After nearly exactly 3 months on and off work my new 15/14 hammer dulcimer is finished. I’ve have been playing my Dusty Strings 13/12 dulcimer (the numbers stand for the number of notes (or courses) on each bridge) for the past three years. For those not very familiar with this instrument Ardie Davis has a description and a nice American-slanted history article. It is a great starter instrument, but I began to crave a lower register, more sound and an opportunity to revive my wood shop. This project met all three goals.
It isn’t really necessary to take 3 months to build a hammer dulcimer and I wish I had of taken better attention to the actual time taken. But needless to say, this project was working on ‘retirement time’. For me that meant renovating the downstairs bathroom, moving through 2 of my Grad students defenses, skiing with my brothers and three writing “beyond LMS” articles for Contact North besides building a dulcimer.
Being both an amateur woodworker and a very amateur dulcimer player, I asked Mr Google to recommend a set of plans or a good book. Luckily Ardie Davis has a great, ‘step-by-step” book that I followed quite religiously. The rest of this post is likely only of interest to those thinking about constructing a hammered dulcimer and thus I go into more detail than the average reader will likely find of much interest.
As Northern Alberta is not known for the quality (nor quantity) of our hardwoods the first move (after a good reading of the book) was a trip to the commercial hardwood store. Exotic wood like walnut, sugar maple and baltic spruce are NOT cheap, but for $170 I walked away with 3 large hunks of rough cut wood (one walnut, 2 hard, sugar maple) and a 1/2 sheet 5/16″ baltic birch plywood. These hunks of wood were all that my 30 year old 3/4 horse table saw could handle (note to self – buy a new table saw!) but fortunately with a trip to a friends thickness planer they came out OK. I cut one pin block twice and it was still too short (sigh), so I had to glue on a thin piece, which you likely wouldn’t notice, except I’ve just told the world.
The sound board is the most important part of the dulcimer as it supports the 2 bridges and resonates under the strings giving the volume to the instrument. This design has a “floating sound board” meaning that it fits into dado slots on the sides and has a 1/2 gap at top and the bottom. This design allows maximum vibration of the sound board and lots of space for the sound to emerge. I was very fortunate to be given a piece of old growth, quarter sawn cedar, which a friend’s father had milled 30 years ago on Gambier Island off British Columbia. The grain was incredibly straight and we managed to cut it down to 1/4″ thick pieces and then laminate two together to make the 20″ wide sound board. Thank heavens for access to a thickness sander which did a terrific job on this heirloom cedar.
Following Ardie’s instructions carefully, I managed to cut and then glue up the 2 walnut end rails, side rails and the side pin blocks. Thankfully I had invested in 6 more bar clamps – you never have too many clamps! These outside pieces enclose the Baltic birch plywood bottom in dado slots (also bought a very nice new dado blade!). Notice from the picture that 2 one inch hardwood dowels were inserted before the 4 sides were glued together. These are designed to take the load on the pin blocks when the 87 strings are finally tuned up. You can also see the three bridge supports – the only local wood (Aspen poplar) that a friend had milled in Northern Alberta. The bridge supports are needed, as besides lateral tension the strings also push the bridge down and would likely distort the soundboard without support.
Next came the making of the bass and treble bridges and the two side bridges also from the sugar maple. The sound bridges have holes drilled in them so that the strings can move across from one side bridge all the way to the opposite pin block without hitting any vibration ending pieces of the second bridge. I made the bridges slightly different than Ardie recommended and followed the design from my smaller dulcimer and others I have seen (see photo). I also didn’t thread the strings through the side bridges as Ardie recommends but led them on top under a piece of black devron plastic rod.
Next came adding a few screws and covering plugs, routing the rails and then hours of sanding!
I struggled with the decorative rosettes. On a floating sound board dulcimer like mine, it isn’t really necessary to have a sound hole to let the sound out, but they look so nice! So a good friend and I spent an afternoon on his CNC milling machine, taking some groovy pictures off the net and then importing the JPEGs into the machine’s software. Unfortunately, the cutter bits we had available were not fine enough and we eventually gave up and I ordered to two very nice rosettes ($14, US each) from the good folks at MusicMakers.
I ordered the hardware – tuning pins, hitch pins, and strings and received great service from James Jones Instruments ($168 US). How the low Canadian dollar hurts! Drilling the holes for the tuning pegs was relatively straightforward -AFTER you find the correct bit. Ardie recommends a #15 drill bit, which is not metric, and not American but an obscure machinists’ standard – sizes not carried by the local hardware stores. Fortunately, asking around, I found a friend who lent me a set of these specialized bits. The holes have to be exact as the very fine thread of the tuning pin has to dig into enough wood to provide a stable and long lasting bite into the wood, without requiring a guerilla sized arm to turn.
Finally, I was ready to start finishing (after more sanding). I decided to use MinWax Wipeon Poly and put on about 15 coats. Each coat dried quickly and although the finish isn’t factory perfect (I did it in my dusty wood shop) it looks OK. Ardie’s design allowed me to finish the soundboard before assembly and install it later, which was nice.
At this point I considered the value of installing a pickup to plug into my small guitar amp. I wasn’t sure it would really need the amplification, but if I didn’t do it now, I would never be able to get the amplification directly off the soundboard AND have it nicely concealed. So, I purchased a K&K 2 head acoustic pickup ($100) and installed the jack through the bottom rail.
While the finishing was taking place, I constructed the stand from maple according to the design Ardie recommends. In retrospect I should have made an adjustable stand that I could use standing up or sitting down, but this one works OK.
Finally the day for the big string up! 87 strings makes for a whole day of twisting, turning and coaxing wires around twice as many pins. I should have ordered a few spares of the top thin wires as one broke immediately and a second the following day. However, with 3 strings per note, you can get away with a few missing strings! The tuning seemed to take forever as the strings stretched and the whole dulcimer creaked! My trusty tuning app on the IPhone was indispensable for this task. Numerous times, I would finally get the last strings in tune, only to find that the ones I had started with had all gone out of tune – sigh.
But eventually they stabilized and WOW what a sound compared to my smaller dulcimer.
All in, the instrument cost about $500 – in addition to providing rationale for buying a new (to me) router, router table and two new saw blades. The retail cost of such a dulcimer is around $1500 Canadian – and the pleasure of playing is priceless!
1. Don’t build an obscure instrument before the Internet – these long tail hobbies need a way to connect with suppliers and advice.
2. Use what social capital you have to beg and borrow both local expertise and tools.
3. Don’t strive for perfection – it is supposed to be a fun job!!