Today I wrapped up months of work building prototype dulcimers that combine traditional wood and 3D printed components. The goal is to devise instruments that reduce man-hours to produce them without sacrificing sound quality. Both instruments have wood soundboards and inner backs. The necks are also wood, but incorporate printed headstocks. The bodies and bridges are printed.
One of the prototypes is a nylon string dulcimer destined for Aaron O'Rourke. It has his preferred sitka spruce soundboard and X-bracing. The resulting sound retains the edge that works so well for solo fingerstyle play.
The other instrument has steel strings and a western red cedar soundboard with parallel bracing. This one will be evaluated by Butch Ross and I think he will find it to be very similar to the all wood dulcimer I built for him. The sound has none of the edge found in Aaron's dulcimer and Butch can shape it to work for his wide pallet of music.
In early tests, both dulcimers have proven to be very close to their all-wood counterparts. Subtile differences are audible, but whether they are almost as good as wood or just a bit better than wood seems to depend on the listener.
The printed body has a radius to relieve stress on the forearm if the dulcimer is played on edge.
The small "3D'" button on the soundboard turns from grey to white when the temperature exceeds about 87 degrees F. These prototypes have not been annealed and are limited to a maximum temperature of about 95 degrees. With annealing, the material is stable to 150 degrees-well past the temperature you would expose a wood instrument to.
The headstocks are printed with 100% solid plastic for strength and rigidity. The bodies are about 35% plastic (the rest is air). The bridges are a mere 20% plastic for maximum responsiveness.
It will be interesting to see what components hold up to regular use in the real world. No doubt, modification will have to be made, but it is clear that there is a future for 3D printed components in quality instruments. With more experience and testing an all printed high end dulcimer is a distinct possibility. I follow other luthier's work in this field and every day progress is being made. Follow along. Some day you may be playing a dulcimer made by squirting plastic through a small nozzle.