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George Orthey Dulcimers

Dr George F. Orthey Jr. of Newport is a craftsman of individual quality wooden dulcimers and Autoharps.  Born in 1933, he spent 28 years in the Army Veterinary Corps, where his role was in public health, food safety/sanitation and caring for military dogs working around the war zones.  While he was stationed at Walter Reed Hospital, he started to work on instruments as a hobby in the army workshop.  His then wife, Mary Lou, was musical and he made her a dulcimer “but it was terrible”!

However, his making soon improved and his hobby eventually turned into a full-time business.  By 2009, Orthey had made 1,639 dulcimers (which he stopped making some years before) and 1,300 Autoharps (for which he is now more famous). They have all been carefully constructed of selected Appalachian mountain hardwoods.  Orthey is especially proud of being asked by country music industry’s legendary Carter family to make a limited-edition dulcimer which now hangs in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tenn. “It’s probably worth $25,000 to $30,000,” said Orthey.  He credits Mike Seeger for teaching him about the quality of sound of his instruments.  “That’s very important to me. I pay attention to what these people tell me. That’s how I learn.’

I just love these non-identical twins!  Below is a pic of him from a brochure dating to around 1980. #785 (the hourglass twin) is from 1981 and is the lightest dulcimer I’ve ever owned at 1lb 1/2oz/468g – just a bag of sugar! #1361 (the teardrop) is from 1985 and is a little heavier but still a lightweight at 1lb 7oz (652g). He must have stopped making dulcimers only few years afterwards, when the dulcimer craze abated – or perhaps he just got bored with them (#1639 was the last according to Orthey). They are a simple, almost austere design with just the lovely carved 3D hearts and the scribed line round the top edge. But the main attraction is that they just sing out so sweetly in 1:5:5 tuning. Their volume belies their size, the mid and top ranges are full and balanced, and you can use all the vibrato you like. Finally, the twins provide an opportunity to test the theories about hourglass and teardrop shapes. They are made of the same materials and in the same way. They have the same family sound – full, transparent, sweet – yet the hourglass is slightly more incisive and the teardrop slightly fuller in the mid and bass.

3.66  – 1981 Hourglass #785 – £300

Handwritten inside on paper slip:  “Appalachian Dulcimer/#785/made by/ George F Orthey/ Newport Pa/Sept 81”.  Stamped on back, under tailblock, “Orthey Dulcimers/Newport, PA.”  Described as a “Thomas-style” dulcimer in accompanying brochure.

Extremely light all-walnut body with single piece (non-bookmatched) back, spruce top, carved elongated “3D” heart soundholes (tails to tail), arched walnut fingerboard and carved scroll/pegbox.  T-shaped pegs with oblong walnut heads and thin beech (?) shafts.  NB pegs have slightly smaller heads than later dulcimers and a shorter headstock with a rather more cramped pegbox.  Rosewood or cocobolo (?) nut and bridge, notched for 3 or 4 courses, full width frets (no 6+) and simple copper pegs for string anchors.  The strum hollow is shallow with chamfered sides.  Plain decoration on top, with a scribed line 5mmm from edge.

Overall length 34”, upper bout 5¼”, lower bout 6¾”, depth 1½”, FBW 1⅜, VSL 27″ (medium scale), weight 1lb 0.5oz (468g ), strings now 0.012, 0.012, 0.024w.  No 6+ fret.

Great sound with a little less middle and a little more incisiveness than the teardrop below.

3.64  – 1985 Teardrop #1361 – £300

Hand written, pasted-in label, “Appalachian Dulcimer/ #1361/ made by/ George F Orthey/ Newport Pa/ Nov 85”.  Oval trade mark branded onto back at tail:  “Orthey Dulcimers/Newport, PA.” with image of three trees on slight mound.

Typical late model 4 string teardrop, set up for various string arrangements.  Walnut body with single piece back and gold-flecked spruce (?) top, long, elegant heart carved soundholes pointing to tail.  Plain decoration with inscribed line round top, 5mm from edge.  Walnut scroll and pegbox with usual arched walnut fingerboard.  Shallow strum hollow (chamfered sides), as other Ortheys.  Wooden pegs with walnut (?) oblong buttons and fine, beech shafts.  Rosewood (?) nut and bridge notched for 3 and 4 courses, narrow frets, no 6+ fret.  Slight overhang at tail, with stubby copper pins for string anchors (usable for ball or loop-end strings).

Overall length 34”, upper bout N/A, lower bout 7¼”, depth 1½”, FBW 1⅜”, VSL 27″ (medium scale), weight 1lb 7oz (652g), strings now 12/[12], 12, 25w (though possibly 23 or 24 better).  No 6+ fret.

Easy action and spot-on intonation.  Typical loud and sweet Orthey sound, with great responsiveness.