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The Dulcimer Doctor Is In

January 19, 2024
Good Morning, Y'all!
It's sure been chilly here this week! Temperatures below zero for several days in a row now. But that's okay - the shop is warm (ish!) and we're working up a sweat making mountain dulcimers!
I spent the last few weeks before Christmas working on customer instruments, but so far a lot of January has been taken up with repair work. On my bench now? Various "unknown maker" dulcimers, plus Warren May, McSpadden, Blue Lion, Jim Good, Black Peak, Modern Mountain, and (of course) a handful of Folkcraft and FolkRoots dulcimers.

I really didn't do much repair work in October, November, and December, with the focus on getting December-promised dulcimers finished off. But now I'm clearing the shelves at my workbench and really working our UPS driver hard with all the repaired dulcimers going out the door!

Most of these jobs are pretty straightforward - add pickups, repair cracks, reattach heads, fix buzzes, that kind of work. I had one on my bench yesterday with a bowed fretboard - the area between frets 7 and 10 was a good 1/4" higher than the fretboard at fret 1 or at fret 15. This caused a MASSIVE problem with both action and fret buzz (frets hitting strings they weren't supposed to be touching.) Usually a repair like this is worthwhile only if it is a higher-end instrument, or the instrument has high sentimental value. In this case the dulcimer had sentimental value and the "fix" was straightforward - remove all the frets, sand the middle of the fretboard down to match either end, verify with a straight edge, reslot the (now very shallow) fret slots, add new frets, then do the usual setup routine.

I'm working on a Folkcraft dulcimer this morning - the customer had taken it to a local music store to have a 1 1/2 fret added. (Y'all know where this is going, right???) The store added the fret, but it was a 1 1/2 at one end of the fret, and almost 1 5/8 at the other end of the fret. Totally crooked, so it couldn't possibly play in tune. And to further compound the problem, the fret was too tall, so that when the player pressed the string down at fret 1, the string touched fret 1 1/2, so that the outside strings (which are usually "fret 1 is E", "fret 1 1/2 is F natural", "fret 2 is F sharp") would play both frets 1 and 2 as F natural. The E was totally gone. I can't imagine how a guitar store could not hear the problem.
Here's a photo of the crooked fret for your enlightenment:

crooked fret added to a folkcraft dulcimer which richard ash had to fix

You can see a shadow under the fret on the melody string side - that's how tall it is above the cherry fretboard itself. In this next photo, I put a steel rule against frets one and two, so you could more easily see the angle on the newly-added 1 1/2 (1 5/8) fret:

crooked fret on folkcraft dulcimer demostrated by placing rulers against the fret

I'll be pulling this fret in a few minutes, filling the angled fret slot with a mix of cherry sawdust and CA glue, then putting in a new fret slot. But this isn't the worst "local repair shop" job I've seen.
One time a customer took her dulcimer to a violin store (violins don't even have frets, so you can probably see where this is going, too!). She asked for an 8 1/2 fret on a dulcimer that already had a 1 1/2 and a 6 1/2. So the violin tech counted frets 1, 2 , 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and added a fret.
But the new fret (try this on one of your instruments) was installed partway between 6 1/2 and 7. The violin guy put the fret half way between the 8th and 9th frets on her dulcimer. But he didn't know that the 1 1/2 and 6 1/2 frets shouldn't have been counted when determining where the 8 1/2 should have been placed. He found fret 8 (what we would call 6 1/2) and fret 9 (what we would call 7), and split the difference.
That instrument made its way from the East coast to Woodburn, Indiana, too.

Stuff happens, and it can (almost) all be fixed. Shipping isn't cheap, but it's probably cheaper than having a local guitar (or violin!) store work on an instrument that they don't understand. I wouldn't take my bassoon to my auto mechanic, or my dulcimer to my family doctor. My mechanic and doctor are both brilliant technicians, but they don't know musical instruments.
Enough horror stories about repairs - how about making some music, now? I'm writing this shop blog on Tuesday, January 16. Tuesday is a good day for me - I get to spend a couple of hours with the Woodburn (Indiana) Dulcimer Club tonight. We play songs together for two hours every Tuesday and I'm already looking forward to the fun. I hope y'all have clubs to play with, too.
Thanks for reading, Y'all - Have a great weekend!
Richard Ash, luthier-who-spends-more-time-fixing-building-playing-other-people's-instruments-than-he-spends-with-his-own-dulcimers

Update on the "bad fret job" dulcimer (several days after this blog post was originally written):

The dulcimer with the creative fret job? Fixed. Here's a photo:

fret installed correctly

You can see the patch job (filling in the hole where the incorrectly-placed fret was located) to the left of the new fret, especially on the bass-string side of the fretboard. The new fret plays perfectly in tune, and is the same height as the frets on either side of it, so there are no string buzzes.