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I purchased both of these from California and, although the maker was unknown when I bought the first, the unconventional design and materials suggested a west coast instrument, perhaps from one of the many Californian custom luthiers.  Following a few hunches, I tracked down Johnie Nicholson, who started making dulcimers over 30 years ago in Pollock Pines, California.  He now lives in Boise, Idaho where his Unicorn Woodworks is still operating, some 3200 dulcimers later!  Most of his sales were through craft fairs, although he says he is winding down now, going to only 11 each year!

1.21  1988 Johnie Nicholson 4 String Teardrop  £Sold 

Unusual teardrop design from Johnie Nicholson, Unicorn Woodworks, Pollock Pines, California, simply inscribed on the back “Johnie 10/88”.

It is well constructed but unusual in several respects.  It uses non-traditional woods.  The back is bookmatched mahogany, the top a close-grained dark brown softwood, possibly darkened sitka spruce or cedar, but more likely redwood.  It has fiddle sides, but a teardrop shape and long, “bleeding” heart soundholes reminiscent of more modern Folkcraft designs.  It also has a big, elongated scroll which has been hand hollowed from a three piece sandwich.  There are four open geared machine heads with twin hole posts.  At the other end is an equally large, almost Galax style rounded endstock across which the strings run to three pin anchors.  Single piece fingerboard with circular contrasting wooden markers behind the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th frets.  Hardwood nut and hardwood floating bridge.  Overall length 38”, upper bout N/A, lower bout 8”, depth 2⅛”, FBW 1½”, VSL 27⅛” (medium scale), weight 2lb 2oz (978g).  Originally no 6½ fret, now provided.

This is a nicely proportioned, well-made dulcimer with a fairly large voice, consistent with its size.  Good intonation and pleasant sound.  This has come back to me again after a previous customer upgraded.  A good starter instrument with no obvious vices.  Comes complete with a wooden case custom-made by its previous owner.

1.32  2003 Johnie Nicholson/Unicorn Woodworks  £Sold inc custom wooden case

Simply inscribed on the back “Johnie 11/03”.  Produced I suspect from Unicorn Woodworks at Pollock Pines, California rather than his later workshop in Idaho.  Certainly, comes with 24pp booklet published there, which outlines how the dulcimer works and gives sensible instructions on how to play it (included).

The single piece back is mahogany, as are the conventional flat, but quite deep, sides.  It has a spruce top with f-hole and diamond soundholes.  The mahogany single piece fingerboard appears to be solid and has inset wooden markers in a contrasting colour at frets 3, 5, 7 and 9 – Johnie has positioned them to show beginners where best to press down just behind the frets.  It has a 6+ but not 13+ fret.  There is a large mahogany scroll attached to a shallow, hollowed-out pegbox, fitted with four open-geared machine heads with twin-hole shafts.  At the other end is an equally large, convex tailpiece around which the strings run from low-set mushroom-headed pins.  This sensible system reduces the tendency for the strings to cut into the tailpiece and probably improves sound production.  Conventional bone (?) nut and bridge.

Overall length 35½”, upper bout 5½”, lower bout 7”, depth 2⅛”, FBW 1½”, VSL 27″ (medium scale), weight 2lb 3oz (1002g).  Original 6½ fret.

This is a nicely proportioned dulcimer which, while obviously made to a budget and not showy, has been well constructed.  Intonation is good and action fine.  Exhibits plenty of volume, but tonally leans a little more towards mid and bass, than treble – needs heavier melody strings than average (0.012 or 13).  In excellent condition and comes with a solid home-made, wooden case – at no extra cost