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Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer

26 Sep 00 - 09:48 PM (#306214)
Subject: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

Several folks including the very patient Ed Pellow have asked for building instructions on this old musical folk toy. I have built thousands (literally) and because I used to sell them at street fairs have come up with the simplest and least expensive things to use. You may use higher quality stuff if you want, such as real tuners.

The stick dulcimer does have a history as a legitimate and fun little instrument for those folks and kids who could not afford the real thing in the mountains. Its not very loud, but laying it on a table or a hollow log will increase the sound dramatically.

Spaw's Stick Dulcimer

First, cut a piece of 1x2 32 inches long. You can use simple pine since there is little tension, but try to get a piece that's reasonably straight and not warped. Sand it smooth. I cut a little fancy cut at one end for the headstock appearance, but that's not necessary. Leave the other end blunt.

Next, measure down 3 inches from the headstock end and scribe a mark across the width of the wood. Measure 27 inches from this mark and scribe another, again across the full width of the wood. These two marks are for the nut (headstock end) and the bridge (blunt end). Designate an edge as the playing side. This would be the edge closest to you with the headstock to the left. Measure 1 inch above the nut scribe line and 1/2 inch in from the edge and mark for drilling. Measure 2 inches above the nut scribe line and 1 and 1/4 inch from the edge and place another mark for drilling. Split the difference between the bridge scribe line and the blunt end (about an inch) and drill two 1/8 inch holes. One hole should be 1/2 inch from the edge and the other 1 and 1/4 inch from the edge. Before you drill the 2 holes at the upper headstock end, READ THIS:

TUNERS: I use eye screws for "tuners" but they will not hold tightly in the wood so I screw them into plastic drywall anchors. You may use any "tuner" that you like of course, but if you use eye screws, buy some anchors of the appropriate size and drill the two upper holes to fit the anchor. Then apply a little wood glue and tap the anchor into place. ALSO, while you're looking at that eye screw, BE SURE to take pliers and crimp it so that there is NO opening where the ends meet.

Now that you have your holes all drilled, marks scribed, anchors in place......its time to stain, paint, stencil, lacquer, varnish, polyurethane, whatever....your "stick." Whatever "decoration or fun thing you like, do it now and let it dry. Then we're ready to "fret" the stick. You will need a Heavy Duty Stapler such as the T-50 or something on that order and then practice with it a bit so you can put the staples on the marks you are about to make. Ready?

Here are the measurements between frets:

NUT to F1 ..... 2 7/8 inches
F1 to F2 ...... 2 5/8 inches
F2 to F3 ...... 1 13/16 inches
F3 to F4 ...... 2 1/4 inches
F4 to F5 ...... 2 inches
F5 to F6 ...... 15/16 inch
F6 to F7 ...... 1 9/16 inches
F7 to F8 ...... 1 1/2 inches
F8 to F9 ...... 1 5/16 inches
F9 to F10 ..... 5/8 inch
F10 to F11 .... 1 1/16 inch

Put a small mark at each position and be sure to measure carefully. Now put a staple in at each mark as closely as you can. The staple should be as close to the edge as possible so it lays under the fretted string. This fretting arrangement with two strings gives you the chance to play in several modal tunings and you have enough frets to play "Wildwood Flower." (:<))

Use one long string in the .006 to .014 gauge range either from a banjo or the treble E from a guitar (I use #4 piano wire cause I got tons of it). Run each end up through the two eighth inch holes and secure each end to your "tuners." If you are using eye screws, wrap the end around your "tuner" in a figure 8 and tie it off, clipping the excess. I use 1/4 inch threaded rod for the bridge and nut (hey, its pre-slotted!) but you can use a decent hardwood chip of about 1/4 inch size or a 1/4 inch hardwood dowel. Put both in position on the marks you have scribed and "tune her up!" Do not glue the bridge or nut in place as you can adjust for intonation by rolling them a bit in either direction. I would suggest gluing the 'nut" and adjusting at the "bridge" end, but if you have messed up your stapling a bit, you may need to move both.

You will probably have to "level the frets" a bit. Fretting the string behind each fret should produce ae different note, if not, tap the fret ahead in slightly. Be careful as each should be about level with the wood surface. You can then also attach a "resonator" to the blunt end. I paint veggie cans and screw them on the bridge end.....kinda' cute idea I picked up from the Schillings. I know Art Thieme used to have one of these with a lunchbox as a resonator as I recall. Also I think Howie Mitchell once referred to the two string as a "Dulciless" (as opposed to "dulcimore" as its often pronounced).

In any case, you may want to use better materials, but the folks who bought them for 12 bucks from me all had a pretty good time and I never had a complaint! I used to build 50 of these a week prior to the summer and fall fests. I have a marking stick and a drilling jig, so they go pretty fast and I'm pure hell with a stapler!

Good Luck...and most of all..........HAVE FUN!!!


26 Sep 00 - 10:00 PM (#306223)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Bugsy

Thanks for that 'Spaw. I'm looking forward to trying this out.



26 Sep 00 - 10:38 PM (#306237)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Ma-K

Thanks again.. We made one last spring. It is so nice to pass it to a child or grownup and letting them play without worrying about something getting broken. Some pick out a tune, some make rythum. Mine didn't get painted and now has that hand rubbed look. We made another one and put a cookie tin on for sound. Sounds more like a them...Mary

26 Sep 00 - 10:46 PM (#306240)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

I'm glad you enjoy it Mary. I remember when we went through it and I should have posted this back then.

Good luck Bugsy and if you have any questions, just ask.

I'd like to get this transferred into the "KIDS" section of the e-zine. JOE??? MAX???? Can you help here?


26 Sep 00 - 10:55 PM (#306249)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Rick Fielding

Bravo Spaw. I'm about three days from finishing turning my tool shed into my first actual WORKSHOP! (My daddy would be proud....although I think he'd be most proud that I've stayed out of jail and have a job of sorts)

I have to say that the very kind Mudcatter I met a few weeks ago "Shug" (who apparently posts under the name "Dizzy") has been an enormous help with the transformation.

I'm going to make yer dulcimer my first project. Can I make a small suggestion? Don't answer that. I will anyway. If you dont think you can measure accurately enough, put a string on first, and with a piece of wire the same diameter as the staple, move it around on the fingerboard to get the right fret placement. Start with the octave note, go to the fifth, fourth etc. and just mark it with a pencil to the right of the wire. Use a tuner if you got one. Afterwards just staple to the left of your mark.


26 Sep 00 - 11:07 PM (#306261)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

Yep.....That'd do it. You can also change the scale length that way. Or you can get a scale length logarithm chart and do that too. In my case, when I was making boatloads of these things, I had to come up with one and make a marking stick or else my labor costs/time would have exceeded the selling price of the thing!!!

I made a cool one of these for some friends. I got to thinking that if you could have a "Courtin' Dulcimer" then why not a "Courtin' STICK?" So I made the thing out of a 2x4, had to off set the fretboards, and used two huge coffee cans on either end. Its a riot....most ridiculous looking thing you've ever seen.


26 Sep 00 - 11:42 PM (#306296)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: katlaughing

Spaw, I have emailed this to my nieces and my sister. I am sure Bet will want to try some with her kids at school. I don't understand things like this until I actually do them, but it sounds simple enough and good to me. Thanks very much for posting this.

Hey! I am getting a bag of percussion instruments, tamborines, homemade play drums, etc. together for the grandsons for Christmas this year, I think I will make a couple of these, too. It would be fun to decorate them and they love music; plus I am sure "mom & dad" will just love it!**BG**


26 Sep 00 - 11:48 PM (#306298)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Gypsy

thread creep....Dizzy, are you the coastal Shug that plays pipes?

27 Sep 00 - 12:13 AM (#306310)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Escamillo

Thanks Spaw ! Your article deserves publication in a magazine or webpage, it will surely contribute to take our children (or ourselves) out of the sofa in front of the TV set.

Un abrazo - Andrés

27 Sep 00 - 01:01 AM (#306334)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: katlaughing

LOL, Andres. I just saw a funny sign about that: What do you call children of "couch potatoes?"......tater tots!


27 Sep 00 - 03:49 AM (#306375)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Steve Parkes

Spaw, I've get a suggestion too. I expect the words 'grandmother' and 'eggs' will spring to mind, but here goes ...
When you're measuring, it's much more accurate to make all your measurements from the same place; that is, measure all the frets from the nut. That way, if you're reading the ruler a bit skew-whiff you'll be out by the same little bit all over, instead of getting more and more out as you go along. Just like Life, really.


27 Sep 00 - 04:35 AM (#306383)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

Good point Steve......I should have posted it both ways, but there are also some people who get confused reading longer measurements too and I kinda' flipped a coin on which was easier for most people. Either way, the old "measure twice" rule still applies. Let me check with Joe or a Joe Clone to see if I can get them to insert the other in the original, which is what I should have done to begin with!!! Thanks Steve.


27 Sep 00 - 06:36 AM (#306391)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: GUEST,Kernow Jon

Thanks 'Spaw
I've been thinking of the next practical project for a rather special kid I work with. You've just solved the problem for me.
Thanks again.

27 Sep 00 - 07:59 AM (#306409)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: AllisonA(Animaterra)

This is just marvelous! I'm planning an instrument building project with my kids at school and you've just made my day- thanks, Spaw!!

27 Sep 00 - 09:06 AM (#306450)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Dharmabum

Thanks Spaw, looks like I'll have to add another project to my Christmas list.

For anyone interested in homemade musical instruments, check out the webpage of Dennis Havlena.

{anyone who knows how to do the blue clicky,feel free}

He's got a whole list of homemade inst. from Hurdy Gurdy's to conduit whistles.


blue clicky inserted by
- elf/joeclone -

27 Sep 00 - 10:15 AM (#306500)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Rick Fielding

Here's a little variation on spaw's dulci-stick. Try it with a bottleneck (or piece of pipe, or socket wrench etc.) You might have to make the action a hair higher (or not) but these kind of slide instruments have been played for years in the South. T'is a wonderful way of getting folks (not just kids) to REALLY invest in the music they make. Bravo again, Spaw!


27 Sep 00 - 10:33 AM (#306511)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Dizzie

Sorry Gypsy - never did get round to the pipes, but do the hammered dulcimer.

As for coasts the only one I really knew was the east coast of Fife, Scotland where I'm from originally.

Great thread Spaw. I first saw these sticks at The Homcoming in Norris, Tennessee and they sold like hot cakes.

Shug - Dizzies other half.

27 Sep 00 - 10:53 AM (#306527)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

Hey Diz!!! You do the Homecoming? Man I'm envious. Karen and I spent a week at Norris last summer and hit the Museum twice. That's really quite a place. I sent Rick some pictures because I knew he'd be gassed with the instrument exhibit (and indeed, the whole place). There is a thread called "Museum of Appalachia" that you can refresh here to read some comments. Paddymac went there later and also loved it. Bill Foster, who isn't posting now, but a good guy, and the Foster Family Band play there every year. Great place!!!


A couple of other notes here.........For those of you making them with kids and as projects in general.....Please use a decent 1x2 from a lumber yard and don't get anything thinner as it will warp badly! A number of years back, I got hooked into a Girl Scout camp thing where they supplied the materials and the kids had them all ready for stapling and stringing. I did a half hour program on dulcimers then started. 200 KIDS!!! Its 95 degrees, no shade, Mikey and Tris were about 3 then, Karen is helping them string them up and I'm marking and stapling like crazy. They had tried to save money and about half of the lumber used was slightly thinner than 1x2 (donated sign stakes) and they warped which was kinda' sad for the kids.

Also, kids have a hard time holding this on their lap sometimes and it really doesn't matter how they do it, just so its fun. But if you want to make it easier, take a small coffee can (medium size can) and snip down two flaps the width of the stick on either side and screw it on in the MIDDLE of the stick. That way they can hold it between their legs a lot easier.


27 Sep 00 - 11:03 AM (#306532)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Rick Fielding

Hi Shug. Lookin' forward to seeing you and your sponge(!) later today.

The can in the middle is a great idea. These "pro" dulcimer sticks that Martin distributes are impossible for anyone to hold. The can would work well on them too.


27 Sep 00 - 11:20 AM (#306551)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

Yeah, and if you put a can on the end and one in the middle, its the damndest looking thing you ever saw and guaranteed to get questions like, "What in the hell is THAT?" .......which is always fun too.


27 Sep 00 - 11:30 AM (#306558)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Dizzie

Got to agree Spaw The Homecoming is one great festival. Wednesday is kids day, and Thursday thru Sunday is constant music on two stages.

One year my daughter Carole and I were watching the Emmert brothers playing on the porch of an old shack when this guy with a dulcimer stick asked if he could join in. Well these three guys jammed for about half an hour and had everybody really going. Happy memories of a great festival.

Shug - Dizzies other half.

27 Sep 00 - 06:36 PM (#306887)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

I'm getting in touch with a Joe Clone so I can modify the original with fretting both ways so its in the original post. Thanks group for your comments....Glad you like it.


28 Sep 00 - 10:39 AM (#307305)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Ma-K

Spaw......Please...A litte more information on building the Courtin'Stick. How do you put on the coffee cans? Up,down,in, out? Off set fretboards? Please and thank you.....Mary

28 Sep 00 - 12:09 PM (#307363)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: GUEST,Kernow Jon

Please help out a proper Jethro (Cornish eq of Cletus) We don't get many Dulcimers down here on the Lizard.
Are both strings tuned in unison (if not how far apart)?
When played are both strings fretted and played at the same time ?
regards and thanks KJ.

07 Sep 07 - 11:46 AM (#2143331)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: katlaughing

Refresh - I could NOT find this in the Kids section and had the divil of a time finding it by supersearch!

Spaw, I'm taking your instructions to Morgan's teacher this morning and playing "Peaches" for the kids.:-)

Thanks, darlin'!


07 Sep 07 - 07:15 PM (#2143608)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: McGrath of Harlow

At a pinch you can dispense with any kind of built in resonator, and just put a stick dulcimer down on a resonating service such as a table. Or screw it to a door. Somewhere I've got a dulcimer tutorial book by John Pearse, when he lived in England, with a guide to making one.

07 Sep 07 - 10:41 PM (#2143708)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: Bee-dubya-ell

Or screw it to a door.

I've seen pictures of diddley bows (the stick dulcimer's unfretted slide-style cousin) actually made from hollow-core doors.

07 Sep 07 - 10:59 PM (#2143723)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

Actually I made a couple of 4 place table dulcimers mounting 4 maple fretboards to a section of hollow core door. Four people (one on each side of the table) at a time and raucus as hell!

Kevin......No resonator is ever needed as they contribute virtually nothing from a sound standpoint but can be cute as in the stenciled cans I used to use or humorous as in Art's "Lunchbox Dulcimer."


01 Nov 08 - 10:42 AM (#2481613)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: GUEST,Stringbuilder717

Does anyone know where I can get a drawing or picture of a catspaw stick dulcimer. I`ve never heard of that instrument and would like to see one.I`m always looking out for the "different" type of dulcimer instrument.

01 Nov 08 - 12:01 PM (#2481663)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: catspaw49

Hi String......I'm Catspaw, known better as just Spaw.......

Basically they've been around for years. Some with two strings and some with only one. The idea was simple.....a fun instrument that was affordable to make and in the mountains, that was something! Your REAL dulcimer may have been on the mantle or some other safe place, but this thing was a simple stick!

Here's a photo of a one stringer and its pretty representative of what they are all like. You can use real machine tuners or cheap ones or eyescrews like I describe. Part of the fun for me was making them really simply and less costly.

Good Luck


02 Nov 08 - 01:19 PM (#2482555)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: JohnInKansas

Fret locations the easy(?) way.


For a "tempered scale" instrument, the ratio of the frequencies for two notes a semitone apart is the "twelfth root of two."

Frequency 1/Frequency 2 = 2(1/12) = 1.059463

The string length (nut to fret) is inversely proportional to the frequency for notes played on the same string, so the fret for the note a semitone above the adjacent note must be 1/1.059463 times as far from the nut as the fret for the next higher note.

1/1.059463 = 0.943874

The number 0.943874 is the cosine of an angle of 13.125751 degrees.

The tangent of an angle of 13.125751 degrees is 0.233181.


1. On a large piece of paper, draw a line the length of your fretboard from nut to bridge (or in the case of a dulcimerish instrument from upper nut to lower nut).

2. Label one end of the line "A" and the other end "B0".

3. Multiply the string length – distance A to B0 by 0.233181. Call this number "T."

4. Draw (construct) a line going through point B0 perpendicular to the line An – B0 and measure carefully distance "T" from B0 on the line and mark point "C."

5. Draw the line from point A to point C. (Call this the "construction line" if you want a name for it.) This line will be 13.125751 degrees from the fretboard line – or as close to it as you'll get with the care you've used to draw it.

6. With center at point A, and radius to go through point B0, draw an arc up to the construction line A – C.

7. Where the arc hits the line A – C, mark "construction point C1." Then draw the perpendicular to line A – B0, from point C1, back down to the line A – Bo. Where the perpendicular hits the fretboard line is the location of the fret one semitone above the open string, i.e. the location for the first fret. Call that point B1.

8. Continue with an arc centered at A through point B1, to intersect the line A-C (at point C2), and drop the perpendicular back down to the fretboard to get point B2, for the second fret.

9. Center A through B2, to the line A-C, (point C3) and drop back down to the fretboard for B3, the location of the third fret.

10. Continue in this manner until you have as many fret locations as you want. Note that it's usually hard to get a good "tone" more than about an octave and a half up from the open note on a string, so more than about 30 frets is probably "overkill." Common dulcimer construction would require you to go to B29, but after omitting "the black keys" you'd "install" frets at only 17 of the places found (or 19 if you want the 6.5 frets).

You will need a compass long enough to make an arc with the radius equal to the length of your open string. Hobby shops and/or hardware stores should have "trammel points" that you can attach to a "yard stick" that should suffice if you draw carefully. Note that you don't really need a "pencil point" to actually draw the arcs. You can use "pointy ends" on your "beam compass" just to prick the paper on construction points on the "construction line. Dropping the "perpendiculars to the fretboard" is easily done with a reasonably large "drafting triangle" – or better, with a pair of triangles – if you don't have a "machine" for making precision drawings.


Once you lay it out on paper, it's a lot easier than it looks from just the description.

This method, of course, gives fret locations for a complete chromatic scale. For a dulcimer, or other "strum stick" instrument, you'll want to omit the appropriate fret locations for the sharps/flats; but you do have to lay them all out on the paper.


03 Nov 08 - 07:55 AM (#2483150)
Subject: RE: Making Catspaw's 2-String Stick Dulcimer
From: olddude

this is wonderful, thank you for sharing ... I am going to give it a try when I get a chance