Make a Mountain DulcimerComments (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.
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.
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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.
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 woodcraftmagazine.com to download the patterns.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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