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Dulcimer String Replacement

Do I need to replace my strings? What sizes?

Although I use tinned music wire which is corrosion resistant, strings unfortunately will eventually corrode. Sweaty fingers and just moisture in the air can tarnish and rust the strings. The tone of a dirty rusted string ceases to be true to pitch and will begin to sound dead. Under normal conditions strings of plain wire should last for years. If you are performing and demand peak performance and tone I recommend replacement of the wound strings at least once every two to three years. Many players live with their solid steel strings for 10 years or more before considering complete replacement. They will only replace these strings as they break. Periodic cleaning will prolong string life. Take 600 weight wet and dry sandpaper available in any auto supply store or 00 steel wool and rub each string until bright again. Follow with a lightly oiled cloth. If solid strings are sounding dead even after they're clean, replace them.

One of the most important documents you acquired when you purchased your instrument is your string gauge chart. Make a couple of extra copies of that document and put it in a safe place! If you've lost your tuning/string gauge chart, you can click on the link to download your tuning/string gauge chart. Keep one of them in your case. 

It also makes sense to keep a few spare strings in your case especially phosphor bronze strings or maybe some #4 or #5s. All the other gauges you will probably never break. Just keep them clean and they'll last for many years.

If you have a dulcimer which is not made by me and have no idea what size wire you need, I suggest measuring the diameter of the string next to it and also measuring the vibrating length (VL). You will use either a micrometer or caliper to determine the diameter. Use a tape measure or rule to get the VL. 



Replacing strings yourself or having me do it?

Replacing a broken string is often intimidating. Learn to do it for those one or two strings you'll break. 

If you'd like to replace all the strings yourself, order a complete set of strings for your instrument based on your tuning/string gauge chart. With patience you will save yourself a lot of money and worry as you won't have to ship your instrument. 


Visit the accessories page to purchase individual strings or string sets.

If you want me to completely restring your dulcimer, the cost would be: 

  • 12/11, 15/14, 16/15 hammered dulcimers: add $75 labor, $10 for new acetal, and return shipping to the actual cost of the strings. 

  • 3/16/15/8, 3/16/18/9, LCs, or 4/19/21/9s hammered dulcimers: add $125 labor, $10 for new acetal and the return shipping to the actual cost of the strings.

Restringing labor includes removing all old strings, cleaning the instrument, adjusting tuning pin heights, replacing acetal rod, restringing, tuning and reseting the intonation. Any additional repairs not covered by my warranty will entail extra expense. I'd give you an estimate before any additional repairs are undertaken. It is expensive but it'll save you a lot of aggravation. Contact me to make the arrangements.

Strings in a pinch

If you have no spares and you break a string you can always use a guitar string. A second string on a guitar is .017 a little light but at least will get you by. You could even try using a thin wound string assuming you can get it up to pitch without it breaking. You can always use a lighter gauge string than the one that broke. For example if you broke a #8 (.020) you can replace it with anything below that #7, #6, #5; although not ideal it will get you by.

Micrometer or caliper

Digital Calipers
String Tools

Wire cutter and needle nosed pliers 

Instructions for replacing strings and dealing with buzzes

Eventually you will have to replace a broken string. It makes sense to have a few extra strings on hand in case one breaks. Whether you are replacing one or all of your strings, you'll need to follow the instructions below.  Fortunately strings don't break all that often. The steel strings rarely break just the occasional high note. The brass or phosphor-bronze strings are another story. They are considerably more fragile and at higher tension. The wound strings don't usually break but go dead a little sooner.


Gather together the proper tools and the proper gauge wire  I recommend a good quality 6" needle-nosed pliers and a 6" diagonal wire cutter. Don't buy cheap imported cutters as they will dull easily. Wire used for dulcimers is extremely hard. I've used the same two tools for my whole career. You may, to be on the safe side, want to put on a pair of safety goggles. Amazon sells the Irwin 2078955 Vise-Grip 5-1/2-Inch Needle Nose with Spring which is the closest thing I can find to compare with my old Channel Lock. You also may want to fashion a small piece of cardboard that could be taped near the pin you are working on to protect the face of your instrument from a slip of the pliers or tuning wrench until you gain some confidence. Carefully remove the broken wire making note of how it was attached. Using your tuning wrench back out or unscrew the tuning pin until you just see a small amount of thread showing; about an 1/8". The tuning pins are just like screws. If you don't back them out after a string breaks they just keep going down into the hole. You don't want to back them out to much though. On the steel courses I sometimes use a continuous length of wire unless you specified all loop end strings. On new instruments, I now install all loop end strings.


The following procedure is for a continuous piece of wire

Take a free end of the wire and thread it through the opposite bridge hole towards one of the two tuning pins. Push the wire through the hole in the tuning pin until it sticks past the hole about 1/8 of an inch. Using the needle-nosed pliers bend this end up at right angles. Look at other pins to see what it should look like. Support the pliers against the pin. If you try to make this bend floating in space many of you will slip and redecorate the face of your instrument. Make sure the wire is bent up. If it points down it will scratch your soundboard as the tuning pin is twisted in. Do this carefully. After bending take your tuning wrench and wind the wire onto the bottom of the tuning pin two revolutions. This is important as the wire must make good contact with the side saddle. When this is complete pick up the wire on the other side and wind it around the hitch pins as observed on other courses. After completing this winding (wind it as tight as you can or it will pop off). If it continues to pop off put a piece of masking tape over the top of it to hold it in place as you complete the rest of what you need to do. Your next step is to take the free end and run it past the other tuning pin about an 1 1/4". Using your cutters cut it off. Don't let go of the wire as it is springy and if released will launch its free end into the soundboard creating a nice little hole. I know I've had it happen. After cutting the wire and before attaching it to the second tuning pin make sure you thread it through the hole in the opposing bridge. Attach the wire to the second pin as you did the first making sure you have backed out the pin and have wound the wire on the bottom. This assures that you've got good contact between the wire and the bridge saddles.


For loop end strings


You'll need two strings per course. Restringing with looped strings is nearly the same (see above) only you are not winding the wire around the hitch pins merely placing them over the hitch pin. I recommend using masking tape to hold the looped end on the hitch pin while you attach the free end to the tuning pin. Run the free end past the other tuning pin about an 1 1/4" and cut it to length and then follow the instructions in the previous section. Make sure you thread the string through any holes they need to go through before attaching the string to the tuning pin..


Replacing a string on the top end small offset bridge (the 3 courses on the 3/13/12, 3/17/17, 3/16/15/8 , 3/16/18/9, and the Linear Chromatics) takes some special attention. Note carefully how its neighbor is strung. Make sure you thread the wire through the appropriate hole on the main treble bridge before attaching one end of the wire to the top tuning pin of the pair. Then wind the string around the single hitch pin on the small hitch bridge. Secure this wind with a piece of masking tape forced down hard so it doesn't just pop off. Then thread the free end through the main treble bridge before attaching it to the lower tuning pin. Increase tension on the course slightly but before tightening take a small screwdriver or your fingernail and push the string downward to the bottom of the hitch pin where it winds around that hitch pin. This will insure that the course makes good hard contact with the small metal saddle. If it doesn't make good contact the course will sound thin. On the upper courses of the Linear Chromatics' left hand treble bridge you must make sure that the wire is pushed down to the bottom of the tuning pin so it makes good contact on the left hand low bridge. This treble 2 bridge gives you notes on either side so you will have to have good contact on the saddles on both sides if you want two good notes.


Replacing strings if you have dampers


Replacing strings if you have dampers is a whole lot easier if you remove the damper flappers and set them to the side. To accomplish this unscrew the screws that hold the bottom pillow block . Holding the damper in place, carefully remove the screws from the lower pillow block. Then, with control and holding onto the lower pillow block, slide the tube end out of the hole in the top pillow block keeping the pillow block assembly (tube, flapper and lower pillow block) together. Let the flapper rotate in your hand to take the tension off the spring. 


Don't let the pillow block or damper flapper strike the instrument as it rotates. You don't have to remove the top pillow block. You won't be able to take the flappers far from the instrument unless you remove the attached cord but if the cord shows a lot of wear, you may want to cut and replace the cord. 


Reinstalling the damper and lower pillow block is all those steps in reverse. Slip the top end of the tube into the top pillow block. Rotate the tube/flapper until it rests on the stop pin located on the top pillow block. This will set the proper amount of tension or pre-load on the spring. Once the tension has been set place the bottom pillow block over the screw holes and reinsert the screws. Make sure the end of the screw goes in the pilot hole on the instrument. You know you've done it right if the damper is being held in the up position by the spring and it rotates on its axis.


Replacing all your strings


Remove all strings by backing out the tuning pins and pulling the ends through the holes with a cutter or needle nosed pliers. Remove all acetal rod keeping it in order. You can reuse old acetal rod but make sure that at least on any bridge that has a 5th interval, that you have a fresh surface facing up.  You may want to buy enough acetal rod in black and white to at least replace the saddles on any treble bridge.  You don't have to replace acetal with new on bass bridges. Remove bridges. Clean bridges and your dulcimer using a small paint brush to get dust between pins and a damp cloth for the soundboard face. Adjust depth of tuning pins so that only about 1/8" of thread is showing above the face of the instrument. The tuning pins are fine threaded screws and act like them. Clockwise will screw them in and vice versa. Began stringing using proper gauges of wire following instructions on replacing a string. The loop end can be held in place by piece of tape pressed on top the hitch pin. Leave strings a bit loose until you reinstall your acetal rod rotating it one quarter turn on the treble bridge. Tighten a top course, a middle course and a bottom course on both the treble and bass bridges. Use those courses to make sure you have that bridge located in the proper position to obtain the fifth interval. An electronic tuner can help with this. Adjust placement of bridge so there is clearance for all courses passing through holes. Once the intonation and clearance is OK tighten and tune all strings. You’re done.

String Buzzes


Before you ever began searching for buzzes or anomalies make sure your instrument is in excellent tune. Sometimes what can sound like a buzz is just two strings in a course which are not tuned in unison. Once you are satisfied that the instrument is in excellent tune and you still get what you consider buzzes proceed.


Most buzzes on my instruments are caused by insufficient string contact on the 1/8" diameter plastic (acetal) or metal saddle running in the groove on the long narrow bridge on the right side of the instrument. The usual problem are the tails of strings coming off the bass bridge. This tails aren't played but they can either buzz or vibrate sympathetically when notes you usually play are struck.


Locate the offender by striking the suspected course vigorously with your left hand while your right hand attempts to mute the buzz by pressing downward with a finger along that saddle. This can be difficult if you have dampers. You can also use masking tape to selective dampen tails. The buzz is usually caused by a string tail which is neither down hard on the saddle or completely off the saddle. The string is hovering close enough to the saddle so that when the course is struck it buzzes against the saddle. The solution is to loosen the tuning pin and string enough so that you can rewind the string closer to the bottom of the tuning pin (to make greater contact with the saddle) or rewind the string slightly higher on the pin which would lift the string clear of the saddle. Either way you should have eliminated this type of buzz. You may have to check all the courses before you find the offending string as sometimes you will strike one course and the buzz will actually be the tail of another course. 


Sometimes buzzes may occur because a bridge (or the string) shifted and the string rattles against a bridge when struck hard. To eliminate these first just try and move the string to the side. If that doesn't work you are going to have to tap or move the bridge slightly using a sawed off pencil with the erasure end against the bridge. Loosen the strings slightly then move the bridge just enough to give the vibrating course clearance. Make sure you don't move the bridge so much you cause additional problems or buzzes.

Occasionally on my larger instruments the wound strings may have become too close together so that when struck hard they literally bang into each other. If that seems to be the case separate the individual strings in the course. If the strings won't maintain that separation you can put just a slight groove in the top of the saddle with a knife or sharp file. Don't go too deep or you'll kill the tone of the string. Do not groove the treble bridge saddle as this will affect the fifth interval. Sometimes its a simple matter of just pushing the strings apart with your finger. 


Buzzes or unexplained rattles can sometimes be caused by something that is vibrating in sympathy with a course that is being struck. This could be almost anything from a damper part to a loose knob on a stand. You have to think outside the box to locate these guys. 

Some people don't want to hear anything sympathetic so they'll weave small pieces of leather or felt between the two strings in the course effectively damping all tails and anything that could potentially vibrate in sympathy. I don't recommend doing this as I really think the tone of the individual courses benefits from having a freely vibrating tail but that decision is yours.

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