Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Time to Retire

Dulcimer number oneOver fifty years ago, in 1970, I made my first dulcimer. It was a simple solid-body electric dulcimer made from a trashed, cheap Japanese electric guitar. I pulled the frets off the guitars neck to use for dulcimer frets. The electronics, pickup, volume and tone controls, and tuning gears also came from the guitar. The body was a piece of 3/4” plywood, shaped like a standard hourglass dulcimer, and painted white. It worked great, and I even used it on stage when our group, Throckmorton, played a rock version of “Shady Grove”. I still have it hanging on my studio wall.

Since then I’ve made over 500 instruments, furniture pieces (medieval and modern), sculptures, and wood turnings. I’ve taught wood carving at Cabrillo College, and I’ve taught wood turning, wood carving, luthiery and general woodworking in my studio and shop for twenty years. For the last twenty-five years, I’ve been restoring antique and vintage stringed instruments. I became the go-to person in North America for zither repairs, both concert style and chord zithers. I’ve restored many dulcimers, ukuleles, guitars, and even autoharps.

From 2001 to 2016 I exhibited at craft shows and arts festivals across the country, at one point attending six shows a year. I was juried into many American Craft Council shows, starting out in Charlotte, North Carolina, with three years in the ACC flagship show in Baltimore, and too many to count in ACC San Francisco. There was the Bellevue Art Museum show in Washington state for three years, six or seven years in the Scottsdale Arts Festival in Arizona, and a few years each at the King’s Mountain Art Fair and the Sausalito Arts Fair.

I’m tired. After all that, it’s time for me to retire. Well, about time to retire.

New Work

MbirasI still have my Etsy shop, and the last two years have been very good. To keep it fresh, I will still make an occasional small instrument, furniture piece, or sculpture.

Since December, I’ve made three Mbiras (thumb pianos), two large ones and one mini. Also, one of the Mbiras (left in photo)  is electric with an internal pickup. It also has a volume control knob.

The electric one is salvaged cocobolo with a maple sound hole rosette. The mini is purpleheart with maple binding. The one on the right in the photo has a salvaged cocobolo back, wenge (pronounced whengay) sides, and spruce top. The little hammers are for tapping the tines for tuning. These three mbira’s are available on Etsy.

NotersAt the end of 2021, my stock of dulcimer noters was down to one. This last week I finally started carving some more. These are the newest ones.

The one on the left is salvaged cherry. The middle one is salvaged black walnut. The one on the right is salvaged white oak. These are also available on Etsy.

Be sure to check out Etsy for all my original pieces. Shipping is free.


On The Workbench 

I am currently working on my last two restorations, zithers I had promised to do late last year. The concert zither on the left is an Anton Kiendl zither from around 1899. This is the second of two identical Anton Kiendl zithers I’ve restored for the same customer. The chord zither on the right is a Phonoharp Model 2. When I’ve finished restoring it, it will have five chords and fifteen doubled strings. This zither had a very scaly “alligator” surface, large cracks on the back, and the frame was coming apart. I had to remove the back to make all repairs.  Fink and Kip Zithers

Last November I was commissioned to make a custom dulcimer cane. This is my last commission. Like the last time I was commissioned, I’m making a second one to sell on Etsy. These are numbers 5 and 6.They both have maple bodies with a decorative piece of black walnut on the back. Dulcimer canesThe fingerboards, handle, and “foot” are black walnut.

My dulcimer canes are based on an 1845 original from Mirecourt, France. The original was a four-string guitar. I adapted the design as a Mountain dulcimer. All the dulcimer canes I’ve made have been very popular.

The unfinished dulcimer cane (top in photo) will be available on Etsy when completed.


Retirement doesn’t mean I’m going to sit around and watch television all the time. No, I will be using my time writing more. I’ve actually been a writer since grade school, and when I was working in the private sector, I was a technical writer. I’ve been published in several magazines and trade journals and published four books so far. Lately, I just finished another novel (still in edit mode) and started another. More news about this coming in future blogs.

For now, it’s time to finish up these last restorations and instruments then celebrate with a glass of vino!

Friday, September 24, 2021

Open Studios Art Tour is Back

After nearly two years, the Santa Cruz County Open Studios Art Tour is back! This wOpenstudios21 Postcard-4x6-front-72ill be my 20th year opening my studio to the public. I am listed in the Artist Guide as Artist #253 and will be open from 11 to 5 on October 9-10 and 16-17. A preview exhibit is opening at the Santa Cruz Art League on First Friday, October 1.

What will be different this year is that my exhibit will be outside only and next to my studio. (Hopefully the rains will hold off!) The Arts Council is also suggesting visitors wear masks when visiting artist’s studios. They have given artists a set of masks to give out if necessary.

I have several new pieces to show, and I hope to see you here on the second and third weekends in October.

Because there was no Open Studios in 2020, the Arts Council created the Visual Arts Network. It is still active online and is a good place to see the works of other Open Studios artists.

New Work

Porter Dulcimer Cane w-standA few months ago a customer from Oregon wanted me to build her a dulcimer cane. I had built two of them before, and one sold, but, unfortunately, one was stolen from a gallery showing. My customer had seen the one I sold on Etsy, and she wanted one similar. She uses a cane, and I asked her how high it was. I built her dulcimer cane to the same height. This one has a maple body with salvaged black walnut handle and fingerboard.Porter Dulcimer Cane-head detail2 There is also salvaged ebony for accents. It has a very bright tone.

While making this commissioned piece, I decided to make a Dulcimer Cane2-72second similar one but with a different carving and several inches taller. It is made with the same woods. Dulcimer Cane detail2I finished it around two weeks after completing the commission and put it up for sale on Etsy.

That didn’t last long. It was on Etsy for barely 10 days and sold. It’s going to a new home in Colorado.

Other instruments that have been very popular this last year are the Saxon and Germanic Lyres (Rotes), both full sized and the smaller “mini” sizes. Because of the popularity, I had to make a few more.They are also on Etsy.

One of the newest instruments I crafted is the Mbira, also known as an African thumb piano. The first one I built sold on Etsy right away, so I made a second. It also sold right away. So, I made another. This one is salvaged mahogany sides and back, salvaged first-growth Douglas fir top, flamed maple binding, and a black walnut and maple soundhole. Like the other Mbiras I made, it has a bright lovely tone. It is available on Etsy.

In the Studio

There are several pieces I’m currently working on. Lately, I’ve been working a little more  on my Ottavina (Octave Spinet). I added some old-style hinges to the key cover and the top. I also made a post for holding the lid up. (Like a Ottavina-opentop on a grand Ottavina-closedpiano.) The next “big” project is to layout for the strings, then make a rail for the jacks (plectrum) that will pluck the strings. I originally started work on this octave spinet (which is a type of harpsichord) back in the mid to late 1970s. The case I built then was not up to my standards today. I made a new case of black walnut using angled dovetails. The stand is also black walnut.

On my workbench are parts for another teardrop-style dulcimer. Once again the woods are salvaged. The top, back, and sides are cocobolo, which is a Central American tree. I’m about ready to carve the head and tailpiece, which are hard maple. Cocobolo dulcimer-parts-72Once I finish carving, assembly will go fairly quickly. The whole process takes around 20 hours or so over two to three weeks.

In addition to my studio, I have a shop in my garage where I have my large power tools, like my table saw, 17 inch band saw, drum sander, spindle sander, and a large belt and disk sander. This is where I work on larger pieces and do antique stringed instrument restorations.

12x12-pipe organ-72A project I’m working on now is a small pipe organ. It’s mostly maple and some black walnut. The pipes are pine and oak.  I hope to have it finished in a couple of weeks so I can enter it in the 12 x 12 (x 12) event at the Cabrillo College Gallery later in October.

Recently I was watching a virtual American Woodturners Association Zoom-type broadcast of a woman woodturner who used power carving devices for embellishing turned vessels. One of her power carving tools was a high speed device that seemed to cut through the wood like butter. She swore by it. I had to have one.

New carver-72After some research, I finally found the carver at an online storefront. As the woman woodturner said, it does cut through wood like butter. My Foredom and Dremel with flex shafts run up to 15,000 rpm. My new Marathon III Micromotor runs over 30,000 rpm allowing me to make highly detailed carvings. What is also nice about the Marathon is the handpiece has a quick change feature. Extremely easy to change bits. No wrenches needed!


Since my last blog, I’ve restored three more zithers. Two were German made concert zithers, and one was a U.S. made chord zither.

Done3-72This one is a Circa 1900-1910 Job. Bartholom√§ Concert Zither. Bartholom√§ has been used as a last name in Germany, especially the Bavarian region, but now is more commonly spelled Bartholomew. Bartholom√§ is also a small town in the hills east of Stuttgart and southwest from Nurenberg. It’s very possible this zither could have been made in Nurenberg, which was a major center of concert zither manufacturing in the late 1800s to just before WWI. Stuttgart also has had some zither manufacturers but is now an industrial city where Mercedes and Porsches are made. Read my repair log here.

Completed-72This larger one is a Circa 1903-1917 August Schulz Concert Zither. Because of the size, it was sometimes called an Alpine zither or a harp zither. This fine zither was crafted in Nuremberg, Germany by August Schulz. What I could find from my research was that the workshop was in operation from 1902 to 1917. Operations probably ceased because of World War I. There were actually more August Schulz guitars made than zithers. August Schulz also made lutes. Read my repair log here.


This chord zither on the right is a Circa 1900 Home Educational Co. Mandolin Guitar-Harp. Of course, this is not a mandolin or a guitar. It is closer to a harp because it is plucked.

Chord zithers, often called Guitar Zithers, were extremely popular from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. Hundreds of thousands were made by several companies, including Friederich Menzenhauer, Oscar Schmidt, and Phonoharp. Phonoharp, of East Boston, Massachusetts, made several different models of chord zither, each one manufactured in the thousands. These were primarily sold in Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs as well as door-to-door. Some Phonoharp models, called Mandolin Guitar-Harps, were distributed by the Home Educational Company of Concord, North Carolina, who applied their own labels inside the instruments.

This zither need extensive work to restore it. You can read my repair log on my website.

Do you have a zither or other stringed instrument needing restoration or repair? Is is a family heirloom you want to play and/or save for posterity? If you do, send me an email, along with photos or the instrument (especially problem areas on the instrument), so I can give you a quote on my services. My email  is ron@roncookstudios.com.

That’s it for now. Remember, Open Studios is coming up. My studio is open 11-5, October 9-10 and 16-17. See you then!