Hammered Dulcimer design, construction, and unrelated stuff

Saturday, January 14, 2012


I have been spraying lacquer for twenty years now. Hated it the whole time. It is nasty stuff. I have to wear a complete hazmat suit, respirator, rubber gloves, boots, and still I can't help getting a small dose. It is also bad for the environment. I can't see how I am being a good steward of the Earth by spraying these chemicals out into the air. But it is fast, and looks good.

I have been looking for an alternative for years. I looked at water borne lacquers, but they require a warm environment, and warm materials, which I can't guarantee year round. Whatever I do has to be sprayed. Brushing or wiping finishes on are too slow, requiring multiple coats and risk dust settling on them before they cure.

So last year I discovered that I could spray shellac, then when it is dry lightly sand it, then rub out with steel wool and wax. This is a very nice finish with a soft satin glow, and feel that is out of this world. We like it a lot. It is an all natural finish, completely non toxic, and totally green. Shellac is an insect resin that is collected in India and comes as flakes of various shades which are then dissolved in denatured alcohol. It can be sprayed on all in one session, unlike the lacquer which requires two. And also unlike the lacquer, it doesn't gas off (stink) for several days. The shellac is well cured within a couple hours, and can be rubbed out the same day. So we are switching all the Phoebe and Wood Thrush dulcimers to the new shellac and wax finish as of this year.

Still experimenting with another natural finish for the Warbler and Whippoorwill dulcimers. I have discovered that a few drops of Japan driers added to Tung oil makes it cure super fast, almost as I am rubbing it on. So at least two coats can be applied in a day, and a third the next day develops a very nice semigloss shine. This one will have to wait for more experimenting, but looks promising.

Two years ago I developed a completely different approach. Since I was a cabinet maker, I am know how to work with high pressure laminates (Formica). So I designed a dulcimer made of Okoume marine plywood that I could then cover with whatever laminate the customer chooses. They work just great, sound wonderful, are water proof, and stay in tune. And the design possibilities are unlimited. We have built a fair number. They never fail to get noticed. One of our friends had us make one for her the color of blue jeans. Another one looked like a beautiful piece of dark marble with mica flecks in it. There are wood grain laminates, some with textures, metals, and every color imaginable. Call us if this sounds interesting.