Jump to content
EverythingDulcimer

Building my first mountain dulcimer


Recommended Posts

Hi everyone,

This is my first post. For many years I have had a hobby of repairing acoustic guitars. About two years ago I built my first kit, an old Martin kit. I now have three builds so far. All were primarily built on my basement work bench with limited power tools. For Build #2 I built a homemade pipe side bender (with charcoal lighter). All three sound great. All three are far from perfect. Anyway, I wanted to try building a mountain dulcimer. I don’t play yet, but have played acoustic guitar for decades, and recently beginning mandolin. Just giving you info so I can get the most helpful info in return. I would like to build an hourglass type. I think I can build from scratch but would need to know recommended sources of wood, etc. I am not sure about cutting slots in the fingerboard so I will likely go with pre-slotted, but if you have suggestions about cutting fret slots, that would be great. I would like to keep the build budget under $200 if possible for this one. Thanks!

Link to post
Share on other sites

Welcome!

You can go just about anywhere for wood.  Dulcimers are often built out of some type of Walnut or Cherry.  Various types of mahogany are also fairly popular in modern instruments.  Really though, most common hardwoods should work fairly well.  Sometimes tops will be done in some type of spruce/pine/cedar or butternut.

The slots in the fretboard are fairly straightforward to cut, especially on a flat fretboard.  I used a Dozuki Saw (brand of japanese pull saw) to cut the frets on the instruments I've built.  With that type of saw just a lay out the fret spacing on the fretboard and then gently pull it the saw across the marks.  Check the depth as you go and go a little deeper if needed.  Once it starts to form a slot it will generally stay straight in the groove.  They do make fretsaws specifically for fretting, but any saw that will give a clean cut the right width for the tang on the fret to fit in will work.  I've had good luck with the pull saw so I can recommend that.

Since you've built yourself a side bender, you're well on your way to building an hourglass without much trouble.

I know Cedar Creek Dulcimers and McSpadden Dulcimers both offer hourglass kits for under $200.  That might the way to go for a first build as you'll have all the wood pre-cut and fretboard slots cut.  You'd just have to glue it together and do the finishing work on it.  They also come with the option of pre-cut sound holes - which can be the most delicate work depending on the shape.

Hopefully that helps.  Feel free to ask more questions and we'd love to see your build once you get it together!

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks so much Admin! This is very helpful.  I have some walnut and cherry scraps from a cabinetmaker friend that will fit the bill nicely.  I was tempted to do the kit route, but I figured that since I have enough ways to cut and shape things I will just go ahead and give it a whirl from scratch, since I am not in a hurry.  I ordered a Dozuki type saw with small mitre box to cut the fret slots, as I wanted to try this.  How do folks cut the sound holes?  Dremel tool? Drill bit or press?  I imagine that would depend on the design, but I definitely will go for something simple there.  I love this site!

Link to post
Share on other sites

Howdy Guitarpeggio!.   

Wood sources -- if you don't have a good re-saw capable bandsaw (I don't) a good source for wood is Woodchuck -- www.woodchuckswood.com  He has a reasonable selection of native American species in a variety of widths, lengths and thicknesses.    Are you planning a scroll head design or flathead?  Scroll is more traditional and can be made up from several pieces rather than carved from a block; flat guitar style heads are easier to make.  

Admin is right -- a simple fretsaw and mini miter box is a good investment -- crooked, over-sized, fret slots cause too many problems.  

We cut sound holes in a variety of ways, depending on your tools and skills.  Patterns of round holes are popular and easy -- use Forstner bits, not brad-point twist drills.  I've cut sound holes with a X-Acto knife, drilled hole and jeweler's saw, Dremel, and my favorite -- a scroll saw.  The big thing is getting enough sound hole, but not too much.  Having built a couple hundred dulcimers over the years, my rule of thumb is to create sound hole area about the same as the diameter of 4-6 quarters.  Much more and the sound is too "brash".  Much less and the sound is too muddy/muted.

Since you have a side heater-bender, you'll probably want to make a "plate and peg" jig for the sides to be shaped and cooled in.  I build hourglass and other shapes using only hot water soak and a jig like the one pictured -- a piece of commercial shelf board, a series of 1/2" holes, and lengths of 1/2" dowel.

Burnsville Frame.jpg

Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi NoterMan! Thanks for all the helpful tips! I am working on the suggested body mold with dowels now. I had some 1/2” rod left over laying around from another job. You mentioned shelf board. I only have some 3/8” plywood laying around. Will that do? Regarding the peg head, I thought I would try a 3 piece scroll. I know it may be more challenging than a paddle head but I like the look. I can always come back to that if I find it too challenging. Thanks!

Link to post
Share on other sites

Sure -- any old dead-flat board will work for a base on the body mold.    Here's a picture of one of my multi-part scroll heads.  As you can see there is a 1/2" or 3/4" thick back plate which gets glued to the head-block of the body.  it defines the overall width of the tuning head.  Then there are the two 1/2" thick side plates, and the scroll filler piece at the front.  But no bottom plate!  I prefer scroll heads which do not have a bottom plate because that bottom makes it SO MUCH harder to run strings in and out the head of when adding/changing strings!! 

After you've stabbed yourself half a dozen times trying to work a string through the hole in the tuner shaft, get it unstuck from the bottom  and back out and around a second time, you'll understand what I mean!  First time I had a dulcimer with a closed bottom scroll, I literally took a Forstner bit and drilled the bottom out after changing two strings!   I didn't care any more what it might look like!

SmHolly2 tuning head.JPG

Edited by NoterMan
Link to post
Share on other sites

Ok here is my peg form for the sides, plywood with 1/2” pegs. I will need more pegs, and I realized some are in the wrong place! 😂 I did order a tail block from Folkcraft this time around. I was wondering how you folks joined a scrolled peg head to the body. (Note that I still have not ruled out a guitar style if simpler the first time, but I like the scroll). Some of you apparently just do a glued butt joint? But that doesn’t seem to make sense to me as the headstock would seem to have its end grain side being glued to a head block in the body, making a weaker joint. Thanks for the tips!

DB8184FF-346F-4189-86D9-4AE06418C465.jpeg

Edited by Guitarpeggio
Link to post
Share on other sites

Here is my rough cut scrolled peg head. I was going to do all walnut but my wood was too thick for me. My neighbor had some thinner mahogany. I like the two tone with walnut spacers. Total thickness just about 1 1/2” to match my fingerboard. 

5DAF08D1-2A40-4DE1-AE5F-0AAADFC4FB46.jpeg

Link to post
Share on other sites

So I’m about to give attention to cutting the fingerboard slots. I have measurements from the other builder post for 27” scale, which is what I will do. My question is exactly where to measure from. Should I install a zero fret or not? If you start measurements from the nut, are you measuring from the center of the nut slot, or the inside face of the nut? Similarly, are the fret measurements from the nut to the center of the fret slot, or to the front edge nearest the nut? Thank you!

Link to post
Share on other sites

People get confused sometimes with a zero fret instrument which then has a "string spacer" which looks exactly like a nut but isn't.    I prefer using an ordinary nut and bridge.  The inside edge of the nut & bridge, IMHO should be vertical.  That's where you measure fret spacing from -- the inside edge of the nut.  Do not measure spacing from fret-to-fret.  Therein lies the road to improperly spaced frets!  It makes no difference if you measure from the nut to the center or near edge of the fret slots -- as long as you're consistent.  I know very few people who can measure and cut wood to the nearest millimeter, and that tiny of a variation simple cannot be heard by even the sharpest ears, and damn few instruments!   These are folk instrument, not rocket science!😏

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thank you, NoterMan!  I think I will follow your lead and omit the zero fret, and cut consistently.  When I first saw some of these fret measurements to the thousandths I was a bit overwhelmed.  But of course, as you say, it’s a folk instrument, which means I’m sure measurements of folks in the past were probably not that precise. And I totally get what you mean by what one hears!  Musicians may hear subtle differences that the average person won’t notice as much when it comes to intonation (and other things) anyway.  

Link to post
Share on other sites

Looks good.  Clean fret installation.  Nothing wrong with a bit of extra board at the ends, as long as the installed distance between the inside edge of the nut and first fret is correct.    Looks like a winner, so far!!  Installing the frets is always for me the hardest and most critical part of any build.  Even after a couple hundred dulcimers, I still "fret" about fretting!

Edited by NoterMan
Link to post
Share on other sites

Cutting the sound holes in the top. I traced the hearts off my wife’s McSpadden dulcimer, and made templates. I was puzzled about how to cut. At the end of the day, I went with very small drill holes to outline, then finished the cutouts with a small chisel. Rough sanding with sandpaper around a dowel. Note of explanation on the top. The walnut wasn’t wide enough so I cut down the middle and glued in a 1” wide piece of Cherry. Since the fretboard is glued to the top it will hide all that anyway.

7A878234-F5F8-4AF8-8C28-A7DDEFFB78D6.jpeg

9B53BB5F-0BF9-4C39-A5CD-B4FA853DA61E.jpeg

Edited by Guitarpeggio
Link to post
Share on other sites

That's a great cherry "stretcher"!  I've used that technique a time or too as well.  Even did a "pinstripe" top and back once -- laid up of 8 or so 3/4" wide strips alternating maple and walnut.  

Another thing you could have done was just left the gap between the two planks and glued the fretboard over the gap.  This is a very common technique, especially when hollowing the fretboard.  

I wouldn't have dared trying your soundhole "drill and chop"!  I would have used a template and a sharp knife like an X-Acto blade.  I also have a very sharp "kolrose" carving knife which I plan on using in an upcoming replica build to duplicate soundhole shapes in the original...  In the past I've also used a scroll saw, which is probably the cleanest and fastest way to get nice sharp soundhole shapes.

Edited by NoterMan
Link to post
Share on other sites

Yes, completely a newbie move with the way I cut out, and not recommended! 🤣 I had a sharp utility knife which I used to press the outline on the first heart but found it cumbersome. So I tried the drill, and pressed the outline with a small chisel. I was keeping tool cost down, but I could and should have bought an xacto knife! I picked up a key hole saw from the local big box hardware, but it was too big to use. Scroll saw question... I don’t own one but know a person who does. I didn’t know you could make the cut without coming in from the edge of the wood. Is there some trick I’m missing?

Link to post
Share on other sites

Yep -- a scroll saw has a straight up and down blade about 5" long, which is simply and quickly removed (or at least one end) so you can slip a blade through a small hole then lock it in place.  A jeweler's saw is sort on a non-powered version of a scroll saw.  Scroll saw blades are very thin -- 'way less than 1/4", some as thin as 1/16" -- so the pilot hole doesn't need to be very big.   A band saw on the other hand has a wider -1/4" to 1" continuous loop blade and you'd have to cut from an edge into where the soundhole would be.    Keyhole saws, even the smallest I've seen are 'way too big for soundholes. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

×
×
  • Create New...