Being a folk instrument, there really aren't a lot of rules when it comes to making a mountain dulcimer. Unlike the violin or guitar, both of which have evolved over the last three or four centuries to embrace traditional features in size, shape, and construction, mountain dulcimers offer the luthier a lot of opportunities for self-expression.

One area where builders can really express themselves is in the peghead. The most elaborate of these begin with a simple shape, and then are elaborately carved with animal heads, pine cones, and even replicas of ship mastheads.

We won't go quite that crazy. Instead, I'm going to focus on showing how to make a reasonably pretty peghead with a minimum of hassle.

Some builders carve their pegheads from a single piece of wood. That's fine, but it's very labor intensive. I prefer to make three-piece pegheads.

First, I cut off two pieces of my cherry, just a bit longer than the pattern from my peghead itself.

Then, I run those two pieces through my Delta bench planer. One piece is thinned to .450 inches. It will be used for the two outside pieces of the peghead. The other is thinned to .500 inches, and will become the middle part of the peghead.

I don't leave critical measurements like this to chance. Here you see me checking my thickness with a micrometer. It's a little hard to see, but this piece is .450 inches thick, on the nose!






















Here, I'm tracing the outline of the outside pieces of the peghead onto the work pieces. I had previously made these patterns out of quarter-inch thick birch plywood, using the plans as a guide.

As you can see, I make the two outer pieces as mirror images from the same piece of wood. The theory here is that, since we're using rift-sawn wood, by alternating the grain in the three pieces of the peghead, they will become one quarter-sawn piece.














On the half-inch thick work piece above the one on which I'm drawing, I'll trace the outline of the inner piece of the three-piece peghead. Notice that it's shaped differently than the outer pieces. Building the peghead this way saves a lot of carving time. Confusing? I'll show how it all comes together after a few more steps.











Now I cut the three pieces out using my favorite tool, my Jet 14-inch band saw. Because of all the intricate curves and small-radius circles in the piece, I had to install a narrower blade in the saw. I'll replace it with a thicker blade later to resaw the back and sides of the instrument.
Here, I've chucked a drum sander attachment in my drill press, and I'm sanding the inside of one of the outer pieces of the peghead smooth. I have to do this now, because if I wait until after glue-up, it will be a real PITA.

By the way, everything I've done so far can also be done with hand tools. You can thin the wood using a hand-plane, and you can cut out the pieces using a coping saw. This smoothing operation can be completed using files and sandpaper. I just use the power tools because I have them, and they save a lot of time.














Here are the three pieces of the peghead placed together to check before the gluing process. Now, perhaps, you can see how they all come together. The outer two pieces will hold the gear-drive tuning machines, and the strings will be wound on the tuning machine posts inside the middle section.

We're not quite ready to glue, yet, though. There's still one operation to complete.

The two forward horns of the outer pieces need to be chamfered and rounded before I can glue up the three-piece peghead. This is so that the strings don't get fouled on them while I'm trying to wind them on the tuner posts. It also looks little more refined when the instrument is completed. It's easier to do it now than it will be after the peghead is glued, so I change to a larger drum sander attachment in my drill press, and free-hand the shaping. It's stuff like this that allows the luthier to provide the instrument with those hand-made touches.
Now it's time for glue-up. No, this isn't the roller skate from hell. I've spread glue on both sides of the central section of the peghead, to avoid getting glue on the inside of the pegbox.

These violin clamps are perfect for applying the pressure for the glue to cure. I make these myself, from one-inch dowel rods and carriage bolts. They're typically used to glue backs and soundboards to instrument sides (as we'll see in a later step), but they're also great for spreading clamping pressure over a large area, such as when gluing up a multi-sectioned  part such as this peghead.

And here is the finished rough peghead, removed from the clamps. This may seem like a lot of steps, but I actually achieved all this in about an hour and a half, less glue-drying time. If you were making dulcimers for a living, you could probably make five or six of these in a day. The nice thing is that this is about the most convoluted procedure in making a dulcimer. The rest of it is pretty straightforward.

Of course, there's still a lot to do before this peghead is ready to become part of the larger instrument. Among other things, we have to do some sanding.

Lots and lots and lots of sanding.

Notice, by the way, that I've placed the glued peghead on a sheet of wax paper. This is a reminder of Helms' Fifth Law of Lutherie: "If you don't want your work piece to become a permanent part of your workbench, use the WP!


Here, I start the sanding and shaping on my four-inch belt sander, using an 80 grit belt. This is definitely not a process for the weak of heart. This tool can hog off some wood. It takes a steady hand and a deft touch to keep from gouging the piece, potentially ruining it.

I use the belt sander to gently chamfer all the sharp edges, and to begin to shape the scroll of the peghead.

I don't spend a lot of time at the belt sander. A little bit here goes a long way. For the rest of the process, I'll use hand tools.

Here are my peghead hand tools. At the left are four sizes of Marples chisels. I keep them incredibly sharp (luthiers and other woodworkers call it 'scary sharp', because it can be frightening just to look at the edge). A dull chisel is worthless, and can actually be much more dangerous than an incredibly sharp one.

At the far right is a cheese-grater rasp called a microplane, which is good for finer shaping. Finally, in the middle is a set of rifflers used for the finest level of shaping. When I'm done with these tools, I'll attack it with sandpaper to finish the peghead.


More Sanding
Did I mention sanding? If you don't like getting down and dirty with sandpaper, maybe woodworking isn't your thing!

By the way, when you look at the peghead in this picture (left), you can see the grain (annular rings) running straight up and down. This is an example of how you can laminate rift sawn wood to create a quartersawn workpiece. Quartersawn wood is more stable and resistant to stress than rift cut wood. It's a bit of a cheat, but it really works!

Okay, so construction of the peghead is done. This seems like a lot of steps, but in reality the entire peghead took about two and a half hours to complete, and I wasn't really rushing.

We're still not finished with it, though. Still have a couple of operations to complete.

First, I use a hardwood template to mark the peghead for a couple of machining procedures. This particular template is used to mark the peghead for the installation of tuning pegs, and to relieve the sides to accept the sides of the dulcimer body.
Here, I'm using the drill press to drill out the holes for the tuning machines. I have to do this in several steps, starting with relatively small drill bits, and working my up to the granddaddy you see here. This way I don't have a problem with tearout. Also, I have to be careful not to drill all the way through both sides of the pegbox, since I will only have two tuning machines on each side. So, I drill through one side, and then halfway through the opposite side. Later, the tuning machine will be supported on both sides, but I won't have unsightly open holes on each side of the pegbox.
In the picture on the left, you can see where I've marked the peghead for relieving it to fit in the sides of the dulcimer body. What I have to do is cut off a little wood on the peghead end, so that I get a good clean line at the intersection of the peghead and the body. Once this is marked, you could cut the relieve in the piece using chisels and a dovetail saw, and I've done it that way at times. In this case, however, I'm going to use the table saw.

I measure the thickness of the dulcimer sides (we'll see them in the next segment), and then I set the table saw blade to that height. BEING INCREDIBLY CAREFUL (because this tool can rip your hand to shreds), I run the peghead through the saw, back and forth, moving away gradually from the saw fence, until I have cut away the entire relief. Then I turn the piece over and do the same thing again to the other side.

Here's the result. I've removed just enough wood from the sides of the peghead tail to allow me to glue in the sides of the dulcimer body, and make one clean continuous line between the body and peghead. With the exception of drilling some tiny holes for positioning screws when I install the tuning machines, I'm now finished with the peghead.


The peghead is far and away the most complicated process to complete when building a dulcimer. The rest of the instrument is fairly straightforward. So, let's move on to building the body of the instrument!


Building The Body