Last night was the last meeting of the klezmer band for the spring. As has become the tradition, we had a small party at the home of one of the members, with a few guests for an audience and potluck desserts. Afterwards, as we were standing around having desserts, I noticed what appeard to be a harpsichord (“appeared to be” because a cloth covered the whole top, including the keyboard — but it looked lighter than a baby grand piano and had a straight side rather than a curved piano side) in the living room. I was getting set to ask our host if he had built it when my eye fell on another string instrument next to it, a clunky box cut from a lauan hollow-core door with three strings running down the top. I had seen that thing before. I went over to take a close look. Inside the sound hole, as I expected, was a paper label. Sure enough, my signature was on it! I had made that thing over 40 years ago and probably sold it at a yard sale before we moved to Newton in 1976.
At some time while I was a starving graduate student, I wanted to learn to play “Turkey in the straw” on the fiddle. Being, as I just said, a starving graduate student, I wasn’t going to be able to afford to buy a fiddle, but maybe I could make one. One day when I was in the Brookline Public Library (my grad school roommate’s family lived in Brookline, and for some reason we were in the library there) I found a book about violinmaking and looked through it. It said (as best I can quote 43 years later) “There is no such thing as ‘that’s near enough’ in violin making. Measurements must be exact and pieces must fit perfectly.” I knew I wasn’t that good a woodworker. I put the book back. Right next to it on the shelf was a book about dulcimers, and it said (and here I know I’m paraphrasing) “Sure, you can make yourself a dulcimer.” I got a copy of Jean Ritchie’s dulcimer book and another book plus record set (12 inch vinyl, long before CDs existed) from Folk-Legacy Records. The book had a chapter called “on making instruments out-of-doors”, by which the author didn’t mean plein air woodworking, but rather using hollow-core doors as your raw material. I built at least two dulcimers from hollow core doors, another couple using lauan plywood for the fronts and backs, and a couple from a pine board which I painstakingly resawed (means sawed into thinner boards — a lot of wood to remove — took days before I finished, a few minutes at a time) by hand. The one I saw the other night was the crudest of the bunch.
The neck of the instrument, where the tuning pegs are, is now cracked. I promised my friends I’ll fix it for them, and give them a dulciimer lesson too.