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How To Build A Dulcimer From The Ground Up

June 28, 2024
Good Morning, Y'all - Happy Friday!
I'm going to keep this one a little shorter - we're "all hands on deck" this week, making instruments and cases, and getting them out the door.
Instead of going through each of our task lists, I'm going to share our process for making a dulcimer. 
Starting with an order sheet (with information taken from our website, in person at a festival, or in our showroom) we start gathering parts to make a customer's instrument. Here's the order sheet we use for most of our instruments:

We'll pick out the wood we need for a customer's dulcimer:

And then start gathering parts. We try to be efficient with our time here - when we're making a dulcimer back (8" x 32" x 1/8") out of cherry, we'll also make any walnut or mahogany backs we need at the same time. Fingerboards are HIGHLY customized, with thousands of potential combinations, so we don't make too many of those at once - they tend to be made to order, rather than in advance.
Each future dulcimer has its own shelf on a cart. We're making and gathering heads, fretboards, tops, sides, and backs. You can see our green worksheets, one on each shelf, that we use to know what parts to make for each instrument.

After we've made all the parts we need for a particular dulcimer, we move the worksheet (and parts!) to the shop, where we'll start with the assembly process.
The cart in the photo below shows several instruments in various stages of being assembled. I see a DulciVox (top), a Custom Series (middle), and another DulciVox (bottom). We have another cart closer to our workbenches with a few more "waiting for glue to dry" instruments. We will fit and glue one part for an instrument, then let it sit for a few hours (or overnight) while we fit and glue a part for the next instrument. We'll have half-a-dozen instruments in various stages of assembly at any given point in time.

After an instrument is fully assembled, we sand the body. This step can take as long as the assembly itself - there's a lot of (sloooowww) hand work involved with this step.

After sanding, a dulcimer moves to our lacquer area. We'll give each instrument four coats of finish - a base coat of sanding sealer, followed by three top coats of nitrocellulose lacquer. We'll sand a bit between each coat of finish.

After lacquering, each dulcimer heads to our "rubbing out" table, for a nice full-body massage. (Just kidding!) Each instrument gets some very light sanding, followed by steel wool and wax to smooth out any imperfections in the lacquer.

Then, we make a nut and bridge, add the hardware (machine heads, anchor pins, strap buttons, etc.), and install the strings. 

We'll fuss with the nut and bridge as necessary to get the action (string height) where it needs to be, and make micro-adjustments to the bridge to get perfect intonation up and down the fretboard. After that, an instrument is ready to ship, deliver, or put in our showroom (pictured below.)

I've glossed over about 1,000 steps, but I guess that's a high-level overview. It's kind of neat, seeing a fifteen-foot plank of wood get turned into a musical instrument, and it is really, really rewarding!
I hope you enjoyed this week's shop blog. Now for a few non-shop bullet points:
• The Shelley Stevens book that's on sale: Rounds And Duets (regularly $12, on sale for $3.99 - I have TOO MANY of this book on the shelf!)
• Dave Haas's clinic here at the shop has a handful of seats still available - August 10, details can be found here (Bing's July 13 clinic is nearly sold out, but has two spots open as of me writing this newsletter)
• We have a couple of DulciVoxes in stock now! We still have folks waiting on DulciVoxes (mostly chromatic fretboards), but these recently-completed instruments were started a long time ago, before we started actually taking orders. Here's our "ready to ship" DulciVox inventory
• Folkcraft will be closed on Friday, July 5, in observance of the 4th of July holiday. We'll be open regular hours on Thursday the 4th.
Thanks for reading, Everyone - Have a great weekend!
Richard Ash, luthier-with-too-many-dulcimer-building-steps-on-his-mind-now-that-he's-written-this-week's-newsletter