Jul 07 2018

The Lucky Diamond Dulcimer

From time to time, I am asked to do some dulcimer improvement or repair work. For the most part, this will involve procedures such as adding a 6 and-a-half fret, fixing a buzz in a fretboard, or even creating a new fingerboard.V

I will take on most of these jobs if I feel confident that I can affect the repairs without glaring changes of the basic structure of the instrument. I feel that creating a dulcimer is, first and foremost, an art form and a reflection of the builder’s eye, expertise, and passion. Nevertheless, it’s important that the instrument can be actually played; not only relegated to being a piece of art hanging on the wall.

In May, I was contacted by Mike, the owner of a local clock repair shop, about restoring a “Lucky Diamond” dulcimer. I was curious, and of course was keen to accept a challenge.

It turns out that this is a somewhat famous instrument with an interesting history. Lucky and Louise Diamond were furniture builders in Maryland who began building fine dulcimers back in the early 1970’s. Their dulcimers were specially designed to be loud enough to hold their own while jamming with other instruments. In conducting my research, I found several excellent references referring to the Diamonds, their creations, and their lifestyle. One was a Washington Post article that appeared in 1978. Another one was an eBay listing for a Diamond dulcimer with fascinating eye-witness accounts of experiences with the Diamonds culled from some forum postings.

The damage to the dulcimer is obvious. Mike said that it was leaning against a wall and got knocked over accidentally, snapping off the peg-head. This apparently happened years ago, but once he found out about me (through a mutual friend) he decided to see if it could be restored. What makes this extra-special is the builder’s info written on the inside, which includes “Built for Mike” and the date 1977. That also means this dulcimer was built only a year after I created my first one.

Restoration

I couldn’t start work on the Diamond dulcimer immediately. Other projects, trips to Tennessee, and a busy campaign for School Board intervened, but eventually I carved out some time to devote to the project.

This wasn’t going to be easy. The peg-head must be rock solid — otherwise, the tension of the strings may supply enough force to pop it back off, or at least prevent the strings from holding a pitch. Contributing to the problem (and the reason for the clean break in the first place) was a design flaw–the peg-head was attached to the body by an internal block of wood whose grain ran from side-to-side rather than from the peg-head into the body.

I always try to preserve the original integrity of an instrument which means that I hesitate to employ any corrective shaping or additional coat of finish (that may or may not match). This necessitated that I glue the peg-head in exactly the right place. I surmised that some sort of dowel was needed to reinforce the peg-head. To match it up perfectly, I drilled one hole and filled the hole with cotton. Then, I saturated the cotton with ink and correctly aligned the pieces together. I then drilled out the resulting mark.

My first attempt used a half-inch dowel and regular wood glue, and was not nearly strong enough. I did not own forstner bits, but realized that’s what I needed in this situation. I also acquired the strongest glue I could find: JB Weld epoxy. Once again using the cotton/ink procedure, I drilled out a 1″ hole and prepared the larger dowel.

I carefully slathered on the epoxy…

and secured the pieces together.

Notice in the picture above that there are holes for six pegs. This dulcimer is technically a deluxe six-string instrument (three-strings doubled), but it came to me with only four pegs. This is just as well, since I needed to minimize the string tension to help preserve the repair. The dulcimer also was missing its bridge.

After fabricating a bridge and adding four new strings, she was once again ready to make some music.

Feb 20 2017

The Pick of the Litter

 Finally worked my way to the final details of the pegs, nut, bridge, and strings. I had decided to go traditional and install violin pegs. It would really look sharp, but make it more difficult to get into exact tune.

To help alleviate this, I allowed for the installation of fine tuning beads at the tail-end of the instrument. Sliding these up and down just a little will pinpoint the pitch. I had seen these on another dulcimer, but this is the first time I have included them in one of my constructions.

 

I tracked down Jasmine, the inspiration for this dulcimer, and introduced her to the new addition to the family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, the reamer that I used to install the pegs was not the right size. I thought I could sneak up on it, but the force from the strings wouldn’t allow one of the pegs to keep it tight and in tune. Three of them seemed to work fine, but I really like a 4-stringed instrument. I rummaged around and dug out some old metal friction pegs that needed some polishing and a bit of finagling to install, but finally managed the task.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dulcimer #47 is in the books–I have a new instrument to lug around with me. Hmmm…now I need a new carrying case. New project!

Feb 17 2017

Down the Home Stretch

 Thanks to careful design, everything is fitting together nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first coat of polyurethane.

This’ll be finished sometime this weekend.

 

Feb 14 2017

Putting It All Together

With the peghead completed, it was time to do some shaping, adding sound holes and gluing things together.

Feb 13 2017

Headaches

Carving makes me a little nervous. One false move and the whole piece can be ruined. The woodcarving knives that I’ve had for a long time are basically cheap junk. To work the large-scale removal, I used a multi-tool and chisels. I then purchased a new variable-speed Dremel tool and a bunch of different carving bits.

I took the peghead to a Civil War reenactment, intending to whittle beside the fire. Ha! The walnut was so hard to work with that the minuscule slivers I was able to trim were frustrating at best. I paid for that with blisters after about an hour and decided that life was too short for that. I’ll stick with the power tools, thank you very much.

I didn’t stop very often to take pictures of the head in these mid-stages.

The eyes worried me. I tried to shape the eyeballs, but it was either out-of-round or lop-sided. Eventually, I decided to make pits and find a different medium for the eyeballs.

Here is an early experiment. Uh, no–this thing is going to be a bit cartoonish anyway, because I only marginally know what I’m doing. This is hysterical and wrong, but on the right track.

So I went to Michaels In Ocala and found exactly what I I thought would work. I drilled into the eye sockets and
inserted a couple of half-beads, then shaped and added eyelids, and finally got the effect I was looking for. At first, though, the eyelids were straight across and looked a little brooding or judgmental. I imagined myself playing the instrument, and he’d be dogging me, saying “You should be a better player after 40 years…”

So with a little whick of an exacto blade, I gave him a slightly more quizzical look. I also shaped the ears and went to work on the nose. I used a small power rasp to simulate hair.

 

 

 

 Whew! I think I can live with this

Feb 01 2017

Choosing the Wood

I want this instrument to be unique and reflective of my passion for the craft of lutherie. Since I work mostly in walnut, I’ve decided to use that for the back and sides (as usual). The top, however, will be my favorite type of wood: wormy chestnut.

All the American Chestnut trees contracted a blight back in the 1930s and never recovered. These trees were some of the largest in the old-growth forests that existed in places such as my native Smoky Mountains. During a hike back in college, I saw the carcass of a 150′ chestnut tree that must have been at least 12′ in diameter. Occasionally, these have been logged, but because there is no new growth, the lumber becomes more and more rare (and expensive).

I’m actually down to a few boards that I’ve set aside years ago. How I acquired this stash is another story:

Around 1985, I was teaching 4th grade at Crystal River Primary School and waiting tables at a fine-dining restaurant called “The Prime Minister”. One evening, I had a customer — an older gentleman dining alone — who proved to be a good conversationalist and we hit it off immediately. We discovered that we shared a woodworking hobby. I told him of my dulcimer-building and we talked about the types of wood with which we had worked. After mentioning that wormy chestnut was my favorite, he looked at me kinda funny and said, “I have a warehouse in Orlando in which I have 60 board feet of wormy chestnut. Tell you what–I’ll give you the lumber if you’ll build me a dulcimer with some of it.” Of course, it was a deal I couldn’t pass up. We stayed in contact over the next several weeks (I built the dulcimer with the chestnut I had on hand) and we made the exchange at a mall in Leesburg. This is part of the last few feet of this gift.

Here are the boards resawn with the tablesaw and bandsaw, then bookmatched and glued. After cutting the sides out, I discovered that there were worm tracks in the walnut. I could flip them and use the unblemished side, but my new mantra is “embrace the imperfections” and the walnut worm tracks will complement the wormy chestnut. Maybe the mantra should be “embrace the worms”.

Things are beginning to take shape.

Jan 24 2017

This One Is For Me

I have been planning a new dulcimer for myself for about 5 years, but always seemed to have other projects that took precedence or I just chickened out on what was necessary to accomplish it. I wanted to do a carving on the peghead, and this just made me nervous. I have done two dulcimers featuring carvings: I carved a bear’s head on dulcimer #10 in 1980 (which I still have) and created a gator-head on a dulcimer that I did in the mid-eighties and traded for a 1926 Victrola.

So, I decided to throw caution to the winds and create a one-of-a-kind dulcimer with a motif. My inspiration was our “pound puppy”, Jasmine– a beagle mix who has been part of the family for about 11 years.

I started with the trickiest part–the peghead that I planned to carve. I used my template for a regular peghead and added some large blocks.

 

I had found a tiny toy hound dog that resembled Jasmine, and used it to create some templates (The toy held still a lot better than the dog did).

I began to cut away the parts that didn’t look like a dog.

Abandoning the peghead for the time being, I switched to creating the fretboard (with a 28″ scale length).

Dec 27 2016

Cross-Country Delivery Complete

This is being posted after the dust has cleared from the Christmas Celebrations. I am happy to report that the bass arrived unscathed to Central Oregon on December 21 — one week after she was shipped.

This is Jon, the proud owner and co-designer of dulcimer #46 (I’m not sure if he’s named her yet). Jon is an accomplished musician and woodworker, who unfortunately had a run-in with his tablesaw last month and came out the worst for it. Here’s hoping for a rapid healing process.

Congratulations on your new baby!

Dec 03 2016

Dulcimer #46 is complete!

After a coat of paste wax and installing the tuning machines, I attached the acoustic bass strings and carefully located the bridge in the optimum place.

On the evening of Friday, December 2nd, I joined the Naturecoast Dulcimer Players on the front porch of an historic house in nearby Floral City and played 2 hours of Christmas music for the passers-by. I had several arrangements of the music for the bass dulcimer, so I was able to put her through her paces. Richness and depth of the tone of this instrument is very impressive, if I say so myself.

head-cu

tail

finish-pose

playout

Nov 30 2016

Assembly and Detail Work

Finally reached the point where the shaping and prep work is finished;  the assembly and detail work begins. First, the peg head and tail stock is glued to the top, then prepped for the back.

head-tail-attachglue

The back is clamped into place and the sides are sanded down thinly.

top-and-backside-prep

The sides are steamed to make them pliable, then glued to the strips and held in place by special clamps.

side-applysides-done

All parts of the instrument are hand trimmed and carefully sanded down. Two coats of polyurethane are hand-rubbed onto the dulcimer. Almost there…

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