Mountain Music Fills the Air: Banjos and Dulcimers: The Foxfire Americana Libray - Eliot Wigginton, Foxfire Students (2011)
Clasp the top and bottom together as they will be later. True them up, then trim, sand, and finish the edges. Round off the sharp, square edges. Do all the sanding of the parts before putting them together, as it is easier to get at some pieces. Leave only a light final sanding for the end of the process.
Be very careful from now on, as you are building an instrument you want to be proud of. Keep everything clean; work on a soft rag. A bad scratch or a mistake is hard to overcome at this stage. Remove all excess glue now, or at least mark around a glue spot for removal later. If the glue is not removed, it will make a light or white spot in the finish.
Cut the frets to length, fasten them in the fret board, file and putty the holes, and finish the fret board now (ILLUSTRATIONS 90 and 91).
Place the completed fret board on the top at the proper place and cut the top to the exact length of the fret board (ILLUSTRATION 92). Glue the peg head and peg end on the underside of the top (ILLUSTRATIONS 93 and 94, left). Apply glue to the fret board (ILLUSTRATION 94, right), and clamp it on the top (ILLUSTRATION 95). Use small brads (1/2×20 brads) to fasten the top and fret board and allow the glue to set. Any good wood glue will do if you give it enough time for curing, and remove any excess glue carefully.
Place the top on the inside of the back and mark the position where the peg head and peg end are to be attached. On the inside of the top and bottom, draw a mark from end to end about 3/16″ in from the sides (ILLUSTRATION 96). Make four glue strips about 3/8″ square with closely spaced saw notches cut in one side (ILLUSTRATION 97). Glue these flexible strips on the inside of the marks of the top and bottom (ILLUSTRATIONS 98 and 99). The sides are glued to them later.
Glue the top and bottom together and let the glue set (ILLUSTRATION 100). Cut the sides to the proper length and width, and pre-bend them by holding the back side to a source of heat and bending by hand (ILLUSTRATIONS 101 and 102). Use just a little heat, as too much will make the side brittle.
Glue the sides in place (ILLUSTRATION 103 and 104).
Trim, sand, and stain if needed (ILLUSTRATION 104). Take a lot of time and get everything just right now. There are a number of ways to do the finish, depending on the amount of gloss you desire.
Lacquer, varnish, urethane, or shellac, with sanding and steel wool rubbing between coats is good. You can use only wax, or some of the penetrating oil finishes will give a flat finish. When I build in volume, I spray on the lacquer and then wax by hand.
A standard violin peg hole taper or reamer is used to taper the holes in the peg head. This tool can be found in some music stores or at a musical instrument repair shop. You can use large violin or viola pegs or make your own of rosewood or other hardwood.
Make the string nut and bridge, glue it in place, and bore the holes for the strings in the peg end and pegs.
For the first three strings (nearest you), use an E or first guitar string, ball end. For the fourth string, use a G or third guitar string, ball end. This is a wound string and is the bass string of the dulcimer. If you use banjo strings, use two first strings, one third string, and one fourth string, which is the bass.
Tune the first and second strings to G, below Middle C, on a piano. Tune the third string to Middle C, and tune the fourth string to C, one octave below Middle C, on a piano. This is a major tuning. Pick the melody by noting the first string only. Strum the other three strings; they are the drone strings and make the same tone all the time.
Making a dulcimer is not an easy job. You will have to make some of your tools and clamps. You will also have to figure out for yourself how to do certain steps. Take plenty of time and think out each step as you go along. Do not worry about getting all the dimensions the same as those I have given here; the only thing that must be exact is the finger or fret board. Make the rest to suit yourself.
ILLUSTRATION 106 illustrate the plans for a Robert Mize dulcimer which appeared actual size in an insert in Foxfire magazine. Space has forced us to reduce this insert, but a copy of the original may be ordered from Foxfire for $1.
Photographs by Warren Gaskill.