Chris Peterson
Hammered Dulcimer, Guitar, Original Music

Replacing Dulcimer Strings

Replacing strings on a hammered dulcimer isn't difficult, but it can be a little exasperating if you're new to the task. Of course, you can always pay someone to do it for you, but if you're out and about and a string breaks, it's nice to know how to do it yourself.

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 Types

Plain 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 Gauges

The 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).

For most instruments, strings are called by their gauge (.010, .026, .045, etc.), but for some instruments (including dulcimers), steel strings are called by numbers that correspond to different gauges:

  • 1 = .010 inch
  • 2 = .011
  • 3 = .012
  • 4 = .013
  • 5 = .014
  • 6 = .015
  • 7 = .018
  • 8 = .020
  • 9 = .022
  • 10 = .024
Unwound bronze and brass are sometimes called by gauge or numbers. Wound strings are usually called only by their gauges.

If this sounds confusing, don't worry about it. As long as you know the gauges you need, you'll be fine.

String Material

Dulcimer strings are made of different kinds of metal, each of which has its own characteristics.
  • Stainless steel is probably the most common type of modern dulcimer string. These strings are silver-colored and shiny, and they're pretty much the same as the unwound strings on acoustic guitars and mandolins. All else being equal, they're the brightest sounding string type. Stainless steel can be bought with loop ends or in bulk.

  • Piano wire is a dull silver-gray color that turns to a dark gray with age. Its tone is a bit fatter and warmer than stainless steel, and it seems to be a bit stiffer. I've never seen piano wire sold as single, loop-end strings, but they might exist.

  • Unwound bronze wire is a shiny, dark golden brown wire that tarnishes quickly. Because it's stiffer than steel, it's sometimes used at or near the low end of larger dulcimers to keep the tone from being too thin or watery over those longer expanses. It's also more brittle than steel, so it'll break more easily and require more careful handling. It's available as loop-end strings or in bulk.

  • Unwound brass wire is a medium gold color. It's not very common on dulcimers, but at least one builder uses it for all the lowest notes on his larger instruments. It's stiffer than steel, but I believe it's not quite as brittle as bronze. I don't know if loop-end strings are available.

  • Wound strings are composite strings, almost always made with loop ends. They have a core of some sort (usually steel wire) around which fine bronze wire is coiled tightly in a form of wrapping, which makes a "zipping" noise when you run your fingernail along its length. On dulcimers, wound strings are reserved for the low end to give a fatter tone over the longer expanse. Wound strings will stay in tune longer than unwound strings, but they'll also lose their tone more quickly, requiring more frequent replacement.

Where to Find Strings

Strings 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 Need

Besides strings, you'll need the following tools to change a string:
  • Tuning wrench.
  • Electronic tuner.
  • Needle-nose pliers -- these are the ones with the long, tapered end. Small ones are better for working in close quarters, but the larger ones grip better.
  • Diagonal cutting pliers -- electricians use these to cut wires.
  • Alligator clip -- these are also used by electricians, and some tuner pickups are made with them. If you don't have one, you can find them at Radio Shack for about 50 cents apiece.

How It's Done

Here'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.

  • Back the tuning pin out (counterclockwise on most dulcimers) 3 to 4 full turns.

  • Lift the string off the hitch pin (the smaller one that doesn't turn), unthread it from the bridges and carefully unwind it from the tuning pin. If the string has broken at the tuning pin, use the needle-nose pliers to remove what's left of the string from there.

  • Thread the new string through and over the bridges as needed, with the loop end toward the hitch pin and the open end threaded through the tuning pin. This can be a bit tricky if the new string came in a tight coil, so be patient, and be careful not to bend or crimp the new string.

  • Place the loop of the new string on its hitch pin and hold it in place by clipping the alligator clip on the pin just above the string's loop (you can also use masking tape for this, but it doesn't always hold as well).

  • Pull the string backwards from the tuning pin just enough to leave "three fingers" of slack.

  • Where the excess string has poked thru the tuning pin, bend it up and cut off all but a couple of inches. Watch that end pointing up, as it'll be sharp.

  • Slowly turn the tuning pin to tighten the string, guiding the windings toward the bottom of the pin with your fingers. Be careful with the string winding on the tuning pin, and don't let it dig down into the pin block. If it starts to do this, back off to loosen, lift up the winding a bit and re-wind. When the string approaches tightness, make sure it's properly positioned on the bridge, and then tighten carefully to pitch as noted on your tuning chart.

    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.

  • Trim the string excess down to about 1/4 inch so you don't poke yourself later, and you're done.

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 Loops

If 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.

  • Cut a length of string wire about 8 inches longer than the distance between hitch and tuning pins for the string you're replacing.

  • Bring one end of the string up to your winding post so that about 3 inches of wire extends beyond the post.

  • Wrap the short end around the post tightly, and start to coil it around the main part of the string. Wrap the coil at least 4 times around, perpendicular to the main part of the string. Don't try to twist the string like you see in commercially-made loop-end strings.

  • Excess string on the coil wrapping should be sticking out perpendicular to the main part of the string. Leave a tab of about 1/4"-1/2" and cut off the excess. When you place the loop on the dulcimer, make sure that this tab is under the string, against the pin block.
Here's an exaggerated diagram of what your loop should look like (the real thing will have the windings tight against the string). Don't worry if it's not "perfect" -- as long as you have the windings tab working for you, you should be okay.

string loop

Replacing Old Strings

There'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:
  • Replace 2-4 courses at a sitting and spread the job out over several days or weeks. It won't disrupt your playing too much, and it'll be less of an ordeal than doing it all at once.

  • Pay a repair shop to do it. Your wallet will be a bit lighter and you'll be without the dulcimer for a short while, but you may be happier in the long run.
If you've decided to replace all the strings at one sitting, don't remove all the strings before you start unless other repair work is needed. Instead, remove and replace one course at a time. This will ensure that proper tension is maintained and that the bridges stay in place.

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.

© 2000 by Christopher W. Peterson.