Appalachian Dulcimers

1968 - 1970

Opera Omnia
(see the other instruments I've made)

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Opus One

1968 - This was the first "serious" instrument I ever made. It was cobbled together from the great book by Howard Mitchell The Mountain Dulcimer: How to Make It and Play It After a Fashion (Folk-Legacy Records Inc; ISBN: 0938702017; (December 1965). I used materials at hand, which meant kerfed 1/4" plywood sides, 1/8" birch plywood top and back, fingerboard cut from a clear 2x4 and the head cut from a fir 4x4. Originally fretted with baling wire, later replace with nickel-silver fret wire. The interior is hugely overbuilt with heavy braces. The cutout at the strumming end of the fingerboard was a bad idea. I used Mitchell's innovation of a floating tail so the bridge was not fastened down to the end block, but this only works if your fingerboard it strong enough to handle the tension by itself. I later filled in the cutout. The whole thing was stained (badly) and finished with heavy gloss spar varnish. This monster is indestructible. It still plays like it was new and has a very big sound.

Opus Two

Upon the success on Opus One, I decided to make an instrument that actually looked nice. I found some 1/8" mahogany and ebony at a remote little wood specialty store in Chicago. I also bought the inlay edge linings there. I used  white pine for the fingerboard covered with a thin layer of solid black ebony. The sides and back are decorated with pen & ink scrollwork in a design stolen from Stradivari's Hellier violin (1679).



I was offered the use of the high school woodshop, which had a fabulous industrial bandsaw and other great tools that I used to make the side molds. The inside molds could be removed and the outside molds hinged together at the tail end to make a full body mold for gluing the head, block and sides. Then the back is glued on, then the front, fingerboard and fretboard. 

The sides were pre-bent by soaking them in hot water and then bending against a hot clothes iron. This was a long, tedious process that resulted in several broken side pieces, primarily because I did not have good wood and it was too thick. 

Opus Three

The mahogany was very difficult to bend. For my next dulcimer I decided to try poplar. It had other problems, but was generally easier to work with. I didn't have enough ebony to cover the entire fingerboard, so I put a thin strip of walnut along the right edge and decorated the tail end so it looked intentional. I liked the pale green cast of the poplar grain, but after a year or so it turned quite brown. The head, blocks and fingerboard are all maple.

With the lighter wood, it seemed to call out for even more decoration. 

Walkingstick Dulcimer

This is the only surviving evidence of a walkingstick dulcimer I made. It had two strings. It was built on a butternut cane I made from a piece of scrap. I built a mahogany freeform trapezoidal box around it and extended a fingerboard at an angle from the box to the nut. I don't think it worked very well and it's now long lost.