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Dylan Holderman

new builder looking for advice

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hi guy's my name is Dylan, i just stumbled on your forum while i was googling for dulcimer plans so that i can build one for my mom.

any advice you can offer to someone new to Lutherie?   i have some background in wood working, from basic woodwork you might do in the garage to making my own selfbows and i'm a fabricator by trade so i have some building experience even though its in the wrong medium.

is cherry a good wood for a beginner? i have a lot of it around albeit in smaller pieces. another question my mom is fairly short (5'-3") would a slightly smaller size be better for her?

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Hi Dylan; welcome to dulcimer building!    Building plans for dulcimers are not common; and the ones I've seen are not particularly useful.  A couple builders like myself and others here will do you a lot more good! The dulcimer is a very simple instrument to begin with; very forgiving  (that is it is easy to make a dulcimer that sounds good).

Cherry is a good wood.  So are walnut, maple and all of the other Eastern hardwoods -- which is what the old timers used.  Truth be told, a very good wood for dulcimers is ordinary poplar.  It is inexpensive, works easily and the results sound good.  For a basic dulcimer you're going to need the following pieces:
Top & Back =  1/8" thick x 6-8" wide x 36" long
Sides (2) = 1/8" thick x 1.5-2" wide x 36" long
Fretboard = 3/4" thick x 1.5" wide x 36
Tuning head, head block, and tail block dimensions will vary.  Head and tail blocks (which hold the ends of the basic shape together) are generally cut from something equivalent to a 2x4.  

But before obtaining wood, you need to settle on a design shape.  The most common (and easily built) are Elliptical, Box, Teardrop, and Hourglass.  Elliptical and Box are the simplest to build, Hourglass the most complex.  A Box dulcimer is easiest to build, but not very "sexy" to modern eyes!  You also need to decide on a flat "guitar style" tuning head or some version of a traditional scroll head.  I'm assuming you want to use modern mechanical tuners.

Another consideration is what style of playing your Mom does.  I assume she already plays; or am I wrong?  If she does,  you'll  need to know the VSL of her current dulcimer and whether she has any problems playing it (hard to stretch fingers to make chords for example; or too long overall as it sits on her lap).  VSL is the Vibrating String Length -- the distance between the Nut and the Bridge.

If she plays 3-finger Chord-Melody style you'll want different criteria for certain things  than if she plays Noter & Drone style.  Mom's height isn't a particular factor, but the size of her hands can be.  If she plays Chord melody style.

When you've got those things I mentioned figured out, let us know and we'll take you the next step towards Mom's new dulcimer.

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Hi Dylan, welcome!

A book that may be helpful to you is Constructing the Mountain Dulcimer by Dean Kimball. I bought a copy of it last year before I took a workshop on dulcimer building at the Appalachian School of Luthery.  Looking around at different books, it seemed to be one of the better regarded on the subject. While I didn't end up using the plans from the book, it did give me a good idea of all the pieces and how they would fit together.  The book does have plans for both an hourglass and teardrop style and suggestions for tools that can be used for different stages.

As @NoterMan said, your mom's hand size will probably be biggest factor in the fretboard size (VSL).  If she has smaller hands it might be helpful to build it with a shorter scale length that might be more comfortable for her to play. 

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NoterMan thank you so much for that parts list! more specific information just with that than i've been able to find with google.

to answer some of your other questions.  i plan on doing the hourglass style, messing up once or twice on the harder shape doesn't worry me. i'm also leaning towards a guitar style tuning head to go with modern tuning machines. 

my mom has pretty small hands about 3" across the back of her knuckles. she doesn't actually play a dulcimer but it's a instrument that she has always wanted sense her college years long before i was born.

admin i looked up dean kimball's book and it is unfortunately out of print and wayyyy out of my budget. what about making "musical instruments by  irving sloane" ? it is much more affordable and has info on some other instruments i'm interested in.

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Dylan, while Sloane's book is not as detailed by Kimball's, It will provide a good basis for dulcimer building. You might also consider this plan from Elderly Instruments:https://www.elderly.com/collections/all/products/mountain-dulcimer-2. A lot of people have made dulcimers from these plans. If you don't want to build to scratch, there are some nice kits out there.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

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The only other suggestion I have might be if building one from scratch doesn't work, there are several companies that sell kits.  It would still be something you assembled and maybe added some of your own personal design.  I have built McSpadden kits successfully, but FolkCraft and StewMac and maybe other kits are also available.

 

Dave

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As I said above, the hourglass is the most difficult of the standard shapes to build.  And the hardest part is the shaping of the sides.  The easiest way to do that is to hot-water soak the sides for a couple hours to soften them.   Then bend the side pieces into a jig which then holds them while they dry.  I've attached a couple pix of simple peg jigs.  Jig 1 is almost too simple but will work just fine.  I prefer to use 1/2" dowels in a 3/4 plywood or chipboard base, similar to Jig 2 but without as many dowels. 

Make the dowels about 1/8" shorter than the height of the sides.  That way, you leave the sides on the jib and use it to hold things while you add the head and tail blocks and the bottom and glue them into place -- making what's known as the carcass. 

Then  remove the carcass from the jig while you make the tuning head, and the top/fretboard assembly.  

Jig1.jpg

Jig2.jpg

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i went ahead and ordered sloane's book while i'm waiting for it to arrive i'll dig through my wood pile and find some suitable pieces.

13 hours ago, NoterMan said:

As I said above, the hourglass is the most difficult of the standard shapes to build.  And the hardest part is the shaping of the sides.  The easiest way to do that is to hot-water soak the sides for a couple hours to soften them.   Then bend the side pieces into a jig which then holds them while they dry.  I've attached a couple pix of simple peg jigs.  Jig 1 is almost too simple but will work just fine.  I prefer to use 1/2" dowels in a 3/4 plywood or chipboard base, similar to Jig 2 but without as many dowels. 

Make the dowels about 1/8" shorter than the height of the sides.  That way, you leave the sides on the jib and use it to hold things while you add the head and tail blocks and the bottom and glue them into place -- making what's known as the carcass. 

Then  remove the carcass from the jig while you make the tuning head, and the top/fretboard assembly.  

Jig1.jpg

Jig2.jpg

two quick questions. how hot is hot in this context? and should i account for spring back in the jig or is springback negligible because the wood is so thin?

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1.  Hot is at least hottest tap hot, preferably boiling to start.  I have a length of 3" PVC pipe, capped on one end, that is my soaking tank,  I've also used a length of raingutter or a large plastic tote box.  The smaller the tank the less water you need.  Put the sides in the tank and if flat, weight them down.  Then pour hot-to-boiling water on to submerge them.   I have an electric teakettle that boils a couple of quarts of water, quickly, and I'll start with that and a large pot of water boiling on my stove-top (or a camp stove in my garage/workshop).    I'll let the strips soak for a couple hours, anyway. before bending into the jig.  Once in the jig I let the strips dry for at least a couple days depending on where you live, before starting to glue things.

2.  Yes, there will be springback, depending in the wood species.  But since you use the jig not just to shape the strips, but to hold the shape until things are glued together, it's not a problem once the glue is dry.

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On 4/14/2020 at 7:45 PM, Dylan Holderman said:

admin i looked up dean kimball's book and it is unfortunately out of print and wayyyy out of my budget.

I looked around a bit for copies available online and I see what you mean!  The hardback version seems to sell over $100, which is pretty pricey.  The paperback version was much more reasonable when I was looking.  It usually sells for around $20-$30.

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We used a slightly different method for forming the sides in the class I took.  We heat bent the sides by spraying them with water and using a hot iron to hand form the rough shape, and then clamped them to a form template for a couple days.  I cut the template out of plywood and the other pieces acted as a mold. The side held their shape pretty well when they were unclamped from the template.  Then we used spreaders in the mold that the template was cut from to hold the sides while gluing. I can't speak to the pluses/minuses of doing either way, just offering a method we used.

dulcimer_sides_template.thumb.jpg.d83f57ed866f9b36dd318b4f7adefcfb.jpg

dulcimer_sides_template2.thumb.jpg.5b00f80c92f0460ec4f75b8235b68d19.jpg

 

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Posted (edited)

Admin, it that a cradle for routing a for binding? Looks like a 000.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

Edited by KWL

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thanks guys.

i just finished my work week so i'll look for plywood in the garage big enough to make a jig as well as start re-sawing stock for top back and sides

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21 hours ago, KWL said:

Admin, it that a cradle for routing a for binding? Looks like a 000.

Ken, good eye, it is a body cradle for routing for binding.

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I use a 100w light in a ceramic holder stuck in side a piece of aluminum pipe [~4.5dia x 1/4 ' thk x ~10" long. I run some water over the wood and press it over the hot pipe until it begins to give, you can feel the lignon soften the hotter the wood gets. I move it sideways over the pipe to make the radius I want. I draw the pattern on some butcher paper for the shape i want. I use an adjustable peg style jig for gluing. I made a fretboard cutter from a tile cutter, bought a fret blade from StewMac [I think] and make the guides by drilling holes with a mill/drill in an aluminum strip. Tape the strip on the fretboard. I have a tapered pin on the cutter that fits into the holes on the strip, then zip, zip, zip, fret slots located correctly. I do need to make a new strip for any vsl changes of course.

 

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Posted (edited)

hey guys i finally have some progress to report!

after a mishap with my attempted steam chamber i went with a technique i use to put recurves in selfbows to bend the sides. i wrapped them in wet paper towels and aluminum foil and then heated them with my heat gun.

eWqG2Bt.jpg

i also have the top and back thinned down and roughly profiled (1/2" heavy) what sort of bracing should i put on the soundboard? in sloans book he had three transverse braces on the back and none on the soundboard but he did this (to me) weird multi piece construction that seems overly complected, with the sound board in two pieces edge glued to the fret-board that was made out of three pieces itself :classic_wacko:  

soi3ady.jpg

Edited by Dylan Holderman

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The 3 braces across the back is OK, none on the top. The top already has a really big brace with the fretboard. The multipiece fretboard is OK also, It could be done to eliminate warp, because of lack of good fretboard wood or simply to have the contrast. Two piece tops/backs allow bookmatcing and the use of narrower stock and is normal, although the edge is usually glued to the bottom.

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Posted (edited)

the book matching didn't weird me out, my soundboard is book matched poplar, what was odd to me was he only glued them to the edges of the fret-board leaving a huge gap between them underneath it. it works obviously but it seemed overly complicated and strange.

thanks for the advice about bracing i wasn't thinking of the fret-board and soundboards as working together but it makes sense.

glue the fret-board and soundboard together before gluing them to the main body of the instrument right?

Edited by Dylan Holderman

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I saw a plan several years ago where they butt glued the top to the fretboard. Seemed odd but it looked like it was caused by the building procedure. I don't remember the details though other than the fretboard, tuning head, head/tail stock were all one piece of wood.

Yes, i  would glue the top and fret board now, it;s easier to clamp. You might dry fit/mark first so nothing is twisted out of line when assembling top to box later. 

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next couple of questions what size of fret wire do you guys like and what kind of finish do you prefer? 

i have used oil finishes, wipe on poly, and whatever from a rattle can.

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3 hours ago, Dylan Holderman said:

what was odd to me was he only glued them to the edges of the fret-board leaving a huge gap between them underneath it. it works obviously but it seemed overly complicated and strange.

That does seem more complicated than necessary.  You would be ok just gluing the fretboard to the top of the one-piece soundboard and leaving it at that.  I did this for my dulcimer.  The top is bookmatched/joined, but otherwise it's a solid piece the fretboard is glued to.

Some builders will hollow out the underside of the fretboard and drill large holes through the soundboard into the cavity under the fretboard, but I don't think this adds too much other than making the instrument a bit lighter.  The one I built has a solid fretboard and it's one of the louder dulcimers I have.

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10 minutes ago, Dylan Holderman said:

next couple of questions what size of fret wire do you guys like and what kind of finish do you prefer? 

I like the common "medium" size frets that are found on a lot of instruments.  I'm not sure about the exact size of fret wire though.  There are a few different kinds of "medium."

18 minutes ago, Dylan Holderman said:

i have used oil finishes, wipe on poly, and whatever from a rattle can.

I spent a lot of time looking into different finishes.  I talked with Warren May just after I built my instrument and before I finished it.  The luthery I went to provided Shellac and Tru Oil and suggested those (shellac undercoat / Tru Oil top coats) for finishing.  A lot of websites and Youtube videos also recommended it as an easy finish to apply.  However, Warren suggested not using an oil based finished as the oil carrier can soak into the wood and deaden the sound.  As he's a well respected dulcimer builder and also a furniture maker I took his advice.  He uses spray varnish, but that was beyond what I was equipped to do properly.  I ended up going with wipe on gel polyurethane with an undercoat of de-waxed shellac as a sealer and that turned out well. 

Different sources suggest a variety of options though: Linseed Oil, Danish Oil, Shellac, Tru Oil, Spray Poly, Wipe on Poly, Spray Varnish, Paste Wax, etc. all with different trade offs.

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If you're asking about modern Mushroom Fret Wire, I use Medium or Large.  For Staple Frets I use .043 - .046 music wire.


For finish you're gonna get 15 answers from 6 builders.  It's a real personal preference depending on the nature of the final look you are trying to achieve.  There are a few builders who, like Dwayne Wilder, spend hours (and charge accordingly) to apply classic French Polish.  Many traditional builders prefer a boiled linseed oil based finish.  Some people want a deep 'mirror' gloss, others prefer a more 'satin' or 'matte' look.  Each requires a different approach.

I prefer  3-4 coats of Tung Oil; which does not have an offensive odor (so can be used indoors readily), and sets into the wood and hardens, like boiled linseed oil, but unlike some of the other oil finishes.  I also use a wipe on satin poly.

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I use Stewart-MacDonalds #0147 narrow/medium fret wire. I've used many different finishes on my dulcimers: violin varnish, black milk paint, spray lacquer from a rattle can (Deft),  a water based poly finish, and shellac with carnauba wax.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

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good to know that the finish isn't too critical. i got some fret wire ordered along with the guitar tuners.

next issue, i realized after i had the back braces glued in that they aren't spaced very evenly, is that going to be a problem or don't worry about it because they are mostly just there to strengthen the back? 

e93dwtd.jpg

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