Cardboard Dulcimer Recommendations

LisavB
LisavB
@lisavb
last year
58 posts

My first dulcimer was a Backyard Music cardboard kit.  The fretboard (mercifully) already had the frets on, and it was easy to assemble.  The tone was shockingly good.  It's a nice little dulcimer, although it led to other things--a walnut kit from Cedar Creek (fretboard was pre-slotted, and I did not do a great job on putting on the frets, TBH), then my McSpadden, which is the only dulcimer I play now.  And that cardboard dulcimer led to first a steel string acoustic, then a Stratocaster, then a nylon/classical acoustic, and now 3 Native Flutes from Highspirits.  

That cardboard dulcimer was expensive, LOL.  But yes, they make a nice kit, the frets are very well done, and it sounds amazing.  They offer with and without a 6+, I didn't know enough to go ahead and get that and regretted that pretty fast.  I knew nothing about dulcimers at the time, bought it more as an art kit that I could maybe play sometimes. 

Dwain Wilder
Dwain Wilder
@dwain-wilder
last year
61 posts

Kay Bolin:

…Several of us are interested in playing different dulcimers and are looking into purchasing inexpensive cardboard dulcimers to try out chromatic, or 4 equal distant, or baritone tuned dulcimers.….

What are your recommendations? Ideas?

I forgot to respond to your note in the matter of baritone dulcimers. Any dulcimer can be strung for baritone tuning.

You can outfit any dulcimer for baritone playing. The matter of getting the right strings to do that is easy to do. The effects of the baritone strings, especially the bass strings, might take a bit more work.

First you have to find the tension at which the current strings are operating at when tuned to pitch. Knowing that, it is possible to choose strings which are that same (or similar) tension when tuned to your desired baritone pitch. I  have an Excel spreadsheet for doing that.

Let me know if you'd like me to run it for your dulcimer. I'll need:

  • Your scale length (measure from the nut to the 7th diatonic fret - the octave) and double that for the true scale length, don't measure from nut to saddle (it is probably set back a bit for intonation and compensation —more on that below).
  • The size and tuned pitch of each of your current strings,
  • The pitch you want to tune to in baritone mode (that's usually a fourth down from the conventional tuning you use). For instance a dulcimer in DDAd might be tuned for baritone in AAea.

If the action of your dulcimer is low, the results will be more satisfying, as the intonation and compensation may not change. But you may find the bass string buzzing on some frets, as the vibrational excursion (how much the string travels up and down) may be greater. (Plucking and picking it from side to side rather than pulling up on strings will improve that, though).

If your dulcimer has a floating saddle (not set in a groove), you can re-adjust it to proper intonation (the saddle set-back needed to compensate for the increased pitch caused by fretting the strings) and compensation (the saddle slant needed  to compensate for the difference in plain strings, and wound strings, of different diameters). If your dulcimer's saddle is set in a slot it will need attention from a dulcimer builder (Don't send a dulcimer in good condition to a guitar repair shop for such work unless you now the repair folks understand an respect the instrument. So many mountain dulcimers have been ruined by misbegotten notions of guitar repair people).

And the action can be adjusted by putting a thin shim under the saddle (a business card is good, but a stiff shim of wood or plastic is better). Let me know if you need help on how adjust the action for best playing and how to adjust the intonation. Instructions are also available at my website, under the menu item Dulcimer Building>Setup>. From there, look for the sub-items "Setting action" and "Intonation."

These matters all sounds complex if you've never dived into your dulcimer that far, but the problems and methods for dealing with them are easily explained. Most (probably all) of the builders here can explain them further.

Dusty Turtle
Dusty Turtle
@dusty
last year
1,732 posts

Ken Hulme: Dusty -- the strings are only attached to the fretboard not the body, so the body would not have stress on it from baritone tunings.

True.  Good point.  But that only displaces the question.  Folkcraft doesn't specify what wood the fretboard is made of, but I would guess poplar.  I am not sure it could hold up to heavy strings on a permanent basis.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
last year
2,126 posts

Dusty -- the strings are only attached to the fretboard not the body, so the body would not have stress on it from baritone tunings.

Dusty Turtle
Dusty Turtle
@dusty
last year
1,732 posts

Hi Kay. I hope you're doing well.

I was amazed when I played one of the Folkcraft cardboard dulcimers.  They don't have much volume, but the tone is much better than I expected.  I don't see it on the website now, but my memory is that Folkcraft used to have an option to buy them pre-assembled.  Even if they don't do that now, as @ken-hulme explains, the fretboard comes pre-slotted and the fretwire pre-cut, so it's pretty idiot-proof.  You wouldn't have to worry about intonation.

However, I am not sure the cardboard could handle the heavier gauges of baritone strings.  You would have to ask about that. And they only have three strings.

If you look at your current dulcimers, I bet the nuts and bridges have extra slots in them that would allow you to play 4-string equidistant.  You might not need a special purchase to try that out.




--
Dusty T., Northern California
Site Moderator

As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
Kay Bolin
Kay Bolin
@kay-bolin
last year
5 posts

Thanks Ken Hume, Ken Longfield and Dwain Wilder for your responses. All helpful!

Ken Longfield
Ken Longfield
@ken-longfield
last year
1,097 posts

You might talk with Richard Ash at Folkcraft to see if he would make custom kits for you. Folkcraft does make a chromatic dulcimer kit, but all the kits are three stringed. So if you would want to experiment with 4 equidistant strings, he would need to provide different fret boards. Otherwise all your other requirements are possible with the two types of 3 string dulcimer kits from Folkcraft.

Ken

"The dulcimer sings a sweet song."

Dwain Wilder
Dwain Wilder
@dwain-wilder
last year
61 posts

As a follow-up on Ken's note, if you intend to cut slots for frets, talk to the maker of your kit about which fret-wire to use, as there is a wide variety. The kit-maker may be able to supply enough fret-wire for all the frets you'll need, for a fee.

Regarding installing frets, I agree with Ken's advice. Make sure the ends are the same width as the fretboard. If you cut them yourself to size, make sure the ends of the fret are rounded so their corners don't snag (and maybe cut) your fingertips as you play.

One additional trick I've developed for installing frets on an assembled dulcimer is to get the fret started with a few gentle taps. Then pick the dulcimer up, just clear of the workbench, by grasping the fretboard by the edges while finally tapping it home. That ensures that the rest of the dulcimer doesn't become a 'hammered dulcimer,' possibly causing cracks in the top.

Ken Hulme
Ken Hulme
@ken-hulme
last year
2,126 posts

All of the cardboard dulcimers  I've seen have very precise fret spacing.  With Folkcraft kits you don't have to cut the fret slots yourself (the critical part), just tap the included frets into place the pre-cut slots.   

None of the cardboard dulcimers are available with chromatic frets, you would have to calculate, mark, slot and install the extra frets yourself.  To make a 4 equidistant string dulcimer all you need is a jewelers small triangular file and file a shallow Vs at equidistant marks on the existing nut and bridge.  Baritone dulcimers are all about buying the right strings and tuning correctly to a baritone tuning; nothing else.

Kay Bolin
Kay Bolin
@kay-bolin
last year
5 posts

We are a group of 8 seniors playing dulcimers together. Several of us are interested in playing different dulcimers and are looking into purchasing inexpensive cardboard dulcimers to try out chromatic, or 4 equal distant, or baritone tuned dulcimers. I see several makers of cardboard dulcimers, Folkcraft, Backyard Music, Fireside Harps (are they still in business? I'm only seeing on Etsy), and Mountain Dulcimers for Children.

I'm not crazy about the idea of having to cut and install the frets ourselves as it seems Folkcraft kits require, but I'm interested in all your ideas and comparisons. Personally I care a lot about intonation, so want frets to be accurately distanced.

What are your recommendations? Ideas?