Dragon Harp

  • Participant
    dchase77 on #220921

    Last night, browsing Facebook Marketplace, I found this AWESOME hand-carved dragon harp with abalone inlays and beautiful paint details. Had to have it. I have experience resurrecting other folk instruments like a double-gourd sitar, and a banjolele, as well as lots of electric guitars, so this is my new project.

    Only, it’s turning out to be a mysterious instrument with no traces online, and seemingly no harp guilds, societies, or store owners seem to have ever seen one!

    I’m looking for some guidance.

    About the instrument. It’s got a solid base with no pedals. Weighs 84.4 lbs. Is 60″ tall. 44″ – 4-1/2″ Scale. Has 40 string (holes) eyelets. 120 wedge-fit wood tuning pegs that all have identical hole size, shape, and dimensions. The (most likely) gut strings have all been cut off at the base. Inside the sound box, there is no access to the back of the strings… it appears to have been built AROUND the strings, with a strip of wood on the sound board that is separate all the way up to the knee block, where it then, blends with the finish! The strings are locked-in! There was one screw running from inside each soundhole towards the soundboard, which I assumed first was the key to accessing the knots to change the strings. I’ve pulled them, and attempted to gently jimmy the strip up to remove & replace the old strings… it won’t budge. Can’t get a putty knife all the way under it, because it seems to hit a keyway.

    There is an abalone inlaid label on the base reading
    Mâũ Đòn
    HOANGKHANH

    Le Google searches are coming up negative. I sent it to a Vietnamese friend, who says the guy who made it in Vietnam probably doesn’t have a computer, much less a customer service department…

    MAN, I wanna get this in player’s condition. I got it for $140 from a guy who was given it as a birthday gift from a friend, who had bought it in a pawn shop. He’s a touring musician, and was about to go on tour, so he desperately needed money. He had hoped to fix it up, but ran into the same problem, so he just hot glued LED lights on it like strings and used it for decoration.

    It was very dirty. I gently wiped the grime, dust, cobwebs, hair, etc off of it today, and hit it with a little guitar polish. Unfortunately my pictures were taken beforehand. They’re a bit blurry, too, forgive the low light, camera phone compression, quality. Now that it’s clean, I’m going to take it outside for some proper full light photos soon.

    All the string nubs look like they are the same exact diameter (1mm), and all of the tuning pins are identical, with holes all the same diameter as well. I would think that the bass strings would need to be thicker to have any sort of balanced string tension across the octaves.

    I want your input! There’s a lot going on here. Before hearing your guidance, here are my plans:
    1.) Assess the actual value of the instrument. Where would it be best to start? An antique appraiser?
    2.) Determine how to replace the strings. My current idea is to protect the area around the eyelets (no eyelet, just a drilled hole in wood), then possibly use a fine dremel drill bit or regular drill bit to obliterate the existing string, and continue the hole through the soundboard, clear through, in order to access the strings from the sound holes.
    3.) Chalk the tuning pegs – this was a trick I learned while restoring my sitar, which has similar construction. They currently have a shiny finish and hand-carved imperfections that bind in the holes, preventing smooth operation.
    4.) Purchase a set of strings appropriate for the instrument.

    I have combined my pictures into a PDF, then marked-up the PDF with various details & conversation points. It’s larger than 512KB Upload limit, so you can find it on my cloud link here: https://c.mail.com/DavidWChase@mail.com/_nA3ARY2Q763dy0OPmc5vw

    Would really value any input or opinions you may have, and I’m excited to be joining this community!

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    Participant
    charles-nix on #220930

    Beautiful carving. Besides your clear observation of no way to change the strings, a couple of things seem very odd:

    1) Why three tuning pegs per string? A triple harp? I can’t see from the photos how they line up vertically with the string holes. Maybe I’m having a dense moment, but I can think of no reason for that many pegs without matching string holes.

    2) If you’re measuring accurately, 1 mm is WAY too large for strings in the treble. They would be too stiff to make sound at all. Likewise, 1 mm is way too small for the bass–they would make a sound, but not a good one.

    3) Really hard to tell from photos, but the soundboard looks really thick. The photo inside doesn’t look like wood, but fiberglass–or something.

    I’m suspecting that it was never a musical instrument but a strictly decorative piece. Maybe someone else will have additional ideas.

    Participant
    dchase77 on #220931

    1.) Previous owner said each string went thru 3 pegs. I assume, because they are wood, it helps to make microtonal adjustments to the strings with the additional pegs, so the plan would be to thread thru the lower two pegs, then wind the top peg only. Tune it close with the top pin, and fine tune with the lower pegs. Won’t be the most stable.

    2.) I measured with calipers and you can also tell, just visually, each string is the same. It’s 40 of them. There is no difference along the entire bridge.

    3.) The soundboard is wood. It’s 10-11mm thick, also measured with calipers.

    Participant
    charles-nix on #220932

    Yes, that is really thick for a soundboard, especially at the width it is, and the appearance of a low-tension instrument. Some thickness would have to be added to allow the inlay, but still. Modern pedal harp, with very high tension is not that thick even in the bass wires where it is very wide.

    Your intuition that the strings should be different diameters is certainly correct. Consider the top string. If it is in the range of 100-125 mm, the thickness should be around 0.4 or maybe as much as 0.5 mm. 1 mm won’t make a useful sound at that length, especially with a soundboard that thick.

    I still suspect that it was always intended to be decorative only. Did the previous owner indicate that it was ever usefully tuned and played?

    Participant
    talfryn on #220935

    Hello David,
    This seems a very strange instrument, I agree with the observations from Charles, the weird thing is the 3 pegs per string, I assume looking at the photos that this is only 3 for certain strings and maybe 2 for the final strings at the base end. Are all the pegs identical? Also are the lower 2 lines of pegs round or do they have flats? If so maybe these form some primitive sharping method. Typically with pedal harps they have 3 rows to mount the sharping discs. If so may be the strings don’t pass through them but between them. Also if the pegs are tapered you could be able to wind or mount them clockwise or anti clockwise which may give some hints at different possibilities. I personally have never seen any instrument with strings going straight through 3 pegs but maybe there’s someone with more experience on the forum. The tuning of the string is really down to tension and length, so I doubt these will be for micro tuning as the length will have a bigger effect than small tension variations.
    As for the hole size, if they are 1 mm diameter that means the maximum string diameter will be less than 1 mm. I would expect the strings to be several sizes over the range of the Harp. Even on lap harps I use 3 mm holes at the treble end, so 1 mm seems very small.
    I suspect this is a decorative harp which has copied a pedal harp look on the neck, however this would be a bizarre amount of work for a piece of furniture, so hopefully my suspicion is wrong..
    Anyway good luck with the detective work an keep us updated

    Participant
    dchase77 on #220936

    No, the previous owner said it was decorative. I am contacting Sotheby’s auction house for further info.

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