November 18, 2022
Good morning, Y'all!
I was thinking about the word "handmade".
What is the actual definition of "handmade"? The dictionary is very, very helpful, with "made by hand". The Federal Trade Commission has another definition, one that's used in US commerce.
Does using a tool to make something disqualify it from being handmade? Are dulcimers handmade? I don't know of a single dulcimer builder that doesn't use tools.
How about power tools? There's at least one prominent builder that eschews power tools. But he's happy to use hand tools like planes and scrapers. If he buys lumber from a sawmill, though, the tools at the sawmill were almost certainly driven by electricity.
How about computer-operated tools? They're power tools with an unmatched precision - far more consistent than even the finest human craftsman.
I don't think any dulcimer builders have robots that are gluing and assembling parts, but robotic assembly is common in other industries. Think of a car factory, with robots fitting parts, welding them, and then inspecting the welds for quality.
There's a "line" in there, somewhere, that separates handmade from machine-made. And that line is hard to place, sometimes.
At Folkcraft, we have one computer-operated tool in our wood shop. We use it mostly for cutting fret slots in a fingerboard. That tool is far more accurate than even the most skilled craftsman. And there's no art or intuition to fret placement. It's either right, or the instrument cannot play in tune.
Parts to make a Folkcraft® or FolkRoots® dulcimer are mostly made with power tools. Hand tools are great, and we use a lot of them, but our focus is on a finished instrument, rather than on a philosophy of building.
We're not at all averse to using muscle power, either. Power tools to make parts, where we want repeatable accuracy. But hand fitting, hand sanding, hand finishing where appropriate, too. Sometimes the best tool is a pair of skilled hands, with some sandpaper, precision-fitting pieces of wood.
CLICK HERE to watch a short video of Jim sanding an inside joint of a flat head, where the head meets the dulcimer body. He's getting a level of precision that a tool can't match.
Cheyenne spends a couple of hours hand-sanding each instrument after it is fully assembled. He's far better than a power tool for this job.
I use a power tool to spray lacquer on a freshly-sanded dulcimer. And then spend another hour sanding and rubbing out the lacquer.
So, are Folkcraft dulcimers handmade? I would submit a resounding "yes" to that question. But, I would like to hear your thoughts. Where would YOU draw that "handmade" line?
Let me know (by replying to this email) and I'll compile a few of the responses for next week's newsletter.
Thanks for reading!
Richard Ash, dulcimer builder who uses his hands