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  • Mountain Dulcimer - Lowering the Action

    Hope this is okay to post in here - couldn't find a dulcimer forum!

    I recently acquired a mountain dulcimer and am quite enjoying playing it. I'm finding it surprisingly easy to play except that I'm sure the action on mine should be a fair bit lower. I have searched for advice on how to achieve this but am not finding anything too helpful.

    Can anyone here offer advice on this? Is it as simple as sanding the bottom of the nut and saddle? How do I ensure that I keep the edge level?

    Also, I have seen frequent references to the desired action height measured in 'nickels' and 'dimes'. As I'm in the UK, this doesn't help much!

    Thanks.

  • #2
    Here is the best of all the sites for mountain dulcimers:
    http://www.everythingdulcimer.com/discuss/index.php
    These people are very helpful
    Bob
    <div class="signaturecontainer">Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind. -- Dr. Seuss<br />
    -------------------------------<br />
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    HCAG Civil Posters Society #10<br />
    My Music: <a href="http://www.reverbnation.com/bobstarr" target="_blank">http://www.reverbnation.com/bobstarr</a></div>

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    • #3
      Those things are pretty cool.I've considered trying my hand at them myself but first I have to unload some other gear.Good luck with it!

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      • #4
        I've thought about getting a mountain dulcimer several times. I've got a sister and a niece who both play one. The niece is pretty good......the sister, not so much. I think in the hands of a proficient player, a lot of good music can be made with a dulcimer, but most of the stuff I've seen on You Tube is pretty lame stuff. The trick is learning how to play chord melodies using your fingers instead of using a noter. When I see someone using a "stick" to play a dulcimer it just doesn't do much for me.
        <div class="signaturecontainer"><font size="1"><br><br>Three Dreads......2 Martins and 1 Yamaha<br><br>A fiddle, a mando, a uke, eight harmonicas, a Zoom H2, a Panasonic recorder, coupla penny whistles, an Italian made Titano accordion, three handguns, at least a dozen chess sets, more power tools than Bob Vila, and one old Westclox &quot;Big Ben&quot; wind-up alarm clock that still works! Oh, BTW, I forgot to mention my ocarina and maracas.</font></div>

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        • #5
          I built a mountain dulcimer as my very first build and have noodled around with it off and on with both fingers and a noter. As far as lowering the action, as long as you have removable saddle and nut I see no problem sanding the bottom just like you do with a guitar saddle. Here is the dulcimer



          and a woman from the Seattle area who is a truely wonderful player and instructor

          http://heidimuller.com/

          When I get home tonight I'll mic a nickel and a dime so you know how thick they are. Would you like that in angstroms, furlongs, micrometers or knots?

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          • #6
            Thanks for all the replies.

            Freeman, I've never sanded a guitar saddle before so I'm a bit nervous about doing it on the dulcimer. Is there any special technique I should be aware of? All I intend doing is rubbing the bottom of it with some sandpaper! I'll obviously be careful about not taking it down too much but I'm especially concerned about not keeping it level, perhaps resulting in a nut/saddle that rocks. In a bad way I mean.

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            • #7
              Thanks for all the replies.

              Freeman, I've never sanded a guitar saddle before so I'm a bit nervous about doing it on the dulcimer. Is there any special technique I should be aware of? All I intend doing is rubbing the bottom of it with some sandpaper! I'll obviously be careful about not taking it down too much but I'm especially concerned about not keeping it level, perhaps resulting in a nut/saddle that rocks. In a bad way I mean.


              Assuming that your saddle drops into a slot like a guitar, you should be able to pull it out pretty easily (if you have to use pliers be very careful). A dulcimer saddle will be slotted on top - don't mess with that. What I do for a guitar is put a piece of 220 grit (medium fine) sandpaper on a flat surface with a block of wood or metal on it. Make a mark on the saddle with a pencil on how much you want to take off, place the saddle against the block and simply sand HALF way to the line (it is easier to take more off than to put it back). Put it back in and try it, the go half way to the line again until you are happy. The line will ensure that you are going evenly from one side to the other, the block ensures that you are at right angles.

              As I recall my dulcimer, you want pretty much the same string height all along the fretboard (I'll measure mine tonight) - therefore you should do the same thing at the nut. Commonly nuts are glued in with just a spot of glue - you might have to give it a light tap with a hammer to loosen it (maybe from the side).

              I'll look at mine tonight - I do know that it plays pretty well. I'll also take a look at a couple of lutherie forums that I frequent and see if there is any setup information.

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              • #8
                Don't know if any of this will help, but here are some discussion from the Musical Instrumenet Makers Forum (MIMF)

                http://www.mimf.com/library/mtdulcimer_design.htm

                http://www.mimf.com/library/dulcimer_strings.htm

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                • #9
                  OK, my home made dulcimer which I built in the early 80's has right at 0..100" (2.60 mm) at the first fret and 1.25" (3.20 mm) at the 14th (last) fret. I don't know if this is right or wrong, but I am able to play both with a noter and by fretting with my fingers. Mine has glued in wooden nut - to lower at that end I would have to file the slots deeper. The saddle on mine is wood and just sits on a flat piece - you can move it back and forth to set the intonation. It has slots cut in it to set the spacing, but could be lowered by sanding the bottom. I don't know how "normal" this is, it was a cheap kit that I built many years ago.

                  An American dime is 0.046" (1.22 mm) thick, a nickel is 0.070" (1.78 mm), a penny is very close to the dime. Hope that helps.

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                  • #10
                    Thanks Freeman, that is really helpful advice.

                    I will maybe try this tonight and will let you know how I get on.

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                    • #11
                      FK Where did you get the plans for the build?

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                      • #12
                        FK Where did you get the plans for the build?


                        Whoa, it was like, 1980 or so when I built it, a lot of memory cells have been fried since then. All I remember is that it was a kit - rather nice mahogany, sides were prebent but I had to shape the scroll head, miter the fretboard, etc. Probably very similar to this one

                        http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Kits/Dulcimer_Kits/Dulcimer_Kit.html?tab=Details#details

                        If you go to the instruction tab you can download a pdf of the instructions. I also think that MIMF had some plans, but right now their plan center is shut down, and it wouldn't surprise me if GAL did also.

                        If you are really interested in just plans (not a kit) I can make some inquiries at the lutherie forums.

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                        • #13
                          Okay, things didn't go too well!

                          The saddle must have been glued in so I tried gently pulling it out with pliers, only for the saddle to break in half. That was when I realised it is wood and not plastic! The result is that it is now lower than before but there are no longer any slots on the top which is a bit rough. I tightened the strings and so far it seems to play okay but I'm sure it's not good to leave it like that.

                          My next question is should I buy a new saddle? I presume they can be cut to size (?) but how would you get the slots in them and at the right spacing?

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                          • #14
                            As they say, poop. I know this is water under the bridge, but if you go back a few posts I said the saddle should pull out easily. I also commented that my nut was glued in and would have to have the slots filed deeper.

                            OK, so if its wood and a clean break, glue it back together. Use an AR type glue (yellow, Titebond), make a little clamping caul to hold it in place and in alignment, apply light clamping pressure and you should be good. It should be also possible to glue it back with CA and finger pressure.

                            Replacing it will be a b***h - you will need to get the old one out and make a new one just like it. I seriously doubt that you can buy one unless this is a production instrument and you can contact the manufacture. For string spacing, use the old one as a guide, find some plans, ask at the dulcimer forum that Starrshine linked or ask me to measure mine. Remember too that dulcimers can be strung with three or four strings. I also looked at the StewMac kit - it looks like they provide identical bridge and nut and say not to glue them in. They might sell you just a saddle, but there is no way of knowing if it would fit.

                            So once you get it glued back on, the only way to lower the action is to file the slots deeper. This is more or less irreversible - its pretty hard to make them higher. I happen to have a set of gauged nut files that makes the slots the right size for the string but when I built mine it looks like I probably used a jeweler's triangular file.

                            Probably a good lesson that (1) we really need to think these things thru before we start, and (2) getting an opinion from someone on the internet who cant see your instrument might be a bad idea.

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                            • #15
                              FK Thanks!I'm in no rush so I'll look into both plans and kits myself.

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