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My two most recent, all together. Plenty of detail work left before moving onto the varnishing, but I can now heft them to my shoulder and they feel like fiddles. That's fun.
The plates, top and back, are done to the point that they can be glued onto the ribs. So this means the ribs have to come off the forms. I have linings both top and bottom, the first step for removal is to trim these from square to tapered. All sorts of ways to do that. What you basically want is a big surface at the outside, to create a bigger gluing surface, tapered down to thin on the inside, to reduce weight and stiffness.
I take a compass and set the pencil at about half the width of the lining, in the vertical sense, and trace out a line on the linings all the way around, top and bottom. Then a sharp knife, cut a bevel from the line to the inside edge, tapering down to meet the rib. I usually make a few nicks on the form and on the ribs, but nothing so much to worry about. And it doesn’t need to be perfect right here, because I’ll clean it up later after the ribs are off the form.
Once the linings are trimmed, I use a small hammer and knock the blocks loose from the form. Then a flat chisel, I strike diagonal cuts to take out the ‘inside’ corners that will disappear anyway.
When those fragments are out, it’s a matter of carefully loosening the ribs -- may have a few accidental glue spots that you don’t want to rush loose -- and then bending the ribs outward a bit, tipping the form as you go. I start at the C-bouts and work towards the larger, lower bouts. Once the endblock is free, you’re pretty much done with the removal.
Then, trim up the blocks and clean up the linings a bit.
Next, glue on a plate or two.
Yes, another post about the joy of sanding dulcimers.
A while back I mentioned possibly making dulcimers without sanding someday. Someone took me up on it!
I made a dulcimer with a bare minimum of sanding. Scrapers and files accomplished about 90% of the surface preparation. Sandpaper was still needed to soften some edges, get a good surface on the fingerboard, and to clean up a few small messes.
I spent much more time and effort than usual burnishing the wood with cloth before applying the finish. The extensive burnishing combined with using fine abrasive pads while applying the finish produced a result nearly identical to what I carry out by hand sanding. The process took about the same amount of time as hand sanding but it was the first time I had tried this. I am hoping I will gain speed as I become more familiar with new technique.
The minimally sanded dulcimer did show a few imperfections and hand tool marks that would have been eliminated by further hand sanding but to my eye and hand they add to the charm of the dulcimer.
Still, it is not yet time to abandon lots of sanding on a regular basis.
In the photo you can see my warm weather dust cloud elimination system. A small fan blows dust away from the dulcimer (and the dulcimer maker) towards a window fan that blows the dust outside. This simple setup works surprisingly well.
During the colder months I replace the window fan with a home-made air-cleaner; a box fan with a furnace filter taped to one side.
And I do wear a dust mask!
On another topic; after doing some updates on my website something went wrong and about 10 years of photographs have dropped noticeably in quality. Something malfunctioned and over-optimized my photographs. This becomes painfully obvious when you click on an image and see it at a larger size.
I figured out how to avoid this on current photographs.
It’s just another adventure in being self-employed and learning to do everything myself!
Shaping the neck is one of the toughest jobs for me. It's the one place the musician actually touches the instrument, and that is with the hand, probably the most sensitive spot for touch on the human body. Any bump or dip or other weirdness in the neck is easily found and soon becomes annoying.
For the violin maker, the neck is further complicated by the usual material, highly figured maple. It likes to flake out, chip out, at the worst possible place. As is common, I use a saw to make a series of cuts arong the neck, using the Japanese saw in the background, center right. After that, I then chip it out with a chisel and mallet. I use a cheap, but easy to sharpen chisel and a wooden mallet, shown here on the left of the photo here.
My experience has taught me two things about myself. First, in any series of cuts, I'll make one too deep, cutting into material that I actually didn't intend to cut into and then wishing I could then go back in time and yell "Stop" at myself.
The other is that no matter how careful I am with the chisel, I am going to get too close to the final surface and chip out a bit of flamed maple. There's really no good way to glue one of these little pieces back in, if you can find it among the debris on the bench or floor.
So, now I don't cut as deep with the saw. I don't take such big swipes with the chisel. And I'm left with a surface that is a bit farther away from the finished edge. That's where the big rasp comes in. This one has coarse teeth and is heavy and long enough to hold with both hands, one on either end. I can push and take off a decent amount of material without too much fear of chip-out, and it's wide enough that I am getting the beginnings of the smooth surface a musician will not even notice.
Plenty of rasps fill this need. This particular one I got from Stewart-MacDonald, which they call "Dragon Hand-cut Rasp, Large, Coarse." You could do worse.
By the way, I paid full retail for this rasp, and am not being repaid by Stewart-MacDonald or anyone else. A good tool is worth its price.
For those of you who follow my blog you may remember an earlier post about this plane and in that post I said I would not sell it. I have changed my mind. If you are a collector and looking for a fairly rare combination plane, this Fales' plane is for you.
The other day I noticed an unsightly gap in the binding around the soundboard of a dulcimer I am currently working on. Small gaps are not uncommon when binding an instrument and there are several methods for filling them.
This gap was large enough to cause me to consider removing the binding and starting again. The gap was about 2 inches long and barely open enough to catch a fingernail (my default tool for checking gaps) but I would not have slept well just filling it and calling the job done. No one would ever know but I would know I could and should have done better.
Before replacing the binding on one side of the dulcimer I thought I’d try another method of repair. At best it might solve the problem, at worst I might aggravate the problem but I was going to replace the binding anyway.
I ran hot water into the gap several times with a pipette to soften the glue and clamped the binding against the body to close the gap.
After a few hours I took off the clamp and the gap was barely noticeable. The soundboard had swollen a little due to applying hot water so I let the repair dry over night.
The next day most of the swelling had left the soundboard and after cleaning up the area with a scraper and file the gap was almost invisible. After applying a small amount of filler and a bit of spot sanding the gap was gone.
Mandolin and ukulele duo.
I have put sound ports in the sides of my dulcimers for a few years and have been very pleased with the results.
Sound ports are nothing new in the guitar world but I had not seen them used on dulcimers though perhaps someone has thought of this before.
There is no standardization of dulcimer design or “right way” to go about getting the results one wants. Dulcimer builders whose work I admire each have a unique way of getting the sound they want. Materials and design elements that work on one maker’s design may or may not work well on another builder’s dulcimers. This is part of the adventure and part of the fun!
My dulcimer design is in a state of constant evolution. Over the last few years I was looking for ways to increase the volume without losing tonal quality and even response along the fingerboard.
It is easy to make a loud dulcimer but I do not find it easy to listen to many loud dulcimers I have heard. Many loud dulcimers have little sustain and/or often have uneven volume and response along the fingerboard.
The tone I prefer is somewhat traditional; long sustain and a slightly nasal quality with warmth and even response. I did not want to trade that sound for volume.
As I made design changes to make my dulcimers louder I was on the edge of losing the tone I prefer. It became clear that if I made louder dulcimers and wanted to keep the tone and responsiveness I prefer I would also need to give the dulcimers larger sound holes.
The size of the sound hole(s) on a stringed instrument play an important role in which frequencies get emphasized or minimized. The most critical element is the total size of all openings on the instrument. One large hole will produce sound like two holes that are each half the diameter of the large hole, etc.
Dulcimers have relatively little soundboard as they are long and thin instruments. I wanted the effect of larger sound holes but I did not want to lose any more of the wood that makes up the soundboard. The obvious choice was to put added sound holes somewhere other than on the soundboard. The sides were the obvious choice.
And it worked! I got more volume, balanced tone, birds were singing, flowers smiled, and all was well with the world.
Mark Twain, American writer
I realized the other day that I started this blog ten years ago!
My first post was on September 2, 1997.
My wife was the one who encouraged me to start a blog, she thought it was a good venue for me to become known as a guitar maker, to sell my guitars and to connect with others in the woodworking world.
I have met several wonderful people who are professional woodworkers through the blog, but I am still waiting for my first guitar sale because of the blog. All of my sales have resulted from people actually seeing and playing my guitars, either at guitar festivals, lectures I give at universities, or when players stop by my shop because someone told them I make wonderful guitars.
The Internet has done much to disseminate woodworking information, it's a little scary to see how much information there is online! When I started woodworking, if there was anything that I wanted to know I had to go to a library and look up the technique in a book or woodworking magazine!
Now, all one has to do is to surf the plethora of YouTube videos and websites to find the woodworking technique that you want to learn.
One thing I have noticed lately is there doesn't seem to be as many people blogging about their woodworking experiences and adventures. I find it a little sad these days to go to my favorite woodworking blog aggregator and see only three or four new postings. Maybe no one cares to write a full sentence or paragraph anymore because stringing together 140 characters is the most anyone can do. Instagram is a very easy platform to display yourself on.
Or is it that people just want information, but don't want to share it?
I know that it can be hard to write a weekly post for a blog, making time to do something can be a hard thing to do and accomplish.
In my experience, not knowing if I am reaching/connecting with anyone on Internet can discourage me from writing more posts, I don't get many comments about my posts these days, nor does anyone engage me in some kind of text dialogue. I stopped offering how-to information on basic woodworking several years ago because teaching online through my posts is not my intention. I noticed that when I stopped the how-to no one commented.
That said, visitation to my blog is up this year and I think it is because people want to learn more about the guitars I make. This is great for me, because if there is one thing that I will talk about passionately is making beautifully voiced guitars that will play beautiful music, that in turn will encourage young people to take up the classical guitar.
I will offer this advice about blogging -- don't be afraid to use what you learned in your college freshman English composition courses! Start writing today about what it is you are doing! Make stuff and share it and don't think you have to be the next Roy Underhill or Charles Hayward.
Get into your shop, make shavings and blisters!
A dulcimer doesn’t have a neck but it has something under the fingerboard that sort of serves as a neck. Calling it a neck doesn’t really make sense but when the dulcimer has a fingerboard on top of the object that shall not be called a neck then appropriate terminology becomes even more confusing.
For no particular reason I refer to the lower portion of the assembly as the fretboard and call the fingerboard overlay the fingerboard. When describing a fretboard with a fingerboard on it I refer to the assembled unit as a fretboard.
In the photograph above I’m gluing the fretboard assembly to a dulcimer soundboard.
The soundboard is clamped to a flat workboard. Two clamps come in from the sides holding scraps of wood that rest against the sides of the fretboard at either end. This makes it easy to accurately place the fretboard in the right spot and helps prevent it from moving while I apply the clamps.
I use an old trick to clamp the full length of the fretboard down using only two clamps. A long, warped piece of wood is used as a clamping caul with the concave side facing down along the length of the fretboard. When I clamp both ends down the flattening of the warped wood exerts pressure along the entire length of the fretboard.
Gila Eban, luthier, 1990
The last couple of days I have been leafing through the James Krenov trilogy, The Cabinetmaker's Notebook, The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking and The Impractical Cabinetmaker. As a classical guitar maker, I really don't need these books anymore, as I have said before, I make guitars, not cabinets.
Squares, rectangles and triangles don't interest me, shapes that are based on the human body do.
I keep Mr. Krenov's books because of all the little bits of advice on how to enjoy life and to see the world around you that he hid and tucked away in paragraphs about dovetails, sharpening, woodworking education, etc.
I am not a big fan of his writing style, a little too verbose and perhaps too sentimental, so these days I scan the pages looking for words that are familiar and excite me like spokeshave, friend, and curved edges and then I read.
Yesterday, as I was thumbing through The Impractical Cabinetmaker, which I first read way back in 1992, I glanced at a paragraph at the end of "Woodcraft Today", and remembered that the last few lines in that paragraph gave me much hope and encouragement back in then, which I took very much to heart.
This is what Mr. Krenov wrote:
The only good advice worth offering is: Keep your goal in mind. Get some fine wood in little bits and pieces, but get it. Put it away to dry properly. Improve the heating in the shop. And all the while think about finding or making better tools. You'll need those fine tools to do that real work. So when the time comes and you get that chance you will be ready.
This then made me think that I should explore The Impractical Cabinetmaker chapter by chapter from the point of view of a guitar maker and post about it. I sallied forth and re-read the first three pages of that chapter because I wanted to read his definition of an "impractical" craftsman.
He is the craftsman for whom an atmosphere of much-to-sell is a hindrance to doing his best always--and living accordingly. He is an idealist who wants to survive to have the chance to work with wood, but not at the price of having woodworking become something less than he hoped it would be.
Hmm. I guess that makes me an impractical guitar maker.
I say I am an impractical guitar maker because I enjoy making guitars and then selling them to people who have been affected (look it up if you don't know what it means) by the sound and playability of my guitars. That is far more rewarding that doing market research to figure out how to tap into and make money from the latest fads of the classical guitar world.
The latest fad is the same it has been since I started studying the classical guitar in 1974, it is to buy the same guitar that the hottest classical guitarist de jour is playing. In the 1970's-80's you had to play a Ramirez No.1A guitar because Segovia, Parkening, Boyd and Niedt all played them. Today you need to play a "double top" guitar by Dammann, Price, Smallman, Connor or someone else who has succeeded in making a guitar sound like a piano, because current greats likes Russell and Barrueco, etc., all play double top guitars.
Perfect practice makes you a better player.
Owning a really good guitar that you love will make you practice more, but popular makers don't always necessarily make the best guitar for you.
The are no jigs or outside moulds in my shop to create "the perfect shape" of a classical guitar, which some makers insist upon to make them "competitive" in today's global classical guitar market. I use a solera, a dished out work board to hold the top and neck while I attach the sides and back. A solera lends itself to asymmetry, which as I have discovered helps give the guitar a voice, a great voice that affects the human psyche.
Does this make me a better guitar maker? Not using power tools or jigs or moulds?
Maybe it doesn't, but as Mr. Krenov said, keep your goal in mind.
My goal is beauty.
The beautiful sound of a guitar that carries throughout the cosmos.
James Krenov, The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, 1977
Bluebird skies this morning in this part of Colorado, but no black bears, moose or elk hanging out around our place, only wildflowers are making any noise.
I did complete a project today, a blending board for my wife. I posted that on Instagram, you can check it out there, but what I want to share this afternoon was an attempt to do some work in my studio.
Last year I purchased a wonderful piece of curly Claro walnut from Northwest Timber which I re-sawed into guitar back and sides. The pieces weren't big enough to make a full size classical guitar so I decided to use the wood to make a close copy of a guitar by Antonio de Torres, his SE117 guitar.
It is a three piece back with maple fillets.
This is a lightly bear clawed Sitka spruce top set that I bought from Alaska Specialty Woods about six years ago that is a great match for the Claro walnut.
Torres SE117 guitar is a very small guitar by today's standards, it is even smaller than a so called "parlor" guitar. The string length for the original guitar is just under 24 inches, a standard classical has a 25 5/8" string length, and the body length is just under 18 inches, if I remember correctly. Compare that to a modern classical guitar length which hovers at or above 19 inches!
What this really means to me is that I need to make a custom rosette for this guitar, the sound hole is smaller than a standard classical guitar. The pre-made rosettes that I buy from Luthiers Mercantile are made for the larger guitars, they are too big for this tiny guitar.
I pulled out black, white, red and green veneer to see which colors would go best...
...with this redwood burl.
I have had this burl for about seven years and I haven't done anything with it yet. Now is as good of time as any.
The rosette should be stunning with this Sitka spruce. I need to come up with a good color scheme, something like a cherry or walnut fillet to start a WBWBW, then a WBW Walnut or Cherry WBW and then the burl with the same WB combos to complete the mirror.
Of course, since I pulled out all the veneers and thin pieces of cherry and walnut, along with the detritus left over from thinning down the walnut back, I can't really see the top of my workbench. Maybe I will clean it up tomorrow afternoon!
Nothing original here, just an old trick that makes quick, quiet work of squaring and evenly thicknessing wood.
A few drops of super glue temporarily hold two wood runners to the bottom of a plane, in this case a Stanley #5 1/4 for those who care about such details. The plane can not take off wood below the height of the runners so repeatedly planing wood to the same height becomes easy. The top and bottom of the workpiece will also be parallel.
In the photograph I’m planing spruce brace stock for dulcimer backs. The rough brace sits on my planing beam; a flat and straight beam of oak with a bench stop at one end. I use this planing beam when truing and jointing fretboards and fingerboards, thinning bindings, and brace stock. I also use the planing beam as a caul when gluing fingerboards to fretboards.
Yes, it is a fascinating life I lead.