Choice of Wood: Pertinent or Purism?

Lisa Golladay
Lisa Golladay
@lisa-golladay
2 weeks ago
103 posts

If we all had the same hearing, the same playing skills, the same music repertoire, and identical artistic taste, then we could come to a joint conclusion about how much the tone woods matter.  We could even declare, once and for all, which combination of woods makes the "best" dulcimer.  While we're at it, we could pick the single best luthier and let everybody else build furniture.

The chances of this happening are, thank goodness, exactly zero.

Let's enjoy the wide variety of sounds and instruments available to us, and realize that what I'm hearing is not necessarily what you're hearing.

NateBuildsToys
NateBuildsToys
@natebuildstoys
2 weeks ago
48 posts

Skip:


A random thought occurred to me, how's your hearing? Hearing aids or not? Audio preferences? I quit messing with penny whistles and harmonicas because their sound is unpleasant to my wife's ears, too shrills. I have poor hearing so almost all MD's sound very similar to me, no nuances. And there's always the 'ego' factor.whistle




This is a pretty good point honestly. I am hard at hearing and was told over 10 years ago I should get hearing aids but have not yet.I  hadnt really thought about how much this might  alter my tone perception. Mostly I just have a hard time discerning noise thats on the quiet side, so I guess maybe some subtle overtones are lost on my ear.

CJ
CJ
@cj-smith
2 weeks ago
4 posts

Thank you to Skip, Randy, and Ken for that information. I have made my choice now. I appreciate the input.

Skip
Skip
@skip
2 weeks ago
261 posts

A random thought occurred to me, how's your hearing? Hearing aids or not? Audio preferences? I quit messing with penny whistles and harmonicas because their sound is unpleasant to my wife's ears, too shrills. I have poor hearing so almost all MD's sound very similar to me, no nuances. And there's always the 'ego' factor.whistle

Randy Adams
Randy Adams
@randy-adams
2 weeks ago
88 posts
Every good cook who cooks or smokes food over a wood fire adds their own rub/marinade/etc to create a flavor profile they enjoy.
The type of wood used is understood by most all that each species imparts a unique flavor.
Likewise musical instrument builders each have their own 'tricks of the trade' to create a preferred sound profile.
And the type of wood used is understood by most all that each species imparts a unique tone.
Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
2 weeks ago
1,738 posts

@cj-smith asked "Given the same craftmanship (2 dulcimers built by the same quality builder), what do you hear is the difference in particular woods."

A competent luthier can "tune" a dulcimer to create whatever "sound" you want to hear.  There are at least a hundred variables which affect the sound of a dulcimer, and wood type is pretty darn far down the list.  

Talk to the luthier and tell him what sound you are looking for.  Ask him to play the three you are considering over the phone for you.   Buy the one that sounds the best to you.  Or buy the one you consider the prettiest. 

CJ
CJ
@cj-smith
2 weeks ago
4 posts

Wally Venable:

Look at the violin world. The majority of violins are copied from a very few models, and most use the same few woods. Despite that, there is a difference between a $40 one and a $10,000 one.

My guess is that the Chinese factories sort bodies at each step of production, routing the best to their best finishers, with all starting from the same wood and basic pattern cut and carving. Actual testing and sorting is the key.

To get the best FOR YOU from any builder, you should visit the shop and try individual instruments.

Yes, I agree about the difference between prices. I'm not buying a machine built dulcimer. This is a well know builder in the dulcimer world I believe. Of course, I know the best would be to visit in person, but we are not prepared, due to the virus. at this time to make a trip. Wish I could and I certainly agree that would be better. Perhaps I should be waiting but I really want to get one with a 1 1/2 fret and since I can't travel, I'm choosing the same builder as one of my other dulcimers. Thanks for you help.

CJ
CJ
@cj-smith
2 weeks ago
4 posts

NateBuildsToys:

CJ:

Given the same craftmanship, what do you hear is the difference in particular woods. Of the three I'm considering one has a poplar body with a paulownia top. The 2nd ones has a figured walnut body with a spruce top. The 3rd has a cherry body with a California redwood top. 

 

I am assuming you mean multiple dulcimers from the same plans that are the same size and shape by the same builder. This would imply that if the same builder made two identical dulcimers from the same plans and same wood they would sound identical, yet most luthiers seem to agree that is not the case.

Even then, the sound could be  affected by thickness of wood, how long the wood has settled for, presence of knots, etc.

 

Thank you for that information.

Wally Venable
Wally Venable
@wally-venable
2 weeks ago
6 posts

Look at the violin world. The majority of violins are copied from a very few models, and most use the same few woods. Despite that, there is a difference between a $40 one and a $10,000 one.

My guess is that the Chinese factories sort bodies at each step of production, routing the best to their best finishers, with all starting from the same wood and basic pattern cut and carving. Actual testing and sorting is the key.

To get the best FOR YOU from any builder, you should visit the shop and try individual instruments.

NateBuildsToys
NateBuildsToys
@natebuildstoys
2 weeks ago
48 posts

CJ:

Given the same craftmanship, what do you hear is the difference in particular woods. Of the three I'm considering one has a poplar body with a paulownia top. The 2nd ones has a figured walnut body with a spruce top. The 3rd has a cherry body with a California redwood top. 

 

I am assuming you mean multiple dulcimers from the same plans that are the same size and shape by the same builder. This would imply that if the same builder made two identical dulcimers from the same plans and same wood they would sound identical, yet most luthiers seem to agree that is not the case.

Even then, the sound could be  affected by thickness of wood, how long the wood has settled for, presence of knots, etc.

CJ
CJ
@cj-smith
2 weeks ago
4 posts

Given the same craftmanship (2 dulcimers built by the same quality builder), what do you hear is the difference in particular woods. Of the three I'm considering one has a poplar body with a paulownia top. The 2nd ones has a figured walnut body with a spruce top. The 3rd has a cherry body with a California redwood top. I already own one by this builder that I like so I totally trust the craftmanship. 

Wally Venable
Wally Venable
@wally-venable
3 weeks ago
6 posts

Also note that many dulcimers are sold in craft shops (not music stores) to and by people who do not play them. Exotic woods, fancy grains, etc. can play an important role in that process.

NateBuildsToys
NateBuildsToys
@natebuildstoys
3 weeks ago
48 posts

Skip:


Keep in mind being a 'luthier' can be a hobby or a business.  If a hobby, the luthier can do what (s)he wants and can afford, In business, money and customer satisfaction is king.




That's a great summary dulcimer




Skip
Skip
@skip
3 weeks ago
261 posts

Keep in mind being a 'luthier' can be a hobby or a business.  If a hobby, the luthier can do what (s)he wants and can afford, In business, money and customer satisfaction is king.

Ken Longfield
Ken Longfield
@ken-longfield
3 weeks ago
653 posts

People tend to forget that for a good long time McSpadden dulcimers were made from laminated wood. It was used primarily in the back and sides. The reason the David Schnaufer model was discontinued is that the laminated cherry wood that he specified for the back and sides was no longer available. An advantage of laminated wood is that it is more stable than solid wood. A disadvantage is that it can be heavier than the same amount of solid wood depending upon variations in thickness.

I sometimes build a dulcimer with a spruce or cedar top, not for reasons of sound, but because I like the contrast in the woods; a light top and and a dark bottom.

Over the years I've made some very nice sounding instruments for low quality wood and some real clunkers from very nice wood. 

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

Matt Berg
Matt Berg
@matt-berg
3 weeks ago
65 posts

Let me second what Ken said.  Building any musical instrument is the product of hundreds of little decisions made by luthier as the instrument is constructed.  An experienced builder makes many of these decision almost subconsciously. Many builders also understand that the buyer needs something to justify whatever price they paid, expensive wood = expensive instrument = quality instrument?

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
3 weeks ago
1,738 posts

1.  Yes -- as far as we can hear, the prejudice against plywood is that it is "dirt cheap" and therefore not good.  FALSE

2.  Spruce/redwood for dulcimer tops, IMHO is not worth the expense.  In guitars, yes.  But dulcimers do not create sound the same way, and the "good" that spruce does in a guitar is negated in a dulcimer because the top is so small and further, is muted by the fretboad.

3.  Body wood choice is just one of close to a hundred factors which affect the sound of a dulcimer and is overshadowed by the other 99 factors.

Again, IMHO, dulcimer buyers have been sold "a bill of goods"  about the importance of exotic, expensive, sexy-looking woods in making dulcimers.  As you said, extremely common woods like poplar make absolutely beautiful sounding instruments.

You asked "Is it a matter of the best luthiers choosing the woods that make the subtly best differences, thereby choice of wood could imply a level of craftsmanship?"   

My answer is NO.  Almost no dulcimer builders have done any reliable, repeatable quantitatively measured experiments to prove "beyond a shadow of doubt" that any woods make any subtle or not so subtle differences in dulcimer sound. 

They would like you to think that because they use sexy, expensive woods that that implies "a certain high level of craftsmanship".  But it does not.  A high level of craftsmanship is found only in those dulcimer builders who can make any woods, or even materials like cardboard or Legos sound good.

[donning asbestos suit to weather incipient firestorm]

NateBuildsToys
NateBuildsToys
@natebuildstoys
3 weeks ago
48 posts

In guitar communities, cigar box guitar forums I participate in, as well as dulcimer forums there seems to be a lot of status attached to some types of wood, for example koa or basswood, in California it's redwood, or in Arkansas, pignut hickory.

I started off using craftboard for my dulcimers when i was first beginning to learn. Due to the reliable access I switched to red oak, and noticed right away the sound was consistently much brighter and twangier. Eventually I built the one in my profile picture which has a soundboard made from softwood teaboxes coated in poly for some extra durability. I got a couple of huge pieces of 1/8th inch plywood which i have built several dulcimers out of. They all sounded great.

This begs the question, how much does any of it really matter? Since joining a local dulcimer group several people have asked me after hearing my instrument what type of wood it is, only to be totally shocked when I say plywood with veneer. It seems that they have an expectation that plywood should not be able to sound good, but where does this idea come from? Is it just the knowledge that plywood is dirtcheap that makes them assume it should "sound cheap?"

Is it a matter of the best luthiers choosing the woods that make the subtly best differences, thereby choice of wood could imply a level of craftsmanship?

Maybe my ears are too unrefined to be able to tell the difference but others can?

I'm sure there will be opinions all over the place, given that some woods seem to be EXTREMELY common, whereas National champ Grant Olson played for so long (maybe still does) on a styrofoam dulcimer, so I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts.

Cheers!
-Nate