A new Dulcijo

DSC04143Last December I posted about “Maplenut”, a three stringed diatonic banjo (aka dulcijo) that I made for a musician in California. “Maplenut” combines maple and walnut flavors with an 8″ rim and 24″ scale.



DSC03546When making rims for my dulcijos, I lathe turn two at once from a single blank by turning a 10″ rim first, cutting it away, and then turning the 8″ rim from the remainder. So, while making the 8″ Maplenut, I also produced a bigger 10″ brother which is finally finished.



DSC04225The big brother doesn’t have an ice cream name like “Maplenut” so all I can sing is,

“I’ve been through the dessert on a ‘jo with no name….”

(it felt good to get that outta my brain)





The new 10″ rim also features a 24″ scale with a diatonic fretboard and a third, thumb string, installed at the fourth fret. It is tuned and played the same as the 8″ with one slight difference. An extra “1-1/2 fret” is installed at that position adding a “C” note to the scale on the middle string. Initially, this intrusion on the diatonic scale is a distraction that requires getting used to but that “C” note is useful in more songs than would be thought.


DSC04212The peghead overlay and fretboard have also been given a different treatment. Instead of walnut, they are faced with bubinga that has been “ebonized” with Fiebing’s black shoe dye. Overall, the neck and rim have been dyed to a darker hue than Maplenut’s natural finish.DSC04214







DSC04231A nice upgrade to this instrument is the installation of raw brass Gotoh planetary tuners with amber buttons. I had used these on my son’s five string “Steampunk” banjo and really liked them for their smooth operation and rich colors.


DSC04219A 10″ amber colored “Renaissance” head has been installed with a 3/16″ steel tone ring, a 1/2″x1/8″ aluminium tension ring, and nickel plated hooks and shoes. The three .009″ steel strings are anchored with a “No-Knot” tailpiece and an ebony capped bridge.DSC04215

Tuning for stability

DSC04259The tuning of autoharps, hammered dulcimers, bowed psaltrys, zithers, kanteles, lap harps and many other zither family instruments is adjusted and maintained by square headed, finely threaded steel rods called zither pins. Their threaded sections are driven into the undersized holes of the wooden pinblocks inside the structure of the instrument. Depending on the integerity of the pinblock, the tuning pins can sometimes be very tight with a lot of holding power. This is a positive condition but it warrants some care and a slightly different tuning technique.


almost useful


soft brass with little leverage


poor quality pot metal with poor fit

To care for the tuning pins, it is necessary to use a quality tuning wrench that engages the square heads of the pins at a variety of positions without excessive wiggle. It must be made of quality materials and shaped so that there is adequate leverage and control for fine tuning. Unfortunately, most of the wrenches we acquire with our instruments are disappointing if not downright hazardous. Most smaller L-wrenches and “clock key” style wrenches with square tips are cast with inferior metals and do not fit solidly on the tuning pins. Since they lack leverage and grip, their tips become stripped and they chew up the tuning pins.


Tuning wrenches with star tips

Don’t be tempted to buy or use those types of wrenches. You will have disappointing results and can risk expensive damage to your instrument’s tuning pins. Instead, acquire a “star tipped” wrench. Two types are readily available in music stores and online. One is a “T” type wrench and the other is a longer “L” type that resembles a piano tuning wrench. Both feature hardened alloy metals with a star shaped tip that firmly engages the pins at a variety of angles. They have longer handles that make them easier to control even very tight pins.






                                 Tuning for better stability

Zithers are very much like pianos only smaller. With my experience as a piano technician I have learned that properly “setting” the pins and equalizing string tension results in a more stable, long lasting tuning. The following techniques that I employ tuning pianos also work with zithers.

When turning a pin righty-tighty, two things happen that affect stability. A section of the string is drawn over the bridges and, in a tight block, the tuning pin twists. These forces briefly become part of the string’s and pin’s short term memories. Tiny kinks where the string previously crossed the bridges are drawn ahead and the twist introduced to the pin lingers. As these forces equalize, the string un-kinks and the pin straightens. When they do, the string is no longer in tune.

As a tiny kink in a string slowly relaxes, the pitch goes slightly flat. While changing the pitch of a string by more than a few cents, stretch it by pressing down on the speaking length with a finger or a narrow piece of wood like a popsicle stick. Check the tuning, pluck the string rather hard, and then check the tuning again. This will help ease the kinks, seat the string on the bridge, and stabilize the string tension.

When a pin retains a twist it is called “flagpoling”. The torque of turning it in a tight block actually bends it into a spiral. It takes a little time to relax into its former shape. To minimize this effect I like to use a long handled L-wrench. With its extended handle and wide swing, I can “bump” the pin with a wigglely/jerk that turns the whole length of the pin at once with less twist . I tune the string a few cents sharp and then wiggle it back to the target pitch which helps the pin return to its straight shape.



My woodworking this winter hasn’t been limited to cutting chordwood. I have managed to build a couple of dulcijos, an autoharp, and some cigar box autoharps, some as “Top Secret” work for Santa.

DSC04143Some nice folks from Pennsylvania commissioned a dulcijo as a gift for their son who resides in California. They chose a combination of maple and walnut commenting that it sounded like an ice cream flavor.  We named it “Maplenut”


DSC04147“Maplenut” features an eight inch laminated pin block rim trimmed with walnut. The lathe turned rim is capped with a 3/16″ steel tone ring, a Renaissance head, and tensioned by a 1/2″ notched aluminium band and eight, nickel plated brackets. The walnut dowel stick conceals a 1/4″x20 threaded rod for neck attachment.





The neck is made of curly maple with walnut peghead overlay and “scooped” fingerboard.  Two economy guitar tuners are installed on the peghead with a banjo friction style tuner for the third string. A “No Knot” tailpiece anchors the three .009″ loop end steel strings.





DSC04233” Life intervenes”, as a recent commenter suggested, helping me to explain my recent absence. It’s been late October since my last post and her encouraging words have found me wanting to continue posting here on WHBIT, but not having a lot of new things to say.

The greater part of my woodworking activities this winter have been spent sawing, collecting, stacking, carrying, and burning cordwood. Heating with a woodstove has always been a joy to me. I seldom think of the work, the ashes, the smoke, and the mess when I warm my backside in its radiance.

Emily, the nursing assistant at my recent semi-annual medical, asked me if I exercise (implying do I jog, swim, or go to a gym?). “Not at all!…”, I answered, “…but I work”. These kids today (rant) don’t realize the difference. A chord of hardwood can weigh a ton or more and I typically handle each piece five or more times.

A mild winter in Ohio, as this one seems to be so far, only requires around three or four cord of hardwood to heat a well insulated home of a modest size such as ours. A woodburning stove, like a baby, requires a lot of attention especially in bitter cold weather when extra night time feedings are required. I set my alarm clock to 2AM or 4AM but often arise, feed the “baby” and return to bed without remembering having done so. The rewards are a warm home, at a low cost, and some healthy exercise.

Autoharps left and right

I’m finally returning after another absence. A close family member has passed away and my limited time in the workshop has been spent  finishing up older projects and repairs. I’m back at it, building autoharps and working through my waiting list for Cigar Box Autoharps.


DSC04022In some previous posts I have described my one piece autoharp frame/backs carved out of a single piece of laminated pinblock. I built a tool called a “Copy Carver” to help me safely and accurately rout the inside pockets. The “Copy Carver” has been a success but, like much of technology, the latest acquisition soon  becomes obsolete.  A friend and fellow woodworker from our dulcimer club has offered to rout my frames with his CNC machine. The program he has written can rout the blanks that I provide for both left, and right handed instruments. His machine performs this previously tedious task with a great deal of accuracy and at a very reasonable price.


The “Lefty” is on the right, the “Righty” is on the left, and a back is in the front.



Inside out

    “…Yeah, don’t it make you wanna twist and shout when you’re inside out”

                                                                           — Nelson (Spike) Wilbury

images-2Maybe this has happened to you. It’s a humid summer evening and hundreds of friends and fans in lawn chairs and on blankets dot the hillside before you. They are singing along with your songs (your songs!!!) between swigs from their plastic water bottles and occasional checks for important text messages. You and your band are sharing a tight “single mike set-up” (and a lot of tic-tacs) when, at the moment you step up to the microphone for your instrumental break, all perception of time and space seems to twist and distort….

The humidity and your nervousness causes your pick to squirt from your fingers like a wet bar of soap. High above the stage, in the bright stage lighting, amid the circling moths and mozzys, the plectrum pauses periododically on the pinacle of its path before plummenting into your instrument’s soundhole. This starts a chaotic chain of events that can only be described as tragically unnecessary.

In your haste to continue without losing a beat, you lift your instrument to look inside and in doing so, knock the microphone from its stand. The loud boom and squeeling feedback sends babies crying, veterns ducking, and seniors clawing for their hearing aids. You begin violently shaking your upside down instrument to free the pick when you whack Larry in the head just as he reaches down to retrive the mike. He spralls into Curly, who along with his upright bass, tumbles backwards off the rear of the stage into the bed of his pickup truck. The old Ford, having been mostly neutral to these preceedings, begins rolling down the hill mowing down the hastily vacated lawn chairs of the folks who ironically, had been sitting back there so that they could leave early to beat the traffic.

80px-BH_LMCMaybe that didn’t happen to you. Maybe it didn’t happen to me. Maybe that was a lot of windup for a simple tip that isn’t even my idea. Many of us have lost picks to the blackholes that occupy soundboard space. There seems to be a magnetism accompanied by a “giant sucking sound” that bends a pick’s trajectory. It may be the same gravitational distortion that causes dropped toast to land buttered side down or that that draws little Timmy to the old well while Lassie is occupied repairing the tractor.

When a pick falls into the soundhole our first reaction is to turn the instrument upside down  to let it fall out. We tip it and shake it but the fugitive usually hides somewhere on the wrong side of a top brace. We resort to violent shaking hoping the pick will jump over the obstruction but by then Curly has fallen off the stage and everyone has gone home.

So, finally, here’s the tip.


Press the pick against the back with a pencil eraser.

As soon as the pick falls in, resist the urge to turn the instrument upside down. Instead, hold it flat and look into the soundhole. There’s a good chance that the pick is still in the area and hasn’t bounced over any back braces. Being mindful of those around you (except Larry who didn’t come today), gently rock the instrument until the pick is under the soundhole.

Press the eraser end of a pencil against the pick to hold it firmly against the back directly under the soundhole. Then invert the whole works over your head so that the pick is now over the soundhole. Release the pencil so that the pick can fall out.


Hold the pick against the back while inverting the instrument. Remove the pencil to allow the pick to drop straight down.












If you are still having trouble or are dealing with a small soundhole, roll a piece of masking tape backwards and stick it on the eraser to snag the pick.


Perform the above procedure as often as needed.


Chopping chordwool


DSC03868The new “lefty” has fifteen, 1/4″ wide cherry chord bars with the buttons arranged in three rows. The chosen chords are a common setup for this type of chromatic autoharp and are ordered like this:



C7         G7         D7     A7       E7

F        C          G          D        A

Dm      Am       Em     Bm    F#m

The four major keys here are “C”, “G”, “D”, and “A” arranged in the middle row with their 7ths adjacent in the top row and their relative minors in the bottom row. By centering the middle finger on a  major chord button, the accompanying chords in that key can be easily reached with the index or ring finger. To change keys, that same pattern can be moved a position or two to the right or left and the same fingering can be used.


DSC03864Premium chord bar felt is densely packed (not woven) and comes with “peel and stick” adhesive on one side. It adheres well but to avoid problems down the road, I apply contact adhesive to the bar and let it dry a little before applying the strip. For this type of chord bar holder, I trim the felt about 1/32″ beyond the end of the bar to eliminate noisy clatter.



Chord bar felt is cut to allow the notes of the chord to ring and to mute the rest. Each chord, of course is different and I don’t want to make any mistakes, so I work methodically by marking each bar on the inside end, applying the labels on the buttons, and returning each bar to its place in the holder. Sheets of labels for strings and chord buttons can be purchased from Pete Daigle.













A strip of graph paper with the string notes helps me mark the string positions on the felt. After placing the chord bar in its actual slot, I press it down and mark the felt with a fine point “sharpie”. This “F” chord has three notes, “F”, “A”, and “C”.  Starting in the bass with the tonic note, in this case  “F”, I make a light mark on the felt where it meets each “F”, “A”, and “C”. The process is repeated with each chord bar and its relevant notes, checked, and rechecked, before the cutting.

DSC03866At each mark I cut a neat little “V” notch using a sharp utility knife. Back in the holder, I check again to be sure the notch allows the marked strings while leaving the rest muted.









Oh, the carnage!

Left handed autoharp, a preview


This configuration can be strummed in the “sweet spot” with the right hand and chorded with the left without having to cross arms.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my new left handed autoharp and I’m eager to share photos for the folks who have been asking what it will be like. As I said in a previous post, reverse autoharps are difficult and somewhat expensive to acquire without placing a custom order with an autoharp luthier. Left handed autoharps from my workbench will also be custom orders with a (hopefully) short wait, but by keeping the design rather basic while retaining quality features, I intend to make them more affordable.


The fifteen wooden chord bars can be ordered in two rows or arranged in three rows like this one. After the chords are chosen and cut, labels will be applied to the fronts of the buttons.

The design is based on the old, traditional, black box Oscar Schmidt’s with quite a few improvements. It has the same scaling, loop end strings, and bridge style as the old “Model A “style autoharps but I reverse the pattern so that they may be played on a table or on the lap without having to cross the hands. Improvements include a deeper, one piece laminated frame and back, a solid wood soundboard, an improved string schedule, 15 custom chords with premium white felt, and some optional features. I’m aiming for all of this in a handmade instrument for just a bit more than the  price as an Asian factory made autoharp.




Black plastic chord bar holders with glued in springs. Premium white chord bar felt (this one not yet cut).

To do this I’m cutting some corners, but in a good way. Instead of wooden chord bar holders that are time consuming to make, I am using OS plastic holders with the glued in springs. they are cheap and not particularly attractive but they are stable and entirely adequate for their purpose. I do make the wooden chord bars to a closer tolerance for a better fit and easier action. With the most basic autoharps,  I intend to merely stain and finish the exposed laminated sides. Again, cheaper and less attractive, but OK. This new one features an optional cherry veneer on the sides.


Laminated backs are very stable and resistant to splitting. Small rubber feet will be installed on the back to elevate the autoharp when resting on a table.

The back is the bottom two or three plys (1/4″ thick) that remain after I hollow out the laminated frame. It’s maple that can be finished natural or stained. This instrument has an optional cherry veneer around the sides but the more basic ones will bear the exposed laminations. Veneer choices (at extra cost) will include cherry, walnut, and maple as well as more exotic woods when legal and available.














The chord bars will be cut to the new owner’s needs. The three row button layout is useful for a “Bryan Bowers” type setup where (and this is not always the case) the major chords are arranged in the center row, the 7ths in the top row, and the minors in the bottom row. This creates a comfortable, consistant playing pattern that can be shifted sideways by a position or two to change key.

A “Steampunk” banjo

photoFor a few months I have been working off and on at a new 5-string banjo as a surprise for my older son. Several years ago he moved to Florida with a dream to “make it” as a musician by playing his guitar anywhere and everywhere he could. Now in his 30s, he is experiencing a great degree of success playing in clubs, bars, at festivals and fundraisers, with two bands and sometimes with a prominent blues musician. A couple of years ago he began playing banjo and has joined a successful band where he performs original music with the banjo and therimin. The band has a kind of carnival/sideshow style that seems (to me) quite a bit like “Steampunk“.


Clear head, curved compensated bridge, raw brass tailpiece, armrest, brackets, tension ring, and tonering.

“Steampunk” (as I kinda understand it ) is a style nostalgic of the 19th century, Victorian, industrial era of technology and dress. Open backed banjos are, of course extant to that era, but I wanted to give his new instrument a sort of modern “steampunk” treatment without going overboard since he will be using it professionally. The result is a five string banjo with a curly maple neck and an internal resonator. The “steampunk” treatment means lots of raw brass hardware and trim. Band logos adorn the peghead and inlays and the clear head reveals green LED lighting for stage performance.


Curly maple neck with two way truss rod. magnetically attached internal resonator.



Brass peghead overlay with a top hat band logo.


The banjo is amplified with a Goldtone SMP electromagnetic pickup.


The internal resonator is attached with rare earth magnets. The internal LED lighting, controlled by a switch and powered by a 9v battery, is attached to the inside.










The green LED lights were originally sold for some automotive application. They can be on for hours and hours without depleting a 9v battery.





Raw brass Gotoh planetary tuners with amber buttons. The fifth string peg is positioned at the sixth fret for playing comfort and so that it may be tuned higher without a capo.


The internal resonator and lighting can be removed as one unit.


A new left handed autoharp

The first project using my new Copy Carver is a left handed autoharp. Since posting about reverse autoharps, I have had so many inquiries that I have decided to make a few for sale.


A reverse autoharp

Reverse autoharps are not only for left handed players. When playing them on the lap or on a tabletop, the strings can be picked in the “sweet spot” with the right hand and chorded with the left hand without having to cross the wrists. There are other advantages as well. With the autoharp on the lap or tabletop, it’s easier to hear, to see what you’re doing, and it’s much kinder to your shoulders and arms.

Left handed autoharps are hard, if not impossible to find. I have never seen a left handed Oscar Schmidt or Chromaharp (except those awful “Carolers”) new or used. Most autoharp luthiers will accept custom orders but the $1000 to $2000 prices discourage many newbies seeking an entry level instrument. My goal here is to build a few high quality, basic, left handed autoharps with some limited options at around two-thirds the price of other luthier built autoharps.

Dense, laminated pin block is the best material for holding tight tuning pins and because it is so stable, it’s often used for the entire autoharp frame. The frame can be a single unit or of several joined pieces and is sandwiched between the soundboard and back. Soundboards and backs can be of solid or laminated wood.


The back is the bottom two plys, about 1/4″ thick.

No matter how carefully constructed with select, dry wood, there is always the risk of future cracks and joint failure. A one piece frame has no joints to fail and quality plywood is resistant to cracking. Instead of gluing a plywood back to a one piece laminated frame, I make the entire body as one unit by hollowing it out with my Copy Carver. This even eliminates the back to frame joint.



The hollowed out body while fitting the top braces. The sides will be covered with 3/16″ cherry veneer.

There are a couple of tradeoffs to this construction method. It’s time consuming and a bit wasteful removing the whole interior as sawdust instead of constructing the frame and back with multiple pieces, but there are no joints to fail. Many players believe a laminated back doesn’t sound as good or is as attractive as one made of solid wood. In my thinking, a laminated back sounds and looks better than a cracked one.