Mountain Dulcimer: Three – Walnut & Zebra Wood – 2014

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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.


One thought on “Mountain Dulcimer: Three – Walnut & Zebra Wood – 2014

  1. That’s awesome, congrats on making the dulcimers. Here’s my two cents worth as I bought one from Warren May two years ago when vacationing there. I started on-line lessons, here’s a link to them in case you’re interested: Unfortunately, I haven’t kept up on them — too much work going on in the shop! But, I had thought of selling it and trying to make my own!

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