Saturday, August 31, 2019

Wall hanger to Appalachian dulcimer, or Murphy’s revenge: A not-so-easy DIY project.

Like many D.I.Y. types, my life is full of partial projects and false starts. Life has a way of pushing aside my funky inventions and crazy expressions in exchange for more practical concerns. Sometimes I just want to feel the pride and contentment that come with a finished project, however easily the victory is gained.
I was sure a tired old mountain dulcimer was to be my salvation from a summer of starts with no end. I spotted this sad thing at a flea market buried in a pile of stuff. My dream of cheap discovery was borne out that day. I pointed at the tired wall-hanger instrument poking out, sadly smothered in white house paint. It was one tiny step from the bin, and no one would have noticed the loss. The vendor gleefully took my five dollars and handed over the instrument.
Unpacking my treasures at home, I began to hatch a plan. I would do a short and sweet blog showcasing this instrument-turned-wall-hanger-turned-instrument. The decorative piece had chalky white latex smeared lazily all over its surface, streaks of wood finish peeking through the mess. It had the frets removed, and had long since given up its tuners. My blog would show me removing the paint, re-fretting the fingerboard, mounting new tuners and strings, and showcasing the final rescue. I would do it all with stuff available in my house, a true five-dollar dulcimer!

Suffice it to say, that is not how things turned out.

The first step was easy enough. Having stripped enough wood with chemicals and heat, I knew it could be done. I decided to try something different I had seen in a blog but never employed. I soaked a rag with alcohol and slowly rubbed at the house paint. To my surprise, this time it worked and worked well! I was able to bring it to the original finish without damaging the wood or creating a mess! In the spirit of my DIY aesthetic, I left some white paint. I want my repairs to be part of the journey of this instrument, so to erase the time it spent as a wall hanger would be a disservice(think Wabi Sabi- the acceptance of transience and imperfection) . I wrote a blog about this aesthetic and how it plays into my philosophy: .

OK- next to re-fret it. This should be easy, as the fret grooves were clean and without chips. I managed to get all the paint out as well. Here is where the trouble started. I could not get any frets to take. I have bags of salvaged frets that work great in projects and bags of pre-cut frets that are brand new. Everything I tried would either never set, or pop out quite easily.

At first, I blamed the frets for being slightly radiused. Surely that was it! I tested the radiused fret in a nearby chunk of wood and it worked perfectly, flat or not. Still, just in case, I tried lots of flat frets. No go. I figured maybe it was the way I was setting the frets. I usually use a flat fret caul I purchased from Stew-Mac hooked in my drill press, so I tried the old fashioned way- a ball-pein hammer. It spit out frets like crazy, some popping out minutes later.

It was becoming very clear why this little mountain dulcimer was slathered in house paint. The wood was cursed, never to accept a fret, never to sing out- doomed to the decorator’s dustbin. Resigned to accept that this would be a much longer project, I hatched a plan that bypassed the difficult surface entirely. I would glue a different fretboard right over this one- an antique yardstick from the Arlington Elevator Supply Company.

Yardsticks don’t make good fretboards. I already have this work-based knowledge. They say the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result. Guilty as charged. Despite a terrible fretting experience with a ruler fret-board in the past, I was sure to try again!

You see, give away branded products like pens, buttons, and yardsticks are not going to be made with the best materials. The yardsticks are usually made of soft and cheap pine. Some are so poorly made that they warp and stretch, giving terrible measurements and becoming useless as a straight edge.

As a consummate collector of all things useless, I have been shopping for antique rulers that are not soft and are perfectly straight. The lesson the last yardstick was trying to teach was not to use a yardstick, but I wouldn’t listen. I would see the barrels of yardsticks in the antique malls of Ohio and give them a pinch. If my fingernail dented them, I would pass. Very few passed my test.

After ignoring my fears, I hand cut the fret slots, sanded the mating surfaces, glued, and clamped on the yardstick. I then used a cabinet scraper to plane the yardstick to the edge of the old fingerboard. Once I trimmed the excess yardstick and cut out the nut and bridge slots, I was ready for fretting! A side note about the fretting- not all fret calculators are made the same. I wasted a lot of time looking for something that would print a new template based on the unique scale length of this old homemade instrument. In the dirty dark old corners of the internet, I was able to re-find a tool that I used to use to get unique frettings: wfret. Not only did this tool help me get the right positions, but it showed me that the original fret positions were sloppy at best! Though fretting went largely without incident, leveling the frets was a bit of a challenge. With softer woods, you have to be careful not to overshoot the surface when hammering the frets in place. In the end, I erred on the side of caution and just gently tuned and tapped any fret buzz out once stringed.

I knew I would not waste a second on friction pegs, tradition or not! I looked in my little luthier room(guitar graveyard) and picked some thru post mechanical tuners that looked particularly terrible/awesome. The yellowed patina on the tuner knobs combined with just the right amount of rust would look so good on this instrument! Using a technique I did on a fiddle years ago, I Dremel cut off the 3rd tuner from each side and ground the end to look stock. After some simple drilling, these slid right in place. OK, now I am getting my stride back!

I ditched the original nut and bridge, opting for the bright and clear ring of cow-bone. Shaping bone is pretty easy on a power sander, and when I got it shaped I used a tiny file to cut the grooves in it. FYI, bone stinks when you sand it- try for adequate ventilation when you sand it. Or be like me and learn nothing over time. The rest of the day I smelled burning hair, a reminder of my stupidity.

Downhill from here. I strung it with banjo string and touched up the frets. It sounds lovely to me( and yes- that is all that matters), and is a funky Appalachian mountain dulcimer brought back to life in the foothills of the Appalachians!

I could not have hoped for more. A project that was supposed to be an easy one-off ended up being quite challenging, but the reward has already been great. My dear friend of 20 years, Paul, helped me kill a cheap bottle of Old Dan Tucker(10 buck watered-down whiskey for the unordained) on the rocks while passing and playing the dulcimer for hours on my shady front porch. It gives me a feeling of pride and contentment just thinking about it!


  1. Aaron I am so glad you finished it, and it is already paying off! I was laughing at your description of unfinished projects and false starts, which I can definately relate to. Alex said its because we have inherited the creative spirit from one parent and a tendency to hoard from another. As a result we are hoarders of creative ideas (and of course all of the stuff required to make any of them come to fruition)

    1. Yes, it was easy to find all the hardware I needed due to my hoarding tendencies! Years ago I built an upright bass using nothing but junk I had laying around! In other words- it is all completely logical and not at all obsessive.