’t think Anthony has ever been more excited for anything, other than R and Pizza.

Gluing the Body and Attaching the Fret Board:

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Anthony spent an hour making little clamps out of wing nuts and a bolt – we re-purposed an old bike tire as a little pad between the washer and the wood.

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That is a lot of clamps – we used the piano clamps to hold the side on to the bottom.  The challenge here was fitting the end and front pieces in.  We rough cut the blocks and than used a file and low-angle plane to fit them in.  We were under the gun – so I think we might need to fill some gaps with clear epoxy.  We then glued and clamped braces in the back.  Pending Anthony doesn’t emulate The Who, I am feeling pretty confident with this thing’s long term strength.  Small basswood strips add to the glue up surface – so that the connection between the bottom and tops is actually pretty tough.  Also, does anyone else notice that Anthony is wearing sweat pants in all of these photos.

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All the pieces glued in!  Right now it looks like a casket for a dulcimer.  Notice how nicely the end blocks fits in.  Also, notice how David is cradling it sort of like a child.

Finishing:

Anthony and I used epoxy to join the top.  We mixed in some sawdust to fill in a couple of cracks.

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He took a spoke shave to the edges in order to provide a nice round joint.  The rough cut holes – fall beneath the fret board and help the sound vibration (remember the groove in the fret board above).  Lastly we glued the fret board down.

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Even after I jetted off to Georgia, David and Anthony sanded the instrument to 220 grit and applied a low-gloss tung oil.

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Here I am Skype inspecting the final product from Georgia (the country)  Anthony is filming the Dulcimer’s first song .

Final notes:

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I clearly have no idea how to play the dulcimer – but I sure as hell can play the air guitar.

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Got to spend a lot of QT with AJD before his grand departure.  Also, what a handsome devil.  Blond curls all over.

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2 thoughts on “Mountain Dulcimer – Walnut, Padauk & Zebra Wood – 2013

  1. Pingback: Mountain Dulcimer Number Two – Walnut & Zebra Wood – 2014 | raecreation

  2. Pingback: Bathroom Cabinet – Red Oak – 2016 | raecreation

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