Building a Mountain Dulcimer

There are two kinds of instruments commonly called "Dulcimer" here in the U.S. The hammered dulcimer is familiar in the British Isles as a "dulcimer" and in a different form in Ireland as the tiompan. In the middle east and India it's called a santoor or santouri. It consists of a box with two or more bridges, across which strings are stretched and struck with "hammers" (usually flexible wooden sticks with heads of bare wood or covered with leather or cloth). It is the ancestor of the piano, using striking rather than plucking to activate the strings.

The Mountain Dulcimer is not this beast. The Mountain Dulcimer is a long, narrow fretted instrument that is held across the lap or on a table and strummed or plucked with one hand while the other hand presses the strings against the frets. It has several European ancestors, such as the Epinette des Vosges of France and the Scheitholt of Germany, but in its American form, it's a characteristically Appalachian instrument. You can hear the dulcimer on the recordings of Jean Ritchie (click her name to go to and hear samples of her CD The Most Dulcimer.) and Richard Fariña. It's the odd strummy sound on several tunes on Joni Mitchell's Blue  

Because a Mountain Dulcimer (also called "Appalachian Dulcimer" or "Dulcimore") is a folk instrument, it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most common are the teardrop and hourglass shapes. At left is a teardrop dulcimer. The top holds the tuning knobs and the body or box is the entire length of the instrument. The neck, which holds the frets, also runs the length of the instrument, and you can see the "strum hollow" carved out of the neck just above the bridge, near the bottom of the  picture. Add some mechanism for holding the strings at the bottom (in the pictured instrument, ball-end strings are used, and they go through holes in the tail piece), and that's the whole mechanism. The strings are steel, there are four of them. 

The instrument is held on the lap with the tuners to the left (for a right-hander). The two strings nearest the player are close together and are tuned alike and played as a single course. The string guages are usually equivalent to a guitar high-E for the first three strings and a guitar G string for the fourth, and are tuned, variously, DAA, DAD, or several other combinations, depending on the tune. The scale length (the vibrating length of an open string ranges from 24 to thirty inches. 

The dulcimer pictured at left is one of the first instruments I built. The one at right, a traditional "hourglass" shape, is the one I built for this web presentation.

Part 1 - Preparing the Materials

While a guitar is made of expensive, specialized materials in pieces that are too wide for my rickety old bandsaw to slice, the homey mountain dulcimer is traditionally made of  whatever native woods are around -- cherry, butternut, local spruce -- or, in these times, whatever's cheap at the local yard. In my case I got a pile of mahogany (probably Honduran, advertised as "genuine" -- as opposed, I suppose, to lauan) for harp-building, a couple of pieces of which will do nicely for my Mountain Dulcimer.

Since it's a down-home kind of instrument, I'm going to do everything from plain planks. That means slicing the material for the top, back, and sides down to 1/8" thickness. I've had little luck with that operation in the past, always coming up with slices that ran off one side or the other. I was doing it just by setting the fence and going. I looked around and saw several references to single-point (or rather single-line) supports for resawing for thin plates. Here's the fixture I came up with. It makes it easy to make sure that the whole height of the wood is in contact with the guide, and allows "steering" the wood straight into the blade if the cut wobbles or veers, as it often does.

The whole plank can be held flat against the guide with one hand while the other hand pushes and steers the wood. When I get close to the end, of course, I pick up a push stick. Through all the projects, I still have all the fingers I was born with. I'm trying to figure out a way to get my hand out of this picture.

Cutting all the plates from one board allows them to be "book-matched", meaning that successive slices can be put back in the order in which they came from the tree, and then opened like a book to yield matching figure patterns as you can see here. One of these pairs will be the back and the other the "top" or soundboard. The sides will be mahogany as will be the head and tailpieces. Only the fingerboard will be of another wood, probably walnut. Mahogany is too soft to hold the frets.

Like the guitar (and unlike the harp) this will be primarily a hand-tool project. Here the Japanese Ryobi saw is used to cross-cut a plank of mahogany to length for slicing into pieces for the sides. While I'm a hand-tool enjoyer, I'm no dogmatist or neanderthal. For ripping this plank to width and resawing, I turn to the bandsaw.


After ripping and resawing, the thin pieces are slightly uneven in thickness and have a rough surface. Here the Smooth Plane is used to dress a side.

When the surface is nearly ready, the plane lifts long, wide curls of wood, and the wood gleams.

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Copyright © 2003 Stephen Miklos