Woods Used In Folkcraft Instruments Dulcimer Building
Back in "the day", dulcimer makers used whatever was available. Worldwide shipping for fancy woods wasn't accessible to most dulcimer builders, so the earliest builders - Virginia, North Carolina - used local woods for the most part. Walnut, cherry, oak, maple, hickory. Sometimes with softwood tops - pine or cedar, although hardwood tops are much more common in the surviving early instruments.
Nowadays, we can easily get lumber from all over the planet. Folkcraft uses mostly domestic (USA grown) woods, but we also source from Africa, Canada, Asia, South America, and Central America. Sometimes the exotic (non-domestic) woods have a unique sound, sometimes they're just pretty, sometimes they offer increased durability.
Some woods are used mostly in a decorative manner. Other woods are mostly functional, and don't really have an effect on tone quality.
Decorative: Anything on or in the head, or used as a fretboard veneer, or for visual appeal (inlays in the fretboards or backs, heel caps). These parts don't have an appreciable effect on a dulcimer's tone quality.
Functional: Fretboard veneers, usually chosen for a combination of aesthetics and durability. The primary purpose of a fretboard veneer is to provide something hard and smooth, that'll hold up to a pick over many years, and also feel good underneath the fingers.
For all tonal purposes, all that really matters is the body of your dulcimer (back and sides), the top of your dulcimer (soundboard), and to a lesser extent, the fretboard (not the fretboard veneer, if you get one).
Before I get into the different woods, let me mention a few other things that have a huge effect on tone quality.
Body shape - An hourglass shape tends to be more balanced up and down the scale - high notes vs low notes, similar volume. The teardrop shape tends to be more bass heavy, and might also be a little bit louder.
Body size - We offer two styles/sizes of bodies. The traditional "Kentucky" body is 7" wide at the lower bout, and has a 1 3/4" side height. Our contemporary "California" body is 8" wide at the lower bout, and has a 2 1/4" side height. The larger California body has a bigger, bolder, more mellow guitar-like tone than the traditional Kentucky body style.
Scale length - Folkcraft offers seven scale lengths to choose from, in one-inch increments from 23" to 29". Scale length has an effect on tone (longer is better), but the effect is relatively small compared to the benefit of choosing the correct scale length to fit your hands and style of playing. Larger hands can accommodate a longer scale length.
Nut/bridge material - There are lots of different materials used for nuts and bridges. Folkcraft makes almost every single instrument out of a synthetic material called "Micarta". It has a great combination of stability and hardness, which makes it ideal for nuts and bridges. Other materials used over the years include bone, ivory, and Delrin (a much softer synthetic material).
Strings used - Plain strings (generally the melody and middle strings) are almost always steel, and there's not much variation from one set to another, other than the gauge (diameter) of string. The bass string (the wound string, used for the lowest note of a DAD-tuned dulcimer) has a variety of alloys available. Some are brighter, some are warmer, some have amazing durability. All of our instruments are made with a mid-tone string, that's flattened for less squeaking, made from a brass alloy that gives us great clarity.
Decorative/Functional wood choices - I've provided a numerical rating from 1 - 10 for durability:
Padauk - 5
Purpleheart - 10
Wenge - 8
Bubinga - 9
Zebrawood - 5
East Indian Rosewood - 8
Gabon Ebony - 10
If we don't apply one of the above decorative/functional wood choices as a fretboard veneer, you'll have a fretboard without an overlay. It isn't a problem (and is more traditional, for sure), but you will see more wear on the fretboard. Common choices are (and I've applied the same numerical rating for fretboard durability):
Cherry - 5
Walnut - 5
Honduras Mahogany - 3
African Mahogany - 6
Hickory - 7
Maple - 7
I'm giving all of the following body and top/soundboard woods a numerical rating for "density/weight". I'm not going to assign anything for tone quality here, for reasons to be explained later in this article.
Wood that Folkcraft offers for either bodies (back and sides) and/or tops of dulcimers:
Black Walnut - 5
Northern Cherry - 4
Padauk - 5
Purpleheart - 10
Zebrawood - 6
Sugar Maple - 7
Hickory - 8
African Mahogany - 8
Honduras Mahogany - 3
East Indian Rosewood - 8
Koa - 6
Eastern Red Cedar - 3
Western Red Cedar - 2
Engelmann Spruce - 2
Butternut - 4
Sitka Spruce - 4
We offer a few of these woods as tops only - they don't have the structural strength to be a dulcimer body. These include Engelmann Spruce, Sitka Spruce, and Western Red Cedar. And we offer purpleheart as a top wood, but generally don't recommend it.
I purposely didn't provide a ton of detail on the sound of each of these woods, because the body and top woods work with each other. They don't stand alone, so now I'm going to give you some of our best-sounding wood combinations. I'll try to describe what I hear when I play them, and why people like them.
I'll always list the body (back and sides) wood, followed by the top wood. For example: If I say "waffle/turnip", "waffle" is the back and sides wood, and "turnip" is the top wood. I've never made an instrument out of waffles and turnips, and please don't ask me to make you one!
Popular combinations of woods:
Black walnut/butternut - Good warmth, very good volume, very good sustain, great clarity. This is clearly our number-one selling combination of woods. It is a "go to" choice for a LOT of great dulcimer players.
Black walnut/Western red cedar - Great warmth, good volume, very good sustain, good clarity. I love the look and sound of this one, but Western red cedar is pretty soft, and scratches easily. I don't stock many of this combination because at festivals, or even in the Folkcraft showroom, the tops get tiny scratches. I have to fix them (sand and lacquer) before I can sell them, so this is a combination I don't have available often in the "Ready To Ship" category. Definitely one of my favorite combinations, though.
Black walnut/Eastern red cedar - Good warmth, very good volume, very good sustain, good clarity. A little louder than Western red cedar, and I love the looks of the Eastern red cedar, with all the knots and color variations.
Black walnut/Sitka spruce - Moderate warmth, very good volume, good sustain, very good clarity. Very popular, not one of my personal favorites, though. Great combination of looks and sound, though.
Black walnut/black walnut - Very good warmth, good volume, good sustain, very good clarity. One-wood instruments (walnut/walnut, cherry/cherry, etc.) are definitely the most traditional. I love the look and sound of an all-walnut dulcimer.
Northern cherry/Sitka spruce - Moderate warmth, very good volume, good sustain, very good clarity. We'll occasionally get someone (often a dulcimer teacher that leads groups) asking for "What's your loudest instrument?" I'll steer them to a cherry/Sitka dulcimer in teardrop shape. Not the sweetest sound (it can be harsh sometimes, even), but power to spare!
Northern cherry/northern cherry - Moderate warmth, good volume, good sustain, good clarity. Looks good, sounds good. Classic, like the walnut/walnut combination. I prefer the sound of walnut/walnut, but cherry/cherry is quite nice, too.
Maple/Sitka spruce - Moderate warmth, good volume, good sustain, very good clarity. Maple is a gorgeous wood (like hickory), but really dense. I like to pair maple with a soft, bright-sounding wood - Sitka spruce is the clear winner, here.
Maple/Western red cedar - Good warmth, good volume, good sustain, good clarity - Western red cedar will warm up the tone of the maple a lot, but doesn't give outstanding volume (due to the softness of the Western red cedar). Looks good, sounds good, but not my favorite.
East Indian rosewood/Engelmann spruce - Very good warmth, good volume, very good sustain, good clarity. Awesome sound - rich and warm. I'm a huge fan of Engelmann spruce. It (Engelmann) sound a lot like Western red cedar, but with a bit more clarity than Western red cedar has. Rosewood is warm, rich, and dark in tone.
East Indian rosewood/Western red cedar - Very good warmth, good volume, good sustain, good clarity. One of my two daily players is this combination of woods. This combination is "king" of warm and rich. And the rosewood/Western red cedar combination is gorgeous to see.
Honduras mahogany, Engelmann spruce - Good warmth, very good volume, very good sustain, very good clarity. My "other" daily player is this wood combination. Bright, loud, and clear. Pretty, visually, but not as striking as the rosewood (in my opinion, of course!).
My two personal "daily players"? One is Honduras mahogany/Engelmann spruce - I use that one for leading jams, and for performances. My other daily player is East Indian rosewood with Western red cedar - the warmth and mellowness captured my ears, and I use that one for both performances and playing in my living room.
I suppose that I should conclude this article with a caveat. The attributes I've given to these wood are "in general". Every piece of wood is different from the next one. We recently finished a batch of twelve identical instruments for a school dulcimer club. All twelve of the instruments were black walnut/butternut, with identical string setups and scale lengths. There were no two of them that sounded alike. All twelve sounded nice, all twelve sounded like "walnut/butternut", but they all had their own character.
Thanks for reading - if you have any wood questions, we'll try to help answer them. Send Folkcraft an email, or give us a call!