I went through Gold Tone in buying mine. I think if they spent a bit more time on fixing their design they would have a great instrument but it seems to be a hit & miss still.
For whatever reason (time, money, ego issues, whatever), I think you're correct that consistency just isn't there. I know that my supplier does not have the instruments shipped to him; he personally goes to the factory and hand selects the ones that he will take home and work on and get ready to sell. I guess they need to have someone like him on staff--someone who knows how a dulcimer player, who buys this, is going to want it set up. As far as looks go, they sell themselves. And if you just strum it a few times you may think WOW, this is for me! I know not everyone can sit and play an instrument for several hours (I played this one throughout the entire vendor set up hours at DulcimerU), but take as much time as you can to decide if an instrument is really for you when buying at a show or a store. Of course if the instrument changes considerably after you've brought it home....ACK! No one seems to have the answer for everyone about how--or whether--to display or store dulcimers...I think it depends on the humidity and temperature changes at each location. That being said, I have some I always store in cases and some I never put in a case!
Jan Potts, Lexington, KY
"Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." Henry Van Dyke