Pear Dulcimer (or Dulcipear?  Pearimer?)

Here's the origin of this project. Back in 1975, while trying to build my first guitar, I noticed this odd, ugly little kit in a catalog from (the late, lamented) Bill Lewis Music in Vancouver, BC (see box to the right). With a price of $15.50, on a whim I added it to a list of supplies and tools I was ordering. But the kit turned out to be on backorder for a long time, so I canceled it and instead got a cheap set of regular dulcimer sides, back, and top. I thought it would be interesting to build something like this instrument, but one that had a more aesthetically pleasing (and perhaps acoustically better?) body. The project languished for a while, until at some point in the intervening years when I sketched out a rough plan for a pear-shaped body, and I joined the back and soundboard pieces. The intended shape was slightly too wide for standard dulcimer pieces, so small pieces of back and soundboard were cut out from the narrow part and glued onto the sides for the wide part. At this point the project went back on hold, as life was too busy for such frivolity. Finally, in the Fall of 2010, I figured if I was ever going to finish this project (and maybe move on to trying some more guitars) I better get started on it!

At some point during the last 35 years, some other folks have pursued similar ideas, and Internet searches turn up numerous variants of stick dulcimers and  long-neck dulcimers and dulcitars (or dulsitars)--most are diatonically-fretted necks attached to fairly small bodies. I also found a couple examples of custom instruments more along the line of what I was trying to do, but with few construction details. I did find some very helpful YouTube videos by British luthier Michael J. King on how to build his version of a stick dulcimer. Though I was making a larger, slightly differently-shaped body, and used more extensive bracing, I did borrow many design and construction ideas from his excellent, very helpful videos and plans.

(captions are underneath photos)

Here's my original full-size sketch for the body shape, and a few (later discarded) thoughts about headstock design.  

I didn't start taking pictures right away, so we're jumping in here after making the construction mold and a simple side-bending mold, thicknessing the sides and bending them, and making the tailblock.  (A picture of the side-bending mold shows up later on here, in the part about making the rosewood binding pieces.)  The construction mold helps maintain proper shape throughout the early stages of building.  This one was based a lot on the design from Michael J. King (see link above).  

The mahogany sides were cut to required width, then sanded and scraped to proper thickness.  They were then steamed/boiled in a deep, long pan (that I made out of sheet-metal a long time ago for bending guitar sides, based on Irving Sloan's classic guitar building book) sitting on two burners on the kitchen stove.  Once pliable, they were clamped into the side-bending mold and then the whole assembly was baked a bit in the oven to set the curves (this simulates bending on a hot bending jig, and perhaps reduces the 'springback' that might occur if the sides just dried out at room temperature).  

The sides were then squared off on the tailpiece end, and fit into the construction mold and marked for trimming the excess at the neck end.  The tailpiece (mahogany) was shaped and sanded to match the slight curve of the sides at that point.  In this picture the tailpiece is being glued to the sides.  (There's a wedge in place at the neck end of the sides, holding them in position against the mold.)  In hindsight, this tailpiece was maybe a bit more massive than it needed to be...

Tailpiece glued in and here's the instrument so far.  A small inlay has been put into joint between sides at very bottom.

The neck in its first step, with layers glued on to make the part that connects to body, the heel.  Above it in the picture is a rough prototype made of pine just to try things out.

Slots have been cut in the neck to accommodate the sides.  This is just a test of fit before being glued.  The construction mold is around the sides and neck. 

(In retrospect, this wasn't the best design for this joint.  The angle of the sides entering the neck was a bit problematic.  If the sides had come in at more of a right angle, like in a guitar, it would be straightforward.  Similarly, if the sides were parallel to the neck at this point, they could just be inset into the neck for a solid joint.  I ended up with this angle due to the aesthetics of the design I had originally drawn. I had naively thought I could just kind of sand the resulting joint to make the sides and neck blend together, but it was tough getting that to work. I ended up adding a bit of rosewood trim at the transition between sides and neck, and I added some shaped wedge pieces to fill in that space between the curved sides and the neck to the right in this picture, just to strengthen the joint.)

Another shot of testing the fit of sides to neck.

Sides have been glued to neck.  The fingerboard (not trimmed to size yet) is sitting on the neck just to try it out.  (It's made of Bolivian rosewood.)

The top ("soundboard") has been taken down to proper thickness, roughly cut to size, and here a trough has been carefully cut to receive the soundhole rosette.  The rosette was made by bending thin strips around a form and gluing.

Close up of the rosette and the place it will be glued into.  (After gluing the rosette, the actual sound hole will be cut.)

The instrument with the linings glued to the edges of the sides.  These provide more gluing surface to attach the soundboard and the back of the instrument.  The linings were boiled/steamed in the same manner as the sides, and clamped into the side-bending mold and baked.

Another shot of the instrument with linings in place.  (Neck is still only roughly shaped--it won't get rounded out until after the fingerboard is glued on.  However, the 'tuning head'--where the tuners will be--angles back a little and has been shaped some, and it has a thin piece of Bolivian rosewood glued to the face of it..  And there is a groove cut to receive the 'nut' (made of bone) that will hold the strings at the top of the fingerboard.)

The old luthier shaping the braces that help support the soundboard (the top).

Some of the 'fan' bracing that gives the soundboard a bit more stiffness, helping to support the downward force of the strings, while still letting the soundboard vibrate freely.

Soundboard ready to be glued on.  Rosette has been glued in and evened up with the soundboard wood.  Note the sound hole has been cut as well.

Closeup of the rosette in place.  Rosette is a bit uneven, but not too bad.  A good tight fit in the soundboard though!

Soundboard with all bracing in place.

Sideways look at the bracing, including the larger 'transverse' bar that helps support the soundboard--it will be glued into the sides.

The soundboard has been glued on!  Edges are still oversize and need to be sanded down to match the body.

Soundboard has been sanded to fit the body shape.

This is how things stand as of tonight.  Little 'brackets' have been shaped and glued in to the ends of the transverse bar to attach it better to the sides.  This will take a lot of the downward force of the strings to keep the soundboard from caving in, but still allow the rest of the soundboard to vibrate--the bridge will sit at about the widest part of the soundboard, so it will be pressing down at a point about halfway between the transverse bar and the tailpiece.  This bracing is kind of adapted from classic guitar construction--we'll have to see how it works!  Some experimentation here...

Back has been sanded down to thickness and roughly cut to shape.  Back braces added to stiffen it and reinforce joints (center joint, plus one on each side where additional pieces were glued on to give sufficient width).  Ready to glue the back on!

Getting ready to glue back on.  Hide glue will be used (instead of usual carpenter's glue) so that the back could be removed (using heat and moisture) in future if needed for repairs.  

Instrument bondage!  Kids, don't do this at home...
This is one way to hold the back tightly against the body while gluing.  Otherwise, one can use lots of little clamps.  

The fuzzy binding rope.  (Got it years ago from Bill Lewis, who learned this technique from a traditional Spanish guitar maker.)

Bondage removed.  Back still needs to be trimmed down to match the instrument shape.

Back has been sanded to match sides, looking a little better.

Bending the rosewood binding pieces.  These will go around the edges of soundboard and back.

All four binding pieces have been bent by hand, now clamped in the mold that was used to shape the sides.  

Cutting the little ledges where the binding will go.  The tool was also from Bill Lewis, and in another configuration was used to cut the trough for the rosette around the soundhole.  Other folks use routers and guides for this, and I'm sure it goes much faster and cleaner, but routers do make me very nervous.

Another shot of the simple cutting tool.  The ledges will be cleaned up with a chisel.

Part of the ledge around the soundboard.

And here's the ledge on the back.  (The light colored line in the center is a bit of the lining that holds the top and back to the sides.)

Gluing on one of the bindings.  Could have used the rope again, but decided the rubber band method might be a little easier to adjust so bindings fit tightly.

Bindings are on and scraped/sanded down!  Not a perfect job, by any means, but better than I feared at a few points...

Getting ready to clue on the little heel plate on the bottom of the neck.  This is Bolivian rosewood, same as the fingerboard and the front of the tuner head.  
Coming next--the fingerboard.

Well actually, before doing the fingerboard, I got diverted into making a tailpiece.  I wasn't sure how the metal-working was going to go, and I wanted some lead time in case I  needed to send away for one.  I got a piece of brass bar stock at the hardware store, applied some masking tape, penciled on a pattern, and hacksawed and filed it, then put it in a vise and bent the end over.

Here's the rough result, prior to cleanup, drilling of holes, and buffing. The buffed-up brass looked nice, but I wanted it to match the tuners that I had already bought, so got some nickel plating solution and found out about electroplating!

And here's the final result (with a purchased guitar strap button, which will hold the tailpiece on).

Fretting time!  After measuring, and measuring, and measuring again, I cut the fret slots. (I think next time I'm going to invest in a better fretting saw...)

Fret board oiled and ready for frets.

Fret board (with frets in place) being glued on.  (Too cold these days for gluing in the basement shop--the glue likes to be over 55 degrees.)

Starting to look like an actual instrument.

Detail of the fretboard shaped a bit around the rosette.  With a proper sized forstner bit, I could have cut this curve.  Instead, I cut a scrap piece of wood to rough circle, turned it on a lathe to the proper diameter, glued on sandpaper, chucked it into the drill press and set up some guides to hold the fretboard against it.  Could have just left the end square, but that seemed like it might be kind of clunky.

Neck in the process of being shaped.

And after spending hours sanding and "detailing" (filling those gaps that shouldn't be there, catching places that needed more sanding, and trying to reduce some dents in the soundboard by steaming), I put on a coat of diluted linseed oil to seal and bring out the color.  (There's a rag stuffed in the soundhole to avoid splatter inside.)   Next up will be many thin coats of shellac.

I put on some uncounted number of 'coats' of rubbed on shellac--it dries quite quickly between coats.  I didn't follow the whole French polish regimen, with fine pumice (which I didn't have), nor did I do a final 'cutting back'. This was my first experience with this finishing technique, and the final finish is a bit uneven, but it was kind of a fun way to add finish, and is probably better acoustically than slapping on varnish.  

I fashioned a nut and bridge,and mounted the tuners and tailpiece.
Time to string it up!!

Here's the finished instrument.  It may need a little more nut/bridge adjustment, but is certainly playable the way it is. Now it's time to figure out how to play it!

No, I'm not selling these; I'm too slow a builder.  But if you have questions about the construction I'd be glad to respond.  ( dulcimer at jbrad dot org )

By request, here are a few very rough sound samples to give an idea of what it sounds like.  (I'm not really a dulcimer player, so don't know quite what to do with this yet! )

Some later thoughts on the design--

1)  Although I'm generally pleased with the tonal balance and sound, I do wonder if maybe the top could have used a little less bracing?  But then that's probably always a question when one is balancing stability vs flexibility.  Also, I was more satisfied with the volume before the next point--

2)  I trimmed down the bridge from it's original height to lower the string action a little, and feel that I lost some volume/punch.  I can now better understand why people go to the trouble to set the neck a little bit back from being parallel with the soundboard, which I didn't do here.  It just gives you a little more ability to keep the strings low, while still keeping enough string pressure on the soundboard.  A small but significant difference.

3)  I find that the back of the instrument must be vibrating significantly.  If I hold it away from my body while playing, there's noticably more bass than if the back is muffled.  I don't know why this is.  For a guitar, the usual model is that the back and sides don't really matter much, but clearly the back here is being an active part of the system.