Cledus Penny is shown playing with one of 41 American Dulcimers he has built over the past seven years. One of the most ancient musical instruments known to man, dulcimers are found mainly in rural mountain areas of the Appalachians.
NEWTON — Cledus Penny of Newton has an addiction, but it doesn't involve drugs, alcohol or tobacco. Penny's addiction is making dulcimers.
One of the world's oldest musical instruments, the American dulcimer has many variants and just as many names, such as Appalachian Lap Dulcimer, Mountain Dulcimer, and the inelegant Hogslammer.
Primarily known as a rural instrument, the American Dulcimer is native to the Appalachian region of the United States and is a fretted stringed instrument of the zither family.
"I've been making dulcimers for the past seven years or so," said Penny, a production manager at Plantation Seed. "My sister was down from Tennessee and had the first one I'd ever seen. I took a closer look at it. The thing looked pretty simple so I decided I would try to make one."
Penny went on the Internet for advice.
"I found out how to make one, but at the same time they don't really tell you how to build it. I pretty much had to figure that one out by myself."
Since that original effort Penny has put together 41 dulcimers, selling the instruments for between $350 and $400 each. The money, he said, goes right back into buying materials for more dulcimers.
Dulcimers may have as few as two or as many as 12 strings and are played while resting in the musician's lap or on a stand or flat surface. Typically the strings are plucked with the right hand while fretting with the left.
"Most of my dulcimers are made to the 26- or 27-inch scale, (the distance from nut to bridge)," Penny said. "I can make the scale to whatever length you'd like. Every one of them sounds different. I use cherry, mahogany, walnut and rubber wood. I don't use laminates, but you can really make one out of anything that has a halfway straight grain.
"They have a charisma I really can't explain, but once you've heard its haunting melody, you'll never forget the sound."
Penny says each instrument is as unique as its owner.
"There are so many styles and variations of playing a dulcimer that you can't name them all," said Penny. "It's a highly personal instrument and the individual's playing style will develop. The only limitations are one's imagination and design."
It takes Penny around "five or six weeks, in my spare time" to build a dulcimer.
"The most difficult part is steaming the one-eighth inch wood to shape the sides without busting it," Penny said.
The handing off of a finished dulcimer is always an enjoyable experience for him.
"One of my favorite things is having it played for the first time by the customer," Penny said. "There are 'oohs' and 'aahs' when the see it for the first time, and more 'oohs' and 'aahs' when they play it.
"That means a lot to me."
To Penny, each dulcimer is more than just a musical instruments.
"To me each one is a work of art," he said. "It's like an addiction. Once I got started building them I've discovered I can't stop.