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On the bench is a curly walnut dulcimer having its head attached with hide glue.
It is important to attach a head onto a dulcimer, because if you don’t, it will go searching the night to find a head and the one it chooses could be YOUR HEAD!
But I digress.
This dulcimer is one of three I am currently working on. The other two dulcimers are ready for final preparation before receiving the finish and tomorrow this dulcimer will be ready to join them.
I wait until I have 3 or 4 dulcimers ready to go through the finishing process at the same time. I put the woodworking tools away, clean the shop, and dedicate the space to finish work for about a week.
After all coats of finish are applied the dulcimers hang on the wall for several days so the finish can further cure before being rubbed out.
While the finish is curing I start work on the next 3 or 4 dulcimers.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
You can see my work in progress by following me on Instagram.
I have decided to take a break from taking advance orders for custom dulcimers.
Five years ago about half my dulcimers were sold before I made them. Someone would choose from various options I offer and give me a deposit to begin making their dulcimer. I prioritized these custom orders and built them in the order they were received.
While building these custom dulcimers I also had time to build dulcimers that were not already sold. I usually had three to five dulcimers on hand for sale.
Five years ago I suddenly had to deal with some serious lower back issues that added unexpected flavor and color to my life. It has been an interesting journey and it is not yet over.
I am currently able to work in the shop about one-third the amount of time I would prefer to be working. Some days or weeks I am able to work more, some less, some not at all, but it averages out to working about a third of the time I used to.
During this time I have also had a surprising increase in custom orders. All but one dulcimer I have sold in the past 3 years was ordered in advance.
My time in the shop has become completely focused on custom work. I keep thinking I will have time to build some dulcimers to put up for sale but it just hasn’t happened.
Most of the custom dulcimers I build are pretty much the same as dulcimers I would ordinarily build but the new owner chooses particular wood, string length, number of strings, fret patterns, and other options that I offer. Occasionally someone asked for a unique feature that had to do with playability for their particular style and when I felt it worked with my sense of instrument design then I would do that as well.
The tricky part of this is that when I do have dulcimers on hand for sale they are sometimes not exactly what someone wants. If it has no dots in the fingerboard someone will want dots in the fingerboard. If it has 3 strings someone wants one just like it with 4 strings or vice-versa.
In the near future I will be offering dulcimers for sale and I am thinking there will usually be something available that will appeal to someone. If someone wants something specific I will keep a list and contact them if I make something like what they want. I’ll also be happy to contact people and let them know when I have more dulcimers available.
In the long run I think this will work better for everyone. When I put a dulcimer up for sale people can try it and know exactly what they are getting. I can ship it and you can return it if you decide you don’t care for it. I have sold many dulcimers this way and so far no one has decided not to keep it.
With a custom order the dulcimer is yours. Unless there is a problem with it covered by my warranty the dulcimer is not returnable. Again, I have sold many dulcimers this way and almost everyone was 100% happy. One person was less than 100% happy but still liked the dulcimer.
I think this is a good track record.
So in the near future I will be only selling dulcimers that exist.
If you are on my waiting list please don’t freak out! I am happily working on your dulcimer and you will get it on schedule.
I feel better already.
I have decided to go back to an older style of peghead assembly on the current batch of dulcimers I’m working on. I used this design for years and preferred how it looked but it seemed too labor intensive for a relatively simple part of the dulcimer.
I follow my intuition on things like this and it seems like time to use this joint again, at least for now. So what if it is a lot more work? I enjoy the process! There is the old saying that “time is money” but if I made more money off of my time I would just waste it on house payments, groceries, healthcare, etc.
The head block gets glued on with hide glue and is then sawn to rough shape with a kataba saw. Following the sawing comes bringing the block close to flush with the sides using a low-angle block plane followed by a scraper and file.
The first few times I did this required nerves of steel. It would not be difficult to have a major “Oops!” moment fairly late in the construction process. After gaining some experience I found this to be a relaxing and enjoyable process.
Putting binding around the edges of the soundboard, especially a soundboard made of a soft wood, helps prevent dings and chips along the edges. To my design aesthetic binding the soundboard is also like putting a frame on a picture.
I usually do not put binding on the backs of my dulcimers unless someone really wants it. I don’t think it is necessary to bind the back since it is usually made of hardwood. Also, should the dulcimer ever need major repairs an unbound back simplifies removing the back of the dulcimer to gain access to its innards.
In the photograph above are the hand tools I use when preparing the dulcimer for binding.
In the upper left is a shop-made binding scribe. It consists of a scalpel blade glued and taped to a piece of wood the thickness of the binding that is again glued to a piece of wood that serves as a handle. I use this tool to gently score the binding channel on the soundboard. After the channel is scored I deepen the scored cuts with the scalpel and knife.
I use a simple router jig to remove some of the bulk and then finish up the binding rebate with the small chisel and file. I also use the chisel as a scraper, using my fingers as a depth stop to guide the cut.
After taking the photograph for this post I noticed the fingerboard did not look quite right. I realized I had left out one of the fret slots! It has since been cut and all is right with the world.
Forgetting to cut a fret slot is not a big deal as it is easy to add at anytime. What is a big deal is cutting a fret slot where one is not supposed to be.
Guess how I learned that lesson?
I have basic patterns for my dulcimers but the the exact shape and size of each dulcimer varies slightly from one dulcimer to the next. I have embraced a fairly free-form style of building and use very few jigs, forms, and fixtures.
By building free-form I feel like I am sculpting a dulcimer rather than making a bunch of parts and assembling them. The frame of the dulcimer (sides and end blocks) and the fretboard become the reference points for laying out the rest of instrument. I can make small changes to the shape and size of the dulcimer by feel and eye and work with it until everything seems right to me.
The thickness of the top and back and the bracing pattern are determined in a similar manner.
Free-form building is not the most efficient way to make dulcimers in a timely manner. If I made all the parts to a set pattern and assembled them in fixtures I would make more dulcimers in less time but I wouldn’t enjoy the process very much.
These photographs are of a baritone dulcimer in progress. The final shape of the dulcimer is traced on the soundboard and the soundholes are laid out using a template. I have also laid out the placement of the position markers on the fingerboard. A scraper serves as a short straight edge for drawing the layout lines.