Video Interview with Warren May

Kentucky Historical Society


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0:36 - Early life

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Keywords: bow and arrows; Caroll County, KY; Carollton County, KY; George's Creek; rolling pins

3:24 - Making Dulcimers / Education / Exposure to Music

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Keywords: Booneville; Eastern Kentucky University; Eminence High School; Hank Williams; Henry County; Homer Ledford; Johnny Cash; Lawrence County; Louisa, KY; Mountain Music; Mouth Harp

6:48 - Teaching / Starting a Business

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Keywords: Berea College; Homer Ledford; Industrial Arts; Louisa, KY; Rickey Skaggs

11:05 - Carving wood / Specific wood for dulcimers

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Keywords: cherry wood; hedge apple; logging; tulip poplar; walnut; willow tree

16:37 - Why Dulcimers?

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Keywords: Berea, KY; Ed Thomas; Jethro Amburgey; Raymond Lane; rosewood

22:59 - Hour Drop Shape

26:18 - Thickness of wood / Tones / Process

36:03 - Decorative Styles

38:18 - Three different models

52:11 - Process


BG: My name is Bob Gates and I'm doing an interview with Warren May at his

business here in Berea, and we are doing it for the Kentucky Craft History and

Education Association. This is part of the project to document luthiers across

Kentucky. Now I'm safely out of the way.

WM: Good.

BG: How are you doing?

WM: Fine.

BG: Good. So I wanted to ask you a little bit about how you got started.

Actually, how you came here. Where are you from?

WM: I'm from rural Carroll County, Kentucky. I've been carving or whittling ever

since I was born.

BG: In Carrollton? Down in Carrollton?

WM: Yes, which is a little different than rural Carroll County, but George's

Creek to be specific. We always lived up on top of a hill and I was born 1:00in a

real log house, pre-Civil War. We actually got rural electrification in the

first grade, but I would be puttering around in my dad's workshop trying to

emulate him. He would do some; oh he could split shingles and do just about any

kind of farm work or small kitchen utensils. But yeah, I was puttering around in

the workshop carving on things ever since I could remember.

BG: What kind of workshop did he have?

WM: Oh very, very primitive. I still have the old stake in the ground vice from

that. I've kept that for all these years. Really just a one-car garage, a basic

workbench and a vice. Like I said, dark and damp, and outside, but with the vice

I could clamp things down and hew on things with a draw knife or split things

with a hammer and a butcher knife so I started out that simply.

BG: What kind of things did you 2:00 make?

WM: I made rolling pens, lots of bows and arrows, the best I could; the green

wood was all I could work. I don't think I actually tried to make cars or wheel

toys or anything like that, so more, just very simple. I know by the time I was

in grade school and high school I was actually carving out some very simple

figures, some arrows and some initials and things like that.

BG: Did your dad like what you were doing?

WM: Oh yeah, my dad was always supportive, even when I tried to play the

electric guitar by the time I was in college, but he'd sit there and not say a

word for hours because the music was just horrible.

BG: Were you in a band or something?

WM: Oh no, my brother invited a really good guitarist to our home one time. I

think we probably had electricity by then. I think he had an amplifier, 3:00but this

young man could sit around and play just about any popular song and I think I

was hooked on music. I struggled with guitar for years and years. In fact, I was

already out teaching woodworking/industrial arts in the county high schools here

in Kentucky and I was finally able to make my first dulcimer back in 1972.

BG: Oh yeah?

WM: Yep.

BG: Ok. How did you get started making dulcimers?

WM: Well I couldn't afford to buy a kit per se and really didn't have anybody

for instruction or anybody to show me the details, but once I saw the parts and

pieces of a dulcimer I actually came back to my school workshop and started

cutting out the parts to a dulcimer and in a very short time, now this is way

down in Lawrence County, Lousia, Kentucky, in a very short time I actually found

a very early Homer Ledford dulcimer and it had a little 4:00more dimension and fret

scale to work with and actually my number two dulcimer was a little more of the

Kentucky shape, the hour glass shape, more like the traditional Homer Ledford models.

BG: When you were in Carroll County you said you started teaching at a high

school there?

WM: No, I actually didn't have any woodworking or shop classes at Carrollton

High School. I enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University in 1965. I graduated in

'69 with my teaching degree. Taught for two years in Washington County, two

years in Lawrence County, Louisa, and then four years in Henry County at

Eminence High School.

BG: Oh ok, so you were kind of coming closer to home?

WM: Yes.

BG: Did your dad make any instruments or anything like that?

WM: No. He played the Jew's harp [also referred to as the juice harp], or mouth

harp, that's about the only thing he would strum on a 5:00little bit. Of course he

did love to sing and hum. Mostly church music was the kind of music he would be

interested in.

BG: Ok. So I know Carroll County a little bit. I worked with Raymond Hicks who

is a boat builder down there.

WM: Well how about that?

BG: Yeah, he lived right along the Kentucky River. What kind of music was being

played down in that area when you were a kid?

WM: I was raised just on Church music. Really just acoustic music in the

churches we attended, and then, of course, early Country music. I kind of still

remember Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and some of the very, very earliest of

what you'd consider your radio personalities. I didn't know much about real

Mountain music, so it really was mostly Gospel and Country, popular Country

radio music. 6:00But my roommate, when I was a sophomore in college, that would have been 1967,

was from Owsley County, Booneville, and he actually taught me a little bit more

of the flavor of real Mountain music and ballads. Much easier tempo. Much more

of a story. A little bit more of a calming type music I guess, so that added a

little bit to my different types of music I enjoyed.

BG: And you wanted to be a rock start at one time?

WM: Oh no. I struggled with guitar for years, but I made my first dulcimer, I

was so proud of my first dulcimer I actually finished it up in the fall of '72,

but several teachers in the school in Lawrence County played music. Some of them

played fiddle and of course, in eastern Kentucky everyone plays music, either

Church music or Bluegrass music 7:00because of all the other celebrities in that

area. So I was so proud that I just took my dulcimer down the hall of the school

because we knew all the teachers and we'd just go right in the classrooms and

demonstrate the dulcimer. You had that much encouragement to play music in that

area, but much better on dulcimer so I sort of gave up the guitar.

BG: So, that was in Louisa?

WM: Yes.

BG: And you were teaching at the high school there.

WM: Uh huh.

BG: Ok. That's where Rickey Skaggs is from, isn't it?

WM: Oh yes. He actually didn't graduate from Louisa high school the year before

I got there, but I've seen him, I've not meet him, going up and down the road

and everything. But certainly a real great person from that area. [Verification

-- Skaggs was a high school dropout, see article "High-school dropout Ricky

Skaggs Country Music Association Winner," published in The Montreal Gazette,

Nashville, Oct. 15, 1985, available via Google.]

BG: There was a lot of music in that area, and so you built your first dulcimer

from a kit or you made pieces like that kit?

WM: Just pieces from memory of seeing a kit in Gatlinburg and then, of course,

I'd had a little 8:00bit of influence from Homer Ledford. I had seen his dulcimers

at different craft fairs. By then we were interested in woodworking and craft

fairs and specifically Homer's dulcimers would be the most obvious ones to see.

So we started coming to Berea to enjoy the craft fairs and the quality crafts. I

was also studying furniture, classical furniture at that time too. So when my

wife and I decided to actually start a business, that was 1977, we ultimately

chose Berea and we've been here ever since.

BG: Oh ok. How did you get into shop? You were a shop teacher?

WM: Yes, industrial arts. I actually taught eight years. Thoroughly enjoyed the

kids, all the way from junior high to high school. Had a lot of boys and girls

in shop and 9:00we actually studied how to make things. We went over all the safety

rules. Once you got all those kids into the shop atmosphere all they wanted to

do was just make things. Of course being very careful, the kids would just

respond wonderfully to being able to use the machines and learn the details.

BG: What kinds of things did you teach them to make?

WM: We would start out with, obviously in the younger grades, a very simple

project, but one of the things I learned in my teaching; we'd start out with a

very simple project. Some of the kids could just take that and complete it very,

very quickly. So I would add a little more complexity, a little more complexity

to the project. Some of the kids might struggle just to make the very simplest;

we had a certain amount of requirements that we had to do each year. They had to

do a woodcarving, they had to do different projects, metal and wood and a lot of

different things. But 10:00we were actually building just enormous grandfather clocks

and enormous pieces of furniture and everything by the time I had the students

for two or three years. They were very accomplished woodworkers.

BG: That's what you worked mainly on, wood?

WM: Yes.

BG: Yeah.

WM: We did also metal working and general crafts and just a few other things

like that. Then about that time there was less emphasis on the shop programs

here in Kentucky, that was about the time computers were coming along, so they

didn't care as much about that and that's when we really considered going into

business. I was already making dulcimers by then and was making furniture just

working with the students but not offering furniture for sale so, like I said,

we packed up everything and moved our family here, my wife and I, here in 1977,

and it's been almost thirty five years later and about a dulcimer a day for

forty years 11:00 now.

BG: Really?

WM: So, talk about enthusiasm for carving!

BG: Dang. What do you like about carving?

WM: Oh just being able to make the wood work. I enjoy all the local woods.

Walnut is probably my first choice because of the nice rich brown color. Cherry

obviously the second choice because it gets prettier as it goes along.

BG: Is that Cherry there?

WM: Cherry turns a beautiful burgundy color [shows Cherry dulcimer] just in a

few years, just in a few months, it will darken quite significantly, but Walnut

is very pretty right from the very beginning, but Cherry matures and has a

little more of a clear tone [strums dulcimer] and then also I do the traditional

dulcimers out of Kentucky Poplar or Tulip Poplar.

BG: That's what that is?

WM: Uh huh [shows Poplar dulcimer].

BG: What's that one right there?

WM: This is also raw Walnut and here you can see where I've actually 12:00used the

natural knot whole and enhanced that because that will be a really pretty dark

area in the wood there. So that will darken up to just a beautiful chocolate

color as it ages there.

BG: Did you learn about wood from your dad or is that something you picked up

from shop?

WM: I did the basic carving and learned a little more about the texture. I

actually had to hew on some fence posts. Of course, it was my job to also to cut

all of the kindling and the firewood. You learn a lot from cutting kindling let

me tell you.

BG: For whom? For your house?

WM: Oh that was my only required chore. Dad, we always had wood heat, the whole

time I was at home.

BG: So you were a kid? Ok.

WM: So we absolutely had to have dry kindling and dry wood in the house and that

was my have to requirement. So I'd go out in the snow or whatever. My dad was

very good about having a supply of firewood on hand, but 13:00it was my chore to get

that kindling chopped up and get that wood into the house. That was my have to job.

BG: What's the trick to getting good kindling?

WM: Well, actually, just cutting the wood up fairly finely so you can get the

fire started quickly.

BG: Yeah.

WM: Yep. A few pieces of wood hit me in the nose and the face out in the cold

snow, and you learn what you can do with an axe and what splits and what doesn't.

BG: Oh yeah?

WM: That's right.

BG: So you like wood, huh?

WM: Certainly. I'm in the process of doing some logging on my acreage, just

outside of Berea here now. That will be wood that won't even be useable for

probably six to eight years. Got some beautiful Cherry, Hedge Apple, with the

Willow tree I might make some dough bowls or woodturnings out of.

BG: Where are you going to store all of that?

WM: Uh, after I get it sawed I'll 14:00have to store part of it outside. I do have a

pretty good storage shop. I have a workshop on my farm. About fifty feet of

heated work space and then probably another forty feet of dry wood storage. I'll

start the wood outside. Let that dry for a few years. Move it inside into a

metal building and then gradually move it into my workspace. So I'm actually

working with quite a bit of wood that I've either found as old wood, I

absolutely love to buy old wood. I'm in the process now of buying wood that's

probably forty or fifty years old from another wood worker down in Breckenridge

County. So I've found quite a few cashes of wood in eastern Kentucky too. Also,

using the wood that I've actually harvested some of it from my farm and some of

it is local here, but mostly Walnut and Cherry. Going back to the Poplar,

because most log houses and barns and cabins are made out of Poplar so--

BG: 15:00I was thinking about the different kinds of wood. You were talking about

Poplar, weren't you?

WM: Yes. Poplar would have been the most traditional dulcimer wood, just because

it would have been the most common planks or wood left over from houses or barns

or log cabins. Probably is one of the more resonate or louder woods. The

dulcimers were made 16:00very, very primitively. I have dulcimers up to one hundred

and eighty years old that are made out of Poplar. All hand put together with

wooden pins. So, if somebody asked what the most authentic traditional Kentucky

dulcimer wood would be I would say Poplar, Tulip Poplar. Then, after that, the

Walnut and Cherry as they were able to harvest and collect those woods because

we have an abundance of all the wonderful woods here in eastern Kentucky.

BG: What drew you to making a dulcimer? Why the dulcimer?

WM: I had experimented with just a little bit with a balalaika [Russian stringed

instrument] when I was in college at Eastern Kentucky University. I didn't have

any technical 17:00details to make it play, but like I said I was playing guitar and

was sort of interested in acoustic fretted instruments like that, but basically

it's the ease of playing, the fact that you really could play almost any song on

a dulcimer and you could pick out the notes and the melody. And then about five

years into it I discovered that you could play guitar chords and since then

we've expanded. Of course, almost all music is just the basic three chords like

D, G, and A, but once I realized you could play almost any popular song, whether

we are talking about Country and Gospel, and Classical and Folk, you really can

play the song with expression, with feeling, you can play the notes to the song,

you can play along with other instruments like guitars and fiddles and mandolins

and penny whistles, so basically I saw that 18:00ease of playing, the fact that

people could learn to play and you could really enjoy the music so much more

quickly and efficiently than you could on other instruments like a guitar.

BG: Did you have anybody that kind of took you under their wings and showed you

anything or was it all self-taught?

WM: Believe it or not, most of it is self-taught because we just didn't have

time to mentor with anybody else I guess. I knew Homer Ledford; we'd see him at

craft shows. I actually had a lot of respect for him and I didn't want to bother

him by going to his workshop and asking questions. So early on I wanted to make,

once I decided I was going to make dulcimers especially for my living, I decided

I was going to make the Kentucky style and now, the Kentucky style of a dulcimer

is a little bit different than other state's style, or what is often considered

a modern 19:00dulcimer. The hourglass shape really is the Kentucky shape [shows

example] even in the study of the early instruments and predecessors like the

sheitholt, which is an early German instrument--

BG: How'd you learn, how you'd know that?

WM: -- other things. Oh--

BG: How did you know about the shapes and things? Did you read it?

WM: Yes, you know, we'd go back and, just going to the different dulcimer

conventions and you learn a little bit more about the earlier Kentucky makers.

Ed Presnell, who was from Banner Elk, North Carolina, had some influence up in

this area. Raymond Layne [verified spelling via:] was

an earlier dulcimer maker living here in Berea when we came in the mid-70s.

Jethro Amburgey, of course, was probably one the most prolific 20:00makers. I have

several of his instruments here hanging on the wall. His were probably the,

going back, who was the earliest one in the closet [speaks to someone off

camera]. Yeah. Ed Thomas probably was the first one and I have one of his

dulcimers from 1917 that I'm very proud to own. Probably one of the first ones

to build what we call the hourglass shapes. Some of them were very narrow, but

this is the most efficient way and strongest way to build a wooden box is the

continuous curve and the more we have studied the earliest instruments,

dulcimers going a back a thousand years, we found out that that probably really

is the Kentucky shape or Kentucky style is the hourglass. Along with that you

would have a bead on the edge.

BG: A bead?

WM: This little bead [demonstrates with dulcimer] requires a 21:00lot more work to

this edge. Part of it is functional where you can actually pick up the

instrument and wouldn't have to drop it as often. Part of it is a little bit of

a shock absorber to absorb a little bumping on the edges there. Some type of

carved scroll, generally, because this is a very simple nut scroll, once I've

figured out that was sort of my design is actually the hand carved scroll.

Typically some folk art. I put some little Tulip flowers, wood burned, which are

not just decorative, they are functional places where songs might start or

chords would play. 3, 5, 7, 10 [demonstrates] so a lot of things will be

functional. I've come up with a few functional designs like my hummingbird and

vines designs. One of my specialties, because we'd be working with the natural

knot holes, this would be the hour drop. I do a teardrop, which is another

pretty 22:00common shape, but I didn't like this as well, so eventually we discovered

that by putting the two shapes together we would get a much richer, a little

more of an acoustic, actually a guitar sound. But a little richer, minor, minor

voice. A little more weight. So that became my flagship model was called the

hourglass teardrop or hourdrop for short. Of course, I still make the

traditional smaller Kentucky dulcimer.

Still use wooden pegs on a lot. Over the past ten years probably we've gone to

the very best geared mechanical tuners and while I hated to give up the carved

Rosewood pegs, I didn't want to put any limitations on people learning to play

the dulcimer as easily as possible. So I think the metal tuners make it easier

for people to keep in tune and to actually enjoy the instrument.

BG: 23:00You've developed the teardrop, what did you call it?

WM: Hourdrop.

BG: Hourdrop. Nobody else does that?

WM: Not really, of actually physically putting these together on purpose like this--

BG: So the one half is the old traditional style?

WM: Yes.

BG: And the other half is?

WM: The teardrop. Now the teardrop was a very thin, low slow sound because it

just didn't have enough body over here, but by adding the round side we picked

up a wider voice range. Very, very good treble, and then a much stronger bass

[demonstrates on dulcimer]. So a little acoustic guitar quality, especially as

you get into a little fancier music like minors for Bluegrass or Folk music or

Gospel, whereas in the traditional shape like this 24:00one, it's just a bigger

version of the smaller, many of the early Kentucky dulcimers were very narrow

and they actually still played very well. I think part of that was just the wood

availability and just less problems with working the wood under very primitive

circumstances, but as we made them a little bit wider, much better tone value

overall making the instrument just a little bit broader here.

BG: So that's very symmetrical.

WM: Yes.

BG: The Walnut one is symmetrical and the other one is asymmetrical. Does that

affect the sound on either one of them?

WM: Yes. On this one you are going to get a little more of the traditional

"hummy" sound. A little more clear noting quality. Here we have a little 25:00 more

chord acoustic value. An excellent rhythm instrument. Here the Cherry would be

very good for picking the individual notes. So while I do use the prettiest

pieces of wood because I do many, many dulcimers, I work on dulcimers about

every day. Anything that would make it a little more artistic like the knothole

or choosing just the prettiest pieces of wood-- I spent probably the greater

amount of time on making the instrument play as well as possible. Now that would

involve part of the assembly like the gluing up, getting the fret board just to

my specifications, quite a 26:00few, quite a while and quite a few different

operations to true up the fret board and the fret scale, with several

adjustments on the nut and the bridge, to make each instrument play just as well

as possible.

BG: What about the wood? We were just at Donna Lamb's shop and they were talking

about how the top wood should be thin for what they make. Is that true for you?

WM: It is. I will vary the thickness a little bit as your harder woods, Cherry,

I'll make it just a little thinner, Poplar you can make quite a bit thicker. The

Poplar would have a little bit more of a rusty [rustic] true Mountain sound,

more of an overt or rougher sound per chance, but good volume. Cherry is very

precise 27:00in the quality of the wood and then Walnut would probably be the

mellowest for just the ease of listening and that's actually why I chose a

Walnut one to play here to demonstrate with. Walnut is going to give you the

easiest listening and just the mellowest sound. Because you are getting a lot of

the tone going into the fret board I do handpick and process the fret board to

be very light, very straight. I think that's one of the most important tone

elements. There are other tone woods like your Rosewood and different things

like that but generally I stay with Walnut or Cherry. If I wanted a louder

instrument I could use Butternut, which is white Walnut, on either of these

models. I typically would only use a different top wood and not mix more than

just one or 28:00two woods for each instruments otherwise the tone is good, but a

little more unpredictable.

BG: With guitars they use Spruce a lot, don't they?

WM: Yes.

BG: You don't do that?

WM: Spruce is a little bit sharper, higher sound. If I just want to enhance the

tone I'll probably go with Butternut on top or Poplar. Poplar on Walnut is a

wonderful sound. Typically I would use Butternut on Walnut or Cherry.

BG: Ok. So you talked about a lot of different factors that contribute to the

sound being certain ways. How did you learn that?

WM: Just all these years, nearly forty years of doing that. I've had to be a

little more patient working with thin wood as compared to working with furniture

wood. The thin wood, we actually saw that from a thicker piece of wood, 29:00typically a one inch board or plank because I hand pick each piece and I have

patterns to do that, and just from experience from the weights of the wood,

textures of the wood, and being a little more patient working with thin wood. I

have wood stored that's maybe already sawn from the boards that I've actually

had stored and been waiting on for several years. Some of it I just haven't

gotten to it yet, but you have to let the wood relax when it is in a very thin

board like that, you have to let it relax as you are working the process.

BG: How do you get it to relax?

WM: Mostly just let it sit around after the wood is actually sawn into the thin boards.

BG: What kind of saw will you use to saw those?

WM: I have a bandsaw.

BG: A 30:00big bandsaw machine?

WM: Yes.

BG: And that keeps it straight as you cut?

WM: Uh huh, and it's a dedicated bandsaw. In other words, it's a saw that I have

special rollers for to keep the blank piece against the fence so I can saw very accurately.

BG: Vertically or horizontally?

WM: Vertically. It is a traditional woodcutting bandsaw, but I have a special

fence and a special roller with a pressure handle that I've made up to keep the

boards very straight and it is quite a sophisticated process to slice many

pieces of wood. In other words, I'll actually cut out several dozen pieces from

the one-inch blanks typically.

BG: Will the blanks be the shape of this? Are the blanks a square?

WM: We'll actually cut the top piece to shape, so I'll blank that out just a

little oversized of this 31:00half of the instrument because this will be book

matched. So we'll actually take this blank, saw several slices and that will

make several top pieces. The back pieces, the larger piece, now here we are up

to about four and nine-sixteenths wide so that's a real big rectangular piece of wood.

BG: Is that two pieces of wood there?

WM: Uh oh.

BG: Ok.

WM: See here where we have the little knots there where the cathedral grain is

going up, that's perfectly matched. That's two slices book matched from the same board.

BG: What do you mean, book matched? You mean it would open like a book?

WM: Yeah, and again, looking at the grain patterns. So really, I was working

with one blank of wood that would be big enough to make exactly half of the back

of the dulcimer. Of course, when we get two slices from that we can process that

together 32:00as if you would open a book where each piece mirrors each other. That's

the most efficient way for me to get a nice wide back, much better balance by

having two pieces here. So we have two pieces matched on the front. The

sidepieces are also matched because they are pretty easy to slice or saw out.

BG: Is that a different type or part of the wood, the sidepieces?

WM: No. Typically because we do wet and bend them; the sides are very thin so we

wet and bend those around forms before we actually glue them on to the instrument.

BG: I guess what I mean is, the grain looks different on the side than it does

on the top. Is that true?

WM: Maybe just a little straighter grain. This would be just a good regular

model. This is called a wide-body Walnut. Now some, if I had a little more

figured or fancy 33:00grain pattern I would probably use that on a little more, one

of my special instruments. By that, I've picked out the absolute finest and

highly figured pieces of wood that we could find. One example might be, here

we're doing odd pieces. This actually, I started the hourdrop using up some odd

pieces of wood. See, many times when you slice a piece of wood you'll get three

or five slices and you will accumulate a lot of wood that wouldn't be usable,

but I did learn how to do that and use up almost all of the thin slices of wood.

BG: Is that why you built the hourglass to use wood like that?

WM: Originally, yes.

BG: Oh really. Ok.

WM: But what was good fortunate is that we learned that this shape actually has

real strong and very desirable and a little better voice range. In other words,

it's a 34:00little stronger and a little more interesting tone than the traditional

smaller dulcimers because we made the wider one. Here would be an example of an

extremely rare piece of Cherry compared to a simply grained piece here. Now this

will be pretty, it will turn red. This would be feathered Cherry from a very

large tree that actually forks, and when we saw through the fork of the tree we

end up with this absolutely rare feather patter. Of course, we've book matched

that or mirrored that, but it takes an enormous tree like thirty inches or more

around to produce a feather like this. I've added a little contrasting stripe in

the middle. That would be one of my specialty details, you can see a little more

figuring here on the sides, this particular instrument has, we've worked up

some, actually some free form wood burning here 35:00on the fret board. Another

little detail that may be a little harder to see, there is a scribe line here,

just a little indentation on the instrument that is sort of a Kentucky detail.

I've found, even looking at old instruments and older items, there is usually

some kind of decorative aspect that people have added, not because it was

necessary, just because they wanted to make it a little bit fancier. One of my

favorite sayings-- I have since learned that the scribe mark may have functioned

as a way of thinning the top and improving the tone. So again, almost everything

in the Kentucky dulcimer is to make it as efficient, as far as the playing and

the construction, just as efficient as possible, and there are a few decorative

elements, the hard carving and the scribe.

BG: How do you figure out which decorative elements you are going to use 36:00 with

each one?

WM: Over the years I've come up with just different characteristics of each

different model, like on the most basic model, I will still probably do my wood

burning, the little Tulip flowers. Again, my dad liked Tulip flowers so that's

why I've got Tulip designs, but very functional. 3, 5, 7, 10. But a little more

of the basic sound holes. A little less ornamentation.

BG: What is that there?

WM: A good old traditional Tulip Poplar. Very simple piece. That sometimes will

have a little darker color.

BG: That's scribed too isn't it? Was it scribed on the sides?

WM: Yes. So I actually make the Poplar dulcimer and add the scribe detail as a

most traditional model. Wonderful sound. A little more of the overt, rusky

[rustic] sound. We we'll play on that a 37:00little bit as we go. I do that model in

Cherry and Walnut. This would be, one step up would be my hourdrop or the

wide-body, just a little bit wider size here, about an inch wider, but far

better. I'll add a little more decorative sound holes like the carved humming

birds and then one step up would be my special models and we'll start out, I'll

hand pick the fret board for what I think will be the very best sounding fret

board and then I'll go ahead and decorate that up and then I'll add on the

prettiest pieces of wood. This is Cocobolo Rosewood, which is a good tone wood.

Of course, it's a little bit more expensive wood, and then I've chosen the more

curly sidepieces and the very finest pieces of wood on the back.

BG: That's two different kinds of wood there?

WM: No, it's all Cherry with the Cocobolo top.

BG: The top's not Cherry. It's a different wood.

WM: That's right. Yeah, 38:00this is from South America, southern Mexico. It's one of

the worlds finest tone woods, but sometimes I do make specials with all Walnut

and all Cherry using the very rare pieces of wood.

BG: Over the years you've kind of developed different models.

WM: Just three.

BG: Three, ok, there are three models then. The skinnier one?

WM: Yeah. The most traditional model. A little more narrow here. Then the

hourdrop was my next model that we did here. And then the wide-body; you get a

little clearer acoustics and the same clear tone here. 39:00[Demonstrates tones] Now

if you were playing you would actually hear quite a bit of difference in the

body styles and again, the Poplar has a little more of the authentic Mountain

sound, the Walnut is the most pleasant, mellow, sort of hollow, echo-y sound,

and the Cherry would be clear and bright, but the hourdrop makes it very strong

and acoustic.

BG: Could you do that again? Go through the three. What's the difference between them?

WM: Let me get them tuned just right. Yes, very, very simple, a little louder

sound, but more of what I call a rustic or rusky sound. 40:00[Demonstrates on

dulcimer] And the Walnut is much more mellow. Same song here. We get a little

stronger chord pattern, a little better minor values as you get into a little

more than just your three basic chords. So really, you can play them together

and they sound just 41:00great. Started playing two dulcimers at the craft fairs just

to get a little more volume. You can tell I still like to play after all these years.

BG: Well let me, 42:00just to clarify this for me, if you selling these to

professional artists, and you do don't you?

WM: Yes.

BG: Not just tourists that come in, but artists.

WM: No, we have several professional folk singers.

BG: Ok so if you did, are there certain benefits they would buy different

dulcimers for?

WM: Yes, if you were doing like the earlier say Civil War or early Mountain

music you would definitely lean more towards the Poplar because it's going to

have the most authentic, a little more of that rough Mountain style. By that I

mean just a little more of that rustic sound, not the playing, I make all my

instruments play just as nicely as I can. If somebody was very timid about

having been musically abused or told they would never be able to play music, 43:00 I

would start them on a Walnut. A Walnut is by far the most forgiving. It is the

easiest to listen to. If you make a mistake it's not going to show up. If you

are just strumming it's definitely, if I only made one dulcimer I'd use Walnut.

So some people it gives them a little more confidence to go ahead and want to

start playing music. We get a lot of feedback, people call back and they say, "I

didn't think I was going to be able to do it, but I am playing. I am playing my

dulcimer every day. I've learned to play at church, I've learned to play with

other people, and that is very rewarding." Somebody comes in who is perhaps a

much more trained musician, more of a pianist, we had some violinists in

yesterday, a little more noting people, perhaps a little more vocal people, I

would recommend a Cherry. A little better volume. It's going to work a little

better with other instruments. If you 44:00play specific note qualities

[demonstrates] so we're playing really specific notes in the melody. On the

other hand, this shape, you have a little more weight of sound. A little more

clarity, and a little more sophisticated music. So a little broader voice range,

a little better treble, bass sound here too.

BG: And it's not the strings it's the wood making the difference?

WM: No, no. Just the wood and the shapes because that's what I do every day

long, all day long is demonstrate all the different qualities.

BG: You also have the combination of Cherry and that, mixing them up. How does--?

WM: Yeah, if I want more volume, 45:00more individual noting and acoustic value, I

might add a Butternut top to the Cherry here. I can do that to Walnut. The

Poplar I wouldn't mix up any other woods with the Poplar. I would leave it

because it's more of the overall sound on a Poplar. The Walnut you are hearing

more of a Walnut sound, the Cherry you are hearing definitely more of the

crispiness and extreme accuracy of the Cherry wood.

BG: How does the wood make that much difference?

WM: Every piece of wood is different. That's what the challenge is, looking at

the piece of wood, feeling the piece of wood, knowing it is going to be just a

little bit different from any other piece of wood, any other board, even from

the same board or the same tree, each piece of wood is going to be totally

different. It's the textures and the way the tree 46:00grows, the combinations of

pieces of wood that we've put together in the one box that would definitely

affect the tone a little bit. Not as critical say as a violin where you are

actually sculpting and changing the tone of the parts and pieces as you would on

a violin. On a dulcimer it's more of the thickness of the wood, the actual kind

of wood. A lot of it on a fretted instrument is the actual playability or how it

handles or if the instrument is friendly or not. Some, that's a musician's term,

is whether your instrument is friendly, that means it places as easily as

possible, it notes as accurately as possible, and you can play as confidently as

possible on that 47:00instrument. That all shortens down the terms of what's a

friendly instrument. It's easy on your hands. It sounds good.

BG: What makes it friendly? The fret [inaudible]?

WM: Yes, I actually file and adjust the entire fret board. In other words, every

fret note I blend together. The Kentucky dulcimer has a tempered scale anyway

which gives it a little softer, a little harmonious sound than some instruments,

which are made using mathematical scales. This is actually an old scale that is

passed down so I'm probably the main Kentucky maker that is still using a really

truly authentic Kentucky scale spacing. Along with it playing very smoothly, and

very warmly with a good voice, over the years we've had to make the instrument

as versatile as possible. Some people are 48:00playing very sophisticated music.

There are different tunings. The dulcimer is a modal instrument because it is so

simple in scale. You can actually tune it to sound like different songs. You can

tune it to sound like different styles of music. So over all the Kentucky

dulcimer has proven to be very, very versatile. In other words, I feel like my

instruments are the most versatile as far as styles of music, playing

techniques, and different uses for the instrument.

BG: So you're glad you picked the dulcimer to work on?

WM: Oh yes. Hardly tempted to do anything else. People ask, "Do you make guitars

or violins?" No. Way, way, too much time. Time spent 49:00doing too much periphery

work. Like, if I had to spend too much time, even though I do a lot of carving

on each one, if I had to spend too much time sculpturing the wood, or even

assembling the wood, I think it would take away a lot of the enjoyment. We have

a very simple instrument, traditional Kentucky fabrication, or construction, yet

on the other hand we are able to use these wonderful local woods. The instrument

should last indefinitely. Modern homes, modern situations. The instrument should

just last indefinitely. So we try to just make each one as best as possible.

BG: Are those bigger ones on the wall behind you or do they just look that way?

WM: They look a little bigger, but if you were to actually compare my standard 50:00length, some of them are just a little bit bulky.

BG: There are four right there. Those are yours aren't they?

WM: Yes. Oh these are. These are just my special collection. I have a pretty

sophisticated Cherry selection of wood there. It has the stripe on the back and

all the little extra wood burning. That's a vine pattern. The second one has one

of my knotholes with the flowers carved in the knotholes. So I've chosen a

little fancier top there and it will have a real pretty back on it. This is

actually Indian Rosewood. Again, one of your world's finest tone woods, it's

Indian Rosewood on the top only. I found out the top is all you need to make the

Rosewood. If you made more of the instrument, maybe tops and sides, then it

would be too heavy and you wouldn't get a very good dulcimer sound. Then this

one is actually all Poplar with a little bit of Walnut on it, I think a Walnut

fret 51:00board. So, that one with the vine pattern, you've got the mellowness of the

Walnut with a little amplified voice from the Poplar. 52:00 [break]

WM: This would be a back blank. Notice I picked out a very, very strong grain

pattern. This is actually Black Walnut with the light and dark wood near the end

of the tree. When I actually saw this, sometimes I call it slicing, sawing the

thin pieces, this blank of really pretty Walnut will yield at least four back

slices. Here I've actually glued on a little contrasting stripe. So we will

actually saw the pieces out, let those rest anywhere from a few days to a few

months, then I'll go back and lay these out in sequence. You can see how the

grain pattern changes from light to darker, to darker, this one is out of

sequence, 53:00so that would probably be the way they came out. Then I go back and

actually put those together to make the prettiest book matched or mirror images,

of course you can tell those are almost identical right down to the knothole

because this will cut away, that's been planned out size wise. Very strong. This

will be a fancy back and it will be on one of my nicest signature models, any of

them with a stripe. Here would be the next match. See, that one doesn't match as

closely and so we will go back and do the closest match that would work. That

would be the closest match there. That will make two backs. Here is a top blank.

Here we've cut it out as precisely as possible for efficiency. Again, this will

make four to five slices; here would be five slices, or thin cuts of wood that

have been made 54:00from that. Again, we'd lay those out. Very, very high quality

Curly Cherry and one they're processed out and seasoned out they will be fancy

tops also. It darkens to a really pretty color.

WM continues: So here we show the two pieces where we've actually added the two

pieces on to the hollowed out fret board choosing a very, very light fret board

piece of wood, light weight piece of wood, and then of course we add--

BG: I didn't know that was hollowed out, the fret board?

WM: It's a very important aspect.

BG: Why is it hollowed out?

WM: Because a lot of the tone goes in to the frets as you press the strings on

the frets a lot of the tone goes into the fret board. Less mass here, less

heaviness, even this has been something I've done over the years is to hollow

out this area here so it wouldn't be so heavy. In this case, it's a 55:00very light

piece of wood. I either chose light straight pieces of wood that are closer to

the outside of the tree, they would be called the new growth or the sap wood,

that would make a lighter weight fret board. As you can see we've sliced the

five slices out of there which brings up the point of how I did my hourdrop

because I have one extra piece left over, and then I have to go back and match

it to another piece, but you can see how very carefully we would match the

pieces. Here would be a very high quality piece of Cherry for a back and it's

been glued together, a stripe here, but extremely strong matching grain pattern

here. On the inside, in the process of gluing this together, I've added a little

reinforcement strip here. Again, that's a way to use up almost all of the thin

stuff from all the different 56:00 processes.

BG: What kind of glue do you use on that?

WM: Typically, this is yellow glue like Titebond II and part of this assembly we

do with a white polyvinyl glue which is just a little easier to work with, but

definitely many lifetimes of lasting. We haven't had any problem with the gluing

over the years.

BG: How thick is that?

WM: Normally, an eighth of an inch, maybe just a little heavier, this piece has

not been shaved down to the final dimension yet. Of course, you can see where

we've marked it here to get the best match. So this will actually be sanded down

with a drum sander, it's probably the only piece of fancy machinery, but I do

have a drum-sanding machine, which takes the wood down to thickness. You can see

these are pretty thick here. They have not been sanded. This is Curly Ash.

Again, something that I don't use all the time, but sometimes the wood is just

absolutely the most 57:00rare exquisite grain patterns and you just can't resist,

especially when one piece of wood makes two fancy dulcimer backs, but I choose

this one just to show you how fancy just some normal wood would be.

BG: Couldn't you use either side of that?

WM: Yes. I haven't matched it yet, so I will go back and arrive. Here I can see,

of course the wood is extremely fancy, see these may not be the best match here.

You can tell that this might be a little better of a match, but I'll actually,

when I get ready to assemble them I like to go back and choose the very best

pieces. Sometimes I can lay the wood back together as it started and see if the

grain matches up and so, there are several ways to match them and several best

choices, many different choices of putting wood together the best way.

BG: How do you determine the best way?

WM: The 58:00best color matches for the two backs. The fanciest grain pattern is

first consideration. Next is making the wood as nice as a piece selection as we

can. Now this might take several weeks to months to process of some of these

fancier grain pieces, but the overall assembly of the dulcimer takes about three

weeks. People always ask that. Through my workshop I do have two employees,

typically, but I'll hand pick and hand select and actually hand process the

parts and pieces. I do a lot of the detailing like cutting the sound holes,

carving around the sound holes, carving and inspecting, like, this instrument is

assembled but there is at least a half 59:00hour of trimming, and carving, and

inletting, and in that process is where I do the quality control. Every joint is

gone over. Every little detail like this dulcimer's almost flawless here, but if

it has any tiny places that need to be secured or looked at then we will do that

in the carving and sanding process. So about three weeks through the shop,

that's not including the processing of the wood. I do let the wood age weeks to

months to years.

BG: How do you know when it's ready?

WM: You can tell. Basically I use very dry wood, and sometimes very old wood.

The wood has to be several years old, and then it has to stay in the sun, but

not sanded 60:00or not processed like this wood is, just straight from the bandsaw.

So I would actually set this up and sometimes have a little roller mechanism

against the fence here. I would slice off one slice, then slice off another

slice, and by that I mean bandsawing, and eventually get pretty even slices. So

this wood has been sitting around several weeks now. So now it is probably ready

to use anytime we wanted to use it. So I'll use that this spring.