Introduction: How to Build a "Strum Stick".

Picture of How to Build a "Strum Stick".

The McNally Strumstick is an amazing instrument, perfect for those just learning to play guitar or for the experienced player who wants to try something new.  They are not desperately expensive so they are great for the party or camp fire where you won't be too heart broken if it gets scuffed up a bit.

The Strumstick or dulcimerstick, as it is sometimes known, is also a great way to try your hand at building your own instrument. I hope this instructable will provide enough information that you will try one too.  

Material I chose to use:
Pine boards, 4" X 1/4" X 24", 2 of them for the top.
Figured maple, 1 1/4" X 3/4" X 24", for the neck.
Recycled ash floor board, 1 1/4" X 5/8" X 24", back of the neck.
Red oak, 1/8" X 1 1/4" X 14", 2 of these for the sides.
White spruce, 1 1/4" X 6" X 3", for the tail block.
Meranty plywood, 1/4" X 6" X 24", for the back.
Carpenter's yellow glue (LePages is the brand I use).
2 part epoxy, you can use the 5 minute type if you are sure of what you are doing, or the 30 minute type if you want a bit more time to adjust things.
Spray lacquer (gloss).
About one ton of sand paper, 60, 100, 150, 240, 600 grits.
1 tail stock of your choosing. I chose copper bar 1 1/2" X 1/8" X 3".
Soup bone for the nut. 
Purple heart for the bridge, 
Strap button
3 tuner heads, 3 left or 3 right, or any combination you want.
About 18" of medium high nickel silver fret wire.

The tool I used:
I don't expect every one to have access to every tool I list, I've been working wood for over 25 years and have been able to amass a pretty good kit.
Table saw
Thickness planner
Bench sander
Chop saw
Drill Press
Hand drill
Rotary tool
One crap load of clamps (bar type, spring and C )
Clothes pins
Card scrapper 
assorted files and rasps
Spoke shave
Copping saw (hand powered)
Dove tail saw
Flush cut saw
Resin headed hammer (for fretting)
Wire cutters
Assorted drill bits
Measuring and marking tools (rulers, tape measures, calipers and squares)

A word about safety: practice it! nuff said.

Step 1: Stock Preperation

Picture of Stock Preperation

You will first need to dimension your lumber. Cut the neck wood to width, then to the rough length.  A table saw and chop saw makes quick work of this but a hand saw will do the job too.  Then glue them together. Use lots of clamps and clamp pads (to protect the wood from dents). Mean while you can prepare and glue up the top boards.

The mated edges of the top boards need to be squared up and checked for a perfect joint.  I use an 8" joiner but you can also do it by hand using a smooth plane. Check the joint by holding the edges together and holding the piece up to a light. You are looking for light shinning through the joint. Keep working at it until you see no light come through. All you need to do then is glue them together. 

The oak I used for the sides was prepared ahead of time for another project but the process for dimensioning it is very simple.  I used my table saw to rip thin strip from a 1 1/2" X 3/4" board. I started with 1/8" thick by 1 1/2" wide rough cut then laid them on a 3/4" think backer board and ran them through the thickness planner.  Go easy and take very, very light cuts, as you get close the the 1/16" thickness things get delicate.  The board could quite easily shatter in the machine sending spears of oak every where at a high speed.  You can avoid this potentially deadly out come by using 2 sided tape to adhere the boards to the backer board.

Step 2: Preparing the Neck to Meet the Body.

Picture of Preparing the Neck to Meet the Body.

Where the neck meets the body of the guitar is a fun little job. Since I don't plan on applying a fret board to this build, I need to get a good clean joint. This is where paying close attention to your lay out line and taking your time to make good square cuts will result in a satisfactory finish.

The neck of this strumstick will be about 3" into the body of the guitar thus it acts as its' own head block. One less thing to do right?

Step 3: Sides and Tail Block.

Picture of Sides and Tail Block.

What makes a strum stick so nice as a first time instrument build is the simplicity of the parts. The sides for example have simple, elegant curves that come naturally. The sides simply glue to the neck and the tail block sets the curve.  I used some nice hard spruce for the tail block. I simply drew about a 4 inch by 2 inch oval with PC paint, printed it out and cut out the shape.  The pictures better illustrate how things worked.  With some double sided tape I affixed the pattern to the stock and used the chop saw and bench sander to get the shape I needed. 

Step 4: Kerfing

Picture of Kerfing

In this step I will install the kerfing. All kerfing is, is a way to increase the gluing area for attaching the top and bottom of the instrument. I chose to use "store bought" kerfing however, you can just as easily make your own, which I will include a picture of some that I used in a previous build. I use simple clothes pins to clamp the kerfing in place, but the really cheap ones I'm using required me to beef up the springs by wrapping elastic bands on them. Using yellow glue I installed the strips on the top first and the next day repeated the process on the bottom.

Step 5: Tops and Bottoms

Picture of Tops and Bottoms

With the kerfing in place it is time to move on to cutting out the top and bottom of the instrument.  The top gets a sanding, I start with 60 grit, then go to 100. I will go through finner grits later on in the build.  Lay the finished or as I call it the public side down on a clean surface. Place the guitar on the blank and position it how you like it. Remember to choose the best looking grain pattern. trace the outline of the body adding about 1/4" all around. Then trace the exact outline of the inside. This will be a reference line for the bracing and glue up. 
Using the saw of your choice cut the rough outline from the blank. Simply repeat the process for the back too.  For the back I intend to use 1/4" Meranti plywood. You could use the same material as the top if you want or a similar plywood. 

Step 6: Cleaning Up the Edges

Picture of Cleaning Up the Edges

Now that I have the top and bottom glued to the body I need to trim the edges flush to the sides. If you have a router, router table and a trim bit this job will go quickly.  If not, then take your time using either a chisel or rasp. I used the router for this project.  It is critical that you also go easy with the router too. Don't try and hog off all the material in one go, also do the end grain section first, that way if you have some grain blow out, it will be in the waste stock.

Step 7: The Tail Stock

Picture of The Tail Stock

How you deal with the terminal end of the instrument strings is wide open to your creative juices. I've done tails in wood, aluminum, steel, copper, I've done hard tails, trapeze tails, I've used manufactured tails. It is totally up to you. Here I scored some 1/8" thick by 1 1/2" copper bar stock from a large truck battery array.  It is important when trying to bend stock this thick to use some heat to help tighten the radius of the bend. You'll see what I mean in the pictures.

Step 8: Sticking Your Neck Out.

Picture of Sticking Your Neck Out.

Before I get too far ahead on the body of the instrument, I'll turn my attention to shaping the neck. You can do this before you glue the body on or after as I have done.  Here you'll need to make a commitment on what scale length you'll be using.  I'm going with a 25 1/2" scale, so what I've done is measure from my bridge location on the body, 25 1/2" up the neck. That spot will become the nut position.  I then added about 4" for the head stock.  Then I marked a center line down the back of the neck as a reference line and roughed out the curve of the heel and final head thickness.  You'll need no more that 9/16" thickness for the turner pegs. 

I'm shooting for a modified "V" neck on this build  but you can go as simple as you want or as complex as you like. I've built guitars that the only shaping the neck got was a 1/4" round over to soften the edges. Here I'll start with a rotary tool with a course sand paper, move to a spoke shave, then a rasp followed by course sand paper and finished with a cabinet scrapper. 

Step 9: Tuner Time

Picture of Tuner Time

As with all the tuners I install, I will make sure to lay out the exact location of each one so they wont interfere with each other and still look good. I also take the time to drill stepped hole, the small one for the peg of the tuner and the bigger, shallower one for the furl or bushing.   

Step 10: Finishing and Fretting the Neck.

Picture of Finishing and Fretting the Neck.

Now is the time to get a finish on the project.  I chose a spray lacquer for the job. Before I do this however, I need to cut the slots for my fret wire. Here I use a copping saw and a small miter box. Be sure to cut the slots only deep enough to accept the tang of the fret wire with out bottoming out in the slot. Here you will use the resign headed hammer to set the wire. A conventional hammer will badly dent the surface of the fret wire. 

Step 11: And Let's Get This One Off the Books.

Picture of And Let's Get This One Off the Books.

Ok,  by this point you are ready to attach the tuners and tail piece, finish the nut and make the bridge. For simplicity purposes I will take it as read that you have marked and notched the string slots in the nut, keeping things neat and clean. Located the bridge based on the scale length you chose and attached the tail piece and tuners. Here comes the tricky bit, setting up the action. As you can see in the pictures I am using a make shift bridge to set the action (height of the strings above the fret wires.). Once I am satisfied I'll replace it with a fancier one. You may also need to adjust the slot depth at the nut as well.

And there you have it, A McNally style strummer.


gduke (author)2012-01-23

Here is MINE!!!
2 Mackie Music Sticks
1 Dulcimer Stick
1 Dulcimer

friger (author)gduke2012-01-24

These look great, I particularly like the look of the purple heart on the Dulcimer Stick. Got any close up details on it?

gduke (author)friger2012-01-24

The purple heart came out of a dumpster in Charleston SC. The wood hobby shop on the Air Force base was closed because it did not "make" money. The day after it closed I hit the dumpster and picked up all sorts of scrap wood. Being a pen turner I took what I could get out of there.
The purple heart in this build was just long enough for the neck. I cut the top back at a slight angle and with that piece I was able to cut the nut, then the tail piece, and from the left over of the tail piece, I cut the bridge.

friger (author)gduke2012-01-24

This thing is AWESOME! I really dig how you transitioned the neck to the body, it looks like a serious complicated joint, but I get how you did it. The tail stop is wicked too. Keep the good work coming!

jtobako (author)2011-06-03

How do you lay out the fret distances?

friger (author)jtobako2011-06-03

I get the spacing from an online fret calculator. There are many out there for free just google it. I like "Paul's fret calculator". Once I found the one I like I mark the spacing on an aluminum bar based on a 25.5 inch scale. This becomes my ruler for future builds.

jtobako (author)friger2011-06-04

Where/how are the strings held on the terminal end?

friger (author)jtobako2011-06-05

Have a look.

friger (author)jtobako2011-06-04

I simply drilled 3 small holes in the tail piece and fed the strings through them. I will post a close up picture for you tomorrow.

TomV5 (author)2015-02-16

Hey, could you put a picture of the tail block so I can trace it on the wood?

TomV5 (author)2015-02-16

Hey, could you put a picture of the tail block so I can trace it on the wood?

TomV5 (author)2015-02-16

Hey, could you put a picture of the tail block so I can trace it on the wood?

TomV5 (author)2015-02-16

Hey, could you put a picture of the tail block so I can trace it on the wood?

fredray76 (author)2014-04-19

what do you tune the strings to?

jgafford (author)2014-01-08

Did/do you find that this Strum Stick needed or could use a Truss Rod?

friger (author)jgafford2014-01-09

I didn't find a truss rod necessary in this build at all.

Darican (author)2014-01-02

This might be old news due to the age of the post, but I just ran into it. Anyway, I am psyched to do this with my son (and he wants to also...), but where can I get the wood. Home depot and Lowe's have lumber but not the nice wood you used. Any suggestions?
Thank you

friger (author)Darican2014-01-03

Actually you can get nice wood at those big box stores, you just need to pick through the stacks a bit. Just a few weeks ago I picked up some beautiful bird's eye maple at my local big box and paid no more for it than the regular maple price.

Solid Snake (author)2012-08-26

Is there an advantage to making this with a seperate body and neck? Ive seen others where people make it out of 1 solid piece of wood, and it seems much simpler.

friger (author)Solid Snake2012-08-29

I don't think there is any advantage in doing it the way I did, I was using the materials I had on hand.

bricobart (author)2012-06-15

Beautiful work, so well done!!!

dwashburn (author)2012-03-07


Ithink I will need the drawing plans to make the strum.  Can I get the drawing plans. Thank you in advance.  It looks great

freeza36 (author)2012-02-01

this looks similar to a Martin Backpacker

gduke (author)2012-01-24


I really love your tail stop but I did not have access to anything like that. My tail stop design was just to keep it clean (nothing to catch on the end) and at the same time allow the use of ball or loop ends.
As for the transition from the sides to the neck, well I wanted to avoid the block look so I just went to the spindle sander and made some curves on the upper edge. When I got to the router table, well it made some cuts to the bottom edge. Then back to the spindle sander to transition it more.
The photo shows the work on the sides. The one concern is the strength of the neck/body joint. Due to the sanding I do not get full width of the sides 3 inches into the body, about 1/4 inch of the top onto the neck and nearly the 3 inches overlap on the back. It is strong enough though!

Strumming them every day and looking for TAB's. The long string length makes a 4-0-1 fretting impossible but most other cords have been doable.

I had my hands on a wooden cigar box but let it go only to later be upset that I did not get it and make a dulcimer cigar box. Perhaps if I can find a cigar box I could attempt an instructable on it.

dawning (author)2011-05-25

Neat project - end product looks a fair bit like the Martin Backpacker.

friger (author)dawning2011-05-25

Nice catch, McNally designed the back packer for Martin and he took the shape to the Strum Stick.

gduke (author)friger2012-01-21

Yesterday I was looking for a blade to cut the fret slots and a person at the local wood store said "hey that looks like a Martin Backpacker".

I cut the slots on the Mackie Music Sticks with a 0.010 blade and knocked them in. However on this build, I used purple heart in the neck and I could not get the frets in so I picked up a 0.20 saw and the frets went in nicely.

I hope my icon shows the photo of them along with the Dulcimer I built before Christmas.

I followed your plans except for the tail piece.
Instead of pushing the strings all the way through it and having the tiny ball ends outside of the tail, I drilled the face of the tail, through the top, and into the tail block, then using the pins that came with the string, I pushed them through the face of the tail piece, through the ball end, the top, and into the tail block. This allows me to use loop ends or the ball ends.

I did not use any kerfing inside the body.
I did use a larger tail block which kept the balance right about where the body meets the neck.

The string length is 26 and 7/8 matching the dulcimer since I could use calipers and mark it exactly because I was having some difficulty in using the fret calculators.

Next build? Another Dulcimer and some more Mackie Music Sticks.

friger (author)gduke2012-01-23

I am anxious to see some pictures, it sounds like you did an awesome job.

froggy2u (author)2012-01-19

Would you give the scale for the frets? Where to place them on the neck?

friger (author)froggy2u2012-01-19

I used a 25.5 inch scale and this is the fret calculator I used.

urban wombat (author)2011-12-07

Hey Friger, nice work with the build. I'm about to embark on my own build and this has given me some nice clear tips. Interesting that you didn't add a separate fretboard, I've not seen this done before, but it looks pretty good.
Can I ask how thick your sides, back and top are? They look pretty thick in the photographs, but maybe that is just my aging eyesight!
Also are there any sound clips or videos of your instrument online anywhere? I'd love to hear how it sounds.
Thanks for sharing your build.

friger (author)urban wombat2011-12-08

Unfortunatly I didn't get a sound clip of this one before I sold it but if you google strum stick you can hear exactly what mine sounded like. Be aware that they don't have a lot of volume as compared to a full sized guitar, the sound box is quite small. The sides were dressed down to just under 1/8" and the top is just a tad over 1/8". Tricky business to go any thinner with power tools and not economically viable to go down to 1/16" by hand.

urban wombat (author)friger2011-12-08

Thanks for the info. :-)

friger (author)urban wombat2011-12-08

Here is a link to a video showing a friend of mine playing one of my cigar box guitars. Turn your volume up.

lbeaudry (author)2011-12-02

WOuld you consider selling one?

friger (author)lbeaudry2011-12-04

The one in this instructable is already sold and I have to start another one for a customer however I often will make multiples during a build. I would consider making you one too, I'm getting $150.00 Canadian for them. Send me your location in a private message and we can talk.

superrust (author)2011-09-14

Beautiful build. Not only do I plan on building this one I will also be using some of your techniques and tips on my other projects. Thanks

friger (author)superrust2011-09-15

No, thank you. Be sure to post some pictures, I love to see other people's work!

DanCrocker (author)2011-08-09

I think have a grasp of what is needed to build one of these but a couple of questions have come to mind:

1) What gauge strings are used?
2) How would I add a pickup to allow this to be plugged into an amp?
Could it be done after the instrument is finished or is this done prior to assembling the box?
4) Is the bridge permanently attached or does the string tension hold it in place?
5) How is the nut attached? Epoxy or is it a press fit?

friger (author)DanCrocker2011-08-09

1) String gauge is a personal prefrence really, I think I used the G, B, and high E strings from a set of Martin med. gauge.
2) If it were me, I would add the PU during the build. You can add a piezo pick up after the fact but it will get tricky running the line to the jack. I couldn't easily explain how to add the pick up, that would be an instructable on its own. If you went with a piezo pick up then you simply tape it to the underside of the bridge location, then run you jack wires to the jack. Take a look at the instructable I posted on the cigar box guitar, there are some good photoes of how I do my Piezo's.
3) ?
4) I never permanently attach a bridge, string tension is plenty to hold it in place.
5) As far as the nut goes, I like to put a couple of drops of super glue under it, you can still tap it free if you need to replace it, but it wont slide left or right on you when stringing the instrument up.

These are all great questions, Thanks.

DanCrocker (author)friger2011-08-09

Thanks for the quick reply. What would you recommend for a true electric guitar style pickup and associated hardware? I.e., ready to plug into an amp. I think I am going to try and incorporate that in my build.

Also, I was wondering if you could provide the final dimensions of your instrument such as:

- Total length
- Length of neck from headstock to body
- Width and thickness of neck
- Length and thickness of head stock (part that holds the tuners)
- Length and width of body

friger (author)DanCrocker2011-08-11

total length- 34"
neck- 1 11/16" wide by 1 1/4" thick
head stock- 1 11/16" wide bt 5/8" thick by 4" long
body - 5 3/4" at the widest by 15" long by 1 3/4" thick.

remember to allow 3" on the neck where it enters the body.

friger (author)DanCrocker2011-08-10

Because this "guitar" is styled after an acoustic guitar the traditional electric guitar style pick up will need very good shielding to reduce the 60hrtz hum you get from a single coil PU. Also, feedback is an issue, ask any one who plays a hollow body electric like the Gibson ES335. That being said, I would recomend investing in a humbucker pickup. That will solve the hum but not the feedback, to solve that issue you need to be constantly aware of the guitars proximity to the amp.
In my instructable on "building a simple lap steel" I give a diagram and photos on installing a pick up with a volume control. I don't bother with tone controls, there is one on the amp. The volume pot should be at least 250 K, 500 is better. The jack is a basic 1/4" mono or stereo jack. The wire leads from the PU to the volume pot and jack are what ever light guage wire you can get, i use the wire from old computer speakers or old AC adapters.
I'll get back to you with the dimensions, I hope I've answered the first part of your question?

The nerdling (author)2011-05-31

so cool

Tince (author)2011-05-31

I,ve been meaning to have a go at a dulcimer since my daughters boyfriend started making them. Very expensive, I found plans on a blog.
(Stick-Dulcimers | Blog | Pickin Stick Plans.)
a similar version to this instructable, Just need the spare time and materials. who am i kidding, I'll never have time. Perhaps i can get one on the cheap off the boyfriend, Hint hint. Nice one.

Kaptain Kool (author)2011-05-26

Sweet Ible!

rimar2000 (author)2011-05-25

Excellent instructable. Maybe you can add some explanation about dulcimer fretting and playing. A MP3 will help, too.

About This Instructable




Bio: I live on the east coast of Canada, (New Brunswick). I have been tinkering and building things all my life and still manage to learn ... More »
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