How to build a simple Hammered-Dulcimer (12 doubled strings) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

NOTE: 16 additional photos and a sound sample of this instrument are available. Click here for information.

While living in New Smyrna Beach, Florida in the 1970s, I had 
the desire to learn how to play the hammered dulcimer. One look 
at the mail-order catalogs convinced me that I'd be a lot better 
off figuring a way to build one inexpensively. Over the course 
of a couple of weeks of experimentation, I built nine 
instruments for an average cost of $9 apiece. I gave away 7 of 
them and still have the remaining two, which work nicely yet 
(recently played one that hadn't been tuned in over a year and 
it was still in tune!).

Basically they consist of a solid piece of 1/2" trapezoid-shaped 
plywood "bordered" on the right and left top-sides by slabs of 
rock maple which act as pinblocks for the tuning pins and hitch 
pins. Sections of a regular 2 by 4 run across the front and across 
the back - heavily glued & screwed securely to the underside of 
the 1/2" plywood soundboard. The bridge is a length of 1" by 3" 
furring strip tapered towards the top and capped off with a length 
of coat-hanger wire which lays in a groove scraped along the top 
of the bridge.

I have built several fancy "6-month project" type hammered 
dulcimers and I find these simple plywood wonders quite playable 
and listenable. The sound is very surprisingly good - especially 
considering the 1/2" thickness of the soundboard!

There are limitations to be sure -- like there being only two 
courses of strings per note and no bass strings, but for the price 
and effort involved in building one, they can't be beat.

Construction of the instrument is very straightforward. Most of 
the construction details can be understood by studying the 
illustrations below. Additional notes (below) will hopefully serve 
to clarify points not readily observable from the illustrations.

                            TOP VIEW

                       rear measures 16 7/8"

                       /.. /            \ .\ 
                     /.. /   ||           \ .\
     rock maple -> /.. /    [||]            \ .\ <- rock maple
     tuning-pin  /.. /       ||               \ .\  hitch-pin
      block    /.. /         ||                 \ .\  block (pins
     (pins   /.. /           ||                   \ .\  shown)
   shown)  /.. /             || <- movable bridge   \ .\ 
         /.. /               ||                       \ .\
       /.. /                 ||                         \ .\  
     /.. /                   ||                           \ .\ 
   /.. /                    [||] <- little "feet"           \ .\
 /.. /                       ||                               \ .\

                     front measures 37 5/8"
             measurement from front to back is 14 7/8"
                           SIDE VIEW
     bridge -->  ___\__________________________/____     1/2" ply.
(note 45 degree |-----------------------------------| <- soundboard
angles at ends  |~~|~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~|~~|   (on bottom)
so bridge does  |  | <----- 2 by 4 pieces -----> |  |    with maple
not rest right  |__|  (glued & screwed-on very   |__|     pinblock 
over 2x4s &                securely)                      above it
possibly dam-   (rear)                         (front)
pen sound)      

   DETAILS OF TUNING-PIN PINBLOCK (The other pinblock is identical 
   except that the 1/8" diameter round cement-nails used for hitch 
   pins are set in at a 90 degree angle and their heads protrude 
   only 3/16 ") ( Drill a guide hole just smaller than the nails)
                        End View:          7/8" x 2" by 19 5/8"
                                           long hard or softwood 
   tuning pins ---> \\         ,----v-, <- strip glued on. The v
   (note angle)    ___\\_______|______|    indicates a groove 
                  |                   |    scratched down entire  
                  |  rock maple       |    length in which rests
                  |  pinblocks        |    the coat-hanger nut.
The "zither pins" (tuning pins) used to tune each string can be 
bought from Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan. They can be 
ordered from their website: .
They cost about 22 cents each in the year 2002.

                       DETAILS OF BRIDGE:

       top tapered
       to about 1/4" -->  o v o  <- notice the "v" scratched
                         o     o    along the entire length of
                        o       o   the topside of the bridge.
                       o         o  this accepts the coat-hanger
                       o         o  over which the strings ride.
                       o         o
                       o  3/4"   o
                       o  wide   o
                  ,----o         o----, <- These are little "feet"
                  |____o o o o o o____|    glued (2 front, 2 back)
                                           to bridge to help keep
                                           it from tipping.

                         top is 14" long                           
  \                                                             / 
    \                  details of the bridge                  /
      \                                                     /
                       bottom is 11 3/4" long  
 bridge is 1 3/4"                                bridge is 2 1/8"
 tall at the rear                                tall at the front
 (not counting the                               (not counting the
  wire "nut")                                     wire "nut")    

                     NOTES ON CONSTRUCTION

- Both ends of both 2x4 pieces are cut to match the angles formed 
  in the areas where the soundboard's edges & sides meet.

- Both maple pinblocks likewise match the angles formed in the 
  areas where the soundboard's edges & sides meet. These pinblocks 
  are heavily screwed/glued in place.
- The "number 8" music wire (used throughout) is hooked to one 
  tuning pin, then looped ONLY ONCE around the cement-nail hitch 
  pin before it is brought back and hooked to the 2nd tuning pin.
  This music wire (sometimes aka "piano wire") can almost always
  be procured from your local piano tuner. Such wire is a stock
  of his trade. Elderly Instruments, , sells
  the stuff too - by mail.

- The position of the bridge right & left is very important. The 
  1 - 5 (do - sol) relationship between the right and left "half" 
  of each string is maintained by careful bridge placement.

- Carefully locate each set of tuning pins - as the pin placement 
  determines the spacing between the two strings of a note. 
  Generally, about 1/8" should be the distance between the two 
  strings of a note. An alternate is to set the tuning-pin pairs 
  so that the two strings are touching, then install 3/32" - or so 
  - nails or pins just to the right of the tuning pin pairs (& 
  right at the left edge of the glued-on long "coathanger nut" 
  holding strip). These nails or pins serve to keep the two 
  strings spaced uniformly apart. The hitch pins are round and 
  about 1/8" in diameter.

A few additional notes about bridge positioning, tuning etc:

Dulcimer stringing utilizes a very clever ploy -- it allows for 
two different notes to be created from a single string course.

The only critical thing about this setup is that the bridge 
(which is not glued down and can be knocked right and left) must 
be positioned properly -- so there's a "5th/1st" relationship 
between the left side and the right side of the same string.

In other words --

Let's consider the 2nd longest string* (the 2nd string up from 
the bottom)(this string is "D" on the right and "A" on the left):

a- Install the string

b- With the bridge roughly positioned, tune this 2nd longest 
   string so the right side sounds a "D" note

c- Now note what pitch the left side is (when bridge is adjusted 
   properly, the left side should sound an "A" note, 4 notes 
   higher than the "D")

d- If the left side note is higher pitched than "A", knock the 
   bridge carefully to the right a small bit. 
   If the left side note is lower pitched than "A", knock the 
   bridge carefully to the left a small bit
e- Because this bridge-moving process will likely change the "D" 
   pitch on the right side, it's very important to repeat steps 
   b, c and d above -- until you have a "D" note on the right 
   side of the string and an "A" on the left
Once the BOTTOM part of the instrument's bridge is properly 
positioned right/left, the TOP PART will likely not be. To do 
the top part, repeat the above steps, this time considering the 
9th longest string (the 9th string up from the bottom)(although 
this string is also "D" on the right and "A" on the left, it is 
pitched a full octave above the 2nd-from-the bottom string) and 
follow exactly the same steps, a-e, above

Because the bottom part might well move some while adjusting the 
top part, you may have to go back and re-do the bottom part 
again. This is a fairly simple process, but it can take a bit of 
time to get right. Once set, I've never had the bridge position 

* The reason I chose the 2nd longest string is that this is 
where the scale starts for the key of "D". The lowest note 
(longest string) is just kind of an "auxiliary" used to achieve 
the occasional low note.

Here's the tuning of the 12-course hammered dulcimer. A piano is 
helpful to use in tuning. There may be some question as to what 
octave to tune to -- this is easily determinable because if your 
in an octave that's too high, the string will surely break 
whereas if you're in an octave that's too low, the string will 
sound terribly mushy, flat and floppy.

                     D - --- G   
                    C -- ---- F   
                   B --- ----- E   
                  A ---- ------ D   
                 G ----- ------- C   
               F# ------ -------- B   
               E ------- --------- A   
              D -------- ---------- G    
            C# --------- ----------- F#  
            B ---------- ------------ E   
           A ----------- ------------- D   
         G# ------------ -------------- C#  

Here's a tip on actual tuning of the beast once the bridge
position has been set:

I find it best to tune the right side first, taking care to 
approach the final pitch FROM THE LOW-PITCHED SIDE -- in other
words, approach the final pitch from below (a lower pitch) and
NOT from above (a higher pitch).

Once right side is tuned, the left side will invariably be too 
high in pitch. First try to lower it by gently pushing downward 
on the left side of the string. If this doesn't lower it enough, 
very slowly and carefully turn the pin counter-clockwise. 
In any event, don't press or tune TOO low lest the right side 
get detuned (there's enough friction where the string rides over 
the bridge to keep the right side tuned, if left side 
pressure/tension isn't too great)

Dennis Havlena - W8MI
Mackinac Straits, northern Michigan 
Click here to access my home page.