Saw Body Psaltery

 I had made a few psaltery over the years, never really thought much about them I suppose. I was commissioned to make a 25 string birthday/anniversary gift a short time ago and the piece was my second large psaltery. Wood selection, cutting angles and the glue up is critical. It makes me nervous to think of the string tension on that sound box. Historically the pieces have a life expectancy. Bowed psaltery are a 20th century adventure in music making and the early pieces are not unlike the other zithers that failed over time. I believe hot hide glue is only good for about 75 year at best. Sure, every one has an example of a piece much older, but the rest of them succumb to age. The good thing is you can pop them apart, clean them up an re-glue!

I had tinkered with an octave bowed psaltery idea a few years back. It was unique in that the side was curved like a lap dulcimore. I believed it fit nicely in the hand with the waist of the piece being a good hand hold. This time I was working on a dulcimore that was a saw body or saw frame. It occurred to me the same concept could make a right fine octave psaltery.  There was a substantial amount of waste but there were no glue joints in the pin block. No glue joints translates into no joint failure. 

I've always loved the dulcimore due to the simplicity. I love the octave psaltery for the same reason. There are plenty of tunes that can be played with eight notes. It is not overwhelming to learn and I believe that is the key. If an individual can  play the piece with ease the more likely they will be to learn more. 

I started with a 2 inch by four inch piece of Walnut. I borrowed a scale from "Psimple Psaltery" and laid out an eight string scale in "C". The frame is cut out on the band saw, first the hitch pin side, then the inside is removed.  The inside cut starts at the top center and is glued back together afterward. I figured if I could glue up the top and bottom at the same time I could save one glue up so I made up a couple of semi finished planks to sandwich the  piece between while the glue dried. The edges are belt sanded smooth and the piece is then finish sanded. Several coats of oil later the holes are drilled, pins installed and it is strung. The bridge is a simple 7/16 inch square with a groove cut in the top to receive a 1/16 inch copper rod.

They aint' no secrets to zither making. Make a very light and thin sound box that can vibrate freely. One test I have is to lightly touch the back panel with my fingertip and lightly blow into the sound hole. You should be able to feel the back panel vibrate. Just handling the piece as you work it will give you a clue if it will resonate. Same as a dulcimore, lightly rubbing the peg head should be heard through the length of the instrument.

I believe I like these things....

Diatonic Walnut frame with a select Spruce top.

Diatonic Walnut frame with Spalted Maple top.



Pentatonic Wormy Maple frame and salvaged Wormy American Chestnut top.


  1. Hey Dan, these are really cool. Two questions.
    What are the price ranges, and what key are they? I know a bowed psaltery is in C. So I was just interested


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. The Diatonic pieces start at $150 shipped with bow, rosin and tuning wrench. They are tuned about C 524 hz to C 1049 hz .

  3. Not a bad price at all. I've got it on my bucket list.


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