Molly McCurdy is rare.
Specifically, she is one of a small number of female luthiers in the U.S. A dulcimer is a three- or four-stringed instrument that gained popularity in the Appalachian Mountains in the early 1800s and is linked to the region’s Scot-Irish heritage. It is played like a guitar or banjo but laid across one’s lap.
The body of a dulcimer is either teardrop- or hourglass-shaped. Its sound holes offer exponentially more variety. McCurdy makes dulcimers and has carved bears, dogwood flowers, dolphins and hummingbirds to create personalized, unique sound holes.
McCurdy said she will make “whatever anybody wants.”
Each customer receives a distinct instrument, with differences that are not only visible but also audible to those who are especially musically literate.
“I don’t think any two instruments have the same exact sound,” McCurdy said.
Most of her dulcimers are constructed from walnut or mahogany, though McCurdy has employed more exotic woods such as spalted sycamore or zebrawood. Less traditional woods, however, are often more difficult to work with and bend to the artist’s will.
“Some woods are harder to carve,” she said. “Some woods splinter real easily.”
But, when you have made dulcimers as long as McCurdy has, the process becomes second nature.
McCurdy first took up dulcimer making in the late ‘70s because of her uncle.
“He was my favorite uncle. I did everything he did,” she said. “He built one; so I built one.”
Her uncle made only one dulcimer. But, 35 years later, McCurdy has made hundreds.
“I really enjoyed working with the wood — the smell and the feel,” she said.
Each dulcimer takes four to six weeks to make and McCurdy averages about 20 a year. However, she wants to do more.
“I am hoping to build that up into a full-time business eventually,” she said.
Growing her business was part of her impetus for moving to Western North Carolina from Arkansas in 1992.
“I have family here, and I love the mountains,” said McCurdy, a retired administrative worker. “And, I thought there was a better market for dulcimers here.”
Her dulcimers start at $300. Intricate wood burnings and sound holes, and rare types of wood tend to add to the instrument’s value.
McCurdy works from the kitchen or porch of her Smathers Street home in Waynesville surrounded by a rabbit, three cats and four dogs. From her rocking chair on the porch, she shapes and sands the wood, cutting the elaborate sound holes.
“I do all my work at home and work by appointment only,” she said.
And, family is never far away. Two of her granddaughters, Ariana and Olivia Brown, live just next door and often walk the 20 feet from their yard to visit. While Olivia is just age seven and worked with wood in the past, it’s Ariana, 13, who will carry on her grandmother’s knowledge of dulcimer making.
“I’d like it to be a family business someday,” McCurdy said.
Shaping the next generation
Ariana caught the bug two years ago.
“I just got really interested, and I asked could I try,” Brown said.
This summer, Brown completed her first dulcimer, and now, she is counting coins, trying to save up enough of her allowance for supplies to make her second.
“It was difficult but really fun,” Brown said.
Although her career aspirations extend beyond becoming a luthier — into the completely unrelated field of psychoanalysis — Brown hopes one day to have her own studio where she will continue to build dulcimers as a side job.
When faced with the option of making dulcimers or playing them, McCurdy and Brown in unison reply that making the instrument is their preferred occupations.
McCurdy had played the dulcimer previously but did not seriously begin playing until she started making them 35 years ago.
“I had piddled around with one before,” she said.
On top of fashioning the stringed instrument, McCurdy teaches classes on request and offers two free lessons to anyone who purchases a one of a kind dulcimer.
They are “extremely easy to learn how to play,” she said. “You don’t need any musical talent or need to read music to play them.”
Molly McCurdy established Light O’ the Moon Dulcimers in 1982. View some of her handy work at light-o-the-moon-dulcimers.cbmaspire.com.