It's really best to have someone show you the first time out, but if that's not possible, here's some general information and instructions. If this is your first string replacement, take your time, and if you have to re-do it, don't sweat it -- strings are pretty cheap, so stay cool and you'll be fine.
Note: Dulcimer strings are under a lot of tension and can snap up when they break. Since most are threaded through at least one bridge, you shouldn't have to worry about it too much -- usually, the worst you'll feel is a slight jolt from the sound -- but it's something to keep in mind. Also, be careful with string ends, as they're usually sharp.
String TypesPlain strings usually come as a spool of string wire from which you cut the desired length. The main advantage to this type is that it's cheaper, since you're buying in some sort of bulk. The disadvantage is that it's usually strung up across both courses of a given note, meaning that if one "string" breaks, you lose the entire note. Some folks buy in bulk and create their own loop-end strings using a looping tool or a thick nail held in a vice.
Loop-end strings have a loop on one end, where the string is curved back and coiled around itself to hold the loop in place. Loop ends are easier to find in most music stores (at least in stainless steel and wound form) and I think they're easier to work with since they have that nice loop that nestles on the hitch pin. And since they're separate, if a string breaks while you're playing, you still have the note. The main disadvantage is that they're a little more expensive per string.
String GaugesThe gauge of a string is its thickness, measured in thousandths of an inch. Most stringed instruments use different gauges for different notes to ensure proper tension and tone. If a string is too thick for a note, it'll damage the instrument and/or break before it reaches pitch. If it's too thin, it'll sound weak and watery. The higher the note, the thinner the string.
Before you replace a string, you need to know what gauge your dulcimer uses for each note. Your dulcimer should have come with a tuning chart that will also list string gauges, but if you didn't get one and can't contact the builder, go to an instrument repair shop and have the strings measured. Most shops will have a micrometer (a device for measuring thickness) and can help you create a tuning chart.
|VERY IMPORTANT: When replacing a string, ALWAYS use the same type and gauge as the old string. A thicker gauge or stiffer string wire may do damage to the dulcimer by adding too much tension, so don't change the material or gauge without consulting the dulcimer's builder. If the builder can't be contacted, consult a repair shop to determine the right material and gauge. If the gauge you have cannot be matched perfectly, go to the next thinnest size (smaller number).|
If this sounds confusing, don't worry about it. As long as you know the gauges you need, you'll be fine.
String MaterialDulcimer strings are made of different kinds of metal, each of which has its own characteristics.
Where to Find StringsStrings are available from many sources, but your dulcimer builder may be your best source -- assuming, of course, that he or she sells strings. I like going to my dulcimer builder because he has the exact type and gauge of strings I need, his prices are fair, and he turns my orders around quickly.
If you need stainless steel or wound strings and you're not near a "dulcimer string" source, you might be able to use a guitar or octave mandolin string of the same or smaller gauge if it's long enough. Guitar strings will have a small ball in the loop that will need to be removed first.
Of course, it's a good idea to keep a small store of spare strings. One or two courses of each type/gauge should do the trick.
What You'll NeedBesides strings, you'll need the following tools to change a string:
How It's DoneHere's the way I learned to change loop-end strings. All the dulcimer tuning pins I've seen turn clockwise to tighten, but you should check the other pins before you turn anything.
Also, note that the tuning pin is not strictly a friction pin. It has a coarse thread that lowers it into the pin block like a screw. Therefore, you have to back the pin out of the block before you wind a new string around it.
NOTE: If the pin becomes difficult to turn, remove the wrench and check its height. If it's lower than the others, the pin may have "bottomed out" in its hole, probably due to too much slack in the string. Back it out and start again.
NOTE: New strings will usually go a little flat and need more tweaking than others for the first day or two. This is normal as the new string is stretched, but metal strings should settle in fairly quickly. If the string goes seriously flat within a few minutes and refuses to stay in tune, it's probably slipping somewhere -- either it's not secure on the tuning pin, or the loop is coming undone. Either way, you'll need to start over with a new string.
Making Your Own LoopsIf the only way you can get wire for a particular course or courses is in bulk, you can make your own loop-end strings fairly easily. To do this, you'll need a winding post a little thicker than a hitch pin. I have a phillips-head screwdriver with a 3/16" shaft that works nicely, but a fat nail will do the trick. If you have a workshop vise, it's best to hold the post in it while you work.
Replacing Old StringsThere's some debate about whether dulcimer strings should be replaced when they get old. I'm in the camp that says "yes."
The thing is, when strings are tuned, hit, plucked, or even just vibrated passively, they're bending and stretching. And if you've ever played with a piece of metal you could bend or stretch, you know that if you keep it up long enough, the metal will break. Engineers call this metal fatigue, and it's the reason why all metal objects under stress eventually fail.
Dulcimer strings are no different. They won't always break, of course, but fatigue does change their resilliency, which robs them of tone and makes them harder to tune because they'll no longer stretch evenly.
Unwound bronze and brass strings are brittle and can break fairly easily, even when new. If you should break a couple of these strings at once or nearly so, don't take that as a sure sign to change all the strings.So how often should you change dulcimer strings? On average, it's measured in years, but exposure to elements and amount of playing can affect this. For example, the all-day, every-day busker will probably wear out strings faster than the weekend jammer.
The main thing to look for is tone, but since it'll change gradually, you may not notice it. If someone whose ear you trust tells you that your dulcimer doesn't sound as good as it used to, that's a clue. If you replace a broken string and discover a tone you didn't know you had, that's another one. And if you find it really difficult to tune accurately, or if several strings break without apparent reason, then it's probably time.
If your strings just sound dull, try cleaning them before you do anything else. The best tool for this is a plain (non-soapy), dry Scotchbrite pad, which you can find at home centers and hardware stores in small sheets. Cut off a small piece and rub it along the length of the strings to clean off any corrosion that has built up, and that may be enough to give the strings some added life.Replacing a whole dulcimer full of strings is a daunting task. If your dulcimer needs re-stringing, consider these options:
If you need to remove all the strings at once, use some drafting tape to mark where the bridges went so you can reposition them easily. Also, keep track of the bridge caps (plastic rods) at the top of the bridges and over near the pin blocks. They may be in long, single rods or short sections, and they have a way of falling off and rolling onto the floor when you're not looking.