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  • Bob Stephens

Recent Developments at Stephens Lutherie


Prototype bridge components- soundboard and bridge plate

I realize that things have been quiet at Stephens Lutherie of late, but that is not because nothing has been going on. Aaron and I continue to discuss the latest status of his performance instrument and what impact that should have on future builds. Earlier this month I was able to catch up with Aaron at the Winston Salem Dulcimer Festival. Somehow, during Aaron's busy day of teaching and performing, he was able to relinquish his dulcimer long enough for me to install a new bridge. We also spent time listening to an instrument with a Western Red Cedar soundboard, with both nylon and steel strings. We were both impressed with its performance and ultimately decided that it fell between the Sitka Spruce and the Port Orford Cedar in terms of tone and attack. The day was a bit hectic for me and I didn’t teach three classes and put on a performance. Not really sure how Aaron does it all.


The really big decision that was made was in regards to the future of the Fingerstyle Models and in particular, the Pro version. As Aaron’s performance instrument has opened up over the last three months of play, the tone has continued to improve. At this point, the back is contributing significantly to the overall tone. So much so that Aaron finds that any contact between his body and the back negatively impacts the sound. He has had to hold his breath during certain passages to get the best possible sound. In the end, we have decided to make the Pro Model a double back instrument similar to the Signature Model so that this will no longer be an issue.


Another project that is nearing completion is a new bridge design for the Fingerstyle instruments. I have been thinking for a while how flexible it would be if the strings terminated at a bridge that bolted to the top. The current design limits the number of strings and the spacing to that of the holes in the top. With a bolt on bridge, the string spacing could be changed by swapping out the bridge. With a neck and a bridge, the instrument could become a four string. So many possibilities. But I wasn’t willing to give up on adjustable intonation and action, so it took a while to come up with a design that could do it all. In a few days I will be testing a bridge that promises to meet all of the criteria. The photo above is of the prototype soundboard and bridge plate.


I am committed to the long term development of the mountain dulcimer. Having Aaron’s input at every step along the path has been invaluable and pretty well ensures that the dulcimers I produce will be at the cutting edge of dulcimer design. A design change dictates hundreds of hours of behind the scene work to created new solid models and machine programs for the cnc router and more hours for new fixtures. I realize that all of this increases the wait for an instrument, but I hope that the knowledge that the dulcimers I produce are both unique and state of the art will help make the waiting a bit more bearable..


I am excited to announce that my son will be joining me in the shop for the month of July. His talents as an artist and skilled craftsman will be a welcome addition that will improve productivity.


Well, I have to get back to work. A shipment of wood has just arrived from my west coast supplier and I am anxious to see what is in the crate. I had the pleasure of building a steel string dulcimer for his wife that showcased many of the woods he produces. He returned the shipping crate filled with the finest walnut he has seen in 30 years in the business. If you would like to see samples of Kevin’s woods you can go to woodfromthewest.com. Recognize that many of the finest sets of walnut are now in my inventory. Shoot me an email if you would like to see photos and prices.


So yes, we are months away form delivery of the first production Aaron O’Rourke Fingerstyle Dulcimers, but it’s nice to know that your instrument will be even better than the one Aaron is doing such amazing things with.

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