Doug Berch: Musician and Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer Maker
Yes, another post about the joy of sanding dulcimers.
A while back I mentioned possibly making dulcimers without sanding someday. Someone took me up on it!
I made a dulcimer with a bare minimum of sanding. Scrapers and files accomplished about 90% of the surface preparation. Sandpaper was still needed to soften some edges, get a good surface on the fingerboard, and to clean up a few small messes.
I spent much more time and effort than usual burnishing the wood with cloth before applying the finish. The extensive burnishing combined with using fine abrasive pads while applying the finish produced a result nearly identical to what I carry out by hand sanding. The process took about the same amount of time as hand sanding but it was the first time I had tried this. I am hoping I will gain speed as I become more familiar with new technique.
The minimally sanded dulcimer did show a few imperfections and hand tool marks that would have been eliminated by further hand sanding but to my eye and hand they add to the charm of the dulcimer.
Still, it is not yet time to abandon lots of sanding on a regular basis.
In the photo you can see my warm weather dust cloud elimination system. A small fan blows dust away from the dulcimer (and the dulcimer maker) towards a window fan that blows the dust outside. This simple setup works surprisingly well.
During the colder months I replace the window fan with a home-made air-cleaner; a box fan with a furnace filter taped to one side.
And I do wear a dust mask!
On another topic; after doing some updates on my website something went wrong and about 10 years of photographs have dropped noticeably in quality. Something malfunctioned and over-optimized my photographs. This becomes painfully obvious when you click on an image and see it at a larger size.
I figured out how to avoid this on current photographs.
It’s just another adventure in being self-employed and learning to do everything myself!
The other day I noticed an unsightly gap in the binding around the soundboard of a dulcimer I am currently working on. Small gaps are not uncommon when binding an instrument and there are several methods for filling them.
This gap was large enough to cause me to consider removing the binding and starting again. The gap was about 2 inches long and barely open enough to catch a fingernail (my default tool for checking gaps) but I would not have slept well just filling it and calling the job done. No one would ever know but I would know I could and should have done better.
Before replacing the binding on one side of the dulcimer I thought I’d try another method of repair. At best it might solve the problem, at worst I might aggravate the problem but I was going to replace the binding anyway.
I ran hot water into the gap several times with a pipette to soften the glue and clamped the binding against the body to close the gap.
After a few hours I took off the clamp and the gap was barely noticeable. The soundboard had swollen a little due to applying hot water so I let the repair dry over night.
The next day most of the swelling had left the soundboard and after cleaning up the area with a scraper and file the gap was almost invisible. After applying a small amount of filler and a bit of spot sanding the gap was gone.
Mandolin and ukulele duo.
I have put sound ports in the sides of my dulcimers for a few years and have been very pleased with the results.
Sound ports are nothing new in the guitar world but I had not seen them used on dulcimers though perhaps someone has thought of this before.
There is no standardization of dulcimer design or “right way” to go about getting the results one wants. Dulcimer builders whose work I admire each have a unique way of getting the sound they want. Materials and design elements that work on one maker’s design may or may not work well on another builder’s dulcimers. This is part of the adventure and part of the fun!
My dulcimer design is in a state of constant evolution. Over the last few years I was looking for ways to increase the volume without losing tonal quality and even response along the fingerboard.
It is easy to make a loud dulcimer but I do not find it easy to listen to many loud dulcimers I have heard. Many loud dulcimers have little sustain and/or often have uneven volume and response along the fingerboard.
The tone I prefer is somewhat traditional; long sustain and a slightly nasal quality with warmth and even response. I did not want to trade that sound for volume.
As I made design changes to make my dulcimers louder I was on the edge of losing the tone I prefer. It became clear that if I made louder dulcimers and wanted to keep the tone and responsiveness I prefer I would also need to give the dulcimers larger sound holes.
The size of the sound hole(s) on a stringed instrument play an important role in which frequencies get emphasized or minimized. The most critical element is the total size of all openings on the instrument. One large hole will produce sound like two holes that are each half the diameter of the large hole, etc.
Dulcimers have relatively little soundboard as they are long and thin instruments. I wanted the effect of larger sound holes but I did not want to lose any more of the wood that makes up the soundboard. The obvious choice was to put added sound holes somewhere other than on the soundboard. The sides were the obvious choice.
And it worked! I got more volume, balanced tone, birds were singing, flowers smiled, and all was well with the world.
A dulcimer doesn’t have a neck but it has something under the fingerboard that sort of serves as a neck. Calling it a neck doesn’t really make sense but when the dulcimer has a fingerboard on top of the object that shall not be called a neck then appropriate terminology becomes even more confusing.
For no particular reason I refer to the lower portion of the assembly as the fretboard and call the fingerboard overlay the fingerboard. When describing a fretboard with a fingerboard on it I refer to the assembled unit as a fretboard.
In the photograph above I’m gluing the fretboard assembly to a dulcimer soundboard.
The soundboard is clamped to a flat workboard. Two clamps come in from the sides holding scraps of wood that rest against the sides of the fretboard at either end. This makes it easy to accurately place the fretboard in the right spot and helps prevent it from moving while I apply the clamps.
I use an old trick to clamp the full length of the fretboard down using only two clamps. A long, warped piece of wood is used as a clamping caul with the concave side facing down along the length of the fretboard. When I clamp both ends down the flattening of the warped wood exerts pressure along the entire length of the fretboard.
Nothing original here, just an old trick that makes quick, quiet work of squaring and evenly thicknessing wood.
A few drops of super glue temporarily hold two wood runners to the bottom of a plane, in this case a Stanley #5 1/4 for those who care about such details. The plane can not take off wood below the height of the runners so repeatedly planing wood to the same height becomes easy. The top and bottom of the workpiece will also be parallel.
In the photograph I’m planing spruce brace stock for dulcimer backs. The rough brace sits on my planing beam; a flat and straight beam of oak with a bench stop at one end. I use this planing beam when truing and jointing fretboards and fingerboards, thinning bindings, and brace stock. I also use the planing beam as a caul when gluing fingerboards to fretboards.
Yes, it is a fascinating life I lead.
This afternoon a replacement waterstone came in the mail and I took it out for a spin.
I find honing an edge to be a relaxing experience and a form of active meditation. These days I do most of my honing freehand so there are no jigs and gizmos to deal with. I like waterstones because I get a lot of tactile feedback on what is going on between the steel and the stone.
I like feeling two surfaces gradually becoming a single, sharp edge.
A blade becomes sharper and I become more relaxed.
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.