Building a Small Harp

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    Molly K on #256980

    Hello all! I have put together the Waring and Fireside cardboard harps and I’m afraid I’ve been bitten by the harp-building bug. I don’t know much about woodworking, but I’m willing to learn.

    I’d like to start by building a small, 22 string harp. Two of the best options I’ve found for plans are Rick Kemper’s Waldorf harp and MusicMakers Shepherd harp. My question is, which do you think would be the best to try first for someone with no experience?

    I will obviously be buying some power tools and enlisting the aid of YouTube tutorials, but I’d like to start as simple as possible! Thanks all 🙂

    talfryn on #256981

    Hello Molly,
    I caught the same bug 10 years ago, same as a lot of people not finding a good small harp, when I tried some Blevins and Lewis Creek solutions, the cost was too much and my wife pulled a veto. So I decided to make one instead, as I have quite a bit of woodworking experience. I started with Musicmakers kits, they are a bit more involved than the fireside kits, and lead you easily to make very good harps. The point is you can master the assembly and glue-up using these kits. Importantly my experience with their kits is that they have really accurate wooden parts with are flat, dry and stable. Their support is good too, people like Matt respond quickly and practically.
    I then enrolled on a short harp making course to build a 23 string Harp here in France at CPFI in Le Mans, it was really fun, a short residential course with a Harp included, given by professional Luthiers. This taught me to trust my own skill, it can be daunting all the advice out there, much of it hearsay, experience from professional luthiers shows you the practical nature needed and the importance of keeping your expectations under control, don’t expect to be able to build a’stradivarius’ in the garage.
    I then progressed to build from drawings from Markwood Heavenly Strings, Cambria 29 and Rick Kemper, Abbot 30. Both resulted in harps I play frequently.
    The last 2 or 3 years building my own designs, each time learning each time building better ones…
    There are 2 good references you should look at
    Rick Kempers Sligo harps site has a wealth of information and I think the advice given is ‘spot on’.
    Jerry Browns Folk Harp design and Construction book available from Musicmakers is a very good place to start, it explains why things are done the way they are.
    Finally you really don’t save money building your own, the woodwork is only a small proportion of the cost. Levers, Strings, hardware and your hours show the good value most commercial harps actually are, but the pleasure of building your own and the surprise of not knowing if it is a good one until it’s finished are really exciting.
    My advice start with a kit!!, Musicmakers, maybe have a look at Brian Waugh at learner harps Uk, I don’t have any experience but by the website he seems serious…
    Good Luck Talfryn…

    Molly K on #256984

    Thank you for the advice! I would love to start with a MusicMakers kit but the least expensive now is over 1000 🙁 I’d rather spend the money getting a few necessary tools like a table saw, as I know I will probably want to make more as time goes on!

    balfour-knight on #256985

    Molly, that sounds exciting! Good advice, Talfryn.

    Molly, I am an experienced woodworker, and I urge you to be very careful with those power tools. Two of my friends who are also life-long professionals sawed off ends of their fingers within the last two years, horrible. When I built my cherry stool for my Dusty FH36S, “Cherie,” a sanding belt broke and sent one of the cherry legs flying. Luckily, I escaped with only a nasty bruise, but it could have been much worse. Not to try to scare you, of course, but please do be very cautious. Otherwise, I wish you the best of luck in this!

    Harp Hugs,

    Biagio on #256986

    Good for you Molly!
    Rick’s Waldorf design is both easier to build and sounds better than the Musicmakers Shepherd. However…

    All due respect to my friend Rick the Waldorf was designed for kids in a supervised class, and he included elements that, while necessary for larger harps are not needed for one this size. So I suggest simplifying it a little as follows:

    1) Use zither pegs rather than tapered pegs – so no need for a #4 reamer.

    2) If you make the neck and pillar from two pieces of 3/4″ stock laminated together you can ignore his comments on reinforcing splines (and save the cost of a table saw and dadoe set).

    3) You really do not need a tapered string rib on this one (although you would for a larger harp). A strip of the 3mm Finish birch ply used for the sound board will be adequate, or just get a 1/8″ strip of maple. but DO use Finnish birch ply and not a cheaper alternative. The only purpose for the rib here is to give enough thickness for the string grommets so they do not stick through and pull out.

    You will find that good 16″-18″ band saw is both more versatile than a good table saw and costs less. You can always rent a table saw when you need one, ditto router and sanders.

    At this stage in your creative journey I don’t think it’s worth shelling out a lot of money for a full set of levers. You can play just about every music written for the small harp in just C of G keys.

    Rick is a wonderful guy and if you ever want to try a larger one he also will supply you with a curved back shell and a spruce or cedar sound board. I have used his curved shells on two of mine and modified the Musimakers’ Cheyenne kit to take a solid spruce SB from him. In all modesty, that cost half of what a Dusty FH36 would (fully levered) and sounds better IMHO. If that ever appeals to you let me know and I will tell you how I modified the kit (including the string band selection).

    Have fun but be warned: harp making is addictive!


    • This reply was modified 1 month ago by Biagio.
    • This reply was modified 1 month ago by Biagio.
    • This reply was modified 1 month ago by Biagio.
    Molly K on #256991

    Thank you Balfour for the safety reminder! I will definitely be cautious.

    Biagio, thank you for all the helpful information! I think I will try to start out with the Waldorf design with those modifications to make it a bit simpler and see where I will go from there. I already have so many ideas of harps I’d like to make in the future! First I have to get the basics down though. Thank you again!

    Biagio on #257073

    Hi Molly,

    I got to thinking about the tools you would need for this and although I suggested a band saw you could get along just fine with a GOOD jigsaw and a set if various blades- I love the Bosche model JS470E. A bit more elbow grease than a band saw but you could also use that to cut the string access holes.

    A table top drill press would be a good idea but with careful attention to accuracy a GOOD power hand drill would be OK. My personal favorite is the Dewalt 18 volt XRP – the variable clutch is especially useful.

    Then just a couple of sanders, one a finishing and perhaps a good belt sander, although you can rent those as well as a router. You can do without the latter.

    Lots of clamps of course but for the Waldorf not too many since the SB is also screwed down, so you could use surgical tubing instead for the glue up.

    Jerry Brown’s Folk Harp Design and Construction that Talfryn mentioned has lots of useful information.

    If you decide at some point to tackle a larger harp the tool investment escalates LOL: table saw, jointer-planer, compressor and stapler etc.

    I think you are wise to start out with the Waldorf to get your hand in with a minimal outlay.

    Have fun!

    Biagio on #257231

    Hi Molly,

    I should have mentioned this wrt Zither tuning pegs….they tighten clockwise but since they are on the left hand side of the harp you would have to turn them counter clockwise with the bridge pins placed as they are for through pegs. So if you do not want to change the pin positions drill the peg holes fairly deep and mount the pegs about 1 inch deep. That way when you come to string and tune you can turn them counterclockwise.

    This is discussed in Folk Harp Design and Construction, available from Musicmakers. Of course if you prefer tapered through pegs, no problem, just buy a #4 reamer from Robinson’s Harp Shop or elsewhere. It doesn’t cost much, but does take some elbow grease.


    balfour-knight on #257252

    Very good advice, Biagio, as usual!

    Cheers to you all,

    Barbara on #257339

    This is so cool! I hope you’ll keep us up to date with your progress! Are you sharing the journey anywhere on the interwebs?

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