LINCOLNTON — Lincolnton resident Frank Brown likes knowing he can take a piece of wood that would have otherwise been cut up or used to build a barn, he said, and turn it into an object that produces a beautiful sound.
For the last eight years, the 72-year-old has been crafting handmade dulcimers at his home.
He keeps a small shed behind his property and when the weather’s just right — not too windy, hot, chilly or rainy, he said laughingly — he’ll pull out his materials and build one on the concrete patio he laid beside his house.
The instrument, also known as a “mountain” dulcimer, originated in the United States, growing in popularity across the Appalachian Mountains, Brown noted on the back of his business card.
The instrument is played in one lap’s using a pick.
For the last five years, the music man has been crafting a special type of dulcimer — one with two distinct functions.
Called the “Walk-about Dulci-jer,” the instrument also serves as a walking stick, Brown said.
He thought of the idea after spotting something similar in a music store in the mountains.
The main closet where he stores his dulcimers had become packed at the time, and he needed something else to craft, he said.
Brown currently maintains a dozen of the instruments in the closet, not to mention numerous other dulcimers he’s made stuffed under beds, in drawers, hanging on walls and sitting on display inside his living room and other locations throughout his residence.
“We have them everywhere,” his wife Mildred said.
She even made one of her own in past years, however, it was the only dulcimer she crafted.
She now lets her husband stick to the craft but still assists him by making storage bags for the wooden pieces using different fabrics.
Brown recently completed his 194th dulcimer, he said, which is currently his pride and joy and the one he typically chooses for playing around the house.
During a sit-down interview Thursday with the Times-News, he paused between questions and stories to pluck the four-stringed instrument, playing familiar tunes such as “Amazing Grace,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Usually made with three strings, some dulcimers contain a fourth string for the purpose of a louder sound, Brown said.
The Caldwell County native, once a television and computer repairman for Sears, became involved with the melodious device after quitting his long-time career with the commercial chain.
His boss at the time threatened to fire him if he didn’t quit, Brown said, telling him he was too old to continue in the repair business.
“When that jerk told me I was too old to work, I thought maybe he was right,” Brown said, “and I quit.”
Afterward, the couple bought a motorhome and traveled up and down the East Coast, frequenting campsites and other locations throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains, noticing how popular stringed instruments were across the rural area.
During one of the pair’s trips, they stumbled upon a dulcimer shop, where the owner taught Brown’s wife how to play one.
It wasn’t long before he, too, tested out the strings and was shocked to learn the ease with which he could play it, prompting him to return to the mountain shop to buy a second dulcimer.
“I didn’t play music,” he said, “and couldn’t even play a radio.”
Brown also bought a kit for piecing together the instrument. After putting it together, he sold the instrument — his first handcrafted dulcimer — for $250.
He later ventured to a local sawmill to gather wood for additional dulcimers, continuing his newfound hobby.
“There are several things you need to do than to just put the pieces together,” he said.
Brown mostly uses harder wood — walnut, maple and Brazilian cherry — to construct the instrument’s back and sides and softer wood materials like Spanish cedar, chestnut, cypress and redwood for the front/top area.
Some of the wood varieties he picks for his dulcimers are more than a century old.
“I like wood that’s got a story to it,” he said. “It makes me feel like I saved it from something.”
He remembered the wood piece a sawmill owner in Florida once cut for him out of the bottom of a swamp, where Brown said it had laid untouched for more than 100 years.
While the Lincoln County man’s work is tedious and time-consuming, he never calculates how long it takes to complete an instrument, sometimes fashioning a banjo or guitar on a rare occasion.
“I don’t let it get away until it’s done,” he said. “I’m doing this because I like to do it and I can.”
Brown doesn’t want to be tied down by a time card or clock — that’s why he keeps his wood work labeled as a hobby, not a job.
With no official website or social media page advertising his finished products, he often gets the word out about his dulcimers through business cards and conversations with people.
He even once sold two “Walk-about Dulci-jers” to employees at a Sam’s Club store.
Intrigued by his wooden invention, the women asked if he had more for sale.
As a result, Brown always keeps a stockpile in his vehicle and bases each item’s price on how well he likes it after it’s made, making sure no two are alike.
His favorite songs to play on the instrument include “Boil Them Cabbage Down” on the “Walk-about,” and the old, Irish tune “Rosin the Beau” on the standard dulcimer, he said.