Dulcimer Making

For a Gallery of various dulcimers, click here.

For some philosophical notes on lutherie, click here

I make Appalachian Dulcimers. Also known as the lap dulcimer, fretted dulcimer or mountain dulcimer, this instrument is truly indigenous to America, though it does have a few cousins in far away lands.

I construct all of my instruments from top grade solid woods. I test each board for resonant quality before I begin to think about it for an instrument. I use a wide variety of woods ranging from Acer to Ziricote. I predominantly use nitrocellulose lacquer in the finishing of my dulcimers, but for some special projects I will use a French polish procedure, which is basically a fancy way to say "hand-rubbed shellac".

The basic structure of the dulcimer is governed by a very few constants, and even they are negotiable. For the sake of discussion let us say that these are the constants for the average dulcimer:

1. String length, average length (with some overlap) of the distance across someone's knees.

2. Fret layout is a simple scale with the addition of the 6.5 fret. In other words, it is just like a guitar fretboard with the "in between" notes taken away. You know, all those "unnecessary" notes.

3. Four strings, three of the same diameter and one bass string.

4. Holes in it somewhere for the sound to come out.

That's about it, and as I said, even these are negotiable. Dulcimers range from 2-6 strings that I have seen, some are fretted just like a guitar and they can range in length from 12"-42". All this is to say that there is a tremendous latitude to work in when one is building a dulcimer. I build mostly hourglass and teardrop bodies, but the body depth of even my instruments ranges from 1.5-2.5 inches, not including the fingerboard. Body shape is as varied as the shape of the makers. Everyone has their own idea of what an hourglass looks like, what a teardrop should be, what passes for a lozenge. If you do a web search you can see the truth of that statement. There is even more variety in the type and placement of the soundholes.

My theory is that because the dulcimer is such a young instrument in the scheme of things, 150-200 years, it is still undergoing the search for the optimum design. Most people today have settled for some semblance of the Strad pattern for violin design, but in the early stages of the game there was a little more variety in string length, number of strings, design of the sound holes, body design etc. It is possible that in 500 years there will be a standard for the dulcimer just as one exists for the violin or even the guitar. To tell you the truth, I prefer the latitude. It gives room for the self expression of the maker. But someone may come up with that form that cannot be improved upon. Of course the use of carbon fiber in violin research today has shown us that there is even room for improvement there.

The picture on this page is of the scroll on my very first dulcimer. I recently took the strings off of it to dust and clean. So I decided to take some pictures. It is made from Ailanthus or Tree of Heaven. It is a cousin of the Walnut, it has a bi-pinnate leaf structure. As I worked with the wood, it could have been called "Rotten Stinking Peanut Butter Tree" because of the way it smelled. The knotholes in a particular board inspired me. From that board I was able to get enough wood for two dulcimer soundboards. This was my first attempt at carving a violin type scroll as well..

For a Gallery of various dulcimers, click here

For some philosophical notes on lutherie, click here