old time wire frets for dulcimer (or anything fretted)

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Forum topic by JonJ posted 01-09-2008 09:14 PM 5140 views 3 times favorited 13 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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163 posts in 3987 days

01-09-2008 09:14 PM

Topic tags/keywords: tip dulcimer luthier frets cheap traditional

I often wondered how luthiers of old found their fret wire…I mean, even now it’s not something you can usually hop down to the corner market and pick up, so how did they build those dulcimers in the backwoods where you had to scratch build just about all of it? Real fret wire has sort of a capital “T” cross section…you cut a slot in the neck and pound the base into the groove till all you see is the top of the wire. While I’m sure they have had this style of fret since 1800’s and maybe before, I bet it was not easy to get, or cheap.

I was lucky enough to get to see a dulcimer that dated back to the late 1800’s. There is a world of difference between speculation as to how they did something back then, vs. seeing the real deal. Then you know FOR A FACT how it was done.

It was so simple, I coudn’t belive it! maybe there are some luthiers here that, this is old stuff to them, but I had never heard of it. You take common piece of bailing or any other type of wire and bend it in sort of a staple shape. You drill small holes at each side of the neck where the fret goes and press it in…how easy is that! to make it more secure, you could glue it, or if you really wanted to get carried away, cut a recess under the neck to crimp the ends or twist together. Depending on the diameter of the wire, your nut and bridge groove depth would have to be cut accordingly. I suppose unless you used a hardened wire, it may wear grooves a little quicker, but this is such a cool trick and a money saver too, I have to share it. Not to mention, if you wanted to make a REALLY traditional instrument with carved wooden tuning pegs, these frets would be perfect.

This is a sketch I drew and sent to a friend who also builds dulcimers. Hope it makes sense.
There is also the bit on there about hourglass vs. teardrop body styles. I know I mentioned that in a seperate post, but it’s already on the drawing so we’ll just leave it there in case someone missed it!

I’ll try to post actual pix of these frets being installed someday…


-- Jon

13 replies so far

View rikkor's profile


11295 posts in 4021 days

#1 posted 01-09-2008 09:33 PM

Neat! One (wannabe) luthier who appreciates the history lesson.

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 4135 days

#2 posted 01-09-2008 10:33 PM

Very cool! I never thought of that.

-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View MsDebbieP's profile


18616 posts in 4307 days

#3 posted 01-09-2008 10:43 PM

They were brilliant, weren’t they? !

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

View roy's profile


134 posts in 3941 days

#4 posted 01-09-2008 11:58 PM

i heard people use to use field fence wire for their frets
love the article. i’ll have to build me a dulcimer for my next project

-- tn hillbilly.." tryin to do the best i can with what i got "

View JohnBartley's profile


3 posts in 3939 days

#5 posted 01-10-2008 12:27 AM

Very nice!! The information is fascinating – I love seeing how work was done historically. Thank you for posting this page.

cheers eh?

View Mario's profile


902 posts in 4198 days

#6 posted 01-10-2008 02:27 PM

That is really cool. Sometimes the easiest works the best. Thanks for the info.

-- Hope Never fails

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 4109 days

#7 posted 01-10-2008 03:33 PM

Great info for the luthiers in the bunch. I like to play but don’t have to time to build or play much either. Danged shame, really.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View oicurn2it2's profile


146 posts in 3985 days

#8 posted 01-11-2008 03:19 AM

youre making me wanna finish that banjo i started

-- "when you think youre going to slow, slow down just a little bit more" .... Pop's

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 4461 days

#9 posted 01-11-2008 05:27 AM

State of the art (1800’s) Technology.

View JonJ's profile


163 posts in 3987 days

#10 posted 01-11-2008 05:00 PM

youre making me wanna finish that banjo i started

Do it! I think something is brewing…


-- Jon

View Occie gilliam's profile

Occie gilliam

505 posts in 3443 days

#11 posted 11-15-2009 03:50 PM

a little late for my response,
thanks for your post you have given me an idea to work with wire

-- OC down in Costa Rica. come down and see me some time. I'll keep the light on for you

View CharlieM1958's profile


16276 posts in 4365 days

#12 posted 11-15-2009 04:32 PM

Prior to modern technology, people used to have to actually use their heads. :-)

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Tim Pletcher's profile

Tim Pletcher

90 posts in 3221 days

#13 posted 01-11-2010 08:50 PM

very cool, good work :)


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