With help from David Rae and Anthony Damaico
All my commitments as a luther are officially complete. A year after signing myself up to build a set of dulcimers the last scraps of of walnut and zebra wood are fashioned and three instruments with all there quirks are strung up (dulcimer one is here; and dulcimer two is here). As a product of varying mistakes and design decisions each of the three has its own unique characteristics. I made the final dulcimer in the sweet spot – between having a little experience under my belt but not being so bored with the tasks at hand that I rush it along. The hard part comes next – learning how to make it sing. I may be one of the first to make a handful of dulcimers before I had ever seen one.
Keeping with tradition I cut hearts for sound holes. Roy Underhill’s method of drilling three holes and then connecting them with a knife is just so easy – its hard to find a reason to do something different. I used a carving knife to shave the sides and the bottom of the shape. Dulcimers, more so than most project I take on beacon to the place and the tradition in which they were first made. I guess the hearts are a way to pay homage to that tradition.
The scroll was shaped largely using a rasp. Unlike dulcimer two, I didn’t carve the scroll – I did however cut a pronounced shadow line underneath the curve. In order to avoid David’s disapproving glance – I used the bowsaw to cut the general shape.
After finishing the third dulcimer I fit a quick trip to Berea into my tour of Kentucky distilleries. The town, the college and the craftsmen surrounding both were pretty inspirational – and left one feeling a little lighter to the world even before tasting the bourbon. One stop, was Warren A May’s woodworking – I had the chance to touch and play instruments made by a master of the craft.
Faking musical talent is a lot harder than covering up mistakes in the shop. Fortunately my musical companions carried our recital.
I started with 1/4 walnut which I planed down to 3/16th boards. Not all that thick. The wood on this dulcimer is thinner than the others which I expect will improve the sound. Each of the hardwoods used for dulcimers have different properties; poplar being describe as more “mountain” and walnut as richer. I glued up bookend pieces and tried to clean out some of the warp which had entered the wood over the last 12 months.
I steam bent the sides and add a ribbon of basswood along the top and bottom. I made a couple of design changes from the previous dulcimers. Rather then gluing the box together and than attaching the fret board I added the hearts and the fret board before adding the sides and bottom; this allowed me to use a little bit more gluing pressure and drill into a supported surface. I was also able to use a screw from the inside of the box to tighten the the pegboard on the endboard – rather than drilling a dowel in from the visible side. These are pluses but this approach does require that you glue the fret board on straight which requires that you are careful, which I am not.
For a little extra flair – I added a dovetail walnut support inside the bottom of the fret board.
Next up i strung it up and added a couple of coats of danish oil to the body. I used a danish oil with a walnut tint so the first couple of coats went on just the body. In the end I wiped on close to eight coats – which gave the instrument a real glean.
All three dulcimers together at last – just like the world in which we live each instrument is wonderful with its own shape and size.