The Story of Two Walnut Dulcimers

Seeing double? These two walnut dulcimers are made from the same wood at the same time. One is a standard dulcimer and the other is a baritone; they look alike. This is the story of the two walnut dulcimers.Walnut Dulcimers - 2 - IMG_4432_1-RThe dulcimers were built by Jim Woods’ luthiers of McSpadden Dulcimers from a walnut plank that I supplied them. The McSpadden Company the largest dulcimer builder around and they are located in Mountain View, Arkansas, very near the Ozark Folk Center. The town is located on top of a steep beautiful mountain which we experienced when we left driving down a curvy, slow scenic highway.

Since Lynn McSpadden started the company in the 1960’s, over 60,000 dulcimers have been built. Jim Woods acquired the company 15 years ago. His staff of luthiers have built 18,000 of these dulcimers. The dulcimers are known for their quality, shape, tone and affordability. Go to any dulcimer gathering around the country and someone will have a McSpadden dulcimer. A club member acquired an old one built in 1976 by Lynn McSpadden himself at a consignment store here in Louisiana. The dulcimer still plays and sounds good.

The Story of How I Got Two More DulcimersWalnut Dulcimers - 4 - IMG_4439_1The story begins in my father’s basement.If you ever visited his basement you’d probably determine that it was filled with shelves and piles of “junk”. To his children, these shelves represented all of our dad’s hobbies and collections. As we cleared out 60 years of stuff after he passed away, we took a trip down memory lane. There was a photography set up, rock collections of beautiful geodes, bee keeping equipment, a wood working lathe, farm tools, every can of paint he’d ever purchased and shelves of white oak and walnut wood.

Our father was a musician and played the violin during college and in community orchestras throughout his life. I also discovered while looking through yearbooks that he was the college’s marching band drum major! (A fact he never told us.) He took up the hammered dulcimer in his 70’s. Here is a violin and case from his college days at Purdue University in Indiana.Lowel Heisey Violin - 2 - IMG_4481_1One of dad’s hobbies was a mountain farm which he purchased in the beautiful mountains of West Virginia as a place to retreat to in his retirement. From his home in Virginia, I believe we had to cross 5 mountains to get there. It was in Bartow, West Virginia, high in the Monogahela National Forest.Lowell Heisey - Cass_railroad1995 (1)The oak stored in dad’s basement came from trees on his farm property in West Virginia that he had cut down and taken to a saw mill to make into boards. The walnut wood was some he traded for. The oak wood was used on his farm in West Virginia to build a bridge and fences and repair his barn. I’m not sure what he planned to do with the walnut wood. But this wood had probably been sitting in our basement since the late 1980’s.Lowel Heisey WVA_farm1973Most of this stuff we sold at an estate auction. However, I couldn’t help but bring a couple of the walnut boards back with me to Baton Rouge. I thought they would make a nice hearth for my fireplace. Perhaps they reminded me of my dad.

Our Trip to Mountain View

I recently acquired a McSpadden mahogany ginger dulcimer — a 3/4 size dulcimer tuned to GDG to play in the key of G — and love it. This mahogany dulcimer has excellent quality, tone and plays well. That gave me idea. I wondered if the walnut wood could be used to make a dulcimer or two. Jim Woods said that he would see after looking at the board. So off we went to Mountain View in Arkansas and Jim’s Dulcimer Shoppe with the walnut board.Maylee at Dulcimer Shoppe - IMG_3801Jim Woods looked at the walnut board and thought there were possibilities. Although the board was split down the center and contained knots, there were several areas that Jim could use to cut out the back, top, sides, fretboard and scroll head. I asked Jim to make a baritone dulcimer and a standard one.Jim with Walnut Board - IMG_3797After quick two months, the dulcimers were finished! Here is Jim with the lutiers who build the dulcimers in Jim’s shop. Now to go from the walnut board to the finished dulcimers is an art. I’m glad there are dulcimer luthiers in our part of the states–only 13 hours away.Jim and Luthiers with finished dulcimers - Maylee 001 (3)The dulcimers arrived arrived in two days in a sturdy shipping box. What a birthday present to myself! (Well, someone has to do it.)Dulcimers in Shipping Box - IMG_4414_1This is the baritone dulcimer. It has a beautiful deep tone and great sustain. It is the same size as the standard one. The easiest way to tell them apart is that the standard one has a shorter string length (which I requested as an option) —  26″ vs 28.5″ on the baritone. See if you can tell from the top photo–look closely.Walnut Dulcimer out of Shipping Box - IMG_4419_1Walnut Wood

Needless to say, I was relieved to see that the dulcimers have great tone. In fact, they both sound beautiful. The baritone dulcimer has a very different tone quality; deep with much sustain. Part of the challenge of playing a baritone dulcimer is to learn how to play it and draw out the rich tones and fret the thicker, wound strings. For example, I do not find that It works for strumming fast fiddle tunes and the quiet sound gets lost in a crowd of dulcimers. Fingerpicking works better for me.

The wood had sat in my father’s basement since the 1980’s. Well aged, I thought. Actually, Jim says that newly cut wood reaches an equilibrium with the atmosphere in about 3 years. After that it won’t dry out much more in the surrounding humidity. Jim dried this lumber additionally in his kiln in his shop.

I personally like walnut wood for dulcimers and like the sustain. I asked Jim Woods about this and here is his response:

Walnut makes nice dulcimers for several reasons.  Of course, it is beautiful.  Also it is a medium hard wood so it is soft enough to vibrate over the full frequency spectrum but hard enough to not absorb the energy.  I think the typical voice using walnut is warmer and sweeter than with most woods.  That’s not the voice you want for all players and all music styles but I like it.

Walnut Dulcimers - 1 - IMG_4441_1Do I need more dulcimers? From a practical point of view, probably not. So this means I’m a dulcimer collector. Blame it on my father’s genes. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the dulcimers and these will be passed along in the family as a treasure and a tribute to my dad..

The accompanying post gives several You-tubes duets that Helen Bankston and I played to feature the two dulcimers, especially the baritone one. Enjoy!

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