Make a Mountain Dulcimer

Comments (0)

This article is from Issue 80 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Music sounds better on a handmade instrument.

The earliest mountain dulcimers were made by Scotch-Irish immigrants who began to settle in Appalachia as early as 1680. It’s no accident that the drone strings of the mountain dulcimer are reminiscent of the resonating drone of bagpipes.

Part of this instrument’s appeal is that it can be built from locally available materials, using basic hand tools. A mountain dulcimer is also one of the easiest stringed instruments to learn to play. It doesn’t take long to master different strumming techniques and bar chords. Before you know it, you’re a folk singer.

The simplest traditional designs feature a rectangular sound box and frets made from bailing wire. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you can find intricately curved dulcimers with carved and inlaid details like you’d see on an expensive guitar. The dulcimer I’m building here—and the one shown above—occupy the middle ground. Just ahead, I’ll show you how to make an heirloom-quality dulcimer that’s fun to play on your own or to give as a gift to any aspiring musician. Let’s play.

Hardware kit. The dulcimer in this article was built with a kit from FolkCraft (see p. 64). Consider adding a fretsaw to your order, and the special bit used to drill holes for the anchor pins that hold the strings at the bottom of the dulcimer.

Book-matched top and back, guitar-style head, and simple sound holes

Like many stringed instruments, a mountain dulcimer’s curved sides improve sound reflection. Those curves can form a teardrop or an hourglass. The teardrop dulcimer shown here is easier to build because you don’t need steam or a bending iron to make the sides. The pleasing shape produces a full, mellow sound. The depth of the sound box (back and sides) provides a good balance between low and high notes.

This four-string dulcimer has a guitar-type peg head that’s easier to make than the traditional scroll-type.

Clear quartersawn wood like cypress or sycamore offer stability and good acoustics to the soundboard (top). Use clear, flatsawn hardwood such as cherry or maple for the sound box and fret board. Kiln-dried stock will be less likely to warp or crack. Straight grain for the sides makes for easier bending. I avoid wood with defects or wild grain patterns that are difficult to work.

For this dulcimer, I chose walnut for the sound box and fret board and sassafras for the soundboard. Contrasting woods like these add visual interest.


Visit our website for bonus material.

Order of Work

  • Make the head block, tail block, peg head, and braces.
  • Resaw the top (soundboard) and back boards to create book-matched pairs. Then glue up the soundboard and back.
  • Cut the sides and kerfing strips. Glue the sides to the head block and tail block. Then brace the sides and add the kerfing strips.
  • Make the fret board and cut the strum hollow. Cut slots for the frets, nut, and bridge. Then install the frets.
  • Cut the back and soundboard 1⁄8" oversize, and brace the soundboard.
  • Glue the fret board to the soundboard, and then glue up the back and sides (sound box). Now, glue the soundboard to the sound box.
  • Attach the peg head. Then trim everything flush and sand.
  • Apply finish, then insert the nut, saddle, pins, and pegs.
  • Now string it up and start playing.

Cutting the head stock. Before cutting to shape, drill the holes for the peg heads. Use a drill bit the same diameter as the tuning pin grommets. In this case, 9⁄32".

Cut blocks and braces from patterns

Start by making the small but important parts that hold the dulcimer together. All the parts listed below can be cut from a single 1 × 4 × 36"-long blank. Download full-sized patterns for head and tail blocks, braces, and peg head from our website. Affix the patterns to your blank, and bandsaw to size (see box below). Before cutting the peg head to shape, drill holes for the tuning pins and cut the 6° angle where the peg head meets the nut. Finish-sand all these parts to 220 grit. 

Go to to download the patterns.

Starting Blocks

Here are the blank sizes to prepare:

  • Head block: 11⁄2 × 11⁄2 × 4"
  • Tail block: 13⁄8 × 11⁄2 × 21⁄2"
  • Peg head: 3⁄4 × 21⁄2 × 5"
  • Braces: 3⁄4 × 11⁄8 × 7"

This yields two braces—one for the back and sides and one for the soundboard.

Make the top and back from book-matched boards

A fine stringed instrument is sure to have a book-matched soundboard and back, which you make by resawing thicker stock into matching halves that are glued together. Make sure you have a good resaw blade in your bandsaw for best results.

Surface and edge joint three 1 × 4 × 36" blanks: one for the soundboard’s book-matched halves, one for the back halves and sides, and one for the fret board.

Resaw the back and soundboard to a thickness of 3/16", and then use a hand plane or a thickness sander to surface the back and soundboard to 1/8" thick.

Joint book-matched pieces on a shooting board. Clamp each pair of surfaced book-matched pieces together on a shooting board, so their joining edges can be planed straight at the same time. Run the side of the plane flat on the workbench to take a series of light jointing cuts. Periodically test the joint. When gaps between pieces disappear, you’re ready for glue-up. 
Glue book-matched boards together between stationary blocks. Gluing up thin stock like this requires a special technique. Set up blocks (or wood handscrew clamps, as shown at left) so that joining edges form a “tent” about 1⁄4" high. Place paper under the glue joint. Apply glue to joining edges, and press the two halves down flat onto the work surface. Set weights on the wood to hold it flat until the glue has cured. Repeat the process for the soundboard.

Sides, head, and tail. Glue the sides to the head block, and clamp the joint fast. Then glue the sides into the slots in the tail block. You won’t need clamps for this part.

Shape and brace the sides

Here, you’ll form the teardrop shape of your dulcimer. But first, make the sides and kerfing strips. Use the third piece resawn from the back, and rip two pieces 1-3/8" wide. Cut them 31-1/2" long, and surface to 1/8" thick. Rip four pieces 1/8" wide from the remaining stock to make the kerfing strips. Before glue-up, dry-fit the sides to the head and tail blocks. Make sure you have a dead-flat surface for this assembly.

A brace sets the shape. Glue the bottom brace to the sides about 7" from the tail block. Make sure the bottom of the brace is even with the bottom edges of the sides. The pressure of the wood will hold it in place without clamps.

Kerfing and clothes pins. Glue 1⁄8 × 3⁄16" kerfing strips even with the top edges of the sides, using clothespins as clamps. After the glue cures, sand the top edges flat. Then flip the assembly over, and repeat the process to reinforce the bottom edges of the sides.

Make the fret board carefully

While most aspects of dulcimer building allow for variations, the fret board must be precisely built. Start by downloading the strum hollow pattern and fret scale on our website (see onlineEXTRAS). Then cut the fret board blank to its finished size of 3/4 × 1-3/8 × 27-3/4", and cut 1/8"-wide slots for the nut and saddle on the table saw. The slots should be just wide enough for a snug fit, and deep enough for the nut to be about 3/16" above the fret board. Make sure the distance between the nut and saddle is exactly 26-1/2" (inside to inside measurement). Next comes the strum hollow, a dip in the fret board that enables you to strum without scraping against the fret board. Affix the strum hollow pattern to the edge of the fret board, cut it out on the bandsaw, then sand it smooth. Your last task before beginning on the frets is to give the fret board its final sanding. Go all the way through 400 grit so your fingers will glide effortlessly.

Mark frets precisely. Make a 90° marking and cutting jig like mine so you can precisely scribe and cut the slots where frets will be installed. Measure fret scale distances from the nut, and scribe fret locations with a sharp knife.
Cut kerfs to match frets. The luthier’s fretsaw is designed to cut a kerf that holds the fret when the tang is tapped in place so the profile seats solidly against the fret board surface. If using any other type of saw, first make a test cut to be sure you get a good fit. Then clamp the marking and cutting guide in place to make a 1⁄16"-deep cut at each fret scribe line.

Set the frets. Stand the fret wire in the fret slot, and tap it into the slot with a small brass hammer. The brass is soft enough to seat the fret fully without damaging it.

Cut to length. Use wire cutters to cut the fret to length. Don’t worry about cutting it flush to the fret board. That happens in the next step.
Trim ends flush. Use a rotary tool to trim the frets even with the fret board. Then use a fine metal file to remove any burrs, making fret ends smooth to the touch.

Brace the soundboard. Glue the top brace to the underside of the widest place on the soundboard.

Assemble the dulcimer and cut the sound holes

Now your dulcimer will start taking shape. Center the back to the body, and trace the profile. Repeat for the soundboard, and then cut out the pieces on the bandsaw. Leave about 1/8" outside the cutline for a little “wiggle room” when gluing it up.

Start the assembly process by bracing the back of the soundboard and gluing and clamping the fret board. While that cures, glue the back to the sides. Keep your best side facing out so the best book-match will be visible. Now glue on the peg head, making sure that everything is tight and square.

There are many traditional shapes for the sound holes cut into the soundboard. The simplest are round holes, which can be cut with a Forstener bit or hole saw. Just remember not to locate sound holes where you will be cutting through the brace.

Attach the fret board to the soundboard. Set the soundboard in place on the sides, and center the fret board on the soundboard to ensure proper alignment. Use a pencil to lightly mark the fret board’s location. Now remove the fret board and soundboard from the sides. Using the pencil marks as a guide, glue the fret board to the soundboard.
Glue up the sound box. Clamping the back to the sides is tricky. But special clamps made from 11⁄2" schedule 40 PVC are just the fix. These handy helpers are about 1⁄4" wide with a 1⁄2" gap. You can make a couple dozen in just a few minutes, and they will prove useful in other woodworking projects. Make sure the dulcimer back overhangs the sides all the way around. After the glue has cured, repeat this process to attach the soundboard.

Glue the peg head to the head stock. It should be aligned with the fret board and fit tight against it. Trim, if necessary to get a good fit.

Fit the nut and saddle. These two parts hold the strings in place, and may need to be adjusted as described below if the strings set too high above the frets. The end with two slots close together goes toward you when the dulcimer is in playing position. NOTE: The FolkCraft nut shown here is pre-grooved for dulcimers that hold three or four strings, so there are more string grooves than you’ll need.

Get set for strings, then start strummin’!

The magic moment for any luthier is the first time an instrument gets its strings. In the photos shown below, you’ll notice that I’m stringing up this dulcimer before flush-trimming the bottom and soundboard—an early test run that many instrument makers (including me) can’t resist. To truly finish the job, use a flush-trim bit in a router to trim the soundboard and bottom flush with the sides, then final-sand your dulcimer and apply your finish. My favorite treatment is to saturate the wood with boiled linseed oil, then apply several costs of satin wipe-on poly. 

Add the tuning pins. Tap in the grommets for the tuning pins, and then screw the tuning pins in place. Orient the hardware so that it points to the end of the peg head, as shown.

Set the anchor pins. Use a #49 wire gauge drill bit to drill four holes in the tail block for the anchor pins. Tap the anchor pins into the tail block, leaving about 1⁄8" exposed for the strings to hook onto.
String it up! The two lightest strings go in the pair of grooves closest together. The heaviest string slot is on the far side of the nut, and the middle string goes in the center groove. Tighten the strings with just enough tension to get a clear tone, and then clip off the excess string. Strings should sit 1⁄8" above the last fret (the one closest to the saddle), and 1⁄16" above the first fret. To lower the string height, remove the nut or saddle and file the bottom. Insert shims to raise the strings. Nice work! Now we’re ready for a song.

Tuning your dulcimer

There are many tunings for the dulcimer, but let’s start out with the “DAA” tuning, in which the lowest string is tuned to “D”, and the other three strings are tuned to the “A” above that (they should have the same pitch as the low string at the fourth fret).


Write Comment

Write Comment

You must be logged in to write a comment. Log In

Top of Page