Handcrafting dulcimers in Berea, Kentucky
The gold-lettered shingle hanging from his shop reads “Warren A. May, Woodworker,” representing the professional artisan who handcrafts dulcimers and fine furniture.
In business for 42 years, May is usually found in his shop every afternoon, 1–5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Watch as May does hand work in his Berea shop, cutting out sound holes, installing frets and doing the final stringing of his dulcimers. Or, you might see him hand carving furniture or dovetailing the drawers.
The shop is an observatory where visitors to Berea saunter around College Square and stop in to quietly watch May’s latest creation come to life. He always takes the opportunity to chat with adults—and especially with children—showing them how easy it is to learn to play a Kentucky dulcimer.
Growing up the youngest of 10 children in rural Carroll County, near Campbellsburg, May found inspiration watching his father working with wood.
Attending Carroll County High School, May says, “I didn’t have the opportunity to take any shop classes then. Fortunately, someone told me about the teacher-trainer program at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), where you could actually make things and learn how to teach industrial arts.”
May earned his bachelor’s degree in classical woodworking in 1969, later receiving his master’s in 1972. “That’s when I made my first dulcimer. It was something I could actually play,” he says. “I was so proud of it and I immediately started making dulcimers.”
With his bachelor’s in hand, May taught industrial arts for eight years in Kentucky public high schools, first in Washington County and then three years later “way down in eastern Kentucky in Lawrence County, in Louisa.”
May adds, “Everybody plays music in eastern Kentucky. I had been trying to play the guitar—I wasn’t any good at it—but I could actually play the dulcimer.”
Berea: Art and Craft Capital
May says he and his wife, Frankye, were just beginning to start their family, with three beautiful girls, “when we both decided to stop teaching. So, we explored Colorado a little bit, then North Carolina. But we were from Kentucky, so we chose Berea as the quality place for crafts, and we sort of moved there on a whim.”
In 1977, the Mays opened a gallery in town on the square, which is part of the Berea College campus. Once business picked up, they bought a 47-acre homestead just outside town in Madison County, where they have a workshop and are members of Blue Grass Energy.
In the early years, the Mays sold not only his handmade wood items in their Berea gallery, but other people’s crafts as well.
“It was pretty rough for a while,” says May. “We literally had to use tools and hand make what we could, working day and night. Things started to get a little better after a few years.”
May says that in the past 15 or so years, they’ve been able to make a living by selling only his handcrafted items. “It’s been hard work—but it’s been a good living.”
For many years, May says, he made a lot of classical furniture—“natural-edge furniture, and then Kentucky furniture, the really fancy Kentucky style of furniture.”
While he and two or three part-time assistants continue to make Kentucky furniture, he spends most of his time focused on crafting his hourglass-shaped Kentucky dulcimers, which are sold only in his shop.
May is an exhibiting member of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, located in Berea—known as the “Art and Craft Capital” of Kentucky— with lifetime juried status from the Kentucky Crafted program.
May recounts how the business was helped as a result of the work of former Kentucky First Lady Phyllis George Brown in the mid 1980s, as she heavily promoted Kentucky’s crafts and books and founded the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation (now Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft).
“Martha Lane Collins was also one of our good sponsors when she was governor,” says May. “They used one of my dulcimers as the first state gift during the negotiations for the Toyota plant.”
Once Kentucky started becoming known for fine arts and crafts, “That’s when we received our largest order ever, 100 dulcimers from the Smithsonian catalog,” says May. It not only helped the business flourish in its ninth year, he says, but it also enabled the family to buy the land for their home.
The art of making a dulcimer
May says he has harvested walnut, cherry and some other wood from his property; however, it takes several years—about 10 years—before you can get good instrument wood.
For the past several years, May says he has been “buying old lumber that’s been seasoned and stored—not recycled wood, but good walnut and cherry. I just found some recently over in Lincoln County.”
By buying the older wood, in the range of 25-50 years old, he can begin using the wood immediately. “It’s prettier wood and the tone is better,” says May.
The only recycled wood May has used was historic Kentucky native wood from the old wooden jail that was torn down in Casey County, in Liberty. “I was able to get several boards, which was 100-year-old-plus Kentucky poplar, which was just beautiful pieces of wood,” says May.
He handpicks wood for each section (or blank) of the dulcimer, then starts cutting those out. He then lets the wood season for a few more weeks to months, slicing the wood into 1-inch thick pieces and then into 1/8-inch slices, so all the wood matches. “That 1-inch of wood will make four panels for a single dulcimer—two for top, two for the back,” he says.
To make the scroll (or tuning head), which is a thicker piece of wood that has to be hand carved, he picks out a very lightweight board. Then lighter pieces are picked out for the fret board (the part you play notes on). He saws out the fret spacings and installs the frets. From that point, he begins assembling the dulcimer from the top, cutting the sound hole and getting the back ready.
Eventually, he has to slice the sides out even thinner, then wet and bend those around the mold to make the curved sides.
Over about two weeks, he assembles the dulcimer, then spends the final week sanding and finishing.
“On the Kentucky dulcimer, there are a lot of details of handwork,” says May. “There’s the carved scroll, sometimes carved wooden keys, all the trimming and the sound hole. Basically, I just work on several instruments at one time. After a period of two or three weeks, I start having some dulcimers finished.”
The details of a Kentucky dulcimer
The Kentucky dulcimer, which is often referred to as a mountain or Appalachian dulcimer, is unique in its details.
May explains that the hourglass shape is a uniquely Kentucky design. Along the edge, there is a slightly raised bead at the top and bottom, a carved scroll, a scribe line that goes on top, and sometimes traditional folk art (for example, May adds some wood burning). The sounds holes are also very traditional Kentucky, he says.
But, the most unique thing about the Kentucky dulcimer is its soft sound.
“I use a tempered or slightly adjusted scale spacing that’s been handed down for maybe a couple of hundred years, and this gives the Kentucky dulcimer a warmer, softer musical voice,” says May.
When you add all the beautiful hardwoods from Kentucky, “I am making and will be making some of the prettiest dulcimers that I’ve ever made,” says May. “I have a better wood collection than I’ve ever had.”
Over the years people who have seen how May uses and appreciates good quality wood have shared sources or farmers have brought him wood.
To make good use of all parts of the wood, May also makes and sells a few other wood items in the shop, like cutting boards, kitchen utensils and “man trays,” which are valets for keys and change.
Anyone can play a dulcimer
May says there are strong dulcimer groups in large cities and many small towns across Kentucky.
You can play by numbers; you can play by simple chords—it has only two notes on the four strings. May says you can strum it, which is great for hobby players, or you can play very fancy.
“The dulcimer is one of the easiest stringed instruments to play, so you can play at any level and participate with others. Even a 6-year-old can do well strumming one,” he says.
The dulcimer is also on the elementary music curriculum in Kentucky public schools, since it is our state instrument.
Back in the early ’70s, May says no one was formally teaching people how to play the dulcimer, so he taught himself. “We didn’t have books from Jean Ritchie (the famous folk singer, songwriter and Appalachian dulcimer player from Vine, Kentucky). He says the music was originally isolated in the mountains, and it was simple and traditional, much like what Ritchie played.
May still plays the dulcimer every day, always testing out the newly completed ones.
He says dulcimer music has matured over the years. People no longer think of it as quaint mountain music. Now the dulcimer is much more versatile, as a real musical instrument, he adds.
“Almost everybody wants to play music. They’ve either been discouraged or had too much discipline. I try to cut through all of that and show them how they can play music extremely simply and quickly,” says May.
May has three lessons posted on his website that are each under 10 minutes. “People really can learn to play pretty music on a Kentucky dulcimer,” he says.
Over the past 48 years, May has made 18,665 dulcimers, which he signs, dates and numbers, adding “Acts 2:38” (for the Bible verse and plan of salvation for Apostolic Pentecostals), all on a brown paper bag label that is adhered inside the bottom, left sound hole.
He keeps track of how many dulcimers he’s crafted by writing down the numbers on a business card in his billfold, changing it out as one card fills.
Wife Frankye handles the business side of things—all the bookkeeping—and ensures that the works in the gallery are properly displayed. Each dulcimer that is sold is registered, in order to track the number and date, in case someone wants to trace it later or insure it.
May’s dulcimers sell for $400-$700 and up, and most are made of walnut, cherry or Kentucky poplar, the state tree, for a real rich tone.
May says because he’s kept the details consistent all these years, “When someone carries one in, people will often say, ‘That’s a May dulcimer.’”
He is now selling dulcimers to second and third generations of families.
While May says that his three daughters love music and especially having his fine, handcrafted furniture in their homes, “they are very knowledgeable about the craft, but unfortunately, we do not have anyone to take over the business.”
“It requires someone who is totally motivated. It’s such fine details, that it would take someone who would want to devote their lifetime and energy to it. It’s a passion.
“We’ve always stressed the quality of craftsmanship and materials, in everything we do,” says May. “The quality is the bottom line.”