The Fremocentrist.com Art Inventory

Making Beautiful Music: Dusty Strings Signature Harps & Hammered Dulcimers

by Kirby Lindsay Laney

On August 8th, a tour of the Dusty Strings facility will show how it functions today.  This column, originally published in The Seattle Press on August 9, 2000, talks about how this iconic Fremont business, previously used their unusual facility in Fremont.

Ray Mooers, stands with an authentic Dusty Strings harp in front of the Dusty Strings entry, in July 2000. Photo by K. Lindsay

Ray Mooers, co-owner of Dusty Strings with his wife Susan, recently told me they are moving the manufacturing side of his business to a building they’ve purchased in Interbay.  I was concerned.  Manufacturing is the backbone of Fremont.  In the dark days, when retailers abandoned the area, industrial businesses stayed and kept us running.

Dusty Strings is one of those.  They opened, in a funky basement space below Costa Opa Greek restaurant, in 1982, to manufacture and sell beautiful hammered dulcimers and elegant harps.  Today, 30 workers craft the trademark instruments five days a week.  Ray walked me through the crowded workshop and showed me the precision process.

Enter The Workshop

Milling the lumber for Dusty Strings instruments, in July 2000. Photo by K. Lindsay

Through the repair shop, where all manner of instruments are fixed, we entered the woodshop.  There the mill team sorts through rough planks of lumber.  Dusty Strings instruments are made from high-quality woods including walnut, maple, mahogany, and bubinga (an African rosewood).

Each mill team member is responsible for cutting a stock supply of specific parts of the dulcimers and harps including necks, soundboards, and pin blocks. They are cut by templates and sanded. The leftover pieces of expensive scrap lumber are donated to The Giving Tree, a non-profit that employs homeless men to make toys.

Milling the individual pieces of the instrument. Photo by K. Lindsay, July 2000

In the crowded, sawdust filled rooms, people move carefully around machines covered in caution signs.  One, a computer controlled router (CNC router, for short) trims and drills holes in five harp necks at a time.  Elsewhere, a belt sander is used on a stack of soundboard pieces while a dangerously sharp shaper cuts an aesthetically pleasing indent in the neck of each harp.

In one corner an experiment was being done on a laid out sound box panel. Here research and development is the entire focus of one employee. In 1978, Ray turned his instrument-making hobby into a business.  In all this time he never stopped improving that quality. Changes in design and construction are continually incorporated into the process.

The finish team assembles all the parts provided by the mill team. They finish the pairs of delicate hammers used to play notes on the dulcimer strings. These are made of book-matched wood, allowing a symmetrical, visually pleasing grain. “Customers don’t expect it,” Ray agreed with me, “but we do it.”

A clamped Dusty Strings dulcimer, being assembled in the Fremont factory in July 2000. Photo by K. Lindsay

The harp sound box is constructed of five facets of book-matched wood, cut so carefully that seams are invisible.  10 to 12 of these boxes are needed each week for the top of the line Dusty Strings harp.  There are “very few straight lines in a harp” and their construction is much more complex than a straight-edged dulcimer.

I watched dulcimers un-clamped after being glued together, and I examined the slightly bowed shape of the top.  This arch makes it easier for the dulcimer to withstand the 1,500 pounds of tension of strings stretched across it. The assembled pieces are lacquered to show the natural elegance of the wood. Optional legs, for a harp, were being careful sprayed and sanded and sprayed again when I came by.

Assembling the pieces for a Dusty Strings instrument, in July 2000. Photo by K. Lindsay

In another small room, the “strings” are made.  Some are wire, phosphor bronze or nylon.  Bass strings are wrapped, using a lathe-like machine, with a fine nylon monofilament.

In Post-Production

The post-production team takes over after spraying.  The instruments are tuned, and set aside, once a day for a week.  This gives the strings time to adjust to the tension.  Instruments that must travel to Germany, or Japan, are packed in handmade cardboard boxes designed to securely fit the delicate contents.  Before being packed, the strings on these instruments are loosened to avoid an accident.

The post-production rooms are carpeted, finished spaces compared to the rest of the factory.  Many exquisite harps fill the room, ready for artists to create enchanting music upon.  By each Friday, these will be packed and shipped to music stores nationwide.

Stringing an instrument, in the Dusty Strings Fremont workshop in July 2000. Photo K. Lindsay

When Ray told me that the retail space would be expanded into some of the manufacturing space, I was mollified. The Dusty Strings acoustic music shop is an institution in Fremont, catering to all the needs of stringed-instrument musicians.  Beyond their own signature instruments, they sell guitars, violins, banjos and bagpipes, when they find a reliable supplier, as well as music books and sound recordings.

They hold workshops in the post production space on weekends, requiring employees to continuously pack and unpack their work. The move will provide space for both uses.

And the rest of the factory?  Ray then shared his wish for it, and I was reminded that many clouds have a silver lining. Dusty Strings wants to build a concert venue into their space, providing opportunities for fans of acoustic music, and under-exposed musicians, to gather together.  Sweet music to my ear, indeed.


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©2011 Kirby Lindsay.  This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws.  Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.

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