The mountain dulcimer has enjoyed a renaissance in folk music. Originating in the Appalachian Mountains in the 18th century, the instrument has traditionally been hand-built by artisans and musicians. With the renewed interest, players of all levels are looking into building their own dulcimers once more. While building an instrument from scratch requires experienced woodworking skills and special tools, many pre-cut kits in various stages of assembly are available.
For the experienced woodworker with the necessary tools, dulcimer plans are readily available at speciality music stores. Although it is possible to make a dulcimer without plans, careful consideration must be given to string length, fret spacing, and other factors to make the instrument playable. The dulcimer is a musical instrument, and the type of wood, finish, and general construction peculiarities of musical instruments must be taken into account.
Kits of all styles and quality levels are usually a better option, especially for those with modest wood-building skills, or experienced woodworkers building their first dulcimer. Most kits come with pre-spaced frets installed on the neck, with other parts assembled with simple hand tools and wood glue.
Traditional dulcimers are made from local wood, giving distinct regions different sounding instruments. Each wood has its own sound attributes, and research into musical instrument wood is always a smart idea. Dulcimers can be made from poplar, walnut, maple, oak, redwood, spruce, or other woods. Playing dulcimers of different wood construction will give the builder a better idea of what choice to make.
Finishing of dulcimers is as individual as wood selection. Lacquer, oil, polish, and polyurethane are all acceptable, but will also affect wood vibration. Generally, surface finishes of all types should be applied in very few coats to allow the wood to breathe and vibrate. Lacquers and polyurethanes will dampen the sound somewhat, especially in the low-end registers. Understanding how different finishes affect acoustics will make an instrument sound as good as it looks.
Shape and Sound Holes
The dulcimer's shape can be as individual as the builder, although traditionalists prefer the hourglass or teardrop shaped bodies. The size of the body will affect tone, as will the cut-out sound holes in the top. While the body may be of any shape and size the builder wishes, the sound holes must be large enough to allow sound projections, but not so large that they affect the vibration of the top of the instrument. Manufactured dulcimers include two to four small sound holes, or many much smaller sound holes arranged in a decorative pattern. Investigating proven designs will give the new builder a better idea of body size and sound hole configuration.
It's nice to be able to create a one-of-a-kind musical instrument. Unless you're a trained musical instrument maker with a deep understanding of all the intricacies of instrument building, it could prove frustrating to try and "reinvent the wheel". Plans and kits can always be altered and customised with a little planning and inventiveness, and will yield a DIY dulcimer that plays well and sounds good.