Most of the information on this page is available in more detail in our Hammered Dulcimer Owner's Guidebook, which is included with all of our dulcimers. You can view or print a PDF copy here.
There are so many strings on a hammered dulcimer that they deserve their own page! Click here to find out everything you need to know about ordering, replacing and maintaining dulcimer strings.
Our padded cases work quite well for protecting your instrument from dents and dings in most transport situations. For car travel, it's best to either lay the dulcimer bridge-side-up on top of your other gear, or stand it up on the rail with the case handle facing up, braced so it won't fall over. If you will be driving a distance with the sun shining in on your dulcimer, you can put a space blanket over it to reflect some of the heat. Please be sure to read the section on General Maintenance for more information about the dangers of leaving your instrument in a parked car.
Flying with your dulcimer can be a more challenging proposition. Most likely you will not be able to carry it on to the plane, and the regular padded case will not be enough to protect it as checked baggage. If you plan on flying with it a fair amount, you might want to invest in a rigid flight case. The Colorado Case Company is one good resource for this. For occasional trips, it's often easiest to pack the dulcimer in a box and either ship it to your destination or check it with your luggage on the plane. You'll need a box big enough to fit a few inches of packing peanuts or bubble wrap all the way around the dulcimer. Make sure it's packed snugly so it can't shift around. You can go to a packing service to find a box, or think creatively about what local businesses might have extra boxes in the size you need.
If you hear a raspy, buzzing sound when you play your instrument, the most likely cause is a string that is resting too lightly on the side bridge, causing it to vibrate against the bridge when struck. If you suspect that this is happening with one of your strings, press down on the string right next to the tuning pin and strike the string. If the buzz is gone, you've found the culprit and you can fix it by lowering the string so that it makes solid contact with the side bridge. Do this by loosening the tuning pin about a half turn while pushing the string down toward the soundboard on whichever end is buzzy. Hold this position while you re-tighten the pin. In the case of some of the bass bridge strings, since you do not play on the right-hand side of the bridge, you will not alter the tuning if you find it easier to raise the string completely off the side bridge instead of pushing it down. On the treble bridge, it is critical to the tuning that both ends of the string make solid contact with the side bridges.
The most common source of tuning frustration is the inability to get both sides of the treble bridge in tune. If you're running into this, here are a few things to try:
Use a guitar pick to pluck the strings while tuning. This will give you a crisp, loud sound and allow you to isolate and tune one string at a time. Using a clip-on pickup with your electronic tuner can help give you a clear reading.
Sometimes strings can get held up by friction at the point where they pass over the bridge. This is something you'll probably encounter from time to time, and is easily fixable. Just lift the strings off of the bridge to equalize the tension on both sides, and set them down again. If there is too much tension to do this, try lifting one string at a time. You might also want to tune the side that is farthest from the tuning pin first. Often, you can then finely adjust the nearer side without changing the far note.
If you have several strings next to each other that are out of tune in the same direction and equalizing the tension isn't helping, it's possible that the bridge, which is not glued down, may have been knocked slightly out of position. Fixing this requires lightly tapping the section that has moved back into position. Use a wooden yardstick or ruler lying on the soundboard, and pad the contact point with felt or cork to keep from denting the bridge. If the left side is sharp when the right side is in tune, tap the bridge toward the right. If the left side is flat when the right side is in tune, tap the bridge toward the left. You won't need to move it far to have an effect; a very small fraction of an inch will make a difference. The bridge is somewhat flexible, so it's important to make sure it's perfectly straight when you're done. You can lay a ruler along the edge to see if it bows anywhere, and tap the bowed section in the appropriate direction to straighten it out. If you're unsure about any of this, call us for assistance.
If you have just one string that is grossly out of tune, check whether both ends of the string are making solid contact with the side bridges. It can happen when replacing a string that the wraps around the tuning pin get wound upwards from the hole instead of down toward the soundboard. The distance between the treble bridge and each side bridge needs to be very precise. If the string doesn't make contact with the side bridge, the distance to the treble bridge will be too long on that side and it will be impossible to get the string in tune. All you have to do is take off the string and re-wind it around the tuning pin so that the wraps are below the hole in the pin and the string passes solidly over the side bridge. In the case of the bass bridge, the string should make contact with the side bridge on the sounding side of the string, but it doesn't have to touch on the side that you don't play.
The best thing you can do to keep your hammered dulcimer in good condition is to dust it. A feather duster works well for the large areas, and a paintbrush is a great way to get in and around the pins. For dusting underneath the strings, try a sock stuck on the end of a yardstick. If you encounter stubborn dust or anything sticky, a cloth dampened with water or mild glass cleaner should be enough to get it off. We don't recommend using instrument or furniture polish or oils, as these can interfere with any future repair work on the lacquer finish.
Be sure to guard your hammered dulcimer from extreme changes in temperature. Keep it out of direct sunlight, hot cars, freezing attics, etc. It can be surprising how fast a car interior can heat up to dangerous temperatures. On an 80 degree day, even if you're parked in the shade with the windows cracked, it can take less than half an hour for the interior to get hot enough to soften the instrument's glue. It may not show right away, but once the glue is softened, the tension of the strings will gradually pull the instrument apart. A good rule of thumb is that an environment that would make a human uncomfortable will also make your dulcimer uncomfortable.
You should also beware of excessive humidity and dryness, which you can read more about below.
It is essential to have some understanding of the effects of humidity and dryness on fine musical instruments. Stringed instruments are more susceptible than wood furniture or cabinetry to the effects of too much or too little humidity because they are usually more lightly built and are placed under tension by the strings. Too much humidity can cause the wood to expand and warp. In general, people have more problems with excessive dryness, which can cause the wood to shrink and crack.
We strongly encourage you to know the humidity in your instrument's environment. This can be done with a hygrometer, a device that measures the ambient humidity in the room. They are available at many music stores or from us. The recommended safe range for instruments is 40%-50% humidity. It is especially important to monitor the humidity if you live in a dry area or an area with cold winters; in cold weather, the relative humidity of heated indoor air is much lower than outside.
If you need to humidify your instrument, the best solution is to use a humidifier in the room in which the instrument is kept, and to stay aware of the humidity level with a hygrometer. If this is not possible, you can keep the instrument in its case with a case humidifier when you are not playing. These are available from most music stores and are often designed for guitars, but can be used for other instruments as well. They need to be periodically checked and refilled with water. It may take more than one for a larger instrument, and you should be aware that this method will have no effect on the overall humidity of the room.
Please read this PDF on Humidity, Dryness and Musical Instruments for more details.
If you are missing a black or white bridge marker and need a replacement, or if you are thinking of building your own dulcimer and are looking for tuning pins, we can help. The same high-quality hardware we use on our instruments is available for sale in small quantities to fix up a current instrument, or in competitively-priced larger quantities for instrument builders. We can provide you with zither pins, hitch pins, tuning wrenches, strings and bridge cap material. Check out our harp and hammered dulcimer hardware catalog for pricing and specifications.