Introduction: How to Build a Strum-Stick Musical Instrument
Here are the complete steps toward building a 3-stringed musical instrument, taught and inspired by the Andy Mackie Music Foundation. the instrument has a dulcimer's tuning, and sounds & plays beautifully. I teach a musical instrument building class to public middle school students in the adjacent high school wood-shop. Here, students have built dozens upon dozens of guitars, of various shapes and flavors. I shall make best attempts at teaching you my techniques, including what works well and areas needing improvement. Students get to bring home their finished instruments, such a joy to see their pride in ownership!
Step 1: Start With a Stick!
When choosing your stick, make sure it is planed evenly on all four sides, doesn't bow or bend, and is straight & true!
I use "instrument-grade" wood such as mahogany and black walnut. Once I built one out of a African wood called bebinca. All our wood is donated to the Andy Mackie Music Foundation, for the purpose of teaching children to make and play their own musical instrument.
If acquiring these kinds of wood is just not possible, heck, then try using what is available to you, such as ash or another type of non-instrument-grade wood. The reason I suggest ash, is that it may bend more easily in a future step. Experimentation is most encouraged!
Here the measurements can vary. If you want to make a wider one to accommodate more than three strings, that will work too! Our kids have made many with varying lengths, including 12 inches longer than 30.5 inches, as well as shorter "ukulele-sized" instruments with less of a fretboard range.
Noting the direction of grain is important, such that when it is time to cut the fret wire grooves, the saw slices perpendicular to the grain.
Step 2: Measure the Slope
Here we're measuring the slope, where the tuner-holes will eventually be drilled.
Step 3: Make Cut Either Using Tablesaw or on the Bandsaw
Here you'll see I've built a special jig which rests up against the guide on the table saw. It angles the stick just slightly, so that it saws off the wedge that you marked earlier. It is much safer to use a jig, and I couldn't stress how much easier it was to take the time and build a jig.
Additionally, I had to build another piece for safety. The problem was that the wedges were so narrow, that when I sliced them off, they would stick in the little hole in between the blade and the cover. The remedy is to build a new cover, and fit it to the tablesaw hole. With the blade all the way down, put in the new piece for the cover, and rotate the handle until the blade is JUST the right height, thereby eliminating any space between the blade and the cover.
If you don't want to go to the trouble using a table-saw and jig, I recommend simply using the bandsaw. When making the cut, be sure to slow down when the blade reaches the end of the wedge, so that the stick doesn't slip forward when it slices through. Be safe, observe the 5 inch rule keeping fingers and thumbs 5 inches away from the blade. Since it is a straight cut, line up the angled line with any parallel line markings on the bandsaw platform, before starting to cut. Don't try to compensate for an improper angle by bending the wood, it could snap the blade! I recommend doing a few practice cuts on a piece of scrap before doing the real thing.
Lastly, just be sure to not go past 4.5 inches.
Step 4: Measure the Tuner Holes
Here I'm measuring an inch from the end, to where I'll mark my first hole. I use a tuner template, which is the base plate of a set of tuners I've sacrificed by taking apart. It can be slightly less than an inch if you prefer, but just don't make the hole too close to the end, because when it is time to install your tuners, some metal might stick out. *(if that happens, that's OK, you can just file it down, or grind it off.)
Importantly, depending on your set of tuners, make sure the holes are measured with precision, so that they properly line up.
I use a center-punch, to mark a divot in the true center of my marked hole, so the drill bit won't travel around when drilling. If you follow this technique, the tuners should fit perfectly.
You should measure and mark 6 markings total, three on the side, and three on the top, exactly centered, and lined up with each other.
Lastly, if the holes are slightly off, I've used a reamer tool before to slightly widen the holes, such that they accommodate the tuners.
Step 5: Drill Tuner Holes
First, drill all six holes with the smaller drill bit. Then switch to the larger drill bit, and drill only half-way down, stop, and back up. Turn over the stick, and finish drilling all the way through. This technique prevents the larger drill bit from splitting the wood, which inevitably happens if you go all the way through on one pass. Sure, you can clamp to a back-plate piece of scrap wood and drill all the way through, but this technique is relatively easy. The smaller hole you drilled earlier is a pilot hole, which helps you line up the larger drill bit from the other side. I like a clean entry and exit hole, without splitting!
I've also built a jig for the stick to easily rest into on the drill press, although clamping to the drill press platform will work quite well.
Step 6: Measure and Drill Center Hole
9.5 inches from the other end, mark and drill a hole on the same side as your (wider three) tuner holes. I recommend again using a pilot drill bit, and then switching to a larger bit, drilling half-way in, flipping over, and drilling the rest of the way through *(to prevent splitting.)
It is crucial that you make this hole absolutely centered. There should be no less than 3/16ths of an inch wide on either side.
If it is off centered, or if the hole is very close to the sides, there is a risk of the wood snapping when it becomes time to spread and glue. Additionally, if the sides are too thick, say, larger than 5/16th of an inch, there is also a risk of the wood snapping. Go figure. Therefore, it is always possible to trim up the sides before the step where we spread and glue, but be careful not to cut it too thinly.
Step 7: Cut Out a 'step', and Then Cut Out the Center Piece Using the Bandsaw
Here I like to refer to this step as "cutting out the step." In this instructable, I've only included cutting out the step for the front side only, however it can be done to both sides as well.
The purpose of this cut is that when we eventually glue on a piece of wood for the front plate, it is uniformly level with the fretboard. Make sure it will be level, you can always plane off the front plate wood, or make the "step" cut, the exact depth.
Here I've set up a metal guide, which is clamped to the band saw table platform. This guide makes the cuts very easy and precise. I recommend holding the stick as you would hold a billiards cue stick. Your left hand is stationery, and pushing the stick inward, keeping it pressed up against the guide. Your right hand is feeding the stick into the blade, just as if you are shooting pool. Make the cut go just past the hole Straight cut in, pull it back straight out.
Step 8: Measure, and Cut Out the End Piece
The end piece should look like a trapezoid when finished. Sometimes I've made two sections glued together to make an extra thick end piece. If you glue two together, this can allow for the eventual sanding the corners into a curve if you wish. After cutting the piece, temporarily masking-tape it firmly back inside the "forks" to keep the (flimsy) forks more rigid. This will help when you eventually shape it on the router.
Step 9: Cut Fret Grooves
I've found that it is most useful to build a jig with the precise measurements marked onto the guide. Then you can easily line up the end of the stick to the markings on the guide.
Make sure you use a very thin jeweler's saw blade (with a super thin "kerf,") and set the depth no deeper than an eighth of an inch.
Push the guide forward to make the cut on the tablesaw, and then lift up the stick before pulling the guide back.
This will prevent against accidental cutting twice, which widens the groove.
Refer to the precise Dulcimer's tuning measurements. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how important this step is to make sure the measurements are as accurate and precise as possible. re-measure, and double-check all measurements before continuing with the cuts!
Additionally, cut three more cuts just below the tuner holes. (these don't require precise measuring, they're to prevent the steel guitar strings from cutting into the wood.) Approximately a quarter of an inch from the tuner holes.
Sometimes mistakes are made, and if the mistake is over an eighth of an inch off, then it is acceptable to fill in the groove with wood putty. If the mistake is closer than an eighth of an inch, well... When it is time to hammer in the fret wire, the groove might just split.
Alternatively, I have also measured and cut by hand, using a hand saw with a thin kerf, and a miter box. Careful to make the depths of each cut consistently.
There is a wonderful Mountain Dulcimer Fret Measurement Calculator y'all should know about! it is at:
ALSO: Check out:
Step 10: Shape the Neck With Router
When using the router, make sure that you have installed an appropriate rounded-curve bit. The bit spins in a counter-clockwise direction, which means that you should always make the cut towards the LEFT, or upstream to the spinning direction. Please, NEVER be tempted to cut towards the right, as the bit can catch the piece, and jerk it unexpectedly, or worse, jerk your fingers into the bit.
I like to start my cut with the FORKS end set up against the guide, and then angle the piece in until it is being cut by the bit, about two inches in from the forks. Grip super-firmly to prevent the piece from jerking, and then slowly move the piece towards the left until you've reached just before the tuner holes. Turn over, and repeat, making the starting and ending points symmetrical.
I recommend marking the guide, indicating where the starting and finishing points belong.
Step 11: Spread and Glue End Piece
Spread Wood Glue with your fingers on each end of the end-piece. Now, before you spread, make sure you clamp at the base of the forks to prevent breakage. Slowly spread the forks apart until JUST the piece fits. Be super careful, and work slowly. If you hear the wood stressing too much and start to creak, back off, and just slice a centimeter off the end piece.
These photos show a jig I use to keep everything tight and centered. If you don't have a jig, it's just as well to make sure the end piece is well clamped or taped tightly to allow the glue to set and hold.
Wait 12 hours.
Step 12: Trace the Back Piece
I've used Maple for the backside, and Spruce for the front side, but you can experiment with different woods. The Hard Wood of the maple on the back, combined with the softer wood of the spruce on the front, produces a unique warm sound. The spruce is less decorative, however, and if you want to use maple for both the front and back, that will be beautiful!!
Step 13: Cut Out the Back Piece
When cutting on the bandsaw, I like to cut just outside the line. Depending on how confident you are in making a precise cut, feel free to leave plenty of room, the excess edges can always be trimmed up or sanded later on.
Step 14: Glue and Clamp Back Piece
Run a thin bead of glue along the edges, and wait a few minutes to allow the air to make the glue slightly "tacky." I like to spread the glue uniformly with my fingers. Plan on some drips, so having a wet paper towel or damp rag nearby helps. Don't over-glue. Clamp all the way around, using plenty of clamps, one on each corner, and several along the sides. Careful when clamping, sometimes the first few clamps will shift the back piece around. Make sure it is still centered! This photo doesn't show it, but I now like to use junk scraps on the front side to clamp to, that way the clamps won't inadvertently bend the narrow sides in.
Make sure the glue "squeezes" out when clamping, just to ensure a tight fit!
Turn upside down, so that if any glue drips, it will drip downward.
Step 15: Trim the Edges
This step is optional, you can always trim both sides when both front and back sides are glued together. This just helps if you want to see the sides better. BE CAREFUL to not cut through the side of course!
Step 16: Measure and Trace Out Front Piece
Again, I like using Spruce wood for the softer (warmer) sound, but you can also go for something with more grain or "finger" to make a decorative instrument! *(plus, I'm sure it will sound great regardless!)
Step 17: Cut Out the Front Piece
Same as Before, cut outside the markings.
Step 18: Measure and Drill the Sound Hole
I've approximated the sound hole here, although it must be absolutely centered. Note that the hole is closer towards the neck, rather than the end. This is because you will install a bridge (small piece of hard wood) towards the end, to elevate the guitar steel strings. One mustn't want the bridge to be over the hole. You can experiment with different sized sound holes. I've also used wider drill bits. Make sure you have a scrap piece of wood underneath the front piece, to prevent any splitting when the drill bit pierces through the other side.
*(ensure a clean entry and exit hole!)
Step 19: Glue and Clamp Front Piece
Again, wipe up any excess glue spillage, and clamp in enough places to ensure that the glue squeezes out, confirming a tight fit.
Let the glue set overnight.
Step 20: Trim the Edges
You can trim the edges using either the bandsaw, or a finishing sander.
Step 21: Sand the Instrument
Sand all edges! I recommend using a hand sander, starting with a coarser grit, such as 80 grit. Gradually, switch to a finer grit such as 120 grit, and eventually switch to a finer grit yet! The more elbow grease you put into it, the better / smoother the instrument feels!
Step 22: Install the Fret Wire
Use #764 (thinnest) fret wire for the frets just below the three tuner holes. This just prevents the steel guitar strings to cut into the wood.
Use # 150 (thickest) fret wire for the First Fret
Use # 141 fret wire for the rest of the 12 guitar frets
Tap in the fret wire, using a softer (plastic) mallet, rather than a metal hammer. (The fret wire can dent.)
It only requires a few firm taps. If you find yourself whacking the fret wire too repetitively, the wire could just be "walking" its way back and forth out of the groove.
Snip with wire snippers, vertically and not horizontally. If you snip horizontally, sometimes the wire could just pop back out. Snip flush to the edge of your piece. If the fret wire insists upon coming loose, simply dab a bead of super glue in the fret groove, and then tap back in.
I recommend firmly putting a finger to hold down the wire seated into the groove, while snipping, to prevent the wire from popping back out.
The picture shows the frets being sanded with a belt sander. Now I find that I wouldn't recommend this. Instead, use a file, and only file in the downward stroke direction. If you file upwards, it will pop the frets out. Simply file off the burrs, and run your fingers along the edge of the instrument. After all, you want the "feel" to be welcoming, and not having sharp edges!
Step 24: Double Check Frets Are Well-Seated.
Sometimes the filing or the sanding of the fret wire loosens them. If need be, run a bead of super-glue in the loose fret groove, and re-tap the wire in place.
Step 25: Drill Pilot Holes, and Install Brass Brad Nails.
Measure and drill a pilot hole 3/16ths of an inch in from each side, just after the tuner hole. Tap in a brass brad nail. These are to keep the steel guitar strings separated. Tap the nail leaving an eighth of an inch sticking out.
Step 26: Measure, and Install 3 Brass Nails for the Strings at the End.
Instead of measuring the center of the end piece, and hammering in a nail,... place a straight stick to align where the true center hole belongs, and then mark the center of that. The reason being is that sometimes the guitars are glued slightly off centered. One must ensure that the center hole for the guitar string to attach must line up absolutely down the center of the guitar neck.
Then make a measurement 3/16ths from the width of the guitar neck on either side, and make a mark.
Double check all measurements.
Drill the three pilot holes straight down with a very thin drill bit. Careful, if the holes are close to the edge, there is a risk of the nails splitting through the end. Just be sure that you're leaving a half of an inch space from the end, and the drill is piercing the solid end piece, to ensure the nail to hold.
Hammer in three brass brad nails, leaving the tips sticking an eighth of an inch up.
Step 27: Oil and Stain.
Use your favorite Stain.
I like to use Boiled Linseed Oil.
With a cloth rag, Make sure all areas of the wood soak up the stain, making a beautiful finish.
Step 28: Install Tuners
Make sure the gears of the tuners point toward the body of the guitar.
Use a small phillips to screw in the tiny screws. It helps to also drill out pilot holes.
If the tuners don't fit quite right, use a reamer tool or a circular file to round-out / widen the holes slightly.
Step 29: Install Guitar Strings.
Refer to the 4th and 5th video, embedded in this instructable. (step 32.)
Step 30: Tune the Instrument
Again, refer to the video.
I like to tune the upper and lower strings to the key of G, one octave apart, but your tunings can vary.
Step 31: Play Music!
I'll include a music lesson instructable soon. Stay Tuned!
"Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"
"You are my Sunshine"
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight."
Step 32: Video -- How to Build, String, and Tune Your Instrument
Step 33: Strings
Here are the Strings we use. The GHS Dulcimer strings come in a 4 string set. Since we use three, you'll have an extra one left over in case a string breaks. The thickest string (.020" diameter) is used for the low G. The middle string (.012") tuned to D, and the upper string (also .012") tuned to the high G.