How to Make a Dulcimer Without Power Tools

54,910

382

41

Introduction: How to Make a Dulcimer Without Power Tools

About: I'm an amateur woodworker, welder, and fabricator who loves new tools and old projects. At my day job I am a drafter.

This handmade dulcimer is a tribute to mountain-dwelling bluegrass musicians everywhere. It also doesn’t require any power tools to build, which makes it a perfect project for anyone who is both bored and experiencing a power outage of indefinite duration. Relatively simple to make (for a stringed instrument, that is) and easy to play, this dulcimer is a great way to get started in instrument making.

Materials:

2’x4’ sheet of ¼” maple plywood

3’ length of 2”x2” hardwood for the neck

3 laths (or 1 ½” wide strips of the same plywood, I just had laths lying around)

4 tuners with hardware

4 small screws

Fret wire

Set of 4 dulcimer strings (or banjo strings)

Sandpaper

Tools:

Hand saw

Coping saw

Brace or Yankee screwdriver and drill bit

Screwdriver

Hammer

Files

Accurate ruler

Trisquare

Chisel

Clamps

Step 1: Plywood Layout and Cutting Pieces for Body

You will want to cut two identical pieces from the ¼ inch plywood to be the top and bottom of your dulcimer body. The easiest way to do this is to trace them on the wood according to the attached diagram.

Because the plywood is so thin, you risk splintering and tearing along your saw cuts. It helps to put masking tape over the lines before you saw them. Use a good hand saw to cut these pieces.

You will then need to cut your laths in the following lengths:

29 ¼ inches (side pieces; you will need two of these)

2 ¼ inch (small end piece)

6 5/8 inch (large end piece)

5 inches (brace)

Step 2: Glue Bottom Section of Body Together

Once you have all the pieces of your dulcimer body cut out you will want to glue the bottom and the sides together so they can dry while you work on the top piece. Put wood glue along the outside edges of the bottom piece and attach the lath sides to it. File the sides of the brace piece until they match the angle of the bottom board so it will fit snugly against the sides when lying down. Slide the brace up from the bottom edge until it is tight against the sides and glue it in place. Use whatever clamps you have available to hold the pieces in place until the glue is dry.

Step 3: Cut Out Sound Holes and Finish Gluing Body

You will have to cut several holes in the top body piece for sake of sound quality. Measure four inches down from the top of the piece and trace a 1” x 7” rectangle in the center of the board. Three inches below the first rectangle, draw a 1” x 8” rectangle (see diagram). These holes will go under the finger board. Use a Yankee screwdriver or brace to drill a pilot hole in each rectangle, then cut them out using a coping saw. Sure, a drill press and scroll saw would be a much easier and faster way to go about this, but remember that they are both out of commission due to the lightning strike/natural disaster/downed power line that led to your power going out in the first place. It is ok to stare longingly at them and cry a little while changing out a broken coping saw blade.

You can use a file or sandpaper to make your edges neater after you finish sawing, only to remember no one will see them anyway.

Cut sound holes into the top piece of the body near the base in order to actually hear what you are playing. You can make these any shape you would like, but keep in mind that the more intricate the shape, the more likely you are to smash the top piece in frustration while trying to cut out the holes. I chose a basic man in the moon shape that ended up losing its mouth in an unfortunate saw slip.

With all your sound holes cut, you are ready to glue this piece to the rest of the dulcimer body and let it dry while you work on the fingerboard. If the top doesn’t fit, you can sand the edges down until it does. Remember, you want it to be snug.

Step 4: Shape Fingerboard and Add Tuners, Nuts and Frets

You will need to drill a groove on the underside of the fingerboard that will go over the holes you cut in the top piece of the body. Measure 6 ¾ inches down from the top and draw a 1” x 18” rectangle. This groove should end up being ½ inch deep. The easiest way to do this is to drill holes using your brace and a 1” drill bit to drill overlapping holes down the length of the rectangle and then use a chisel to remove the extra wood. You can make the depth of the holes consistent by marking ½” on your drill bit with masking tape.

You can design the fingerboard however you would like, as long as there is a depression for strumming, a place for tuners to go, and a space for nuts. I went with a basic scroll design and a rounded bottom.

Drill holes through the top of the neck for your tuners. Make sure they all fit and have room to turn before you commit and drill the holes.

Cut a groove for each of the two nuts; one 3/8” up from the bottom of the fingerboard and the other 28 ¼” up from the first groove. Each groove should be about ¼” deep and only wide enough that a piece of lath can be firmly wedged in. Cut pieces of lath the width of the fingerboard and about ½” tall. Wedge the nuts into the groove. No need to glue these since the strings will hold them in place. Set the fingerboard on top of the body for a moment to remember that you really will have an instrument at the end of this.

Cutting the grooves for your frets requires more precision than anything you do on your dulcimer, because if your measurements are off your instrument will not play in tune. Make sure your ruler is accurate and measure very carefully. You can go to www.stewmac.com/fretcalculator to get the precise measurements for your frets. Select dulcimer and type in the number of frets you want and the distance between the nuts. I used sixteen frets. Once you have measured and marked your frets, make shallow saw cuts, cut your frets to the width of the neck and pound them into place. Use a block of wood as you hammer so you can pound across multiple frets. File off any sharp corners on the edges of the frets.

Step 5: Attach Fingerboard to Body

Make sure the fingerboard is centered on the dulcimer body and glue it in place. Apply clamps and walk away.

Step 6: Strings and Finish Work

Once the glue is dry you are ready to do some finishing touches and put strings on. Now would be a good time to stain your dulcimer if you would like. I just put some polishing wax on the fingerboard for now.

You will need to put four small screws into the base of the neck to hold your strings in place at the lower end of your dulcimer.

Tap your chisel into the top of each nut to create small grooves to keep the strings in place. The two strings closest to you (left side when looking up from the base) are very close together, since they are played simultaneously. The other two strings are spread further apart and act as the drone notes.

Once you get your strings attached to screws and tuners you are ready to tune your dulcimer, settle back on your front porch and play folk music to your heart’s content.

Hand Tools Only Contest

Second Prize in the
Hand Tools Only Contest

Teach It! Contest Sponsored by Dremel

Participated in the
Teach It! Contest Sponsored by Dremel

3 People Made This Project!

Recommendations

  • Raspberry Pi Contest

    Raspberry Pi Contest
  • One Board Contest

    One Board Contest
  • Jewelry Challenge

    Jewelry Challenge

41 Comments

0
T_Krabiel
T_Krabiel

Question 4 months ago

I notice in other builds online that they have what looks like small slits in the walls of the inners and sturcutre inside is this essential?

0
theskashow
theskashow

Answer 4 months ago

If you wanted to add kerfboards on the top and bottom around the inside edge you could do that for strength. This is all straight lines and super solid so they are not needed.

0
T_Krabiel
T_Krabiel

Reply 4 months ago

Instead of adding more questions ill ask here:
1) how thick is the head on the finger board?? I am looking at all the tuners available and unsure what to buy since i do not know the thickness
2) why 16 frets?? is 16 a magic number for a Dulcimer or is a better average I should go with?
3) if the Fret board sticks off the dulcimer say by 3 in will this affect the sound of the instrument??

0
theskashow
theskashow

Reply 4 months ago

1. 1.5 inches, for no reason besides that's what the finger board started life as.
2. you could add more by using the calculator. 16 gives you two full octaves.
3. I usually go thinners so I don't have to hollow out the back of the fret board, this was a more traditional build so I went a little thicker. 3 could be fine if you hollow out the back.

0
T_Krabiel
T_Krabiel

Question 4 months ago

I noticed in some builds people do circles rather than squares for the holes. Will this make a difference?? I also see you say 1 in by 8 in and 1 in by 7 in. Is there anything magical to these numbers or just that they covered a big enough area??

Capture.PNG
0
theskashow
theskashow

Answer 4 months ago

I have used several different styles of holes, its more look than anything. as for size I just went with easy dimensional lumber on this one to make it simple. I have done cigar box dulcimers with much smaller dimensions.

0
T_Krabiel
T_Krabiel

Question 4 months ago

How important is it that it meets these exact dimensions? Could I do ine that is say 25 in long

0
theskashow
theskashow

Answer 4 months ago

The body could be any size and if you go to the scale calculator you could scale it down.

0
PJShooter55
PJShooter55

Question 10 months ago on Step 4

What is the thickness of the top of the neck where the tension bolts go for tuning the instrument? Also what kind of tension bolts does it use, are they for a guitar, banjo, mandolin ...?

0
theskashow
theskashow

Reply 10 months ago

The tuners are for a guitar but you could probably get other types to work. The neck was 1.5 inches thick but just make sure it works with the tuners you pick.

0
gutosisson
gutosisson

1 year ago

Hi everyone. I couldn´t find the frets scale calculator. Can you help me? Thnaks.

0
gutosisson
gutosisson

Reply 1 year ago

Thanks a lot.

0
Rlsimmons
Rlsimmons

Question 2 years ago on Step 4

What is the purpose behind hollowing out the back of the fingerboard, and cutting slots in the soundboard?

0
bootlegbart13
bootlegbart13

Answer 2 years ago

I’m pretty sure that it’s to improve the tone and volume

0
mappcs
mappcs

Question 2 years ago on Introduction

The mountain dulcimer is a great project. Would like to know the width of your lath and was the the 36”-2x2 actual or nominal width. Also what was the actual width you used. The fretboard seems a little bulky at 2x2. Thanks
mappcs

0
theskashow
theskashow

Reply 2 years ago

The 2X2 was nominal, with no power tools I was not willing to use something I would have to mill down. the laths were right about 1.5" wide but as long as the stock you use is all the same you will be fine. The 2X2 gets hollowed out so it isn't to bad on size or weight. I wanted to get the neck and scroll out of the same piece so it just simplified things. I have done them with thinner fret boards and it didn't seem to make a noticeable difference. my others have been cigar box and whatever happens to be laying around so run wild with what you use.

0
JacobM206
JacobM206

Question 3 years ago on Introduction

Hello! I am interested in following your design, I was just wondering about the approximate cost of the project?

0
theskashow
theskashow

Answer 3 years ago

Sorry it's taken a bit to get back to you. Probably about 50 or 60 if you have to buy everything. The tuners can be expensive but can also be scavenged from broken instruments. Also if you go to a music shop that does repairs and tell them what you are doing they can help with those and the fret wire.

0
RobertS816
RobertS816

Question 3 years ago on Introduction

Do you use 28 inches in the calculator for the scale length?