Mountain Music Fills the Air: Banjos and Dulcimers: The Foxfire Americana Libray - Eliot Wigginton, Foxfire Students (2011)
ROBERT MIZE, DULCIMER MAKER
Robert Mize was born and raised in our county, and he still has enough folks here to have good reason to make the trip down from Blountville, Tennessee, with some regularity. Nowadays, when he comes through, he stops by, and more often than not he brings along a new dulcimer or two—just finished—and either he or one of his children winds up playing it for us.
Several months ago, he stopped in as the result of a request we had sent him via one of his nieces some two years before to give us a hand putting together an article on his method of dulcimer construction. He offered to write the article for us, and we accepted.
It’s an honor for us to have his directions, for he truly knows what he’s doing—one of the reasons why he’s a favorite craftsman member of the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild. He’s made more dulcimers than anyone we know. Each one is sequentially numbered, and as he packed up his newest one after showing it to us on his last visit, we noticed its number on the end of the box: 666.
The mountain dulcimer is an instrument whose origin is somewhat a mystery. And after having read several articles and opinions of others, I still know very little about where they come from. I believe they have always been here in the Appalachian area. One thing I do know is how to build them. In this section, I will try to explain some of the steps and procedures used in making them. Of course, there is more to it than this, and after over six hundred, I am still learning new tricks.
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There is no standard-sized or -shaped dulcimer. Every maker has the one he likes best. I use the same general pattern and vary the type of wood, or number of strings. Kentucky, Mountain, and Appalachian are all names for the plucked dulcimer, which may have any number of strings. Mountain people call them “dulcymores” or “delcymores.”
The dulcimer we refer to is the plucked dulcimer and should not be confused with the hammered dulcimer, which is a forerunner of the piano. The hammered dulcimer has many strings and is played by striking the strings with small wooden hammers.
The word “dulcimer” is derived from the Latin word “dulce,” and the Greek word “melos,” which put together mean “sweetsong” or “sweet tune.” This truly describes the dulcimer, as it is a soft-voiced, personal-type instrument which can be easily tuned to the range of your voice. This makes the dulcimer a natural for playing hymns, ballads, and folk songs. Like the five-string banjo, it seems to be an authentic American musical instrument.
I was born and raised in Clayton, Rabun County, Georgia, and never saw nor heard of the dulcimer until the late 1940s. Some of the craftsmen of the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild began making them, using old ones for patterns. Their popularity has been growing ever since, especially in the last few years, with the revival of the folk music and handicrafts. I don’t know if anyone owned or knew of dulcimers in Rabun County be-fore this time.
Many different woods may be used. I make a combination of wormy chestnut, butternut, gum or sassafras for the top, and all other parts from black walnut. I also make them using cherry for all parts, or curly maple. Bird’s-eye, or highly figured maple, is very difficult to work. It is also heavy.
The combination of a hardwood on back and sides, with softer wood for top, gives a good mellow sound, and the contrast of two woods is pleasing to see. Cherry on back and sides, and California redwood on top will make a soft tone. Butternut and walnut are also good. I use a lot of wormy chestnut with walnut. The color, grain, and worm holes make a nice looking top, and also a good tone.
Different woods will affect the tone of the instrument somewhat, although the size and shape of the sound holes have very little effect, except for looks. I use an “F” shape, like in a violin, for most of mine: but I do make heart, diamond, or other shapes when requested to do so.
I have used many different woods, such as apple, red elm, oak, sourwood, gum, pecan, cedar, beech, birch, sassafras, chestnut, butternut, walnut, cherry, maple, and others. Most of these were only to see what they would look and sound like. If you stick with black walnut for the back, and butternut, gum, chestnut, or poplar on top, you can get good results. Curly poplar of the deep purple color makes an exceptional dulcimer. The wood is not as important as the construction, and each instrument should be better than the last.
The dulcimers I make for sale are made as nearly like the old traditional ones as I can get them. No fancy inlays of exotic woods, no veneers or plywood, just good, dry wood like that used by the early craftsmen. I do not use metal guitar-tuning keys, but make wooden keys from Brazilian rosewood. I use modern techniques, glue, and finishes.
All wood used should be kiln-dried unless you are sure it is thoroughly air-dried, to control shrinking and cracking in low humidity. As we cannot control the environment around the dulcimer, we try to protect the dulcimer from the extremes of humidity. Our modern homes get very dry in the wintertime and air conditioning keeps the humidity low the rest of the time.
I apply two heavy coats of sanding sealer lacquer, then two coats of finish lacquer, hand rub with steel wool after each coat of lacquer, and wax with a good paste furniture wax. A dulcimer must be a good musical instrument, and if it looks good also, so much the better, but musical quality comes first.
I will describe and make a four-string dulcimer of wormy chestnut and black walnut, in the shape generally known as the elongated hour glass. We will make all parts, rough sand, assemble the parts, trim, finish sand, apply the finish, hand rub, wax, string, tune up, and, hopefully, play.