Selection and Preservation of Wood
Like every other dulcimer builder I’ve met, I share a kind of obsessive interest in wood. And like most other builders, I am always on a sort of gleeful treasure hunt for interesting and unique woods. Wood, with all its shapes and forms and uses, creates a sense of reverence and awe. Shaping wood into a dulcimer and allowing that wood to be alive with sound always seem to be a small, wonderful miracle. And this miracle becomes just a bit sweeter when a beautiful dulcimer is made from wood that might have been discarded, burned or just allowed to rot away.
Timbre Hill dulcimers are built in an area rich in wood and wood products. There are many sawmills in the area. These range from small, part time do-it-yourself operations to large companies that ship their products worldwide. I use almost exclusively local woods. This is due in part to the fact that I have a strong bias toward using local products. It is also due in part to the fact I haven’t begun to exhaust the treasures available locally. And it’s also due to the fact that I can often find wood at no or very little cost, which allows me to pass on the dulcimers to the customers at a more modest price. I’ve also learned to use these woods in a way that creates a sound commensurate to those made from woods preferred by the makers of guitars and other stringed instruments.
Procuring Wood—wood with a story.
Old growth wood—I love old growth wood. It’s a completely different entity than contemporary woods. It’s difficult to find and comes mostly through the salvage of 1800’s era buildings. I have a supply from several old buildings I’ve torn down in the course of remodeling projects. (It created huge excitement for me when I discovered during a remodeling project on our own 1840’s era house, that the siding I was replacing on it was actually old-growth redwood.) An Amish friend makes his living by tearing down and salvaging old buildings. He often saves interesting woods for me, which are usually old-growth.
Another friend nearby owns a rare fifty-acre woodlot that has never been timbered and is considered old-growth wood. Although he never cuts a living tree, he will use dead or blown-down trees. This is also a source of old growth lumber.
Local wood—I have standing orders with a few small family-owned sawmills. If any unusual or interesting wood shows up that is not readily saleable for them, they give me a call. This has resulted in some really interesting wood, such as Box Alder, Honey Locust and Ohio Buckeye, along with some highly figured wood.
A friend of mine owns portable sawmill. I sometimes help him saw, often in exchange for lumber. I also use his mill to saw dead and blown down trees here on are own farm. I’ve also been happy to receive some calls from persons who are having trees removed from around their houses, wondering if I would be interested in some of that wood.
Many local people, especially the older generation, have small quantities of very interesting wood stashed in their barns and garages. As the local community becomes aware of what I’m doing with dulcimers, I’ve received some wonderful gifts from such people. They usually say “I’ve had these boards for years. Always thought I’d make something out of them, but just never got around to it. Could you use them?” Often there’s a story of how the wood was cut and where it came from.
And it’s always a special treat when a person brings some wood with special meaning to them and requests that I build a dulcimer from it.
Processing the Wood—Most wood comes to Timbre Hill in a green or air-dried form. It is then further dried in a small drying room. Initially, I had some wood dried in local kilns, but was displeased with the results. This is one reason I have reservations about using wood purchased from most commercial sources—the very critical drying process always remains unknown. After research and experimentation, I built my own drying facilities and use a much gentler drying process to bring the wood to its maximum stability. The wood is dried using de-humidification and air circulation. This happens at room temperatures—the wood is never “cooked” to make it dry. Since this room is always at fairly low humidity, it also makes a wonderful environment in which to apply the finish to instruments.
Wood for the future—Using wood has led to an interest in trees as well. This has led to a better and more intentional management of the woodlots here on the farm as well as our planting trees on some of our fields most susceptible to erosion.
We’ve planted nearly six-thousand oak trees. Most of these have been White Oaks. We chose them because the Oak population is under considerable pressure. There is considerable commercial demand on oaks as lumber for house trim and furniture. I was also amazed to discover that much of this pressure results from the loss of the Chestnut trees during the 1930 and 1940s. Chestnut trees provided huge quantities of mast and browse wildlife. When they died, the wildlife turned to acorns and oak seedling for food. The burgeoning deer population in particular makes it difficult for new stands of oaks, particularly the slower growing White Oak, to establish themselves.
So we planted Oaks. And discovered that, yes, deer do love to browse small Oak trees. And mice love to build nests nearby and chew on the bark. Little trees have a hard life. But we’ve also discovered that it’s really pretty interesting to watch a tree grow—something I never imagined.
I’ve also become obsessed with butternut trees, partly because I find butternut to be one of the most wonderful sound woods. Unfortunately, the butternuts are succumbing to a blight that appears likely to completely eliminate them. One hope is that if the butternut population is increased by human effort, it might enable the tree to develop or generate a resistant strain. We’ve planted nearly 35 gallons of butternuts we’ve collected from the few surviving trees we’ve found. We’ve also planted butternut seedling purchased from nurseries. And we often pass on nuts and seedlings to neighbors and friends to plant.