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Featured Woodworker: Bill Rich
This month's featured woodworker is Bill Rich. Bill lives in Seymour, TN with his wife Kay and makes beautiful mountain dulcimers. As with a lot of woodworkers, Bill has a background in engineering, and has had a pretty interesting life in that field before retiring to east Tennessee. He helped start not one but two companies (both of which are still going strong). Bill's dulcimers are also featured at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN. This is a living history museum of pioneer, frontier, and early artifacts of the Southern Appalachians. I really enjoyed getting to know Bill and listening to his love of making and playing this unique mountain instrument.
When did you first become interested in Woodworking?
Bill- I started actively pursuing it around 1980 as a hobby. I built some furniture and did some carving, with a limited number of tools. Then when I retired in 1997 we built our house and I ended up doing all the internal trim work and case work. After all that I think my wife felt I should get busy doing something else because I was becoming too idle I guess so she ask me to build her a dulcimer. I started out by buying a kit dulcimer and building that. I felt that I could do a better job and that's was the beginning of how all this started. I was doing some turning and furniture before this but since early 2004 it's been nothing but dulcimers. I think what really draws me to making dulcimers is that it takes virtually every tool in the shop to make one.
You stated early when we talked that you have an engineering background. This seems to be something that's pretty common among woodworkers. Let's go back even further though and talk about when you first realized that you enjoyed working with your hands and making tangible objects.
Bill- In my youth I was into electronics. At an early age I became interested in amaeture radio. I built some of my own equipment and that kind of stuff. But my father was a cabinet maker so I spent summers working in the shop with him. So I had a lot of exposure to woodworking. But I really wouldn't say that I discovered woodworking until around that time in 1980.
How long was your father a cabinet maker and what did he concentrate on?
Bill- He was a cabinet maker for about 20 years and mostly did cabinetry and furniture repair.
I know from reading your website that you're retired but tell our readers what you did before you were bit by the woodworking bug?
After high school I went to college as a pre-med student but this was along 1966 and there was another thing going on in another part of the world called the Vietnam War. I enlisted after my freshman year of college. I was lucky because I got to spend most of my time in Kansas in the Army band. After the Army I wanted to find my way back into the scientific world so I went to work for Commonwealth Edison in a chemistry lab doing pre-operation studies in Illinois. I then migrated into microprocessors early on. I designed my first system in 1977. Then i ended up with a systems engineering job with North American Phillips in the Chicago suburbs. We designed and manufactured x-ray spectrometers used with electron microscopes. After about 10 years the company decided to move their operations to New Jersey. Many of the engineers along with myself elected not to relocate. I had hired most of the engineers working for them at this point in my time with Phillips so I decided to hire a few of them and we started an engineering consulting firm in 1987. We offered electronics and design services along with software development for companies in the Chicagoland area. The name of our company is BIT7 and is still in operation today. We also started a manufacturing company in 1989 called Circuit Works Corporation. I was President of BIT7 and VP of Sales and Marketing for Circuit Works Corp.
I retired in 1997 and my wife and I wanted to move to Tennessee. My wife has some family here so we came to visit in 1995. My brother-in-law took us out to look at some property and we put an offer on it that same day. So we already had property down here when we finally did retire. We just couldn't resist living here it's so beautiful and the weather is so much nicer than in Chicago.
Let's talk about Dulcimers. We talked about how you started out building your first dulcimer from a kit, but what is it about dulcimers that has caused you to want to continue building them?
Bill- One of the things that building dulcimers enables me to do is to work with a variety of woods. We have some of the best hardwoods anywhere right here in our own backyard, and I enjoy incorporating them into my dulcimers. Another reason is just the pursuit of making the next one better. When we get good at something we natural want to continue to pursue it to make it even better. Also, as I mentioned early it pulls in a lot of disciplines. Everything from judging the rough lumber all the way through finishing it. I've built some furniture and it's nice to have in the house and other woodworkers can look at it and appreciate the work that went into it. But how often can you build something and after you're done it sings to you. That's pretty special.
What kind of woodworking did you do before you started building dulcimers?
Bill- I've done a little of everything. My largest project was the restoration of a barn. (See the before and after pictures). I built-in bookcase/entertainment center for my music room made from cherry that was seventeen feet long floor to ceiling. I also got into turning bowls and even thought I'd try and sell I few, after all just how many bowls do you need yourself. I found that their were a lot of talented people turning out some beautiful pieces but not being paid what they were worth. I did enjoy making bowls and hope to do some more of it but right now I just sticking with making dulcimers.
How long does it take to build a typical dulcimer?
Bill- I make a "Sweetpea" dulcimer that a basic tear drop design made from popular. This is our entry level dulcimer. It takes me about 1 1/2 man days to make one over the course of a week and half to two weeks. Others that have more features can take 3 or 4 man days or longer over the coarse of six weeks.
I know you also build custom models as well from reading your website. Do you prefer to build customs?
Bill- I do enjoy make the custom models because I like to think about the person I'm making the dulcimer for as I'm building it. But the thing that I like about the Sweetpea model is it often times introduces a person to a instrument that is easy to learn to play (Bill says a person can learn to play a dulcimer in about 10 minutes) at an affordable price.
Do you find people that have bought a Sweetpea model coming back for a custom?
Bill- I offer a sizable credit for return of the Sweetpea that goes towards an upgrade. But most people choose to keep their Sweetpea. People that really get into dulcimers collect them and some will end up with several. Another reason people tend to keep their dulcimers is that each one is unique and has it's own unique sound especially if there are different woods involved in the dulcimers.
That leads us to our next question, what kind of woods do you typically use in making your dulcimers and the different sounds that they can make?
Bill- Probably the two woods I use the most these days is popular, which I use exclusively on the Sweetpea, and the other wood I use a lot of is black walnut. On everything but the Sweetpea it's my standard for the headstock, the back of the instruments, and sides unless a customer requests different woods. Walnut finishes beautifully and has a nice mellow sound. Maple, especially curly and wormy, sale very well for me as well. Maple will generally give the instrument a brighter sound. I'm actually building myself a performance model dulcimer with big sound and I'm using peacan which is my favorite wood for sound.
What are the things that go into a dulcimer that makes it sound louder?
Bill- The size of the instrument plays a large part of making it sound louder. When you go from a tear drop shape to a hour glass shape you increase the sound. The size of the sound holes in the instrument will also affect the sound. Naturally, different woods will change the sound as well, with spruce probably being the most prised wood. The other thing that you can do to increase the sound is to put a raised fret board on it.
What have been some of the ways that you've learned to make dulcimers in the beginning?
Bill- The one book that I recommend was probably written 15 to 20 years ago by Scott Antes who also sells plans. One other thing that has help me is to take my instrument to accomplished dulcimer players and ask for their feedback on how I can make it better. Also, 90% of the time other dulcimer makers are willing to share their knowledge. This is not a dog eat dog world, people are into this because they love dulcimers and making them.
You must feel a little added pressure in making something that not only has to look nice but even more importantly, it most sound good. Talk a little about that.
Bill- Now you're talking about where science and art come together. There are some things that all dulcimers need. You need a flat fret board, the frets need to be in the right place, you need good action which means the strings are the proper height over the frets, and the bracing is also critical. Too much bracing and the sound is dampened. Too little bracing and you open up the possibility to damaging the instrument These are some of the science part of building a dulcimer. The art part is doing all the previous mentioned things but making sure all the tool marks have been removed, the choice of woods, the design, all the way to the finish.
What type of tools are involved in the making of a dulcimer?
Bill- In preparing the wood for use I use the typical power tools. I plane the face off just to get a good look at the wood so I can sort it into what parts of the instrument it will be used for. I book match parts together by re-sawing boards on the bandsaw which means I also have to spend some time at the jointer. I use a drum sander for the very thin pieces and because it doesn't tear out the wood like a jointer can. I use a number of sanding tools. A spindle sander, the drum sander, belt sander, disk sander. But even after all that there's still a whole lot of hand sanding that goes into each instrument. I would estimate around two hours of hand sanding per instrument. I also use a drill press, scroll saw and a streamer to condition the wooden parts that are bent around shop built fixtures.
What type of finish do you use on your dulcimers?
Bill- I like Bartley's Gel Varnish. After the finally grit of sanding I'll wipe on mineral spirits to get the last of the dust off before applying the gel finish. One thing I love about this type of finish is that it's easily repaired.
One other thing that Bill was very adamant about was wearing safety glasses and keeping the shop floor swept up to prevent slipping. Both Bill's grandfather and father lost an eye in their respective woodworking professions. You don't get second chances, wear your safety glasses.
To learn even more about Bill Rich or to inquire about getting your own handmade dulcimer go to:
You can also e-mail Bill at:
Here are some additional pictures
"Best in Show" blue ribbon winner. This wasn't just a show for dulcimers. All kinds of craftspeople were selling their goods, which makes the "best in show" prize all the more impressive.
Pictures of Bill's shop: