How to Build a "Strum Stick".

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Introduction: How to Build a "Strum Stick".

About: 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 something new and exciting every day.

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
Joiner
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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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    47 Discussions

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

    Sure!
    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.

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    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!

    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.

    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.

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

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

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

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

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

    1 reply

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

    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

    1 reply

    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.

    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.

    1 reply

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