Last weekend I was very privileged to be able to attend a course where I learned how to make an Appalachian dulcimer. The course took place at Greenwood Days, which runs courses in a wood on the Derbyshire/Leicestershire border, just outside Ashby-de-la-Zouch. I had attended courses there before, so knew what to expect of the venue, which is very well set up, with two good shelters for eating and working the wood, as well as a central area for shave horses and pole lathes.
The tutor was Brian Crosbie, and an excellent tutor he proved to be. The dulcimers we made used 1.5mm marine ply, since this could be bent to shape without steaming. We were provided with a jig, and the end block and head pre-made, since these were best made with electric cutters, which were not available at the site. The rest was up to us, though, and we set to. The first thing we needed to do was glue the sides to the head and tail blocks and then, using a stretcher, mark out the shapes for the front and back. These had to be cut with craft knives (box-cutters) to produce the final shape.
We then glued on some liners (small narrow strips of ply) to the inside of the instrument to provide a basis for glueing on the front and back, and hold them in place using the hi-tech method of multiple clothes pegs. While these were drying we also designed and cut out the sound holes for the front of the instrument. Traditionally, the dulcimer uses a heart-shaped hole. Initially, I fancied trying a scroll-shaped hole, such as is found on a violin, but opted in the end for a lovely birch-leaf shape as we were in a birch woodland, and it just seemed appropriate.
The front and back were then glued in place using elastic bands to provide the pressure, and we turned our attention to the neck (fretboard). We had to make the recess where the instrument is strummed, as well as knock in the frets into the marked slots – not so easy when the frets are slightly curved and want to spring out again! Eventually they went in, and we were able to offer up and glue on the neck.
Small pieces of African blackwood were used as bridges. We cut these to size and chamfered the edges so they were the correct shape to provide enough lift for the strings. Preliminary grooves were cut in them for the strings to pass through, and these could be adjusted later to change the action of the instrument if required.
Once everything was glued together, we could trim off the sides using a craft knife, and then sand everything down so it was smooth and looked pleasant to the eye. Beeswax finish was applied, and we screwed in a mandolin machine-head to take the strings. Then it was a case of stringing the instrument and tuning it – the tuning accomplished by moving the lower bridge up and down until the fretted and harmonic octave were the same. Not so easy as it looks!
It was brilliant, at the end of two days of hard work, to sit down with a group of people and play our new instruments, the instruments that we had made. They are relatively easy to play, as two bass strings are drones, like bagpipes (although you can change their pitch, they fit with the melody if you don’t do anything), then the two melody strings use a pentatonic scale, so no sharps or flats to think about. Brian was an amazingly helpful and resourceful tutor, and offered support above and beyond that of the course itself. I am inspired to try and make another one, and to learn to play the first one I made better.