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Cutting fingerboard slots


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Hi everyone! I’m a newbie here, making my first mountain dulcimer, hourglass shape. I have familiarity with some basic instrument making. I want to know how you builders cut the fretboard slots. Do you use a template to mark the slot positions? Also, what tools did you use? I am doing this on my basement workbench with limited power tools. I do have a couple friends with more extensive woodworking shops. Thanks for any tips!

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I mark fret locations with a pencil and a small square, from a table of fret spacings generated by WFret or one of the other fret calculators for the specific VSL I am building.     Measure ONLY from the nut to each fret individually.  Do Not measure fret-to-fret distances, as errors in measurement compound radically! 

My first dulcimer, years ago, was made with only a palm finish sander and drill as power tools.  I cut the sound holes with an X-Acto knife, and the fret slots with a very thin blade in an inexpensive jewelers saw.  Later, I used a thin blade in a scroll saw,   I've also used purpose-made fret saws in a purpose-made fret cutting miter box.  That is probably the least expensive option.  They came, I think, from Stew Mac.  Even the thinnest hacksaw blade makes too wide of a slot.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I think it was after my third dulcimer build that I bit the bullet and bought a fret saw from StewMac. I've used WFret to make a template for a 27 inch VSL. I use a square to put lines on the fret board and place my fret saw against the square when starting my cut. I use a different method for installing staple frets.


"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

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  • 8 months later...

FWIW, I use the Zona saw 35-380 which is called "thick kerf" but it is just 020. However, ultimately it makes the perfect slot for 023 fret wire.
Also, I copied the tool from a fellow that writes a book on making acoustic guitars. Here is his site and a story about it. It takes care of keeping the saw straight, but also handles depth. The best thing is that with a small piece of a razor blade, I can take an existing slotted fretboard, double stick it to the back of my blank, and quickly duplicate it.

The images came up in a poor order but the last one shows the blade sticking up through the saw slot. The one next to it shows my 24" scale. The previous one shows how the top block controls the depth of cut, and you can see the blue tape that I did the superglue thing to effect a double stick tape thing. The walnut scale is buried under the tape and the piece of yardstick is going to be a fretboard (for a 1 string canjo in this case). Then the first image shows the 7 fretboards I knocked out in about 15 minutes. If I remember correctly, all of the ones made from yardsticks are diatonic fretting for the canjos, and the maple and walnut are all chromatic for CBGs.





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