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Construction Process

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 process.

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 and explore.

NOTE: You can click on each image for a full screen enlargement.

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.

Read about our "Selection 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 intarsia work.

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.

Since different 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 soundboard.

Back braces—these 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 come loose.

Top bracing—These 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.

Butternut, Ohio 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.

My faithful 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.

 

Step 7) 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 batty.

 

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.

 

Step 12) 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.

Copyright 2008, Paul Conrad ~ Web Design Tom Strothers