How to Make and Play a Hammered Dulcimer

You can build a hammered dulcimer with a clear, brilliant voice from readily-available materials and using building skills that are little different from those required to build a box.

| September/October 1983

Homemade music is alive and well. In fact, it's experiencing a brisk revival, and, as a result, some wonderful musical instruments have been rescued from obscurity. One of these is the hammered dulcimer: a delightful "tune box" which was, until around the turn of the century, very popular in our country. Fortunately, a small enclave of devoted players stuck with this instrument during its years of low popularity, and now its distinctive, happy voice is being heard again throughout the land. Luthiers are turning out dulcimers in great numbers, and many recordings are being made that feature the instrument in a wide variety of musical settings.

Some of the hammered dulcimers built today are truly works of art. Designed and constructed by fine craftspeople, they're made of top-quality—and often exotic—woods, and many of them incorporate exquisite ornamentation to match their beautiful sound. The cost of professionally built dulcimers can range anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the instrument's size and the degree of craftsmanship involved. With a modicum of tools and experience, however, you can build a hammered dulcimer that will have a lovely, clear, and brilliant voice (dulcimer, after all, means "sweet song"). The necessary materials are readily available, and the basic construction is little different from building a box. Furthermore, the total cost of your homemade product should run around $25!

Basic Materials for Making a Dulcimer

The pin blocks, frame, internal bridge braces, and the bridges themselves will have to be made from fairly strong hardwood, such as white oak, maple, cherry, or walnut. However, the most crucial wood is that used for the pin blocks: It must be dense enough to grip the tuning pins tightly, and strong enough to take the great stress imposed by taut strings. Maple is the material most often used for these components, but many good hardwoods will suffice. (In fact, I've constructed some dulcimers using oak recycled from wooden pallets.) Glancing at the list of materials below, you'll notice that the pin blocks are made from 2 × 4 stock. If you have difficulty locating appropriate pieces of this size, you can make your own by laminating several thinner hardwood boards together. For example, by joining three 3/4" × 3 1/2" planks, you can produce a block that's 2-1/4" thick. You'd then have to use 2-1/4"-wide pieces for the frames and inside braces as well, but this wouldn't interfere with the instrument's "voice" in any way.

The dulcimer's top (soundboard) and bottom can be made from plywood, anything from A-C grade fir on up to the top grades will do. For dulcimer construction, the beauty of plywood lies in its enormous strength and dimensional stability, which will add much to the structural integrity and longevity of your instrument. The acoustical qualities of plywood panels are especially well suited to the dulcimer, producing a very desirable sound without too much sostenuto (sustainment of tone).

Keeping the above information in mind, you'll need to make or procure the following:

3/4" × 15" × 31-1/2" bottom panel
(2) 1-3/4" × 3-3/4" × 15" pin blocks
(2) 3/4" × 1-3/4" × 24" frames (front and back)
(2) 3/4" × 1-3/4" × 11" side bridge braces
3/4" × 1-3/4" × 12" treble bridge brace
3/4" × 1-3/4" × 5" bass bridge brace
1/4" × 15" × 31-1/2" soundboard (top)
(2) 1/2" × 3/4" × 13-1/2" side bridges
(14) 1/2" × 3/4" × 1-1/8" bridges (10 treble and 4 bass)
(14) metal bridge caps (coat-hanger wire)
(2) side bridge caps (coat-hanger wire)
(14) No. 8 × 1" roundhead screw hitch pins
(28) 0.198" diameter × 1-5/8" tuning pins (zither-type)
No. 6 (0.016" diameter) plain music wire
No. 8 (0.020" diameter) plain music wire
No. 10 (0.024" diameter) plain music wire
some glue (Elmer's Carpenter's Glue or Franklin's Tite Bond are good)
various grades of sandpaper (from coarse to superfine)
some paint or varnish

4/28/2009 11:49:47 AM

The figures are in the Image Gallery at the top of the article. - Mother

Tracy Flanders
4/25/2009 6:04:53 AM

Please let me know where I can find the figures (as others have asked). Thank you.

2/11/2009 9:33:59 PM

Where are the figures??

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