When a dogwood tree in my yard died, I decided to cut it down. It was 7 to 8 inches in diameter at the widest and against the advice of a very respected luthier that lives near me, I decided to try to make an instrument out of the wood. After all the time and effort in this project, I can see why he recommended using the wood for clocks or other decorative wood projects. The wood was full of worm holes and stress cracks, but I was able to find four 3.5 to 4 inch pieces for the top and back, some 2.5 to 3 inch pieces for sides, and a solid piece for the fretboard.
I used my 10 inch table saw and bandsaw to cut the boards out of the trunk. It was a struggle to get anything square, so I had to make up for the lack of squareness with more time on the belt sander. Somewhere I read that dogwood was much harder than even oak and it has been used as a hammer for hammering on wood shingles. It wasn't unusual to see smoke coming off of the drill bits when trying to drill holes. The wood was a bit much for my table saw but my bandsaw did okay. Sanding with a belt sander took a long time. I'm not very good at carving, but I have performed some simple cuts with walnut in the past. My carving on dogwood was very much more difficult than walnut (head, tail block, bridge, and nut areas).
I decided on a diamond shape since I already have an hourglass dulcimer, two tear drop dulcimers, and a box dulcimer. Getting the angles right proved to be very difficult. Also, during construction my original design changed many times because of available wood. I wanted the instrument to be very deep but could not find a head and tail block that was big enough for the sides, so the sides got smaller. If I ruined a piece of wood, I probably would not be able to find another in the tree trunk, so I made do with the available pieces. One of the pieces for the back was cracking around a knot and I patched it to keep it together. All of the pieces for top, back, and sides are thicker than ideal, but I was struggling to sand the wood to even thickness with a 2 inch hand held belt sander. The fretboard was a solid piece of wood that I hollowed out with a router. The hollow of the fretboard is open to the sound box for the entire length of the top.
I'm still working on finalizing the bridge design. My goal was to have a dulcimer that could be tuned to lower tunings for Phrygian, Dorian, and Ionian mode songs. I have a temporary brass bridge on it and it is set at an angle to compensate for the .032 bronze wound bass string and the .016 middle and melody strings. I need to come up with something that allows the middle and melody strings to be the same VSL if I'm going to continue with .016 strings. The pitch for the melody and bass strings is good according to my tuner at most of the frets with the angled brass bridge, so the unwound strings will need to land at the bottom of the bridge hollow area and the bass will need to land at the top in the finished design.
I haven't rubbed out the last coat of lacquer yet, but I strung it up with the brass bridge and started checking what I can get for good tunings. I think it will be okay with CGEb (Phrygian), CGF (Dorian), and CGG (Ionian) tunings. I have been working on CGF. It sounds best with a noter (also made of dogwood). The noter seems to give it an echo or other side tone I am still trying to analyze. The eighth fret has another special sound (bell tone?) at times along with the echo. I might do some chord-melody style with CGG tuning, but some initial testing showed that I was having trouble fretting the heavier strings. Also, it doesn't create as much sound fretting with fingers compared to fretting with a noter. I will probably use a noter most of the time with this dulcimer.
So, attached are a couple of pictures and I uploaded many more in an album on my home page here. Also attached is a sound clip I recorded with Audacity this morning. The sound clip was recorded with three separate tracks. I recorded the first track and listened on headphones while playing each of the next two tracks.
it looks like your bridge is angled incorrectly. the bass string should have the longer VSL. you could use two bridges....one for the bass and the other for the melody and middle strings. however if you get the bass and melody strings tuned correctly the middle string should be close enough.....especially if you are using a noter.
Thanks Joe Yes, you're right about the bridge. I can see now that I looked at my guitar and misinterpreted the angle for the dulcimer as I intended to match the guitar compensated bridge. The guitar does have longer VSL for the bass strings compared to the unwound strings. The picture does show the bass string on the dulcimer with a shorter VSL.
I checked all of the strings on the dulcimer at the open, 7th, and 14th frets and the bass and melody strings seemed to be in tune. I'm thinking I missed something in that test. I won't be back home for a couple of weeks but I'll recheck it when I do get home. I left room in the bridge cutout area to get creative, so I'm really not done yet but looking for a final arrangement for the bridge.
I agree with your comments related to just using a noter. If I'm not going to fret the middle or bass strings, I could just set the bridge for the melody strings and it would be okay.
As you cannot actually set the intonation on the middle string with a straight bridge you gotta live with what you got. Assuming DAd or CGc or any tuning with that note relationship try tuning the middle string at the 3rd fret to exactly the same as the melody. With any tuning having the same 4th between the middle and melody the middle string can be seen as an extension to the melody going 4 notes lower. Matching the melody on the 3rd fret minmises the effect any tonal errors due to any intonation being a tad off.
I have tuned strings to a certain fret before when I was tuning beyond what the string/VSL combination was designed (like DAF or CGF). It works good, especially if I don't play any songs where I have to strum the melody strings open very much.
Just thought I would provide the final on my dogwood dulcimer experiment. I decided to install a standard bone bridge. I thought I would be able to fit it with heavier strings and a compensated bridge so I could tune it lower than CGG, but the fret-spacing is the same as a standard McSpadden fretboard and the strings don't hold to pitch playing up the fretboard if tuned much below G.
So, this dulcimer is fitted with .016 strings for melody and middle strings and I found an unwound .024 string for the bass. I think I'll mostly be tuning it to EBF or EBG just because I like the sound on Dorian and Phrygian tunes played with a noter.
I cut off the zither tuning pins so they wouldn't poke through the bottom of the head. The first set became loose but the same site that had the .024 unwound string also had oversize zither tuning pins, so I fit it with new oversize zither tuning pins that were cut to fit. I didn't want geared tuners sticking out from the head just for appearance reasons. I hope this works.
Rather than cut slots (or let the strings make their own grooves) for where the strings contacted the dulcimer between the bridge and the hitch pins, I installed a fret at the point where the strings would contact the wood at the tail block.
When I started this I wanted a different sound. Many things didn't go as planned, but the project has taken me in a new direction of playing and I like the sound I'm able to get out of it. Maybe it's my age, but I enjoy playing it with a noter and the zing it makes at times sliding between the notes doesn't bother me. It's become a habit to sit in the living room drinking coffee on a Saturday or Sunday morning and my wife might be reading a book and I'll be playing away for an hour or so (all Phrygian or Dorian melodies). It's a great way to start the day if you don't have to get out and do anything right away.
Attached is a sound clip and pictures of the only parts that changed since I first posted here. The sound clip is Pange Lingua Gloriosi which is a song that is sung a capella on Holy Thursday in many places. The dulcimer is tuned EBG and I believe the song is Phrygian Mode. The book also lists it as Chant Mode III.
VERY Cool project Dave !! It looks great & has a very interesting tonal quality to it !
About 4 years ago, beavers chewed down some black ash trees right across the lake from my cottage. I went and got those fallen trees with a project in mind - very similar to your's ! The trees are about 7"- 8" in diameter and have been drying in the shade since then with next to no cracking. I was going to take them to a fella here in town that operates a portable "band-saw" sawmill and get him to cut them up into quarter-sawn piece as wide as he possibly can, to at least assemble a book-matched bottom + the sides. I was planning on using birch for the fret board and headstock and aspen for the soundboard.
Hoping that once my future (local wood) project is complete, it can sound as good as your's !
Thanks Marc If you're considering a similar project I encourage you to get started as soon as possible. Black Ash should be excellent. I don't really know how to explain how I feel playing this dulcimer. You'll know when you get there. Dave
Any time you try to make anything out of a tree that has come down for some reason you should first saw it up in in boards about an inch thick then let those thoroughly air dry the proper way protected from rain for at least a year. Then you can square up the warped boards into a usable shape and make something out of it that wont warp out of shape later. A 6 inch diameter tree wont fully dry out in years just laying where it fell even if its protected from rain. It will develop a lot of cracks drying out reducing how much usable wood you can get out of it. Slicing it up speeds the drying and will also reduce the cracking considerably so you can get far more usable wood from it. .
You can make a lot of great things out of a downed or dead trees if you first dry it out. Just keep in mind it isn't a one weekend project to get usable wood out of one though. It is a great free source of a lot of outstanding wood if you have the time to invest in it and place to dry it out
Thanks Mr Chips I agree. If I'm going to try to work with a tree again I will need more space to manage it during the drying period too. I was walking through the woods near home with my grandchildren and saw a nice log that had been cut and left next to the trail. The tree had probably fallen across the trail and somebody sawed it to clear the trail. I was tempted to pick it up and bring it home because it may have been black walnut. I didn't pick it up because I still hadn't finished with the dogwood I had at home and I had no confidence that I knew how to saw up the dogwood. Even after I got a bandsaw it still wasn't easy and I learned a lot. I need more space if I'm going to do something like this again. I worked in the garage which is under two bedrooms in our house. I got a lot of sawdust in the house.
I'm not sure how long the dogwood tree had been dead. When I cut it down I tried to at least slice the trunk in half. I found lots of cracks and splits that probably happened while it was still standing. I only had a table saw at the time, so slicing in half (really rough slices) was all I could manage at the time. I sawed through the center of the trunk and the blade only went half way through the log, then I flipped it over and tried to saw from the other side and meet the first saw slot. It's difficult to saw like that when the trunk is more or less round with bumps, knots, stubs from limbs, and other uneven characteristics. The first cuts were really rough and I knew I needed something different to finish sawing it into dulcimer size pieces.
It's an accident that the wood laid around the garage for over a year. If it needed any additional drying out, I think it happened in that period. Some day I'm going to do something was turning into some year I'm going to do something. I finally forced myself to take the time to get started. I worked on it here and there in between work and travel for work and other life events. Sometimes I would be stumped because something wasn't going right, so I'd walk away for up to a week or so to give me time to think of a solution. It has been a journey but I wouldn't mind doing it again.
Now that you mention it, I think I did try an electric chain saw on a few pieces. I've cut plenty of trees and firewood, but cross cutting is a lot different from vertical cutting or slicing. I think I clamped a log in my Handy Dan and sawed a little, then repositioned to finish sawing. I don't think I ever had anything set up with the chainsaw where I could cut a slice without repositioning. I think I saw a jig somewhere that allowed for mounting a chain saw so the wood could be brought to the saw. That would work for making a single pass through a log and might be something I try if I do this again.