This 4/19/18/9 Custom has a Redwood sound board made Maroon, a Birdseye Maple frame, pin panels and dampers. The bridges are Maple
Your first stop in the design and selection process should be my Comparative chart page. There you'll be able to see the size, weight, range, tuning, string spacing, and prices for all my models, You can also access all tuning schemes through my comparative chart page.
Range - Diatonic to Fully Chromatic
The next step in the process is to select what range instrument suits you. This will depend on a number of things; what kind of music you want to play, whether you want to start small and move up, the weight and size of the instrument, and of course how much money you're willing to spend. Most people starting out these days purchase 15/14s or 16/1/5s with 1" string spacing. These two instruments represent the core playing area of most of my models. I offer both Custom and Student models in this range. The smaller 12/11s used to be that core and although the price is right you will probably grow out of this size within a couple of years.
Some people who play primarily in folk keys may never need another instrument other than a 15/14 or 16/15. What you learn playing these instruments can be easily transferred to larger more chromatic instruments later. If you expect to immediately play in more exotic keys you may want to start right out with one of my 3/17/17, 3/16/15/8, 3/16/18/10, 4/19/18/10 or 4/19/21/10 Chromatics. The four octave 3/16/18/10 Custom may be all the instrument you ever need. Most of my performing professionals are using this instrument. If you have to have all the notes within a traditional format and are willing to put up with the extra size and weight, the 4/19/21/10 or 4/19/18/10 Custom may be the instrument for you.
My Linear Chromatic offers another style of chromaticism which promises to make playing classical and jazz material a lot easier. If you have never played hammered dulcimer before and you plan on being able to play a lot of chromatic material than you may want to consider the Linear Chromatic. This instrument does have all the notes laid out in a more logical consistent pattern. The LC has some of the same characteristics as my traditional hammered dulcimers but should be considered a different kind of hammered dulcimer with a somewhat steeper learning curve. Please visit the Linear Chromatic page for more complete information on this instrument. I build a 10/14/13 Linear Chromatic and the larger full sized 10/19/18/8 Custom Linear Chromatic.
Another chromatic alternative to the traditional dulcimer and LC is the Tsimbl an instrument primarily used in Klezmer music. This instrument doesn't have the range of the LC but it is optimally laid out for this style of music. I offer both a Student and Custom version of this instrument.
Flipped Hammered Dulcimers and Linear Chromatics
Check out my blog for another interesting option; the Flipped Linear Chromatic or hammer dulcimer. These instruments are laid out the exact opposite of the traditional dulcimer. As a result the instrument mirrors a piano orientation with the bass on the left flowing left to right. I can flip any of my dulcimers. Just be aware that there are very few instruments like that out there.
Electric Hammered Dulcimers
If you are playing music which requires some volume without any feedback, you might want to read about my Electric instruments.
Anatomy of a Dulcimer
My dulcimers have a frame, back, soundboard, pin panels, binding, soundhole and bridges. Another option is dampers. The pin panel is a thin 2"wide strip that the pins go through. The woods you chose for these elements need to work together to give you an instrument that both looks and sounds good.
There are three areas of my site which can contribute to your aesthetic decisions.
A wide range of photos of many of the different dulcimers I've built.
Wood selection page
Visual samples of many of the woods,colors and stains I use.
Sound hole page
A place to see samples of custom sound hole designs. There is a video/slide show there as well
This 3/16/15/8 Custom Travel has a Redwood sound board, a Cherry frame, Birdseye Maple pin panels, Cardinal wood binding with bridges of Walnut
String spacing is the distance between the individual courses (pair of strings). Most beginners start out with dulcimers with the 1" string spacing. The wider spacing is a little more forgiving and comfortable as you learn to strike the instrument. Instruments with 1" string spacing particularly the 15/14 (or 16/15) also have a fuller sound then their 7/8" cousins. The advantages of tighter string spacing (7/8") are the reaches and patterns are smaller so potentially your speed of play can be greater but it makes accuracy imperative. With the tighter string spacing you get dulcimers that weigh less and and are more portable but with some sacrifice of volume and tone.
Weight and size are important considerations. Larger heavier instruments sound great but they can be a handful to carry around especially as we age. If you travel a lot, you may want to consider my smaller lighter instruments such as my 3/16/15/8 Custom Travel or a 12/11 or 15/14 with 7/8" string spacing. The overall weight of an instrument will vary slightly according to which wood you select for the frame and bridges and whether you have dampers. Dampers add about 3 lbs to the weight of the instrument. Tri or Flat Stander brackets will add another 1 lb. Cases add about 2 lbs. For all the statistics on my various models visit my comparative page.
Steve Schneider playing a 3/16/18/9 Custom with 7/8" string spacing
The quality of sound and the amount of sustain you desire in a hammered dulcimer is influence by the range, size and material choices. The smaller instruments will have less bass response and sound brighter, while the larger instruments support more bass end and more volume. Sustain is influenced more by material choices. Read over my ideas in the bridges and soundboard sections.
You can access a number of sound clips on my main hammered dulcimer page. Watch the two videos on this page as well.
I use a wide variety of strings to bring out the optimum tone in the instrument. What is used depends on the size. I use steel, phosphor - bronze wire and wound strings on the bottom end. I now offer the option of having single wound strings on the extra bass bridge of my larger dulcimers instead of paired strings. This reduces both the tuning time and tension of the dulcimer yet still gives you a good clean full bass sound.
Paul Saunders and John Page created this beautiful combination of images and dulcimer. Paul is playing a 3/16/19/10 with 1" string spacing.
Honduran or Brazilian Mahogany, Redwood, Western Red or Yellow Cedar, Engelmann or Sitka Spruce are the woods I use for soundboards. Your choice will affect the tone of the instrument. Initially most of my hammered dulcimers had soundboards of Redwood. The other twenty percent had either Spruce, Mahogany or Cedar. The Redwood provides a mellow tone with an immediate presence. The Spruce is very resonant, full, brighter with slightly more sustain but increasingly more difficult to find as quality quarter sawn boards. All Mahogany soundboards are going to give you a brighter tone with slightly less sustain but a tone that is not as full as either Spruce or Redwood. I am beginning to use more Cedar as the quality of Redwood available continues to go down. I occasionally am able to locate premium quality Redwood but if you want it there will be an extra charge. Email me to discuss availability. Cedar's tonal characteristics are quite close to Redwood. Cedar would be a touch darker (more bass overtones). I have been very pleased with the sound of the Cedar instruments so far. Its drawbacks are it often can't be left natural and must be colored black or maroon as the wood is often multicolored and would be distracting if left natural. I do have some Cedar which is a uniform soft yellow to light tan which can be left a natural color. Any of the above woods have an excellent but different tone.
Soundboards may be left natural in color, stained or sprayed black, maroon or any other color you might fancy (adds $75). A natural background pleases people who prefer all natural wood in their instrument. Spruce, Redwood, some Cedar or Mahogany can be left natural.
All of the instruments that have colored soundboards are either sprayed or stained masking off the areas I want to be natural wood such as trim, pin panels and sound hole rim. Once it is sprayed or stained with the color of choice, it is then finished with sprayed clear coats. It really doesn't make much difference tonally as to whether it is a stain or sprayed paint. They both are just a vehicle for adding color to the soundboard. Stain is rubbed on while paint is sprayed on. The other difference is that sprayed paint is more uniform in color and covers small imperfections in the wood. This gives you no visual distractions. Stained woods get you a dark background but with grain that is still visible. The difficulty with both is getting the right color; a color that works with your other wood choices. Color choice also depends on what background you'd like for your strings. Darker colors mean that shadows are reduced and the strings are more visible (as long as they are shiny). Most better players though are paying much more attention to the acetal markers on the top of the bridges than to the strings so background becomes less important. Redwood, Mahogany and some Cedar can be stained with a wide range of light or dark colors. I don't recommend staining multi-color Cedar or Spruce. These woods just look unnatural when stained. Black, maroon or other applied colors eliminate all grain; you only get color. Your choice of soundboard color has no effect on the sound of the instrument. Check out some of the photos of instruments with the various options and of course look at my woods page.
This 3/16/18/9 Custom has a Redwood sound board, a Walnut frame, Goncalo Alves pin panels with Walnut bridges
The frame coupled with the back provide most of the strength of my dulcimers. The frame is also what you see from the front and side of the instrument. This decision has little affect on the tone but affects the weight and visual 'look' of the instrument. The front and back rails and pin block facing can be of almost any wood. Options include Walnut, Maple, Ash, Red Birch, Plain - Sawn Mahogany, and Cherry at the base price. For an additional $75 you can have Ribbon Striped Mahogany, Curly or Birdseye Maple, and any of the exotic woods.
Pin panels are 2" wide veneers that face up and are located under the pin area on both sides of the instrument. They are just decorative. The pins go through the pin panels into hard maple pin blocks so there is tuning stability. The pin panels can match the frame or can be an entirely different wood. These panels can be just about any wood but needs to contrast with the binding. Your choices will be affected by whether your soundboard is natural or some other color.
The choice of bridge material also affects the tone and sustain of the instrument. Walnut provides the least sustain while Cherry, Padauk, and Maple will give you a bit more sustain and brightness in a gradient from cherry to maple. It has to do with the hardness of the wood. Other woods such as Rosewood, Cardinalwood, etc can be used for bridges but will add $75-$150 to the cost of the instrument. These woods are generally harder and approximate the tonal response of Maple. If you'd like black bridges, I suggest you have me stain and finish Maple or Cherry black. The bridges will look just like Ebony (which I no longer use for bridges given its scarcity)
Bindings are thin bands of wood that grace the top and bottom edge of the instrument all the way around. They are visible from the side and from above. Soundhole trim and bindings can be of any wood that compliments your choice of soundboard, pin panels and rails. Choices include Wenge, Ebony, Cherry, Walnut, Curly or Birdseye Maple, Sycamore, Ziricote, Leopardwood, Assorted Rosewoods, and Bubinga.
I use Finn Birch ply for the backs of all my dulcimers for stability and strength. My instruments hold their tune extremely well. A small hand hold is located in the back for ease of handling and for the installation of sound reinforcement contact transducers.
This capability can be added to any of my dulcimers when purchased or at a later date. Go to my section on dampers to learn more about the two styles of dampers I have developed. You would need to select a damper wood that works with your other material selections.
One of my Curly Maple sound hole motifs is individually designed for each instrument at no extra charge. I cut a great deal of abstract designs in paper using but a fraction. As a result each instrument I've built has a unique signature. A design of your choosing may be used at extra cost ($85 minimum). Submit your ideas, drawings or clippings for a quote. Sending them as photos, jpgs or gifs works fine for me. If you are looking for ideas, do an image search through Google or the other image search engines. If you'd like to see samples of what I'm capable of doing go to my sound hole page. There is a slide show that showcases some of the designs I've done over the years.