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Picture of Appalachian Stick Dulcimer

I went searching for how to play the outro music for the Squidbillies cartoon on the banjo, and it turns out it isn't a banjo. There is a video of a guy playing the song on a Strumstick, and I had to have one after I saw it. It is like a banjo, only twangier, and easier to play.

I'm not really sure what these are called. I think Strumstick is a brand name for a stick dulcimer, and my buddy said it is called a Woodrow. The tuning pegs aren't really like a Strumstick, it doesn't have enough strings to be a Woodrow, and stick dulcimers look like mostly round bodies. But it sounds good and is fun to play.

What makes it Appalachian? I built it with hand planes my grandfather used to make a living in West Virginia almost 100 years ago. The fretboard is made from a piece of cursed Hickory from my property in North Carolina. It has strong ties to the Appalachian mountains, so I'm calling it Appalachian. Get yourself a jar of white liquor, and keep reading.

There are measured drawings attached in the last step.

I relied heavily on two other Instructables for building this:

Friger Strum Stick

Evan808 Strum-stick

Step 1: Tool and material selection

Picture of Tool and material selection
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The tale of my cursed Hickory log

Fretboards are traditionally Rosewood. But I wanted some real Appalachian hardwood. I started with a +1000 pound log of Hickory from a tree that was taken out when they cleared the lot for my cabin in NC. The log broke my skyline when I was winching it off the mountain onto the trailer, but my welds held up when it rolled down and crashed into my trailer. There are no guard rails up on a private road in the mountains, just loose gravel and steep drop-offs. As I towed the log down the mountain, all eight wheels started sliding. The trailer started catching up to Jeep, just as I was headed for a steep dropoff. To get out of the jackknife, I floored it, and pulled the trailer back straight as I dogged it around the turn. When they loaded the boards on the trailer at the sawmill, the Jeep wouldn't start. It broke down again in the middle of Kansas, 600 miles from home, but I fixed it and drove ten hours with transmission fluid in my hair. I got my 'free' wood back to Colorado to dry in the semi-arid climate, and started using it for projects. I've had wood from this log bang into me, drop on my fingers, and I had to go have my urine tested for blood after a big chunk flew back out of my table saw and left a dinner plate sized bruise on my gut. If you had said a tree could be cursed by evil wood spirits before all this happened, I would have laughed. I'm not laughing now, this log tried to kill me three of four different ways. I think the wood really could be cursed. But now that this instrument is finished, I think it makes a more genuine mountain sound.

Other, less cursed, materials

The neck and body sides are made from a 1-1/4" block of Ash. Ash is
hard enough to make baseball bats, but flexible enough to make shovel handles. This is going to need to be flexed, so even though the grain is a bit ugly for my taste, Ash is the material of choice. Check out the picture showing how far a 3/16" strip will flex.

The metal parts are brass. The round stock is 3/16", the other pieces can be cut from 1/4" x 3/8" flat bar.

The bridge is made from a Purpleheart pen turning blank.

Tools

I guess this could be made using a good rip saw, hand plane, spokeshave, rasps, and a bit and brace. But good luck with that. You really need at least a bandsaw.

Big equipment: bandsaw, jointer, dual-drum sander, table saw, drill press, milling machine, 12" miter saw, oscillating spindle sander, belt sander, 5hp dust collector, and a Husky vacuum.

Hand tools: spoke shave, hand planes, punch, small ball pein hammer, metric yard stick, combination square, marking knives, fret saw, diamond honing plate, round rasp, divider ground to blade edge, compass, tape measure, hobby knife, and a mechanical pencil.

Software: Fret Position Calculator on stewmac.com, search 'tuning a strumstick' for tuning videos, and search 'squidbillies outro' for inspirational music.

Store-bought Materials

Fret wire on Amazon

Tuning pegs on Amazon

Electronic Tuner on Amazon

Maple sound board at Woodcraft


RobertB592 years ago

This is an interesting project. I have decided to build it. When I went to get my materials, I didn't notice the mention of using maple at the end of the body. Can you use the piece left over when cutting the sides?

I decided to make my neck/body from hickory, the fret board and tail stock from walnut, the sound board and back from maple, and the nut and bridge from ebony.

I will post pictures when I complete the project.

jbrauer (author)  RobertB592 years ago

There isn't anything special about the chunk of maple I used for the bottom, I just had a piece in my scrap box that was big enough. You probably already know about not gluing wood grain at right angles to keep it from pulling apart with seasonal wood movement. But you could cut/glue that center piece cut-out into little wedge shaped blocks, and get a curved bottom piece while keeping the grain going the same direction.

woodie19492 years ago

What is the location and size of the sound hole?

Thanks

jbrauer (author)  woodie19492 years ago

It is a one-inch hole centered between the bottom edge of the fret board and the top of the tail piece.

woodie19492 years ago

Now I can read the Drawing.

Thanks!

woodie19492 years ago

Has anyone built this using the drawing?

Thanks

woodie19492 years ago

Is there any way to get better drawings? I can't see a lot of the dimensions?

I really want to make one.

Thanks

woodie19492 years ago

Is there any reason that you didn't use Tite Bond glue instead of hide glue?

Also is there any way to get clear drawings ? Can't see then to good when I print then out.

jbrauer (author)  woodie19492 years ago

I use PVA glue for other things, but for this project, I liked that hide glue is reversible and repairable. For sketches, try opening them as black and white, then adjust the contrast.

I tried that for the Sketches, doesn't work for me.
bhavik zure2 years ago

nice project sir, thanks for sharing.

tail piece is really awesome.

voted.

Nice work, reminds me of my Martin Backpacker guitar!
A couple of tips I've learned from luthiers: avoid flexible wood in the neck or it will easily go out of tune. You could add a truss rod, but your strings are probably light enough for it not to matter. Use hardwood for the backboard, and something light and strong like spruce for the soundboard to get better tone. Great job with the hickory!
jbrauer (author)  andrew.spencer.22 years ago

I actually intentionally used metal for the bridge, nut, and tailpiece, and a really hard soundboard to get a harsh twangy tone. I was thinking of doing a backpack guitar in the same style, and I would do catgut strings with a wooden/bone bridge and a spruce soundboard for something like that.

This is amazing! Great job.

woodie19492 years ago

Did you ever get the Zip file uploaded ( removed the mention of scans until I can get a .zip file uploaded).

woodie19492 years ago

What did you use for the Strings? Also I don't see the original scans of the Drawings?

Thanks

jbrauer (author)  woodie19492 years ago

I edited this to include the string sizes, and removed the mention of scans until I can get a .zip file uploaded. Thanks for the input.

For strings I used:

0.010"

0.014"

0.023" wound

Where did you get the Strings?

jbrauer (author)  woodie19492 years ago

They are guitar strings that I picked up at the local Guitar Center. If you search 'strum stick strings', they sell the three you need.

XTL2 years ago

Check out this fretboard ruler plugin for Inkscape:
https://inkscape.org/en/~Neon22/%E2%98%85luthier-f...

Also does fanned frets and any scale

diverdale2 years ago

dang it James! I've wanted to build one of these for a while now. Would be a nice accompaniment to my banjo when we go camping. This is a great instructable. Look me up next time your back in NC. Didn't know you still had ties here.

jbrauer (author)  diverdale2 years ago

Are you still down around RDU?

Well...I'm working in RTP. I live east about an hour Garner/Clayton area. We tow our camper up to the mountains quite a bit so I could meet ya somewhere.

dblackburn32 years ago

Great instructable. I've been working at building 3-string cigar box guitars and this would be a great step up. And I loved the story about the "free" wood - sounds awfully familiar.

HStiles112 years ago

Beautiful! Lovely that you use those old inherited tools & made it out of wood that grew in the same soil as you. ;)

DavidM6382 years ago
Resembles a Russian balalaika or as we would say, belly like a what? It looks very nice could have been a ukulele with one more string. Good work!
AmmieM2 years ago
Amazing and inspiring and totally awesome ?

I really enjoyed the story of the cursed log. Yes, I can believe it for I at one time was a logger out in the Pacific Northwest and I had a tree or two try to kill me as well. Great story and great instructable.

anniekate762 years ago

... "Cursed Hickory"?

relbatto2 years ago

he mountain dulcimer has traditionally been made with 3 strings since the 1600s and is a true native american instrument- loosely based on a couple of older ideas from europe. I have played my version of it since the early seventies and recommend it highly for any person during those dark periods of the night when the great hounds shoulda coulda and wooda come to knaw at you.

Sometime in the last hundred years it gained a fourth string tuned simultaneous to, and adjacent to, the number one string, and with a 6 1/2 fret added it is able to play lots of things that are outside a modal (myxolydian) range. . most modern music is in the ionic range and this extra fret lets you do just about any music quickly and lets literally anyone with hands play the mountain dulcimer.

the national championships for this real instrument take place in winfeild, kansas during the month of September. your design is a real piece of history and i hope you play it and enjoy it for as many years as i have.you have a really fine version and i hope you enjoy it.

you should win the prize for the story, if you don't get one for the instrument (which you should)

Rexanvil762 years ago
they are also known as a sweet stick
awesome Instructable

I think "dulcis" is Latin for sweet so that makes sense.

they sell them in Michigan at the Renaissance festivals for up words of 300 $
newtonza2 years ago

Awesome build bud, do you perhaps have a video of it in action?

I would love to hear what it sounds like.

jbrauer (author)  newtonza2 years ago

I've only been playing it for about a week, so I don't really do it justice. Search on 'squidbillies outro' for the song that made me want to make one of these.