The Hammack Dulcimer

This page is dedicated to my reproduction of a dulcimer in the Smithsonian collection which I documented in 1998. Accession #65.0175, the instrument is believed to have been owned by the Confederate cavalryman Charles Hammack, dated between 1848-1885. In walnut with painted black purfling and beveled, overlapping edges. A beautiful shape, it was the standout of the collection of 10+ instruments which I drew and photographed. Staple frets lying only under the first double course.

A contact sheet of some of my study images.

The slab of walnut I had was far from quartersawn, so slicing the sides at a true quarter on the bandsaw was a challenge. The pieces in the front have been drum sanded to just over 2mm thickness. The block to the left will be the headstock.

The pegbox template

Drilling out the pegbox after the peg holes have been drilled but before the sides are tapered.

Two operations going on here: the liners are being glued to the rib and the pieces for the back are being joined. I am using walnut for all the secondary parts of the instrument. This will be an entirely walnut instrument. The rural makers of the earliest dulcimers instinctively used a single wood throughout, except for the purpose of aesthetics.

I used to attach the ribs to one single block at the tail, with the appropriate rebates, but as I've made more of this model I find it easier to attach them to an 'internal' block, level the face, then scab on a 'cap block'. Who knows how the original was made - unless we x-ray it - but I think this pragmatic development is in the spirit of the early makers.

Putting in the staple frets. I found these industrial staples that approximate the weight of the originals but they're the wrong width for an instrument that just has frets under the first course of strings. So I'm pounding them out and reshaping them. Pencil lines show the pre-drill locations and will be sanded out, but the scribe lines to mark the rows of holes along the length will remain to show the maker's hand.

I put small cleats between the soundholes to prevent splitting and spars under the sets to prevent soundboard collapse. I doubt the original had either one of these precautions, which makes it amazing that after 150 years there is no damage to the top. This view also shows a hollow drilled out under the bridge location. Most of the earliest dulcimers had solid sticks for the raised fingerboard. I was unable to get inside the original, but it is a very light instrument and I believe it is possible that the fingerboard is in fact hollowed.

Taping the top down.

Trimming the top. i could do this with a router bit but it's mroe fun by hand.

I tend to take pictures of the operations i enjoy the most.

The top is trimmed. The nut and bridge slots are cut. The next step is making the pegs.

The instrument has unusual cross-shaped pegs in oak, which I have not seen on any other instrument.

Scratching in a purfling line. The original has black paint on the edges but this version will have only a line scribed to represent the original treatment. I have seen this detail on many 19th c. dulcimers. The makers echoing the inlaid pufrling they had seen on violins.


Completed images:


Click here for a video of me playing 'King of Love' in this instrument.




Dulcimer chap book:



For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place and the like.

-Christopher Smart