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Spalted Dulcimer Wood

Good morning, Y'all!

Spalted wood. What is it? Does it make an instrument sound better? How does this happen? Can I request spalted wood on my next dulcimer?

What is it? Spalting is when a fungus grows in a piece of wood and leaves behind dark lines. So technically, spalted wood is partly decayed. A little spalting looks great, but too much spalting would weaken a piece of lumber. 

Here's an example of "just right" spalting in a piece of hackberry wood:

spalted dulcimer top wood
32" plank of wood, bookmatched, with my 6" ruler laid on top for scale

Utterly gorgeous. And plenty strong. (And also available for use on your next Folkcraft Custom Series dulcimer, if you ask nicely...)

Does spalting affect the sound of an instrument? Probably yes. But not necessarily for better or for worse. I suspect that any effect this has would be trivial, so not something I would be particularly worried about. A piece of wood will have a little less "structure" with spalting, but not enough that we could correlate any difference in tone to the use of spalted lumber.

How does this happen? Spalting can occur naturally, in a standing, living tree, although it more commonly occurs when a tree falls, and is in contact with the ground. Fungal growth is a natural part of the tree breaking down, and releasing its nutrients back into the soil for reuse. I've known woodworkers that will take freshly cut planks of wood, not yet dried, and leave them in a forest for a while, covered in moldy leaves. Totally natural spalting, helped along by an industrious sawmill operator.

Can I get spalted wood for my next dulcimer top? Yes. Find a plank of wood that you like online (at a specialty wood dealer). Your dulcimer top needs to be at least 32" x 5" x 1" (we'll cut it down to make a book matched pair of top pieces). If you send me a link to a cool looking top piece you're considering, I'll let you know if it'll work for your next dulcimer. And every once in a while (like this week) I'll have some spalted wood in the shop that'll be gorgeous, too. Here's a piece of spalted hackberry on a finished instrument:
hackberry dulcimer top
Purpleheart/padauk dulcimer with a spalted hackberry top

So many choices for wood! When I first started making dulcimers, I was totally overwhelmed with all the options. And if you are, too, I totally understand. Here's an article that talks about different woods, and when/where/why you might choose one over another:

I hope you enjoyed this shop update - now go play your dulcimers, and have a great weekend. Thanks for reading!

Richard Ash, luthier-that-dreams-of-moldy-wood-sometimes