When I first started
building dulcimers, I anticipated a sharp but brief learning curve. I
now realize that that learning curve goes on forever. Several factors
keep that curve lively and dynamic.
- First, there is an
incredible amount of knowledge to be gained. This knowledge can be very
mundane (don’t eat potato chips while handling unfinished wood—it
creates nasty, greasy stains; if you have a mustache, don’t take a swig
of coffee and then blow the sawdust off a piece of unfinished
wood—coffee stains are a real beast to remove; And never, ever bleed on
a piece of wood—unless you’re generating enough blood to stain the whole
piece.) This knowledge can be very practical, such as how to set up, maintain and
safely use tools. It can also be very esoteric and theoretical—how does
sound travel through various woods? How does that sound make its way
from the wood into the human mind and body?
- Second, few
scientific studies of how dulcimers produce sound have been done. There
is no authoritative body of knowledge that prescribes the best
approaches to building a dulcimer. Although other stringed instruments
have been more rigorously studied, the unique characteristics of the
dulcimer (particularly the fretboard running the length of the soundbox)
makes the transfer of this information highly experimental.
- Third, design
features in a dulcimer tend to be intensely interrelated. Changing one
feature (the size of the soundbox, for example) will impact most other
design features. Learning how these features interact is a complicated
In practical terms,
this means that each builder develops a cluster of design features and
building techniques that brings them close to the dulcimer they
envision. This development is informed by conversations with other
builders, the Lutherie tradition, and an awareness of what is currently
required by dulcimer players themselves. But ultimately, it develops
through individual thoughtfulness and experimentation.
So in a certain
sense, a dulcimer is a collection of interlocking theoretical decisions
incarnated in wood. And these decisions contain the processing of vast
amounts of information and personal experience.
The following is a
truncated description of the building process I presently use. It’s not
meant to be a step-by-step instruction manual on how to build a
dulcimer. It’s mostly a snapshot of some of the basic constructions that
make a Timbre Hill dulcimer a Timbre Hill Dulcimer. I’ve come to
visualize the sounds of a dulcimer as much like a lively batch of
kittens at play. I visualize the interior of a dulcimer as an
interesting playground for these “sound” kittens—lots of interesting
angles and textures and thicknesses to climb and perch on and jump from
NOTE: You can click on each image for a full screen
Step 1) Imagining
the creation: Before work starts, considerable thought and speculation
takes place. The dulcimer is imagined. Considerations of voice, shape,
VSL, desired visual impact, choices of wood (and their interactions) are
all reviewed and pondered. If it is a custom dulcimer, the requests of
the customer are incorporated into this thought process. This process
usually occurs over the course of several days, although there have been
dulcimers with unusual considerations where this process takes weeks.
and Preservation of Wood"
Step 2) Listening
to the wood: Boinking wood is great fun and a process that tends to spin
out of control—I sometimes boink whole stacks of wood. The process is
simple—the piece of wood is held lightly between thumb and index finger
with one end near the ear. The other end is then snapped at various
points with a finger. This results in a sound that gives some indication
how the wood will carry and display sound.
Each piece of wood
has a unique sound, both in pitch and timbre. I’m particularly fond of
wood that creates a resonant, chiming sound. Pieces of wood that don’t
produce desirable tones aren’t used. Even though the wood pieces will
undergo many shaping processes and ultimately become a part of a bigger
whole, I’m convinced that these tonal characteristics endure.
Generally, the two
pieces that will make up the top are matched for compatible voice. If
one has a lower pitch (which is usually the case,) it will be marked for
use on the bass side of the fretboard. Particular care is taken in
selecting the wood for the fretboard. Not only must it be straight and
true, but its tone must be carefully considered.
Step 3) The Intarsia
Process: Although the majority of Timbre Hill dulcimers are made with
tops and backs from the same woods, some are created with patterns
composed of combinations of woods using a modification of a process
called intarsia. Although the process is mechanically simple, it can
create dynamic, mirror image patterns.
I came upon the
process by accident—I had two wonderful pieces of wood that were too
narrow to make a back. In figuring out how to incorporate another piece
of wood in an esthetically pleasing way, I stumbled onto this
fascinating process. The process is complicated enough that I can
reproduce only the most basic patterns. There seems to be no outer limit
to the kinds of patterns that can be created. I find myself intrigued by
the process. I see it as being squarely in the folk art tradition.
At this point, there is no extra charge for
The process itself
involves making a “sandwich” out of four pieces of wood. This “sandwich”
is then cut lengthwise along a curving line. This results in eight
pieces of wood that can be combined in various ways. They are glued up
in pairs of two, which results in another four pieces of wood. These are
put into a “sandwich” and the process is repeated. Interesting things
happen when two such sets of wood are brought along together and
matching pieces are swapped between the two sets. The possibilities are
endless, although I generally stop when my eyes start to cross or I’m
tempted to start throwing things.
Beyond the process’s
capacity to provide entertainment and interesting visual effects, I’m
convinced that dulcimers created from a variety of woods produce a
“wider” more nuanced sound. Plus I like the idea that different entities
with unique characteristics brought into harmony and working together
can create more through their unity than any single entity.
Step 4) Bringing
the wood to final thickness. The thickness of the sides, top and back of
Timbre Hill dulcimers are determined by flexibility rather than
measurement. Although this is a very subjective evaluation, there is a
point when wood goes from being “kinda” flexible to being “really”
flexible. It’s also the point at which tap tones diminish significantly.
The difference between these two levels of flexibility usually occurs
with a one eighth turn on the drum sander adjustment—which translates
into a theoretical difference of 1/128th of an inch.
woods reach this flexibility at different thicknesses, a simple
thickness measurement generally results in a less usable evaluation. I’m
also convinced that using wood of these dimensions is basic to the
particular voice and characteristics of Timbre Hill dulcimers.
|Step 5) Bracing:
Braces are an integral part of both the structural integrity and sound
characteristics of Timbre Hill dulcimers. Three different sets of braces
are used—one set for the back, one set for the sides and one set for the
braces run perpendicular to the length of the dulcimer. There are
usually 6-8 individual braces. Once glued in place, they are hand carved
to taper down toward the outer edges.
Side to Side
braces—these run from one side to the other. They serve to make the
sides square and add strength and stability. I’m convinced that they
create “mini-resonating chambers” that add significantly to the voice of
the dulcimer, particularly in regards to sustain. Once in place and the
glue dry, these braces are also carved by hand.
These braces are
beveled on the ends to fit the curve of the dulcimer’s sides. Another
small, beveled piece of wood is glued to both the end of the brace and
the side. This increases the gluing surface—I’ve yet to have a brace
braces run in a diamond pattern the length of the top. Besides the
strength and structural support they provide to both the fretboard and
the top, they are essential to shaping the sound. With the braces and
fretboard glued to the top, the tap tones can be adjusted up and down
the length of the fretboard by carving the braces. Taking just a bit of
wood off a brace can make significant changes to the tap tones in
various areas of the fretboard. This results, I hope, (but cannot prove)
in a more consistent and balanced final sound up and down the fretboard.
Buckeye and old growth Redwood are primarily used for bracing the tops.
These are all softer woods with generous and unique tonal
characteristics. Since Timbre Hill dulcimers generally are made with
hardwood tops, these woods provide a juxtaposition of hard and soft and
create a unique depth of timbre.
||Step 5.5) Maintaining Equilibrium—One of the delights of making dulcimers
is the fact that the builder always teeters a few thousandths of an inch
from disaster—not to mention that they routinely work around tools that
have the capacity to remove body parts.. This tends to keep things
interesting and focused. I find that there is a certain mental zone that
I settle into that is very helpful. It’s focused and relaxed at the same
time. Both boredom and tension are enemies of this productive state of
mind. Both tend to be sneaky and reach a critical mass suddenly.
shop-dog, Sweep, seems to be particularly adept at sensing these
approaching situations. I’ve learned to pay attention to him and his
requests—he seems particularly adept at sensing those times when a task
is calling to my inner idiot.
Sweep came to us
bearing a checkered and tarnished history. He has strong herding
impulses. At his previous home, these were expressed by herding Amish
bicycle riders—something that did not endear him to the neighborhood. He
was also accused (perhaps falsely) of herding some of the neighbor’s
young goats all the way through the gates of eternity. So Sweep came to
live with us and has proven an invaluable monitor of shop equilibrium.
|Step 6) Reducing
mass—Once the stress of bending is over and the back and side to side
braces securely glued, the interior portions of the head and tailpiece
can be reduced. This is done by dremel tool, drill, rasp and sandpaper. The
upper portions of both are beveled so that the top contacts less
area, making it freer to vibrate.
Conquering excess glue—When pieces of wood are glued together, pressure
is applied to create good contact between the pieces. Invariably, some
glue squeezes out from the joint. Most excess glue can be removed by
scraping or sanding. Glue squeeze out in the right angle formed by the
fretboard and top creates a considerable aestheticproblem—once there,
it’s extremely hard to scrape or sand off without marring the wood.
After pursuing a variety of strategies, I finally started cutting a very
small (about the width of a pencil mark) groove on both sides of the
fretboard. I carve this groove by hand with a chip-carving knife. It
accommodates the excess glue and solves a problem that long drove me
||Step 8) Trimming
the edges: Once the dulcimer is assembled, there remains the task of
bringing the top and bottom edges flush with the sides. I cycled
through three different approaches using mechanical tools and wasn’t
satisfied or comfortable with any of them. I presently do this process
by hand with a sharp knife and sandpaper. I’ve experienced a general
movement away from power tools and find that I do more and more
processes by hand.
||Step 9) Making
the pedestal bridge. The pedestal bridge was a fortunate and happy
accidental discovery. It lies at the heart of the sustain and volume of
Timbre Hill dulcimers. It also allows easy adjustment of string height
and intonation, yet has the stability of a fixed bridge. I have never
had a pedestal bridge move. Changing tunings, action, string sizes all
impact intonation. Even differences in finger pressure can affect
intonation. The pedestal bridge can accommodate all these changes.
The bridge is made
by slotting a piece of wood to accommodate the upright portion of the
bridge. The two are then glued together, making a durable and stable
bridge. The upright portion of the bridge can be made from a variety of
materials—I use bone, deer antler or ebony.
||Step 10) feeling
the vibrations—Once the dulcimer is assembled and trimmed, I hold it in
front of the speakers of my cheap, no-account, rotten CD player and turn
on the music. This creates sympathetic vibrations in the dulcimer. By
feeling these vibrations, I can make a more educated guess as to what
string gauges and bridge material would be best suited to this
particular dulcimer. And it truly is a thrill to feel the dulcimer come
alive with movement for the first time.
||Step 11) The finish:
I’ve chosen to go a very utilitarian route with the finish, thinking
that a finish needs to accomplish two things—protect the wood and not
detract from the wood’s natural beauty and sound. Deft Lacquer does this
very nicely, with the added benefits that it’s easily repaired and
easily applied. After applying a sealer, everything is sanded and rubbed
down. Eight coats of deft are then applied. Once dried, the dulcimer is
lightly sanded, starting with four hundred grit and working to the final
rubbing with a bath towel.
Homestretch—Once the hardware and strings are installed, the action is
set, then the intonation. There is also a settling in process which
usually lasts about a week. During this time, I play the dulcimer
regularly and monitor it for any changes as it learns that it is a
dulcimer. One of the delights of this part of the process is hearing the
voice of the instrument mature. Often within the first 24-48 hours
there’s a noticeable maturing that takes place.