Saturday, August 28, 2010

Building the Box Dulcimer

The handmade dulcimer is a simple first-time “real” musical instrument project. A dulcimer is a long, fretted instrument, designed to be strummed while sitting in your lap or on a table or stand. you play the tune with a small wooden stick pressed against the main string and slid up and down the frets while you strum. You can also pluck and chord the dulcimer with your fingers. Its simple shape and sit-on-top fretboard is easier to build than an instrument with a neck-mounted fretboard like a guitar. The version presented here is a box dulcimer, built in a rectangular shape. It's much easier to build since you don't have to warp the edges to match the traditional hourglass or teardrop shape. If you're a beginner to instrument-making this is your dulcimer.

  • 3 panels of instrument wood, 1/8’ thick by 18” by 23″
  • 1 piece hardwood 1 ¼ inch by 1 1/2 inch by ¼ inch
  • 1 piece hardwood, 1 ¼ inch by 2 5/8 inch by 3/8 inch
  • 1 piece hardwood, 1/8 inch by 1 ¼ inch by ¼ inch
  • Coping Saw
  • Hole saw (drill attachment)
  • Sabre Saw/Band Saw
  • Wood Glue
  • Drill and drill bit set
  • 1 Very dense hardwood board, 1 ½ inch by ¾ inch by 28 inches for the fretboard
  • 4 small screws, 1/8 inch by ¼ inch long
  • Set of 4 dulcimer strings
  • 4 single peg guitar machine heads (from music store)
  • Box of extra large paper clips
  • Bastard file
  • Pencil
  • Carpenter Square
  • Electrical tape
  • Wood stain and Varnish
  • Fine bristle paintbrush
  • Paint thinner

Step 1
Cut two pieces of 1/8 inch panel into a rectangle 6-inch wide by 23 inches long. These are the top and bottom pieces. Cut 4 one-inch diameter sound holes in the top piece. They can be any shape, but should be at least a half-inch from the edge and about 7 ½ inches from the heel and front of the top piece. Cut with a hole saw and sand the edges all around on the top.

Step 2
Cut two more strips of 1/8 inch panel 1 ½ inches wide by 23 inches long to make the sides of the rectangular box. Cut two strips of 1/8 panel also 1 ½ inches by 5 ¾ inches for the front and heel ends of the box. Assemble the box by gluing the heel and front strips and the side strips between the top and back panels to create a rectangular box. Set some books on top of the box till the glue cures and sets.

Step 3

This is the full length fretboard described here.
 Take the hardwood fingerboard. Measure five inches from one end. Mark the end of the fingerboard ½ inches from the bottom and draw a line on the side of the fretboard from the mark on the neck to where the half inch line touches the edge of the end of the fingerboard. Trim the end of the fingerboard so it slopes downward from the 5 inch mark to the end of the fretboard. This is where you will install the tuning pegs. This is the headstock.

The headstock can also be extended past the end of the box as shown below to allow you to install standard banjo or guitar tuning pegs. The fretboard wood is 28 inches to allow you to construct a proper headstock if you want.  You can also cut off the fretboard to the length of the box and attach tuning pegs at the end as shown in the short fretboard below.  I like the longer version with banjo or individual machine heads.  They seem to hold their tune better than friction pegs.  Simply drill holes in the headstock for the four tuning pegs you'll need and screw them in place as shown.  If you elect to build a three string dulcimer, you only have to install three tuning pegs.  I prefer the doubled melody string with two single drones.

Step 4
This dulcimer has an extended carved headstock
Measure 1 ½ inches form the heel of the fingerboard. Measure 4 more inches. Use the band saw to cut a shallow 3/8 inch deep dip in the fretboard for a strumming hole.

Step 5
Cut two bridges from hardwood. The one for the heel should be 1 ½ inches wide, 1 ¼ inches tall by ¼ inches thick. The second is 1/8 inch thick by 1 ½ inch by ¼ inch tall.

This is an alternate short fretboard with a gap for strumming
 Step 6
Glue the fretboard to the top of the box in the center so that the heel end is 1 ¼ inches from the heel of the box. You will have to calculate where to glue the bridge before you mark and set it.  The fret calculator link in step 9 should help you figure out how far apart to place the bridge at the lower end.  The nut as the bridge-like structure at the top of the fretboard by the tuner machine heads is properly called is glued to the top of the fretboard and the frets are calculated from the nut (step 9). When the bridge has set (24 hours) glue the heel bridge into place at the end of the box. When that sets, glue the 1 ¼ inch by 2 5/8 inch by 3/8 inch hardwood square to the heel of the fretboard over the bridge and end of the box to create a heel plate for attaching the string holder screws. Cut a 1/8 inch wide groove 1/8 inch deep into the bridge below the headstock where the fingerboard begins to taper toward the end. Glue the second bridge into the groove and let it set.

Step 7
Drill two 1/16 inch holes ¼ inch in diagonally each of the top corner so of the hardwood heel plate. Drill two more pilot holes ½ inch diagonally toward the center from the lower corners of the heel plate. Screw the four small screws into the 4 holes with enough of the heads protruding to wrap a string loop around.

Step 8
Stain and varnish the box end of the instrument and peg head and allow finish to cure and set. Drill four holes in the head stock the size called for in the instructions for setting the guitar tuner pegs. Set the pegs with the keys down and the wire holes sticking up.

Step 9
Calculate the spacing of the frets. You can use an on-line fret calculator or buy a fret spacing guide from several different sources. To determine where to mark the spaces for the frets on the fretboard, measure from the top bridge down the fretboard toward the heel. Cut a groove just narrower than the width of the paper clip wire you are using along each fret mark. Straighten the paper clip wire and tap the wires into the fret grooves, so that the top of the wire extends slightly above the fretboard where each fret was marked. Clip off and file smooth the ends of the fret wires. You can also buy fret wire from a musical supply store to use instead of paper clips.

Step 10
Cut a set of shallow grooves in the top of the bridges. Measure the spacing with the dulcimer peg head to your left if you are right handed or vice versa if you are left. Mark the first groove at ¼ inch, the second at 3/8 inches. This will pair the first or melody string. The middle drone string groove should be marked at ¾ inch and the bass drone string at 1/1/4 inch from the bottom of the bridge.

Step 11
Loop the strings over the screws on the heel of the fretboard. Run the strings through the grooves on the bridges and affix them to the tuning pegs. Tighten and tune the strings to the tuning you’ve chosen to play. There are many different tunings. Standard D tuning for the Dulcimer is: 1st String (bass) D, 2nd String (middle) A, 3rd String and 4th String (melody strings) A.

This type of dulcimer is also called a "church" dulcimer. If you'd rather buy one, check out the Mountain Made Music Website where they have a pretty little church dulcimer for about $250.  You can also buy kits and printed plans for various types of dulcimers.  I borrowed pics from several box dulcimer makers to show what one looks like. As soon as I've built my dulcimer, I'll put step by step construction pictures on here.


Mountain Made Dulcimer

Osborne A Telier: Building a Mountain Dulcimer

Folkcraft Instruments: Mountain Dulcimer Building Supplies - Plans And Instructions

Quazen: How to Make a Dulcimer

Howdy Ya Dewit: How to Tell if A Piece of Wood Will Make a Good Musical Instrument

Doug Sparling: Fret Calculator



  1. I really want to build one of these, I bookmarked your page, as well as all the links. Big thanks for the Fret calculator as well. Did you complete yours ?

  2. Creative idea. I want to build this Box Dulcimer.

  3. Love your description, specifically looked it up again to get some dimensions. Particularly wonder how the wood for the box is 23" long, the fretboard is 28" long, and the box is longer. Or did I miss it somewhere?

  4. You're right, that's confusing. The picture shows a dulcimer with an abbreviated fretboard. The design is for one with five extra inches for a headstock that extends beyond the box. I added a picture and some clarification. I like the extended headstock so you can use banjo or guitar tuners instead of friction pegs. I also added hyperlinks to places you can get things mentioned in the article. Good luck with your project.
    - Tom

  5. Your dulcimer appears to be 23" long. What is the VSL?

  6. I personally like the abbreviated fret board. So the box is 23"x6". Looks wider than that.

  7. The VSL is measured from the nut to the bridge. The vibrating string length rather depends on where you actually put the bridge and nut. That's part of the construction process and depends rather on what bridge and nut assembly you use. It can be 22 inches, 23 inches or somewhere between. Simply enter the VSL in the fret calculator and it will adjust your fret measurements accordingly. With the one I've linked to above, you can play around with the VSL till you get measurements you like and then set your bridge and nut. Remember that because dulcimers are not chromatic, they don't have every fret. The fret calculator tells you which ones to skip.

  8. The pictures are of wider box dulcimers. Six inches is adequate for this project. If you want a throatier sound, by all means make it wider. Put your own stamp on it. That's why you go to the trouble of making your own instruments. One of the most interesting homemade instruments I ever saw was made from a banjo neck and a bedpan. On this banjo, the pot was really a "pot".

  9. I'm interested in making one of these instuments and am currently drawing a plan using CAD. I can't quite work out step 5:

    Step 5
    Cut two bridges from hardwood. The one for the heel should be 1 ½ inches wide, 1 ¼ inches tall by ¼ inches thick. The second is 1/8 inch thick by 1 ½ inch by ¼ inch tall.

    Where exactly does this bridge fit? The photographs all seem to be of differently constructed instruments to the one described in the instructions.


  10. See my comment above about the VSL calculation. It allows you to play around with the distances from the nut to the bridge and adjusts the frets accordingly via the calculator. You can simply put the bridge where you want it and then set the fret spacing accordingly using the calculator. This will change the spacing of the frets. If you prefer a more standard fret spacing, just measure another dulcimer and copy it's string length. The fret calculator will lay out fret spacing to match.

    Sorry about the confusion. I showed a full and partial length fretboard. You can do it either way. If you use a partial lenght fretboard, you can cut a sound hole under where you strike the string and get a more guitar-like sound from the strings, especially if you build a larger sound box for it.

    Send pictures or drawings if you would. I'd love to post them here. - Tom