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Just saying hello.
I had back surgery two weeks ago and recovery is going well. I now have two non-adjustable truss rods and some other hardware supporting my lower back.
I’m taking it easy, catching up on reading, watching some series and movies I would normally not have time for, gently exercising and occasionally feeling bored. I’m also reading a lot about lutherie and doing thought experiments about new designs, methods of work, and possibly some new instruments to make.
It will probably be two months or so before I can begin to do some work in the shop. Before surgery I did some of the rough work to prepare for the time I’ll be back at the bench again. In the photograph above is cherry, walnut, and curly ash resawn for some future dulcimers.
Full recovery will take up to a year but if all goes as planned I’ll able to work longer hours making dulcimers than I have for about 5 years. I look forward to that time! I love my job!
I’ve taken some wood down from the attic and have been truing it up for resawing. I true up wood with hand planes. I get a good work out, make lots of shavings, and enjoy the smell of freshly planed wood.
It is easy to disassociate materials from their source. When eating a hamburger one usually does not think of the cow from which it came. The same thing can happen with wood; one can forget it was once part of a tree.
One of the reasons I enjoy working wood with hand tools is the sense intimacy with the timber I am working. Each piece of wood and process of working it is unique. As a luthier I feel I have a better understanding of the structural and acoustic potential of wood as I work it by hand.
The cherry billet in the photograph still has bark on what had been the outside of the tree. This piece comes from a board that was originally about 12 feet long, perfectly quartered, and rough sawn. I made a few cherry dulcimers from this board several years ago. This last remaining piece has a few flaws I need to work around but most likely there is enough for a dulcimer or two in there.
When I first converted a small bedroom into a workshop my wife Cynthia referred to it as “Doug’s playroom.” She’s right. I have spent many happy hours there.
Loving what you do doesn’t mean there will not be moments of challenge and/or frustration. That’s how life tends to go but if passion fuels the journey you keep on going.
I’m working on a few dulcimers at the moment. Two will be strung and set up next week. In the photograph is a dulcimer that probably won’t be completed before I have back surgery in a few weeks. I’m doing the “heavy lifting” now so I can do the less physically demanding work on the dulcimer when I am able to start working again.
I’ll also be resawing some beautiful cherry, walnut, curly ash, cedar, and cypress for future dulcimers.
Deep Winter has finally come to Central Michigan. Sap has gone to the roots and birds constantly visit the feeder during daylight. Deer and the occasional rabbit leave tracks in the snow outside the house. Cold weather and snow bring quiet to this small piece of the world. I’m happy.
Tool marks bear witness to the work that went in to making something by hand.
When making a forensic study of historic musical instruments it is possible to learn about the tools and methods of work used in construction by subtle hints left behind.
I have been fortunate to see several collections of early instruments over the years and a few times my enthusiasm led to being admitted to the “inner sanctum” of a museum collection. While working at Elderly Instruments I handled and studied some of the finest vintage fretted instruments made during the last 150 or so years.
The industrial revolution gave the world consistency of reproduction; multiple copies of the same object would look and work identically to any other that came off the assembly line. What was lost was the human touch, the soul that was given to each object by an artisan’s hands.
Many of the fine historic instruments I have studied showed telltale signs of being hand crafted. There were slight inconsistencies in shape and proportion and signs that a skilled hand had executed the work. These same instruments were not “clean” according to current manufacturing standards. By this I mean the finish did not turn wood into something looking like a laminated counter-top, sound holes and decorative features showed the skill of the maker and not the precision of a cookie cutter.
Tool marks are witnesses and signatures of the hands that made things. I am not referring to careless work or swirls left by machine sanding; I am referring to slight irregularities of cut and line, small marks left in wood by an edge tool showing where parts were hand shaped and fitted, etc.
In my own work as a dulcimer maker I prefer to leave subtle tool marks as they naturally arise.
As an example, the photograph above shows the braces and center reinforcement strip on the back of a dulcimer. I shaped the center strip with a chisel and scraper. Left behind are some slight irregularities in the bevels on the sides of the center strip. I could sand the center strip to perfection but I see no point to it. I am proud of what I accomplished using two simple hand tools and feel no need to hide that in my work by sanding it to oblivion.
Working this way causes me to increasingly develop my skill and confidence using tools. I enjoy that as well.
A friend owns a dulcimer she loves and it developed multiple cracks in the back and soundboard. The cracks in the soundboard were typical cracks one sees in a quarter sawn spruce soundboard and were easy to fix.
The back was another story.
The back is made of poplar. Poplar is one of the traditional woods for dulcimers and works well but on this dulcimer the poplar is close to paper-thin and flat sawn.
Wood that is flat sawn is much less stable than wood that is quarter sawn. The wood was so thin that usual methods of crack repair were difficult if not impossible. The back of the dulcimer had no bracing and little structural integrity.
My first thought was to simply make a new back but my friend loves the sound of this dulcimer and replacing the back would most likely cause it to change.
Instead of replacing it I decided to fix the cracks as best I could and add a Galax back. The Galax back will provide structural integrity and should the repaired cracks in the original back open they will not cause a problem.
Another part of this adventure was fitting the Galax back to a dulcimer with sides that were not always square, perpendicular, and flat. I don’t know if the dulcimer was made this way or if these problems developed over time. Either way, fitting and trimming the support blocks along the edges of the back was not easy. I decided to choose functionality over beauty and just get the job done.
When fitting a new back or Galax back to an existing dulcimer one has to keep in mind that forcing the dulcimer to conform to a flat back might flatten intentional or unintentional differences in height along the sides and result in distorting the soundboard and fretboard. To avoid this I fit the Galax back to the dulcimer and let it follow any irregularities so the existing geometry of the dulcimer remains unchanged.
I generally only do repairs on my own work and refer requests for repairs on other maker’s dulcimers to the maker or repair shops I know and trust. This was for a dear friend so I was happy to do it.
On my calendar was recovery from back surgery this past week but there was a change of plans; a dental issue came up and surgery was postponed. Instead I am taking antibiotics and will have minor dental surgery in a week or so. The back surgery will probably be within a month or so after that.
Let it not be said that I don’t know how to have a good time!
I’m a firm believer that what is happening is happening and what is not happening is not happening so I am rolling with it.
In the meantime I am up to my usual tricks and getting some work done in the shop.
In the photograph above is a simple setup for cutting fret slots. The miter box is made from scraps of MDF and the depth stop on the saw is a strip of wood held in place with three colorful spring clamps. The wooden cam clamps hold the miter box to the work-board and holds the fretboard in place while sawing.
This low-tech setup works remarkably well.
I have templates for fret patterns I commonly use. The templates eliminate calculating and measuring out the fret positions.
This fingerboard is for a custom chromatic dulcimer with a scale length I have not used before; 743 centimeters! That is a very long string length but is what the person who will be playing this dulcimer prefers.
Since I didn’t have a template for this scale length I had to calculate the fret positions and lay them out on the fingerboard. Fortunately, there is software that does the math. In the 1970’s I had to spend a long time with a calculator to work out fret positions. The constant often used to calculate an equal tempered fretboard, 17.81715385, is still permanently installed in my memory.
I laid out the fret positions using a very accurate ruler, machinist’s square, sharp knife, and patience. I triple checked the measurements before sawing the slots.
Sawing the slots with the miter box was the fun part.