I have ebony on my Aeolus dulcimers, and I agree it makes a superior fretboard. But then again, Dale has a large amount of high quality ebony that he has been aging and storing properly for a great many years. I'm not so sure about the ebony that is currently on the market. It's becoming threatened due to unsustainable harvesting practices.
What are the advantages (or disadvantages) of an ebony fretboard overlay?
I have a rosewood overlay on one of my dulcimers. My son has a wenge overlay on his. Both are nice, but I think ebony is best the fret board material. I have it on one of my guitars and two banjos. I just like the feel and speed of an ebony fret board. I have walnut fret boards on my other dulcimers and have not problem with them. I do not use Fast Fret on any of my instruments, do not treat the fret boards often or regularly, nor clean them often or regularly. My rosewood fret board is oiled from the oil in my fingers. All the other fret boards are oiled the same way. I have fret boards finished with violin varnish, lacquer and no finish at all. I never noticed any appreciable difference in sound quality or volume from different fret board construction. Ken Hulme likes Titebond. I like Elmer's Carpenters' Wood Glue. Their formulations are similar I think.
"The dulcimer sings a sweet song.'
Here are a few of the downsides to ebony fretboards.
It is brittle and can be hard to work with. It is prone to chipping if you ever have to re-fret. It is prone to cracking over time. The best trees are gone and the quality is not what it used to be. The good stuff today is likely to be unethically obtained at best or even illegally logged so a lot of what's sold as ebony now is actually other spieces not quite as black or hard. It doesn't take staple frets easily - it must be pre-drilled and the leg spacing and angle on the drilled holes perfect or the frets will not bed properly. It is expensive.
I think ebony is the best fret board material although none of my dulcimers have ebony fret boards. I have one dulcimer with an unfinished rosewood fret board. All the others are walnut fret boards with different finishes from violin varnish to lacquer.
Since the action of the fingers/ noter/strings will wear away any finish used on a fret board, violin makers adopted ebony for finger board use centuries ago. It's hardness allowed it to resist wear, and the natural oily quality made ebony difficult to varnish. These natural oils made a finish unnecessary on the finger boards. Ebony is still the preferred finger board wood for violin makers. Guitar builders use a lot of rosewood as well, because it's cheaper and in much better supply, but most high end guitars use ebony.
I would agree that ebony makes iteasier to slide fingersaround and therefore encourages faster fingering. But the hardness of the wood also makes it much more resistant to pick marks. If, like me,you often strum over the fretboard rather than in the strum hollow, and if, like me, you occasionally do so with a little too much exuberance, then you sometimes leave pick marks on the corners of the fretboard. Ebony resists those marks due to the hardness of the wood.
I had a dulcimer with a padauk overlay that was fast, but not as fast as ebony.
I do not believe having a fretboard overlay would affect sound in any way.
Dusty T., Northern California
As a musician, you have to keep one foot back in the past and one foot forward into the future.
-- Dizzy Gillespie
I like Ebony or Wenge, I've had great success using Beech as well.
I use just a very light application of lemon oil to clean off the crud and moisturise the wood.
Beware very glassy finishes on fretboards, they are quite contradictory and not as fast as you may think if you have even the slightest trace of moisture on your fingers.
First, hardly anyone ever varnishes/lacquers the tiop of the fretboard. Too prone to quickly being worn away and looking nasty. Oiled fretboards are very common. So is an ebony overlay. The advantage of ebony (virtually zero disadvantages) i that that wood is so much harder and finer pored, and thus, when sanded/polished fine, it is much faster when you're sliding fingers or noters up and down. Faster even than a freshly oiled non ebony fretboard polished fine. Few woods are harder - Snakewood and Lignum Vitae come to mind - but they're even more expensive than ebony...
Appearance preferences aside, I am curious how an ebony fretboard overlay affects the playing ease and/or acoustical qualities of a dulcimer compared with having a walnut (or other typical hardwood) fretboard with a lacquered finish, or a walnut fretboard with an oiled finish (currently I only have experience playing the latter two types).
Assuming the surface is kept clean and the strings periodically slicked up with Fast Fret (etc.), does ebony add any speed or ease of moving between frets? Does having that second, thin layer of wood glued atop the fretboard have any effect on sound quality or volume, compared with a fretboard that is one single piece of wood?
I'm hoping someone with experience playing all three (ebony, vs. lacquered, vs. oiled) might have some thoughts to share. Many thanks!
updated by @larry-edward-smith: 04/12/18 06:52:19PM