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Building a mountain dulcimer

10 Jun 03 - 02:59 PM (#965265)
Subject: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Booster Terrik

I am new here and have been playing my cheap dulcimer for a year or so, and have decided that my (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) has reached the point where I need to get a new dulcimer. I have found that the least expensive way is to build my own. Are there any tips for this endeavor?


I am online weekly.

10 Jun 03 - 04:17 PM (#965323)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Walking Eagle

How good are your wood working skills? The reason I ask is that rarely do even the best dulcimers go for over $3 - $500.00. Is it really worth your time when good ones can be had for $175 - $225? Perhaps it is and you would like the challenge of building one, then go right ahead. But I would seriously consider buying one from a known dulcimer maker. They have already made the mistakes and cut all of their fingers and spilled stain all over the floor etc.

If you want to sally forth, check a website tatled for some help. Also, some of the newer kit models are very good and quite authentic.

Whatever you do, good luck!

10 Jun 03 - 04:22 PM (#965332)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: black walnut

Hi and welcome!
Everybody needs a dulcimer or two or three. There will be lots of people here with good advice for you. I don't know where you live, but I'm pretty sure that Dwain Wilder at Bear Meadow Dulcimers gives workshops on making dulcimers. He's in Rochester NY but travels.


10 Jun 03 - 04:45 PM (#965345)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Homeless

First you need to define "cheap" and "least expensive". If you don't mind building a cheap dulcimer, making your own can be fairly inexpensive - if you are already set up for woodworking. If you want a good dulcimer, e.g. nice looking, good tone, quality tuning pegs, etc, you will end up spending as much or more for supplies as you would buying one new.

And don't forget the tools you would need to build one - table or radial arm saw, band saw, coping saw, 12" planer, belt sander, drill and bits, possibly a router, bending iron, and a large array of clamps. Does all that fit into your budget too?

Oh yeah, and how many trials dulcimers do you want to build before you do the "real" one?

I've got 3 dulcimers of varying looks and sound quality that I made before throwing in the towel. And I had some experience in woodworking before taking on that project. The three now sit in a box in the garage.

10 Jun 03 - 07:23 PM (#965450)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: JohnInKansas

For the sake of tradition and authenticity, you shouldn't be allowed to play a mountain dulcimer until you've built yourself at least one - but a small fistfull of dollars will get you around that tradition.

There are quite a number of makers who will sell you a kit, with the sides already bent and the fingerboard slotted for the frets - the two most difficult parts of the building. A good workspace about 3 ft square is about the only other thing you'll need. For clamps, you can get a hundred or so wooden (spring-style) clothespins for a couple of bucks - and use a book or two to dead-weight the rest. Using most kits, about the only "real" tools you need are a good sharp knife, and wire cutters and a file to trim the frets.

If you want to do it all yourself, you need to figure out how to cut and finish a few thin pieces of wood. This is a whole lot easier with good equipment, although you can do it with just a hand saw and sandpaper if you have a sufficient masochistic streak. You can "default" to thin plywood for top and back, but you won't likely have much luck bending it for the sides.

The most "technically demanding" part is figuring out how to bend the sides, but you can do it with a hot flatiron and a wet rag if you're determined enough.

The "best sounding" md I've seen was the one I built all out of quarter-sawn spruce, with a couple of innovations I just wanted to try out. Unfortunately, I compromised on a pretty piece of wood for the fingerboard and it warped badly - making the thing almost unplayable. Expect similar results from your first "scratch" attempt(s). The nice thing about it is you can always make the next one better.


10 Jun 03 - 08:00 PM (#965472)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: dick greenhaus

Go for it. I've built a few, and I think it's safe to say that there really aren't any rules, except for fret placement. Shape doen't seem to make much difference in sound, and choice of woods probably does, but I don't think anyone a able to predict just what.

The mountain dulcimer seems to be designed to have very little volume and very little resonance--the thick fingerboard militates against much in the way of resonance.

10 Jun 03 - 11:48 PM (#965567)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: katlaughing

My first one was only about $135 from Elderly Instruments and I still love it. I would like to get another couple, though.

If you really get into making your own instruments, be sure to visit this website: He has all kinds of stuff with easy to follow drawings and sound samples. I see he is now offering a CD and booklet with even more for $7.50, a bargain considering all of the work he's put into this over the years. I like the looks of his metal tube hammer dulcimer!

Good luck,


11 Jun 03 - 12:55 AM (#965606)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Sorcha

LOL! Just give McSpadden Dulcimers in Mt.Home Arkansas a cal... they will set you up right quick with the best one you can buy or build.

11 Jun 03 - 02:35 AM (#965630)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: JohnInKansas

McSpadden is a "premier" builder, and makes some pretty flashy instruments; but like most of the other "name" builders, they start at about $350 (US) and go up into rather astronomical prices. If you want to purchase a "ready made" and "almost traditional" instrument, they're a good - but not the only - choice. Good kits are available in the $125+ range, or you can probably do your own for as little as $25 or so if you sacrifice on some of the fancy woods and pretty finishing touches.

For the "scratch" builder, one of the rules that must be observed, is that the fingerboard has to be rigid enough to take all of the string tension without bending. It is the only "structural" piece in a mountain dulcimer. There is no bridge in the normal "acoustic" sense - just a board with a nut on each end (and another nut in the middle to strum it). The problem with getting volume and resonance from a mountain dulcimer is that it is very difficult to couple the vibrations from the string into any part (i.e. the soundbox) that has any freedom to move.

In the typical "modern" construction, the fingerboard is glued down - full length - to the top plate of the box, virtually guaranteeing that nothing will have enough freedom of motion to wiggle the air and produce anything resembling the kind of resonance and "voice" expected for other kinds of stringed instruments. Older, and more traditional, designs frequently left a small gap under the fingerboard, except at one or two "pressure points" so that the sound motions could be transmitted into the plate at central points where the plate is flexible and could produce reasonably good "acoustic flapping" of the top deck. While this kind of construction will never give the sort of "voice" obtainable with a conventional "bridge" as is found on a guitar or fiddle, it can be implemented so as to substantially change the volume and tonal quality of the mountain dulcimer.

IF you use a design that actually allows the top plate to move - and can figure out a way to get the acoustic motion transmitted through the fingerboard into a flexible part of the plate, then the material you use for the box can drastically affect the "voice" of the dulcimer.

A couple of "commercial" builders do put "cosmetic" slots under the fingerboard - but if they understood why traditional builders did so, they wouldn't be using those dense, heavy, dead, "pretty" woods like cherry and walnut for the tops; you'd see the same woods traditionally used for guitar tops - or even better, good old spruce like the fiddles. But "pretty" does sell well - and one might question whether making a "louder, more resonant" dulcimer properly observes the traditions of the instrument.

Regardless of how well the acoustic coupling is worked out, one of the "black art" details that significantly affects the "voice" of a mountain dulcimer is the size of the sound holes. Few "home builders" are likely to do enough experimenting to recognize how critical this is, but an extra hole - or too large a hole - can "kill" the sound from any dulcimer. For the beginner, it's probably safest to stick to what you see on the instruments you copy, and to copy every detail carefully. It is important to know that changing the width or depth of the box by even a small amount can mean you need (or at least would benefit from) fairly significant compensating changes in sound hole size. There are formulas for calculating sound hole(s) size - but there are no exact answers to be obtained from the formulas, since a whole lot of "opinionating" goes into how to use them.

There are a few tricky steps to building any instrument, but most of them are in the "once it's done, you'll know if it's right" category. Copying a good instrument, or following a good plan, will produce a "decent" instrument in most cases, and there's nothing very difficult about building a mountain dulcimer using the commonly available plans.


11 Jun 03 - 07:14 AM (#965701)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: GUEST,Dale

McSpadden Dulcimers, Mountain View, AR

They also have kits starting at $95, check them out, and no, I don't get a commission!

11 Jun 03 - 07:26 AM (#965702)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: wysiwyg

Booster is a friend of ours from our local jams. He does have access to a good quality woodshop and a cabinet-making friend will be helping him. I believe he also has a couple of sets of plans to work from, and the formula for fret placement. When we talked about his ideas yesterday, I think what he was most curious about was interior bracing-- any comments on this?


11 Jun 03 - 09:03 AM (#965758)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: MMario

I'm surprised Catspaw hasn't weighed in on this one...

11 Jun 03 - 10:32 AM (#965809)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: katlaughing

Elderly Instruments Lap Dulcimers. The Black Mountain 56 is the one I have. They still list for only $141.00 and have a very nice tone. The Black Mtn. folks are really nice, too.

11 Jun 03 - 11:36 AM (#965853)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: GUEST,Russ

For me, the most significant problem with building one's own dulcimer is the absolute unpredictability of the finished product with regards to sound.

I have a couple of friends who are professional dulcimer makers who freely admit this. A dulcimer playing friend and I last visted one of them in May. We played every new instrument he had. As usual for this maker, every instrument was beautifully made and had a sound which we deemed "accceptable." But also, as usual, even if two dulcimers were identical in all respects, we could hear a significant difference in sound. We both agreed that out of about a dozen instruments only one of them "nailed it" for sound. My friend bought it even though he had assured his wife that he wouldn't be bringing any new instruments home.

So if, for you, tone, sustain, and volume are NOT an issue, go for it.

Years ago I made a hammered dulcimer from a kit. I put it away after the "new instrument honeymoon" when I finally admitted to myself that I just didn't care for the tone.

With all due respect to JohnInKansas, it was just as traditional to buy a dulcimer as it was to make one. If I remember correctly Jean Ritchie's family bought theirs from "Uncle Ed" Thomas.

With all due respect to dick greenhaus, dulcimers are being made with significant volume and resonance. However they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Appparently many dulcimer players are happy with beautiful dulcimers that have the tonal qualities of a 2x4 with strings.

11 Jun 03 - 11:44 AM (#965856)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Mudlark

And just for the record on "readymades"...I have a McSpadden, a teardrop shape, which has a good sound. But is not a patch on the Blue Lion dulcimers I've heard and played. A friend was over yesterday who has one and, as always, I was blown away by the voice and resonance of these instruments. True, they are not cheap...but they are superb.

11 Jun 03 - 04:04 PM (#966001)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: JohnInKansas


Very little "bracing" is used in the typical mountain dulcimer construction. Spline strips are used to join the top and bottom to the sides. These are typically made from wood strips about 1/4 inch square in cross-section, and are cut part way through at abour 3/8 or 1/2 inch intervals to make them flexible enough to "curve-to-fit" as you glue and clamp (with those wooden clothespins) them in place.

You can see how these are applied by looking through the sound hole of most any guitar, although the strips used in dulcimers are usually somewhat smaller than in the guitar.

For the "scratch" builder, 1/4 inch "quarter round" may be available at the local lumber yard, and works quite nicely. If you really want to get "flash" about it, you can steam bend the strips to fit without the slots - but the only place I've seen this done generally was in Chinese mass-produced mandolins.

The only other "brace" commonly used in the soundbox is a peg between the two sides at the "maximum width" point (or points in a double-bout shape). In kits, its main function seems to be to assure that the sides "keep their shape" while you're getting things together, although it may help hold the shape after assembly. If you haven't done a thorough job of "relaxing" the sides to shape when you bend them, they may tend to "unlax" later and "cup" slightly, and the peg helps prevent this. A 5/16 or 3/8 diameter dowel, or similar square "stick" is about right. Many commercial builders omit these "cross-pegs," and it doesn't seem to change the sound when they fall out - as they've done on a couple of "kit" instruments I've observed.

If you use a separate "head" it is critical that it be securely attached to the fingerboard. You want the joint arranged so that the string tension "holds it together" instead of pulling it apart, but the size of the "glue surface" usually available should be more than sufficient in most designs if it fits well before you glue it.

The "one-piece" head and fingerboard used by a couple of manufacturers is structurally very good, but almost requires "banjo tuners" which are significantly more expensive than other kinds - unless you're willing to use a rather odd head shape.

Since the fingerboard and head carry all of the string load - any joints elsewhere that fit well and provide a reasonable "glue line" should be adequate. Everything except "the board" is pretty much "decoration" from a structural standpoint, and no added bracing is really needed.


11 Jun 03 - 04:08 PM (#966004)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: GUEST,leeneia

Well, Booster, you don't tell us much about yourself, so I'm going to offer some comments about the lap dulcimer. If you know all this, then perhaps they will help someone else reading this.

1. As for the "cheap" dulcimer you have now, how high are the strings off the fret board? A U.S. five-cent piece should just fit between the strings and the board. If the strings are too high, they are too hard to play.

2. How old are your strings? Perhaps they have lost their pep.

3. Have you tried using a finger pick? I pluck my melody string with a thumbpick, a Herco light. It is red and almost heart-shaped. It is also rather soft, and doesn't create an ugly twang.

4. Are you using a tuner or something similar to keep it truly in tune? If you are merely tuning it to itself, it will not be as resonant as it should.

5. Have you developed strum patterns which hit all three strings? The more strings you hit, the more sound you get. (I don't bother with the second melody string.)

6. Have you played it on your back porch early on a Sunday morning before anybody else was up? This works best if you have a cat to keep you company.

11 Jun 03 - 04:13 PM (#966008)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: KateG

A second "for the record" on readymade's resonance and volume. I have an hourglass shaped McSpadden, walnut with a redwood top, and when I crank it up it drowns out my husband's 1919 Gibson A2 mandolin, and can hold it's own with his sister's fiddle, which is louder than your average rock concert. Needless to say, I don't normally play it at that volume, but I do have to watch it in group situations or I can't hear what other folks are up to. I also have Folkroots deep bodied baritone, again with a redwood top, and it can speak with authority as well.

Both these instruments have hollow fretboards, unlike my "cheap and cheerful" plywood starter dulcimer, which is indeed a 2 x 4 with a soundbox: no resonance and dreadful intonation (what did I know when I bought it).

Unlike guitars, good dulcimers are not horrifically expensive. In fact, I had a opportunity to ear test my McSpadden against some of Dwain Wilder's instruments. His are incredible works of art, but mine held its own...I couldn't quite see spending five+ times the price of a McSpadden, despite the charms of having an instrument built just for me.

The trick is to find a dealer who has a variety of instruments and play them all until you find the one that speaks to you. (I recently did that for a guitar, which is why I spent ~$800 for a Martin 000-15s instead of ~$1,300 for the fancier 000-17s. You gotta shop with your ears.

11 Jun 03 - 04:15 PM (#966009)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: wysiwyg

Thanks, all, on behalf of Booster.


12 Jun 03 - 08:12 PM (#966638)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Booster Terrik

Thanks for all the responses, everybody.
I will probably make the sides and bottom out of hard mapple and the top out of soft maple. I may try other woods that are from north central PA. Most of my suplies are going to be under $40 but if I want better/nicer tuners they are more expensive. I just need to find a local mill with a drying kiln so I don't have to try and use green wood.


13 Jun 03 - 11:01 AM (#966770)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: GUEST,Russ

Based on my own experience and conversations with professional dulcimer makers, I would suggest that you not use maple. It is not a popular wood for dulcimers. One doesn't see maple dulcimers very often and a maple dulcimer with marginally acceptable sound quality is rare enough to invariably elicit the remark "Not bad for maple".

Some of the more popular dulcimer woods are walnut and cherry for sides and back and spruce for the top.

13 Jun 03 - 01:02 PM (#966822)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: JohnInKansas

I'd agree that maple is seldom seen in dulcimers, although for a "first try" it might be okay for the back. My recollection is that it's one of those "hard to bend" woods that makes it a risky choice for the sides, unless you have someone with some experience to give some help. It is also - relatively - a very heavy wood, and you don't want something that needs a cart to carry it around.

If you're planning to kill your own tree - as implied by the reference to needing a drying kiln, you'll have plenty of time to build one - or three or four - "practice" pieces while you're waiting for the wood to be stable. With access to reasonable tools, one 8-foot spruce or pine 2x4 from you local lumber yard should have enough wood for a dulcimer - if you can find one without too many knots.

Since the top and backs are flat, constant thickness, and don't carry any load, you can butt-glue strips quite easily to make a "plank" big enough for these. Getting strips wide enough to bend the sides is a little more tricky, but a table/radial saw and sander should suffice with a little planning.

Walnut is almost universally used for the fingerboards. Some other woods with more than adequate "strength" have a tendency to "creep" under load, so you need to be careful about substituting there. For a relatively cheap practice build, you may find walnut stair treads at a local yard that are big enough for 3 or 4 fingerboards. They won't be "dense grained" but are serviceable.

McSpadden, mentioned often above, uses a thicker fingerboard than most other makers, and you probably won't find a piece thick enough to match theirs, but you should find full 4/4 (or even 5/4?) available. (I can't confirm that McSpadden's fingerboards are hollowed out - SWMBO won't let me take hers apart to see.)

You can check with local music shops for "junker" tuners that they've taken off of things, and mandolin tuners can be split easily to make a 2 x 2 setup - although the pins point the "wrong way" for a conventional dulcimer so you get to do a little "design" work.

About the only things you need to "buy new" should be fretwire and the "bones" for the nuts. (And a set of strings.)

Once you have your plans doped out, and while you're waiting for the wood to dry, I'd encourage you to try-out things on a practice piece. Lots of fun.


14 Jun 03 - 12:15 AM (#966879)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: DonMeixner

I have built several Lap Dulcimers and these are the advisements I'd pass along.

1. Shape is pretty much unimportant. I have built rectangular boxes as well as tear drops and the prime sound conditioner was the quality of the woods used. Not the shape.

2. Get the frets located correctly. I used banjo frets in mine.

3. Don't go cheap on the tuners. Violin pegs and cutters and reamers are an expense you don't need unless you plan to make a living building very trad instruments. I like geared guitar pegs.

All my instruments are 8 banjo strings, four courses of two each.

Course one= Wound (22)and Octave (12) strings, two = Wound (18) and Octave (12)strings, three = Plain (16)and Plain (16) four = Plain (11)and Plain (11).


14 Jun 03 - 02:13 PM (#966932)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: KateG

McSpadden fretboards are hollow. If your fingers are slim enough you can feel through the soundhole that the top is actually in two pieces and the hollow fretboard spans the gap. Actually, I think the fretboard is in three pieces: two sides and a top, but I'd have to go downstairs to check.

18 Jul 03 - 04:46 PM (#986174)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: GUEST,

Hi Booster, and all,

I just found this forum, and have spent more time than I should have today looking around (still without getting to everything here, by far!). But I thought I'd say something about resources for dulcimer building.

First, I should tell you that I teach a workshop every June at the Northeast Dulcimer Symposium, in beautiful Blue Mountain Lake, in the Adirondaks. We really get into the innards of lutherie, learning how to evaluate tonewoods, how to choose them to get a specific sound, how to profile the subtle curve in a fretboard, press frets so you don't have to do levelling and recrowning, setting and dressing a wooden peg correctly, etc. The students come out with beautiful dulcimers, and a solid foundation in building.

Next, you should look into the Music Instrument Makers Forum at There are frequent discussions of dulcimer building there.

Also, check out my website. There is a really huge amount of detailed information on how I do things, illustrated with photos. Several people have used the site as a guide to building their first instrument even though I don't furnish plans. Check it out at

Best regards,

19 Jul 03 - 06:12 AM (#986458)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Gurney

A friend of mine used to build them, probably the premier maker around here. I asked him once about his charge-out rate and he said it was "about $2 per hour." A labour of love, so if you do build, you will help put a maker out of business and save him from starving to death. They are cheap at twice the price.

19 Jul 03 - 09:28 AM (#986521)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Bear Meadow

Right, Gurney! When my friends in the classical music world hear what my dulcimers go for, they shake their heads in wonder. Of course, you can't walk on stage with a dulcimer and earn $125K a year, either! Working For The Folk has its sacrifices. We all know that--right?--in one form or another...


19 Jul 03 - 10:42 AM (#986554)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: wysiwyg

Welcome to Mudcat, Dwain!


19 Jul 03 - 11:53 AM (#986581)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Bear Meadow

Thanks, Susan. I'm sorry it took me so long to discover this place. Quite a delight!


02 Jul 08 - 04:51 PM (#2379475)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Stilly River Sage

Since this thread has some discussion of what makes a good dulcimer I'll revive it to say that I've put one of my father's dulcimers up for sale at eBay. It has attracted a lot of watchers and quite a number of hits (considering it's a plain ol' dulcimer and not a potato chip shaped like Bob Hope's profile or the state of Illinois).

This is the lesser of his two mountain dulcimers, one he had made (or bought ready-made) to be given to a friend about 25 years ago and it eventually made its way back to me and we're paying for college and decluttering at the same time, so I'm selling some of the instruments. (The one I'm keeping was custom made for him and sounds marvelous--but both of these are the kind of instrument that when you pick it up and strum it you want to learn to to make music on it.)

Item 300237601985 is the dulcimer I've made an attempt to describe (I don't play it and I had to do some research just to know which were the best photos to take of it).

I have realized I ought to give a head's up here at Mudcat in case anyone has a lot of cash burning a hole in their pocket and is dying to have a very nice older instrument. It both sounds lovely and is beautiful to look at. I didn't name my father in the auction, but quite a few of you know who he was, and as he collected folk instruments over the years he bought some very nice and rather expensive ones. I wish I'd gotten one of his guitars, but I didn't, and we have a couple for my son, and now a couple of superfluous instruments will go on eBay as I have time to research and then pack them.   

Thanks to Deckman for giving me a little more information about this maker. After 25 or 30 years I can't track him down, which isn't surprising, but a little information is nice to have.


04 Jul 08 - 08:42 PM (#2381318)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: Stilly River Sage

Back up to the top, a little over a day left in this auction.

05 Jul 08 - 02:45 PM (#2381832)
Subject: RE: Building a mountain dulcimer
From: dulcimerjohn

Dulcimerjohn is back on mudcat ..I have nearly 20 dulcimers (fluctuates) yes, I'm a nut. Stop by and see them anytime Mudcatters-Smokehouse Winery, Sperryville Va. I made one but have lucked into many for not many dollars. Dulcimerrily, dulcimerjohn