Designing and Selecting Your Custom Hammered Dulcimer



3/16/18/9 Custom Performance with a natural Redwood soundboard, Mahogany frame, Goncalvo Alves pin panels, Wenge trim with Cherrry bridges
Your first stop in the design and selection process should be my Comparative chart page. There you'll be able to see the size, weight, range, tuning, string spacing, and price for all my models except the Tsimbls. You can access all tuning schemes through my comparative chart page.

Range

The next step in the process is to select what range instrument suits you. This will depend on a number of things; what kind of music you want to play, whether you want to start small and move up, the weight and size of the instrument, and of course how much money you're willing to spend. Most people starting out these days purchase 15/14s or 16/1/5s with 1" string spacing. These two instruments represent the core playing area of most of my models. I offer both Custom and Student models in this range.

The smaller 12/11s used to be that core and although the price is right you will probably grow out of this size within a couple of years.

Some people who play primarily in folk keys may never need another instrument other than a 15/14. What you learn playing these instruments can be easily transfered to larger more chromatic instruments later. If you expect to immediately play in more exotic keys you may want to start right out with one of my 3/17/17, 3/16/15/8, 3/16/18/9, 4/19/18/9 or 4/19/21/9 Chromatics.

My largest instruments are currently my most popular. The four octave 3/16/18/9 Custom Performance may be all the instrument you ever need. Most of my performing professionals are using this instrument and as a result has become a real standard. If you have to have all the notes within a traditional format and are willing to put up with the extra size and weight, the 4/19/21/9 Custom Performance may be the instrument for you.

My Linear Chromatic offers another style of chromaticism which promises to make playing classical and jazz material a lot easier. If you have never played hammered dulcimer before and you plan on being able to play a lot of chromatic material than you may want to consider the Linear Chromatic. This instrument does have all the notes. The LC has some of the same characteristics as my tradtional hammered dulcimers but should be considered a different kind of hammered dulcimer with a somewhat steeper learning curve. Please visit the Linear Chromatic page for more complete information on this instrument. I build a 10/14/13 Linear Chromatic. and the larger full sized 10/19/18/8 Custom Linear Chromatic.

Another chromatic alternative to the traditional dulcimer and LC is the Tsimbl an instrument primarily used in Klezmer music. This instrument doesn't have the range of the LC but it is optimally laid out for this style of music. I offer both a Student and Custom version of this instrument.


Flipped Hammered Dulcimers and Linear Chromatics

Check out my blog for another interesting option; the Flipped Linear Chromatic or hammer dulcimer. These instruments are laid out the exact opposite of the traditional dulcimer. As a result the instrument mirrors a piano orientation with the bass on the left flowing left to right. I can flip any of my dulcimers. Just be aware that there are very few instruments like that out there.

Electric Hammered Dulcimers

If you are playing music which requires some volume without any feedback, you might want to read about my Electric instruments.

Sound Quality

Since it is difficult to use words to describe the quality of tone in my instruments, I'll let a few sound clips give you a taste of what my instruments sound like (at least in recording). The quality of sound and the amount of sustain you desire in a hammered dulcimer is influence by the range, size and material choices. The smaller instruments will have less bass response and sound brighter, while the larger instruments support more bass end and more volume. Sustain is influenced more by material choices. Read over my ideas in the bridges and soundboard sections.The soundclips below are of Custom 3/16/18/9 with 7/8"string spacing instruments played by two excellent players.

Sounds Of Bells played by Steve Schneider with guitarist Paul Oorts on their recording Momentum
Badinere also played by Steve Schneider and Paul on Momentum.
Recuerdos de la Alhambra played by Jem Moore on Grounded and Prelude to Evening
The Death of Queen Jane played by Jem Moore on Prelude to Evening. One of my favorites!
Anatomy of a Dulcimer

The instrument below has a Cherry frame and Birdseye Maple pin panels. The soundboard is redwood but made black. padauk is used for the top and bottom binding and the rim around the soundhole design. . padauk was also used for the bridges. The Custom sound hole design is of Curly Maple. Each design is unique to the instrument.

Choices

After deciding on the size and range of your instrument, you will need to decide on the soundboard, its color, the frame, binding, pin panels, bridges and sound hole design. These woods need to work together to give you an instrument that both looks and sounds good.

There are four areas of my site which can contribute to your aesthetic decisions.

A 3/13/12 Custom with 7/8" string spacing with a natural Redwood soundboard, Cherry frame, Cherry bridges, Curly Maple trim and Curly Maple soundhole image with Lacewood pin panels.

Size/Weight/String Spacing

String spacing is the distance between the individual courses (pair of strings). Most beginners start out with dulcimers with the 1" string spacing. The wider spacing is a little more forgiving and comfortable as you learn to strike the instrument. Instruments with 1" string spacing particulary the15/14 (or 16/15) also have a fuller sound then their 7/8" cousins. The advantages of tighter string spacing (7/8") are the reaches and patterns are smaller so potentially your speed of play can be greater but it makes accuracy imperative. With the tighter string spacing you get dulcimers that weight less and and are more portable but with some sacrifice of volume and tone.

Weight and size are important considerations. Larger heavier instruments sound great but they can be a handful to carry around especially as we age. If you travel alot, you may want to consider my smaller lighter instruments. The overall weight of an instrument will vary slightly according to which wood you select for the frame and bridges and whether you have dampers. Dampers add about 3 lbs to the weight of the instrument. Tri-Stander brackets will add another 1 lb. Cases add about 2 lbs

For all the statistics on my various models visit my comparative page.

Stringing

I use a wide variety of strings to bring out the optimum tone in the instrument. What is used depends on the size. I use steel, phospher - bronze wire and wound strings on the bottom end.

A 3/16/18/9 with a dark stained Redwood soundboard with Cherry bridges

Soundboard

Honduran or Brazilian Mahogany, Redwood, Western Red Cedar, Engelmann or Sitka Spruce are the woods I use for soundboards. Your choice will affect the tone of the instrument. The majority of my hammered dulcimers have soundboards of Redwood. The other twenty percent have either Spruce, Mahogany or Cedar. The Redwood provides a mellow tone with an immediate presence. The Spruce is very resonant, full, brighter with slightly more sustain. All Mahogany soundboards are going to give you a brighter tone with slightly less sustain but a tone that is not as full as either spruce or redwood. I am beginning to use more Cedar as the quality of Redwood available continues to go down. Cedar's tonal characteristics are quite close to Redwood. Cedar would be a touch darker (more bass overtones). I have been very please with the sound of the cedar instruments so far. Its drawbacks are it often can't be left natural and must be colored black or maroon as the wood is often multicolored and would be distracting if left natural. I do have some Cedar which is a uniform light tan which can be left a natural color. Any of the above woods have an excellent but different tone.


Soundboard Color

Soundboards may be left natural in color, stained or sprayed black, maroon or any other color you might fancy (adds $75). A natural background pleases people who prefer all natural wood in their instrument. Spruce, Redwood, some Cedar or Mahogany can be left natural.

All of the instruments that have colored soundboards are either sprayed or stained masking off the areas I want to be natural wood such as trim, pin panels and soundhole rim. Once it is sprayed or stained with the color of choice, it is than finished with sprayed clear coats. It really doesn't make much difference tonally as to whether it is a stain or sprayed paint. They both are just a vehicle for adding color to the soundboard. Stain is rubbed on while paint is sprayed on. The other difference is that sprayed paint is more uniform in color and covers small imperfections in the wood. This gives you no visual distractions. Stained woods get you a dark background but with grain that is still visible. The difficulty with both is getting the right color; a color that works with your other wood choices. Color choice also depends on what background you'd like for your strings. Darker colors mean that shadows are reduced and the strings are more visible (as long as they are shiny). Most better players though are paying much more attention to the acetal markers on the top of the bridges than to the strings so background becomes less important. Redwood, Mahogany and some Cedar can be stained with a wide range of light or dark colors. I don't recommend staining multi-color Cedar or Spruce. These woods just look unnatural when stained. Black, maroon or other applied colors eliminate all grain; you only get color. Your choice of soundboard color has no effect on the sound of the instrument. Check out some of the photos of instruments with the various options and of course look at my wood sample page.

A LC with maroon painted Redwood soundboard and Cocobolo bridges

A 3/16/15/8 with a black Redwood soundboard with Cherry bridges

Pin Panels

Pin panels are 2" wide veneers that face up and are located under the pin area on both sides of the instrument. They are just decorative. The pins go through the pin panels into hard maple pin blocks so there is tuning stability. The pin panels can match the frame or can be an entirely different wood. These panels can be just about any wood but needs to contrast with the binding. Your choices will be affected by whether your soundboard is natural, stained or black.


Peruvian Walnut frame, Curly Koa pin panels, Curly Maple binding with Ebony bridges

Bridges

The choice of bridge material also affects the tone and sustain of the instrument. Walnut provides the least sustain while Cherry, Padauk, and Maple will give you a bit more sustain and brightness in a gradient from cherry to maple. It has to do with the hardness of the wood. Other woods such as Rosewood, Cardinalwood, etc can be used for bridges but will add $75-$150 to the cost of the instrument. These woods are generally harder and approximate the tonal response of maple. If you'd like black bridges, I suggest you have me stain and finish Maple or Cherry black. The bridges will look just like Ebony (which I no longer use for bridges given its scarcity).


Frame

The frame coupled with the back provide most of the strength of my dulcimers. The frame is also what you see from the front and side of the instrument. This decision has little affect on the tone but affects the weight and visual 'look' of the instrument. The front and back rails and pin block facing can be of almost any wood. Options include Walnut, Maple, Ash, Red Birch,Plain - Sawn mahogany, and Cherry at the base price. For an additional $75 you can have Ribbon Striped Mahogany, Curly or Bird's-eye Maple, Padauk, Bubinga, Curly Birch, or other woods of your choice. If I can find it, I'll use it.

Binding

Bindings are thin bands of wood that grace the top and bottom edge of the instrument all the way around. They are visible from the side and from above. Soundhole trim and bindings can be of any wood that compliments your choice of soundboard, pin panels and rails. Choices include Wenge, Ebony, Cherry, Walnut, Curly or Birdseye Maple, Sycamore, Ziricote, Lacewood, Assorted Rosewoods, and Bubinga.

Back

I use Finn Birch ply for the backs of all my dulcimers for stability and strength. My instruments hold their tune extremely well. A small hand hold is located in the back for ease of handling and for the installation of sound reinforcement contact transducers.

Dampers

This capability can be added to any of my dulcimers when purchased or at a later date. Go to my section on dampers to learn more about the two styles of dampers I have developed. You would need to select a damper wood that works with your other material selections.

Soundhole Designs

A Curly Maple Soundhole motif is individually designed for each instrument at no extra charge. I cut a great deal of abstract designs in paper using but a fraction. As a result each instrument I've built has a unique signature. A design of your choosing may be used at extra cost ($75 minimum). Submit your ideas, drawings or clippings for a quote. Sending them as photos, jpgs or gifs works fine for me. If you are looking for ideas, do an image search through Google or the other image search engines.

If you'd like to see samples of what I'm capable of doing go to my soundhole page. I also have a link to a video/slide show that showcases many of the designs I've done over the years.

Natural Redwood soundboard, Maple bridges with Wenge trim, laser cut and engraved sound hole design

 
 


Black Redwood soundboard, with Cherry bridges, Bocoto trim with Tulipwood sound hole design


If you choose an exotic wood such as Mahogany, Koa, Rosewoods for the frame a donation to the Foreign Programs of the Nature Conservancy or a similar organization is suggested.