The Dusty Story
by Christy Mooers (daughter)
The year was 1977, and Ray Mooers was on a career path to become a dentist when fate intervened and the course of humanity was forever altered. (Well, the harp and hammered dulcimer world, anyway…) What were the pivotal moments, you ask? Well, there was that first encounter with the magical sounds of the hammered dulcimer at the Northwest Folklife Festival. There was the rejection of Ray’s dental school application, which led to taking summer classes to fill in a few credits, which caused him to happen across an "Intro to Folk Instruments" presentation by Virgil Hughes, which resulted in the purchase of a Hughes hammered dulcimer kit, which he and his roommate, Randy Hudson, built using paneling from a basement wall of their rental house. (More on Dulcimer #1 here.)
Ray’s and Randy’s fascination with the hammered dulcimer and their insatiable desire to tinker and make improvements led to one instrument after another, and before long, the hobby was out of control. Ray married Sue, they acquired a table saw as a wedding present, and Dusty Strings became an official business in 1979, with Randy as their founding partner.
When asked where the name “Dusty Strings” came from, Ray says it was mostly a metaphor for the folk music revival at the time. Interest in dulcimers, other folk instruments, and the old tunes played on them was growing, and people were pulling out instruments from their grandparents’ attics, dusting them off and learning to play. Of course, the name also refers to the state of Ray and Sue’s house, which was constantly dusty from the workshop in the basement, and to the propensity of hammered dulcimers to collect dust under their many strings.
In the first few years of the business, Sue worked another job as a bookkeeper while Ray and Randy built dulcimers in the basement of their house. Sue finished them and sewed cases in the evenings, and they spent their weekends peddling their wares at craft fairs all over the Northwest. Demand kept growing, they hired their first employees, and they finally got their house back in 1982 when they moved the seven-person business to a roomy basement space in the Fremont neighborhood.
After much begging from customers, several experimental prototypes and a great deal of invaluable advice from players and builders, harps were added to the Dusty Strings lineup in the early eighties, and the list of models kept growing. In 2001, the woodworking part of the business outgrew the now-cramped Fremont space and moved into a bright and roomy shop a few miles away, while the retail store remained in Fremont, expanding to incorporate an extensive repair facility and music school.
As of 2016, Dusty Strings has built over 36,000 instruments and has grown from a three-person operation to a crew of about 45, split between the two locations. Ray and Sue are still working as hard as ever, although they are inclined to attribute most of the company’s achievements to the support and dedication of all their employees, friends, advisors, family members and customers over the years. It truly is a family business, but the Dusty family is much bigger than just blood relatives. And, though they would never say this about themselves, I have to add a few additional reasons for my parents’ success: their commitment to ethical business practices, their concern for the welfare and happiness of their employees (of which I am one), and their constant focus on high-quality work and high-quality customer support. I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a Dusty!
Sappy part over, I invite you to peruse the photo gallery for more juicy details. Click on any photo for more info, or start in the upper left for the full slide show. (Unfortunately, captions may only work on a tablet-size or larger screen.)
1977 - Dulcimer #1
Roommates Ray Mooers and Randy Hudson happen to hear a hammered dulcimer at Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival and are immediately hooked. They build their first dulcimer from a Virgil Hughes kit and some pieces of wall paneling, then decide that they can probably improve on the design.
1978 - Original Logo
With some real work benches in the basement and a few more instruments under their belts, the hobby operation is starting to feel more like a business. Randy’s mom makes some official stationery and business cards and the Dusty Strings Dulcimer Company is born.
1978 - Busking in Long Beach, WA
From Phil Boulding, who has a dulcimer shop in Pike Place Market, Ray and Randy learn six tunes each and they hit the streets. People are fascinated by the dulcimer, and before long the partners are taking orders.
1978 - A Serious Hobby
In June, Ray marries Sue French, and they convince Ray’s parents to give them a table saw for a wedding gift instead of a dining room set. Armed with a real woodworking machine, they start producing instruments to show at their first craft fair, the Redmond Bicycle Festival.
1978 - Early Product Photography
Randy poses under a dulcimer for an early "catalog" photo.
1979 - The Ravenna House
Ray quits his restaurant manager job and decides to build dulcimers full-time in the basement of their house on Ravenna Boulevard. Sue still has a job as a bookkeeper, but in the evenings she finishes and strings dulcimers, sews cases and keeps up with the paperwork and taxes for the fledgling business. They hire Sue’s sister Gayle as their first employee, and Randy joins the business as the official third partner.
1980 - Lake Tahoe Craft Fair
In their second official year of business, Ray and Sue are used to spending every weekend marketing at craft fairs with their hand-made booth.
1980 - Dulcimer Kit
A popular early product.
1980 - D100
Did you know Dusty Strings made a few hammered dulcimers with storage drawers built in?
1980 - A Six-person Operation
By 1980, there are six people working in the small basement of the Ravenna House.
1980 - Making Pinblocks
Demand is growing, and the Dusties are producing dulcimers as fast as they can.
1980 - The "Showroom"
There is a retail showroom in the dining room, an office in the spare bedroom, wood stored in the garage and dust everywhere. Customers ring the bell at odd hours, and Ray and Sue finally decide they would like their house back.
1981 - From Ravenna to Fremont
In December of 1981, Dusty Strings signs a lease for a commercial space, a basement in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.
1981 - Building Out The New Shop
Ray, with a great deal of help from Sue’s brother Doug, builds out the new space while the rest of the crew finishes making the Christmas orders at the home shop.
1982 - Grand Opening
April 18th, 1982 marks the grand opening of the new shop and store on Fremont Avenue, featuring a hammered dulcimer door prize and a workshop by dulcimer player John McCutcheon.
1982 - Welcome to Dusty Strings
The current calligraphy-style logo is developed, and the staff luxuriates in the vast amounts of space they now have, filling the extra bits with a ping pong table and basketball court.
1982 - New Showroom
1983 - Sam Rizzetta
A design partnership with Sam Rizzetta leads to the development of the D250 and D300 models and the beginnings of the Chromatic Series.
1983 - John McCutcheon
A marketing partnership is formed with well-known hammered dulcimer player John McCutcheon.
1984 - New Spray Booth
Eventually the vast amounts of extra space are gobbled up. The basketball court is remodeled to incorporate a spray booth, which enables the spraying of nitrocellulose lacquer and ends the tedium of hand-applying tung oil as a finish.
1984 - First Harp Prototype
With seven hammered dulcimer models in production and some time freed up by the new finishing process, Ray and Sue decide to respond to the growing interest in folk harps. Ray has been collecting information on harp building for years, and he and employee Robert Korrow experiment with several harp prototypes.
1984 - FH25 #003
The prototyping process culminates in the FH25. It has 25 all-monofilament nylon strings, goes down to the D below middle C, and incorporates the innovative radiused neck joint that will become a standard feature of Dusty harps. In 1985, on his annual trip to the National Association of Music Merchants trade show in California, Ray stops by to show the FH25 to harpist, teacher and retailer Sylvia Woods. She is curious to know why it stops on D when most harps go down to a C, and Ray can only reply, “Well, we play a lot of tunes in D on the dulcimer…” Sylvia also tactfully explains that the lowest strings would feel less like rubber bands if they were wound instead of monofilament.
1985 - Stringwinding
On the same trip, Ray visits Robinson’s Harp Shop, where Robbie Robinson graciously opens the doors of his shop, sharing building tips, offering encouragement and, most importantly, teaching Ray how to design and make his own wound strings. On Robbie’s advice, Ray builds his own string-winding machine.
1985 - The FH26
The harp design is tweaked to incorporate a low C and six wound strings in the bass, and the FH26 is launched. It has quite a big voice for such a small harp and quickly gains an enthusiastic following.
1985 - Staff Photo
1986 - Dusty Strings Holiday Open House
The second annual holiday open house is a huge success, and continues to be an annual tradition with a day full of music performances, shop tours, cookies and comaraderie.
1986 - New Parents
Ray strings a harp with his “second child,” Christy. (The first child being Dusty Strings)
1986 - Wood Delivery
Though it beats the basement of the Ravenna House, the basement shop in Fremont has its own challenges. When a large wood delivery arrives, 4,000 board feet of mahogany has to go from the alley down into the shop via an ancient water-powered freight elevator. More often, the boards are just passed down the elevator shaft by hand.
1987 - The FH36
In response to demand for a larger harp model, a 34-string harp is developed and several local harpists are called in to evaluate a few prototypes. Based on their feedback, the FH34 is temporarily abandoned in favor of a full five-octave 36-string harp. In June of the 1987, the first FH36 is built, and is an immediate success.
1989 - Loveland Levers
Loveland levers are introduced to the harp world and immediately adopted by Dusty Strings for their durability and good tonal preservation. The quality of these levers helps to propel the lever harp into the realm of professional, performance-quality instruments. This is also when Dusty Strings adds maple harps as alternative to walnut.
1989 - Staff Photo
The staff has grown to 20 people, and some new and modified harp designs are in the works. The FH26 is redesigned to feature a deeper soundbox, a differently-shaped neck and pillar (to quiet the frequent descriptions of the design as “Danish modern”) and a one-piece base to replace the former “ski feet.”
1990 - FH32 Playoffs
Demand has been growing for a mid-size harp, so the FH32 is designed and a round of playoffs organized to determine the best-sounding of six different prototypes.
1991 - The FH36B
Extending some of the new design features of the FH32, the FH36 is redesigned as a slightly shorter, easier-to-fit-in-your-car harp with a wider soundboard and a new neck profile. The new model is named the FH36B. (In photo: FH36B on the left, original FH36 on the right.)
1991 - Bubinga
Ray discovers a beautiful rose-colored hardwood he has never seen before and wonders what it might sound like in a harp. In November of 1991, the first bubinga harp is built and everyone at Dusty falls in love. In spite of the extra weight and cost, the tone is so deep, clear and complex that it quickly becomes Dusty’s signature harp wood.
1991 - Expanding the Retail Store
The harp and dulcimer showroom is expanded into a full-line acoustic music store as Dusty Strings starts carrying guitars, mandolins and banjos.
1994 - Designing the Stave Back
In response to customers who love the sound of the FH36B but find the soundbox corners uncomfortable, Ray and employees Chris Sand and Alan Stover start work on a five-sided soundbox design. The first prototype is finished in June and gets an enthusiastic response at the American Harp Society conference in Boston. However, it takes another 16 months to perfect the complex body design, which is not only faceted, but also curved like a wine barrel.
1994 - The Allegro 26
The Allegro 26 is developed as a lower-priced alternative to the FH26, and has a plywood soundbox held together by solid-wood corner moldings.
1995 - The FH36S
The first staveback FH36S is produced and as word gets out, the orders increase to the point where some customers are having to wait more than a year for a harp.
1995 - Hybrid Soundboards
In the midst of the staveback frenzy, another FH36S playoff is staged, this time to test soundboard materials. The winner of the blind test is a hybrid soundboard, with mahogany in the upper two thirds, contributing to the bright and sparkly Dusty sound, and spruce in the lower third, lending a fat warmth to the bass notes.
1995 - Technological Advances
With demand for harps rapidly growing, Ray and Sue decide to take a leap forward in technology and acquire a computer numerical control router (CNC). Up to this point, all of the designs have been contained in paper drawings and plywood templates.
1995 - Computer Aided Design
There is a lot of work to do to reverse-engineer the amorphous, curvy harp shapes into mathematical compilations of lines and arcs that can be drafted on a computer and cut out by the new CNC machine.
1995 - Maiden Voyage of the CNC Machine
Once the hard work of transferring patterns to the computer is done, the benefits in efficiency and consistency are huge, and this allows the woodworkers to put their craftsmanship skills to better use doing things the machines can’t do.
1996 - Staff Photo
The staff continues to grow, both in production, administration, and the successful retail store. The Folk Harp Society conference is held in Olympia, Washington this year, and one evening after the show, Ray and Sue invite all the other harp builders up to Seattle for pizza, beer and a tour of the Dusty Strings shop. In the spirit of paying forward the help and support he received from Robbie Robinson a decade earlier, Ray encourages everyone to take pictures and ask questions, promoting an open-door atmosphere in which other harp makers are considered colleagues rather than competitors.
1996 - Harp Production Grows
Demand for harps continues to grow. In 1997, harp production reaches the same level as dulcimer production for the first time in Dusty Strings history.
1999 - D600 Chromatic Dulcimer
As the paper drawings are transferred to computer designs, Ray takes the opportunity to redesign the Chromatic Series dulcimers to be slightly smaller and lighter, with a more professional tone, better tuning stability, and a modified set of bass strings. At the same time, in collaboration with Sam Rizzetta, the D600 is introduced. With its four-octave chromatic range and unbelievable piano-like bass tone, it quickly becomes the flagship model of our chromatic line.
1999 - The Mill Team
As production continues to expand, space in the shop is getting very tight, and everyone is tired of having to move one machine out of the way in order to use the machine behind it. After searching fruitlessly for a new and larger space (and briefly considering moving the company to Whidbey Island), Ray and Sue end up purchasing property in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, where the new home of the manufacturing side of the business will be built. The retail store will remain in Fremont and be able to grow into the vacated shop space.
2000 - Piano Dulcimer
In spite of the space crunch in the workshop, several new models are released this year, including the Crescendo 32, which provides a lower-cost alternative to the FH32. In the dulcimer world, the new D550 adds an appealing extra half-octave of bass range to the popular D500, and another collaboration with Sam Rizzetta results in the innovative Piano Dulcimer. This instrument has a fully-chromatic, linear tuning scheme that is designed to be more familiar to keyboard players than the traditional fifth-interval tuning.
2001 - Groundbreaking
In April, 36 happy staff members celebrate the groundbreaking for the new shop and look forward to more breathing room.
2002 - The New Building
The new building is completed and it’s time for the big move.
2002 - The Big Move
In order to disrupt production as little as possible, it’s done in two stages – mill team first and everyone else a couple of months later – and it takes a heroic effort by the whole staff and many friends and family members.
2002 - Inside the New Shop
The new building has been specifically designed for Dusty Strings, and the benefits are felt immediately. Now wood deliveries can be unloaded off a truck through a large roll-up door directly into the mill shop – a huge improvement over the hand-each-board-down-the-elevator-shaft method that had to be done in the Fremont basement.
2002 - First Harp Symposium
On the heels of the big move, the first Harp Symposium (now Harp Seattle) is held in the fall on the unoccupied floor of the new building.
2003 - Fremont Remodel
As the dust settles in Fremont, the retail staff start imagining all the possibilities for the space vacated by production. The first step is to remodel the main showroom to incorporate an expanded repair shop and a raised stage area.
2003 - At Work in the New Shop
Harp-building is moving right along in the new shop.
2004 - Developing the Ravenna
Searching for a way to make a less expensive harp, Ray hits upon an idea that is based on a technique for making speaker cabinets. It takes advantage of vinyl-laminated plywood material and the process of machining V-grooves with the CNC, and it means that a staveback harp body can basically be folded up out of a single panel. This drastically reduces the time involved, and makes possible a new price level of harp without sacrificing Dusty Strings' high quality and tone standards.
2005 - The Ravenna 26
The introduction of the Ravenna 26 fills a longstanding gap in the lever harp world and is an immediate success. The harp is named after the Ravenna House, where Dusty Strings began.
2006 - The Ravenna 34
Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not only beginners who are interested in Ravennas, and there is an increasing demand for a larger model. With a growing presence in Europe and Asia, where standard harp curriculum requires a low C string, it is looking like 34-string harps (and not 32s) are the wave of the future, and so the Ravenna 34 is born.
2006 - Dusty Strings Music School
Work begins in Fremont to transform the former workshop space into a bustling music school, with multiple rooms for lessons and workshops. This will realize a long-standing dream to teach all the instruments that are sold in the store.
2006 - The Fremont Store
The retail store in Fremont is one of the longest-established businesses in the neighborhood, and has become a beloved community icon.
2007 - Holiday Open House
Now a 20-year tradition, the annual open house continues to be a popular community event and a favorite way for Dusty Strings to thank their customers. There is live music by local bands all day long, a smorgasbord of baked goods, hot spiced cider, and good company.
2008 - The D45 with Dampers
Busy filling the demand for Ravenna harps, Dusty Strings only has time for minor developments in the hammered dulcimer world, but they are important ones. The D600 is modified to include an extended bass range, adding the D650 to our Chromatic Series lineup, and the D45 evolves out of the popular D35, with a slightly larger frame that can accept dampers.
2009 - The FH34
Following the success of the Ravenna 34, the two existing 32-string harps are replaced with updated 34-string versions – the FH34 and Crescendo 34. As part of the upgrade, each model gets a new hybrid stave back. A faceted section at the top of the rectangular body makes the harp more comfortable on the shoulder and easier to reach around. The FH36B is also replaced with a hybrid stave version, the FH36H.
2013 - The Boulevard Classic 34
Responding to demand from stores, players and teachers, Dusty Strings designs the Boulevard. It’s based on the affordable Ravenna 34, but with a neck redesigned for high-tension gut strings that feel and sound more like a pedal harp.
2014 - Ray and Sue
In its 35th year of business, Dusty Strings has built over 34,000 instruments and sent them out into the world to create joy.
2016 - New Dulcimer Models
The D670 and D570 are introduced in response to player demand. A super bass bridge on both the right hand side and the left allow for ultimate flexibility in arranging, while preserving the beloved deep, rich tone of the D650 and D550. Minor improvements to the bridges and bracing of all the Chromatic Series models contribute to a more even and balanced tone, and the incorporation of carbon fiber rods in the bracing gives them unparalleled tuning stability.
2016 - Staff Photo
The staff at the Interbay workshop, including the Mill Team, Finish Team, CNC Team, Post Production Team, R&D Team, Office/Mail Order Team, and Doggy Moral Support Team.
2016 - Donuts!
Woodworkers love their donuts!