What woods would sound best in my new hammer dulcimer?

That’s not a simple question to answer but very important to understand.

  1.  First things first, don’t over think the process and trust your builder to make suggestions based on what you tell the builder you want your instrument to sound like and look like.  Then choose from there.
  2. It’s good to understand some basics.  The parts that affect the tone most are the soundboard, the bridges and the back.
  3. Soundboard:  mahogany is mellower, spruce is brighter and loud, cedar is similar to spruce but a touch softer in tone but loud.  Redwood is very rowdy and loud but brittle , difficult to work with, cracks and crushes easily, not to mention outrageously expensive!  Plywood actually works reasonably well, is not so loud, very inexpensive, is very safe but does not improve with age as solid wood does.  We offer combinations of woods to give the instrument more dynamic range and expand the voicing capabilities.  Starts getting deep about here.  The best way to choose is to hear one you like!
  4. Bridges are very important.  Rosewood is darker and mellower in tone.  It is very effective in transferring energy from the strings to the soundboard and produces a bit more sustain than other woods.  Maple, used in violins, is quite effective, less dense but hard, and does an excellent job of transferring the bright tones a violin is known for.  Maple gives the hammer dulcimer a brighter tone with less sustain.  Cherry is less dense and less hard, not as bright as maple, possibly, but definitely produces less sustain.
  5. The back promotes mostly larger wave length, lower pitch sounds that give the instrument a deeper voice, sort of like the “ker-plunk” you hear when you drop a rock into an old fashioned water well.  A solid wood back is always better!  Mahogany gives you a mellower lower ranger while soft woods produce more volume and sometimes more hammer percussion “thump”.  The back sometimes takes a lot of abuse.  A soft wood back will show wear and tear more so than a hardwood but stands up to the pressure of the design just fine…just a cosmetic issue.  Softer wood is much lighter weight!!
  6. Endrails are primarily structural, bearing the pressure of the strings going over the bridges that tries to pull the instrument into the shape of a banana!  Don’t want that!  It is quite esthetical, too.  Choose something you would like to look at forever.  Consider the color of the stain or natural color of the soundboard, bridges, inlays and pinblocks.  We offer at least 40 different species of wood to choose from, as well as variations of some species….good luck with that!
  7. Don’t forget your stand.  Get creative and be matchy, matchy with your package!  Ash is strong and a typical blonde color, medium heavy but very strong.  Mahogany is a bit lighter, plenty strong, matches the soundboard but is much more expensive.  Sapelli might be a nice alternative to mahogany as it looks virtually the same but is a bit heavier and costs about the same.  Or we can custom build you a stand out of cherry, walnut, maple, curly maple, paduk, purpleheart, rosewood…any type of wood your heart desires and your pocket book can afford to provide you with.
  8. Soundholes are blonde in color and the consistent “Harrison Rose” design unless ordered otherwise for an upcharge.  We can sometimes stain the soundholes to match other parts of the instrument…yes, an upcharge….sorry.  You can have your own soundhole inlays carved or engraved elsewhere OR we can send you to Bill Blackwell who can do them for you for us….yes, an upcharge…so sorry!  But you’ll be pleased!!  Makes your instrument a one-of-a-kind…and it’s not THAT much to have your own personal artwork crafted and built in to your once-in-a-lifetime handcrafted instrument.  I’d do it to mine!

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