Being a band geek and having a mother who was a piano teacher and choir director, I was always around music. I’ve played the banjo, guitar, mandolin, trombone, fiddle, ukulele, and more. But when I first heard the hammered dulcimer played by a guy busking on the street in Key West, FL January 1, 1976, I knew I had to get my hands on one. I thought it was the coolest sound I’d ever heard, and he was even playing my kind of tunes! Little did I know that moment would alter the course of my life.
Ever since I saw my first fine guitar I wanted to make instruments. But being a poor college student at the time, I doubted I would ever afford one. So why not make one myself? In early 1979, I went to Charles Fox’s School of Guitar Research and Design in South Strafford, VT. It was one of the high points of my life.
There is something I loved about learning, developing, and honing my building skills. I realized the work of a craftsman was in itself a work of art. This process was no different than for someone who paints a picture; it comes from the same creative place inside. But what I enjoy most about making instruments is that they are not objects that would sit uselessly on someone’s countertop to collect dust. I was creating an object with perhaps the most meaningful purpose; an object used to create the art of music.
I came away from the school with a good guitar, a mandolin, and an even stronger urge to build instruments. And I did for a while, but starvation and the demands of a growing family made me find paying work, and I went into the cabinet business.
I did mainly installation work, but by my 40th birthday, I was having too much back pain, and the urge to make instruments was still strong. So I got up that day and told everyone I was going to quit the cabinet business and start building instruments full-time.
My mom said, “Oh!”, stamping her foot.
My dad said, “Oh….” with a hand to his forehead, gently shaking his head.
My boss said, “You’ll be back in a month.”
My wife at the time said, “But what’ll we do for money?”
It was the worst day of my life. But I quit my job anyway.
So I started Jan 1, 1992, making mandolins. I had a good little design that was easy to produce, and fun to play. But marketing them started looking like an uphill battle; I never was much of a salesman. Then that February I was in Tucson, AZ trying to sell some of my mandolins, but I instead met a guy that had a hammered dulcimer kit company that he wanted to sell.
I had always wanted a hammered dulcimer since that day long ago in Key West, and he didn’t want much for the company. It looked like it would subsidize the mandolin operation, and he had a great mailing list to go with it, so I bought it. I took all the equipment home, set it up, made one dulcimer to make sure I could, and sent out letters to his whole list. Three days later the phone calls with orders started to come in. It was amazing! The hammered dulcimer took over my life.
I haven’t made a mandolin since!
I don’t know why all this happened, but I did know the day I met the guy with the kit company that this was what I meant to do. It just felt right, and all my training dovetailed perfectly with it. I took the kit guy’s designs and gradually changed them into what I thought they should be. I get these ideas out of the blue and they won’t leave me alone until I try them. Not sure where they come from, don’t think it is me.
The hammered dulcimer looks simple, but it is deceptive. The design variables are limitless. The design aspect has been engrossing, sometimes aggravating, but always rewarding; even when my experiments are a failure. Over the years the dulcimer has taught me and is still teaching me SO MUCH.
That decision on my 40th birthday has not been a good one financially, but it was the right one. I am so much richer for the things I have been allowed to do, and the people I have been able to meet. I believe everyone has an inborn talent or proclivity that they were born for, and building hammered dulcimers are mine.
These days my wife Melanie and I work together building, stringing, packing, and shipping our hammered dulcimers. We have also hired a talented apprentice named Christopher Bierstedt, a classical violinist, and violin craftsman. He has quickly become essential to our operation, and at this point don’t know what we would do without him.
Our business has continued to grow, even during the pandemic. We have managed to find the silver lining in the supply chain debacle by now ensuring all our products are 100% American-made. No more overseas ordering; Melanie now heads the operation and construction of our new handmade dulcimer cases. Along with her friend Diane Merritt, we can now offer quality-crafted cases of our own. We are truly blessed.
We know every detail of every instrument that we send out. Our joy has turned out to be helping folks with their music, and this extends to the dulcimers we build. When we are working on them, we are constantly mindful that they are going to belong to somebody. And we hope our hammered dulcimer will be the joy of that person’s life.