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Building a Dulcimer

by Preston Woodruff
Brevard, NC

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Right now I'm finishing two dulcimers that are an homage to M.C. Escher. Why dulcimers? Freedom of expression mostly. Shapes, ornamentation, choice of woods – the maker has a lot of flexibility with dulcimers. I also make renaissance lutes which allow some freedom with design. A friend of mine makes solid-body guitars for the same reason -- beautiful instruments out of his imagination. The ideas keep coming.

Dulcimers aren’t indigenous to the Blue Ridge section of the southern Appalachians, but they migrated here from the Cumberland mountains well over a century ago. Traditional makers like Edd Presnell of Banner Elk, NC, used a variety of shapes and designs. Modern makers enjoy extending that freedom of expression. Prospective buyers often have good ideas that I try to work with.

"Local Woods" [Preston Woodruff sitting on a pile of logs]

Western North Carolina forests abound in walnut and cherry. Local landowners are often generous with logs from trees that must be removed. After seasoning, splitting and sawing, they become dough bowls and wooden spoons in the Appalachian Tree Works shop.

"Splitting Walnut Log" [Preston Woodruff splitting a walnut log with a froe]

Splitting a log rather than cutting it reveals where the wood's strength lies. You follow that strength when you carve out a spoon or bowl.

"Bending Dulcimer Sides" [Preston Woodruff bending cherry dulcimer sides, with a dulcimer mold to one side]

This bending iron is shopmade from an iron pipe and a charcoal lighter -- ugly, but it works. I bend wood free-hand, checking the curves occasionally inside the mold.

"Maple dulcimer" [Preston Woodruff sanding a 4-string dulcimer]

I use maple from western Pennsylvania for its curly figure.

"Instruments" [Preston Woodruff in the ATW shop with a baritone ukulele, Elizabethan lute and dulcimer]

Three recently completed instruments.

Building Process of a Courting Dulcimer

"Bending the Sides" [Preston Woodruff holding bent wood]

Some complicated bends are necessary for the sides of a courting dulcimer (to be played by two people at once). This is cherry, a little under 1/8" in thickness.

"The courting dulcimer pegbox" [Preston Woodruff's hand shaping dulcimer pegbox at an oscillating sander]

The dulcimer pegbox is built up from an interior core glued inside the dulcimer sides. It's a strong, stable construction.

"Gluing back and sides"

The back and top of the dulcimer are bookmatched thin sheets of cherry braced to counter string tension. Here, the sides and back are glued up.

"Inlays and fretwire" [Preston Woodruff's hand holding fretwire over an inlaid fingerboard]

The inlays are ebony to match the bird-shaped soundholes on the dulcimer's top. Frets have to be exactly positioned or the instrument will sound out of tune.

"Fixing Dings" [Preston Woodruff checking over the almost-complete dulcimer]

The dulcimer is almost ready for finishing with tung oil and varnish. The fretboards get a rubdown with linseed oil.

"The finished dulcimer"

"Fiddle Dulcimer" - 4-string dulcimer in local Transylvania County cherry with ebony trim.

I imagined what it would be like if you stretched the body of a violin out like taffy being pulled. This is what I came up with.

"Art Nouveau Dulcimer" - in flamed maple, with ebony trim.

I joined the traditional teardrop mountain dulcimer shape with art nouveau soundholes and inlay.


You can email Preston at prestonwoodruff@gmail.com or check out his website at www.appalachiantreeworks.com.

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