Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

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Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby pristine2 » Mon Mar 15, 2010 9:24 am

Darcyhorse hourglass dulcimer

Price: $75, new from maker
Delivered: March 15, 2010
VSL: 27 ¾”
Luthier: Terry Pattison, Union City, PA

Overview
The Darcyhorse is quite simply the lowest cost solid-wood dulcimer on the market. Prices start at $60. The instrument sells modestly well and has a loyal following among users of EBay, where most of them are presumably sold. The brand name is evocative, memorable and well-suited to the product. The dulcimer has also been repeatedly criticised on this forum as substandard and unworthy of serious attention.

I first came across Darcyhorse in 2008, when I was relatively new to the mountain dulcimer and just toying with the idea of reviewing them for other buyers. Darcyhorse builder Terry Pattison, a former cabinet maker, had been crafting dulcimers for about a year at the time. I corresponded with him and found him kind, articulate and honest about his struggles to make a living as a skilled woodworker in a de-industrialising economy.

The instrument, however, failed to impress. The Chinese-made tuners were too close together. The finish had enough gloss on it to down low-flying aircraft. The panels were way too thick, the design had been more or less lifted from Tom Yocky, and the nut & bridge were made of a soft plastic composite material unequal to the task. The intonation was very poor.

Compared to that instrument, this one shows significant improvements. The wooden tuning pegs are superior to the geared tuners. Nut and bridge are good solid pieces of wood. The fret pattern appears very precisely cut. The design is original. But overall quality remains disappointing:
Image
(All categories rated on a scale of 0-5. For detailed review criteria, see below)

Set-up and presentation 2.4 Packing was below standard — the instrument was wrapped in a single layer of foam cloth with no other cushioning in the box. Still, the light packing may have been intentional to save costs, as it was to be shipped overseas. Moreover, the dulcimer is clearly sturdier than most.

The dulcimer was coated in a light film of very fine sawdust, easily wiped away. The instrument was strung unacceptably with an unusable plain-wire 0.014 loop-end string on the bass, rather than a properly sized wound string. The offending string was replaced with a 0.024 wound phosphor bronze string so the instrument could be assessed. This buzzed, so I tried a 0.020, but the buzz remained. The simple hand-cut wooden “tuning wrench” included with the purchase is cute and can be used to loosen the pegs, but isn't really a tuning tool.

Photo: Headstock shot, showing 0.014" plain-wire string on bass: http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn10 ... G_9488.jpg

Workmanship 2.6 Despite an overall rough-hewn appearance, elements of excellence peek through. The wooden tuning pegs are tapered properly and hold well. Most of the joinery work is smooth and straight. The exception is the fretboard member, which is glued unevenly to the soundboard, leaving noticeable, dust collecting gaps in some places and glue droplets in others. The fretboard itself, however, is nicely built (see design). Finish is uneven, with a glossy, sticky appearance in places.

The lutherie, alas, falls short. Both nut and bridge are crudely notched, leaving the bass and middle-string with a pronounced sitar-like twang. The bass string buzzes badly through fret 2. The fret pattern measures out to near-perfect, but erratic seating distorts intonation on the middle string on several frets. Action is stiff, but comfortable enough.

Photo -- the fretboard is poorly seated on the soundboard, with gaps and glue-drops in evidence: http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn10 ... G_9492.jpg

Design 3.2 The partially etched vine soundholes are pretty and well-executed. The elongated hourglass shape is supple and pleasing. Deep body compensates surprisingly well for the over-thick soundboard. The laminated (composite) fretboard should stand the test of time. The basic headstock, which partially rests on the body, is framed out well. Walnut tail is appropriately sized. Strings eat right through the thin shim on the tail end of the fretboard, stabilising only when they reach the fretboard member. Soundboard, back and sides are simply too thick, reducing the overall design score. The octave position dots are misplaced on the 6 ½ fret.

Photo: The soundholes are really quite lovely. Note blackish spalt stains on the wood. http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn10 ... G_9487.jpg

Photo: Full soundboard shot. The overall appearance is very pleasing. Position markers on 6 1/2 fret. http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn10 ... G_9501.jpg

Materials 3.2 The cherry top is good quality, but the black spalting leaves a dirty-ish appearance and should have been sanded away. Using seven species of wood — Black Oak, White Ash, Maple, Black Cherry, Walnut, Locust, Osage Orange — is novel, but superfluous.

Sound 2.4 The building blocks of a fine-sounding instrument are there, but buried under a panoply of needless problems and distractions. Volume is good thanks to the deep (2 1/2") body. Sticking to the melody strings, the instrument sings in pitch, in a rich traditional voice — but only through the first octave. Above the octave the voice thins out rapidly, turning unacceptably tinny by fret 9.

Poor intonation on the middle string yields unacceptable dissonance in chording. Crude notch work results leaves an unpleasant sitar-like twang (correctable with thin specks of rolling paper under the strings in the nut and bridge). Resonance and sustain are weak, due in large part to the inadequately thinned panels.

Intonation 2.4 Intonation is very good on the melody strings through fret 13, with a few minor pitch variations that lean flat, enabling the player to compensate with pressure. Bass string also holds its pitch well, with a couple of minor flat spots. But the middle-string intonation borders on the terrible — at the octave (fret 7), it rings nearly 20 cents sharp -- unacceptable by any standard.

Authenticity 4.0 Built by an independent craftsman in his own workshop, the instrument is made entirely of local materials, save the strings. Design is novel, yet in keeping with traditional aesthetics. Although the first Darcyhorse dulcimers were essentially copies of Tom Yocky’s instrument, this design appears completely original.

Service 3.6 Despite some “take-it-or-leave-it” language on his eBay listings, and a few snarky exchanges on the EBay feedback page, Terry Pattison appears to stand by his instruments, accepting returns and effecting repairs.

Value for money 3.4 Despite its musical limitations — many of which can be corrected by an experienced luthier — the Darcyhorse has craft value. It’s worth the $75 paid.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Review criteria
Reviews are based on careful, consistent examination of every instrument handled. Some categories — such as sound — are more subjective than others, and no two individuals are likely to come to precisely the same conclusions. Note that the reviews apply only to the instruments tested, and cannot be expected to apply to every instrument the luthier makes.

What the numbers mean
Each category is judged on a five-point scale. Starting with a perfect score of 5.0, points are deducted for any flaws or weaknesses in each category. Scores higher than 4.5 are rare (except in the “authenticity” category, because so many dulcimer makers build in their own homes, often using local materials). Intonation is by far the toughest category, and anything above 4.2 should be considered an excellent score.

Image
3.5 – 5.0 Meets or exceeds the needs of most players.

Image
2.5 – 3.4 Average quality that may suffice for beginners or casual players. Demanding or professional users may be disappointed.

Image
< 2.5 Mediocrity, sloppiness or other significant problems that would detract significantly from the user experience.

Set-up and presentation
Packaging, initial appearance, stringing, etc.

Workmanship
Assesses craft (such as joinery, planing, bracework and finish) and finished lutherie (action, notching, fretwork etc). Action is literally the height of the strings from the fretboard, but here is assessed by the comfort, responsiveness and consistency of play.

Design
The aesthetic appearance (including soundholes), playing comfort, and functionality of the instrument, with extra credit given to design features that enhance overall quality.

Materials
The quality and suitability of the materials chosen. With a few exceptions, the use of plywood or plastic parts lowers the score. Experimental materials like carbon fiber are not automatically penalized and are judged on their merits.

Sound
A largely subjective measure assessing qualities such as sustain, tone, clarity, balance, articulation and volume.

Intonation
Intonation is the precision of pitch. No dulcimer intonates perfectly all the way up the fretboard. No intonation system (including and especially “equal temperament”) is perfect. Intonation is sensitive to temperature, humidity, string gauge and other factors outside the luthier’s control. Simultaneously achieving reliable intonation and a highly playable action is probably the single most difficult task a dulcimer luthier faces. Scores above 4.5 are extremely rare.

Authenticity
This category rewards respect for the dulcimer, an appreciation for tradition and innovation for the future. It penalises the use of foreign components or labor solely to reduce costs. Foreign-made dulcimers are not penalised if made in a small shop by independent luthiers. Instruments made in small American factories are not penalised, but instruments made in foreign factories invariably achieve very low scores. If intellectual property theft is suspected, this score is lowered.

Service
The responsiveness of the luthier to complaints, the utility of any warrantees, the cost of second-owner servicing and the overall quality of communication between luthier and customer.

Value for money
All the above factors balanced against the cost of the instrument.
Last edited by pristine2 on Thu Apr 01, 2010 10:01 pm, edited 12 times in total.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby Robin T » Mon Mar 15, 2010 11:30 am

Richard,
Yours is a fair, balanced presentation. As you stated, for the price, the pieces have craft value. The luthier could offer his creations as wall hangings and no one would be disappointed.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby Jas » Mon Mar 15, 2010 5:25 pm

Yes, your early instruments were panned. I did it too.
Mine were adjudicated and found wanting in some areas as well. I guess that we both learned something from this. If we don't get criticized we don't know that we have to get better. We learn that there are some fundamental principals that just have to be followed. Within this there is still room for individualism. Some of the more noted builders within this group don't build what everybody wants. Would you want it to be any different? If everyone made the same thing the same way...... why would we bother.
I have noticed that your product is getting to be better accepted. No longer do I see the hardware store add ons and plywood. You are growing. Accept the criticizim as it comes and grow with it. If something doesn't register approval, or doesn't work well...change it. To be criticized means that someone is looking. So peake their interest.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby Aaron ORourke » Mon Mar 15, 2010 10:34 pm

Richard, I commend you for taking the time to do this. However, I humbly suggest that you not put a numeric rating on action. The reason being that there are positives to both ends of the spectrum. Having said that, I'm sure many potential buyers would benefit from reading a description of where the action is when it comes from the builder.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby pristine2 » Mon Mar 15, 2010 10:55 pm

Aaron O'Rourke wrote:Richard, I commend you for taking the time to do this. However, I humbly suggest that you not put a numeric rating on action. The reason being that there are positives to both ends of the spectrum. Having said that, I'm sure many potential buyers would benefit from reading a description of where the action is when it comes from the builder.


Hi:

I see what you mean. I certainly did not mean to imply that a high action is always inferior to a low one, but reading this review that's certainly how it might come across.

The number really applies to pitch accuracy -- something I feel I can quantify. I lumped intonation with action because they seem to be so tightly inter-wound in the building process, but you're right. They should be addressed separately.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby Dulcimerbuilder » Mon Mar 15, 2010 11:29 pm

pristine2 wrote:
Aaron O'Rourke wrote:Richard, I commend you for taking the time to do this. However, I humbly suggest that you not put a numeric rating on action. The reason being that there are positives to both ends of the spectrum. Having said that, I'm sure many potential buyers would benefit from reading a description of where the action is when it comes from the builder.


Hi:

I see what you mean. I certainly did not mean to imply that a high action is always inferior to a low one, but reading this review that's certainly how it might come across.

The number really applies to pitch accuracy -- something I feel I can quantify. I lumped intonation with action because they seem to be so tightly inter-wound in the building process, but you're right. They should be addressed separately.


This is not directed at this particular builder as I have no knowledge of his instruments, just a general statement. There is a difference between having high action to satisfy the players who like that setup and having high action (especially of the nut) that the builder has no knowledge of and which makes the instrument difficult to play for anyone. And which distorts the intonation. An experienced builder or player can probably sort out the differences. My opinion, which I probably shouldn't have offered. :| :|
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby pristine2 » Tue Mar 16, 2010 5:21 pm

Dulcimerbuilder wrote:
There is a difference between having high action to satisfy the players who like that setup and having high action (especially of the nut) that the builder has no knowledge of and which makes the instrument difficult to play for anyone. And which distorts the intonation. An experienced builder or player can probably sort out the differences.


I think a well-written review should be able to make this clear. It will take me time to find the right language for everything though.

Aaron's remarks were spot-on, too. I've re-worked my categories to address intonation separately, and included action under workmanship.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby GWentland » Thu Mar 18, 2010 12:19 am

For what it's worth, I have a Darcyhorse that's very well built, don't wory about dropping it. You can use it to defend your home. It looks nice on the wall. I bought it brand new from the builder, through EBay, and it cost me $200 with the upgraded mechanical tuners. If you don't want to play, it is a great instrument. It looks just like new. It is less than a year old and the first $100 plus shipping, NON-REFUNDABLE, can have it. That will be a great loss, but I'll let it go. By the way all new Darcyhorses are sold NON-REFUNDABLE on EBay unless somthing has changed. The best thing on this dulcimer is the tuners. If you don't believe me buy it.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby pristine2 » Thu Mar 18, 2010 3:06 am

GWentland wrote:By the way all new Darcyhorses are sold NON-REFUNDABLE on EBay unless somthing has changed. The best thing on this dulcimer is the tuners. If you don't believe me buy it.


"Service" is one of those subjective categories. I calculated the Darcyhorse score by starting with a perfect 5.0, then deducting points as problems came to light. It became clear that many musicians who purchased the instrument were dissatisfied, but most people don't bother with a return. I corresponded with one person who did decide to return the instrument, and another who asked Terry to repair it. In both cases these people were accommodated.

I did, however, deduct points for the Darcyhorse support score in response to stories like yours, and the trail of failed communication on eBay. The 3.6 is among the lowest scores for support I've ascribed (except for my reviews of FFDs). I had to conclude that Terry does support his instruments to the best of his ability, but that he simply lacks the training to correct the fundamental problems of lutherie built in to the dulcimers.

I don't feel great about having written such an unfavourable review, because I know it will weaken demand for these instruments, thus causing hardship for a very decent fellow making a living by his own two hands. But Darcyhorse has been selling dulcimers for three years now. Consumers have a right to expect a certain quality standard. Hopefully the end result will be a better quality instrument, delivered with the customer support buyers expect.

Time to give the guy a break, I'd say, and a chance to make a better product.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby GWentland » Fri Mar 19, 2010 2:43 am

The trouble is he is learning at the expense of the inexperienced. They buy a poor quality instrument try to play it, give up, and hang it on the wall. It's a shame because if they would have bought a cardboard instrument, they may have succeded in learning how to play it. Instead of assuming they are all the same. I would bet that there is no such thing as a really good Darcyhorse, the only person I think that will say there is, is one who has not played other dulcimers, or the builder himself. Now that's too bad. There have been a lot produced. I just took a look on EBay where there are currently 4 for sale with a buy it now price as low as $55. However; I still see the following, "7 day exchange, buyer pays return shipping". As long as the builder is not offering a full refund, he is not standing behind his product. On the other hand I guess $55 is not to much to pay if you only want one to hang on the wall. It is very well built and he can't be making much money. This dulcimer is so well built that it will likely survive the fall off the wall. As this is not a forum for people who are looking for a wall decoration, I see no justification in supporting a guys product, because he has been building them for a couple years and still hasn't figured out how to do it right. Would you recommend a Darcyhorse to your close friend or relative who wants to learn how to play. I don't think so. So, why recommend it to others, because it's inexpensive. If you are going to give ratings to dulcimers. Give them the rating they deserve without apologies. I think that this is a fine endeavor. I would like to see a guide that would fairly rate dulcimers against each other.
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby pristine2 » Fri Mar 19, 2010 4:19 am

GWentland wrote: Would you recommend a Darcyhorse to your close friend or relative who wants to learn how to play. I don't think so. So, why recommend it to others, because it's inexpensive. If you are going to give ratings to dulcimers. Give them the rating they deserve without apologies.


Hi GW:

I guess I'm not following you. I understand that you disagree with the service rating in this review and why. But do you really feel the review "recommends" the instrument to dulcimer players? If so, the writing fails.

I daresay an even-handed review bites with more force than one written by a disgruntled customer, which I am not. I purchased the instrument without pre-judging it, though I knew full well what others have said, and I have examined a Darcyhorse in the past. Once I finished assessing this one, I used some iteration of the word "unacceptable" three times to describe it, using an angry red dulcimer to underscore the point in those categories.

I think the review is damaging enough. I don't have to take pleasure in it, and in that sense apologies are certainly warranted.

I would also stand by the belief that this builder *is* capable of making good instruments. It is more than Christian charity that prompts me to say that, and I don't mean to be patronising, either. The builder is clearly competent. He certainly makes a better dulcimer than I could. He simply hasn't benefitted from apprenticeship or training in lutherie -- maybe he will one day. There's no justification in demanding that his craft be snuffed out, or hidden from view, because of mistakes made thus far.

GWentland wrote:I think that this is a fine endeavor. I would like to see a guide that would fairly rate dulcimers against each other.


You've not long to wait, if you find my reviews of any use. I've been writing them in precisely this format for over a year -- 28 in all, all but two of which remain unpublished. I would like to move them out soon, because some will grow stale if don't and I hate wasting labour. The only question is *where* to publish them. ED is an easy choice, but there are all kinds of sensitive questions involved, as you might guess.

The interests of builders and consumers are not identical, obviously, although they are closer than they appear at first blush. Both parties need to be well-served by this process to benefit the community as a whole. It's a tricky balance, not least because I don't want to dilute my own credibility in the process.

Please keep in mind that I'm doing this without the resources of a publishing operation. Among other things, that means I've no one to edit the reviews. I believe in editing. A quick perusal of my posts on ED would explain why. :oops:
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Re: Dulcimer Review: Darcyhorse

Postby dtmd » Fri Mar 19, 2010 8:13 am

Pristine, you might contact Dan and see if your reviews might fit in with the articles? As far as your review of this instrument I thought your review was fair and accurate. As an owner of one of his dulcimer sticks I can attest to how well built the instrument is. It is not playable but as a decoration it is nice. It was suggested that if you are not happy with the product you could resell it on ebay. However, I would not knowingly pass this on to someone else as an instrument for playing. I would have to put a large disclaimer which I do not want to do. I am happy with it as a display which is where it will stay!

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