Hello! I was curious what the statistics say about when a harp starts to need repairs and really depreciate? I know it can vary harp to harp etc. but I thought I remember there being a number? Like 20-30 years?
Are you asking about pedal harps? I’d love for someone else to weigh in on this. I’ve heard from someone who has a Lyon & Healy that’s 30 years old and never had work besides regulations. They said it didn’t have any issues. But I tried a 20 year old LH 85 that had some noticeable clicking in the pedals with the worst of it in the B pedal. I’m not sure about the history of either harp or the owners so I can’t comment on what would lead one to degrade faster than the other. I’d love to know!
I was just asked to look at a lever harp made by a well known maker. On the surface, it is a good looking and sounding instrument, with loveland levers on all strings, nice finish, good looking wood grain. But it is now several years old and has major problems due to idiotic construction. The moron who built this, whose name is on the company, clearly had no idea what the stress on the instrument does over time, and clearly did not understand how any harp needs to be constructed.
The neck is leaning badly over towards the strings. At the column end, the neck extends all the way to the end of the column, and the column is butted up to the underside of the neck. I assumed that the column was tenoned into a mortise on the underside of the neck, which already would be a weak and lousy way of joining the column and neck. The neck should be tenoned into the column. But on closer examination, it turns out that this idiot didn’t even use a mortise and tenon to join the column and neck. He used 4 dowels!! On the treble end of the neck, there should be a kneeblock extending the full width of the top of the body. That kneeblock is what keeps a lever harp (i.e. column) upright. But this harp does not have a kneeblock. The treble end of the neck, where the kneeblock should be, is just the width of the neck and that’s it! So the neck is totally unsupported at either end. No wonder it is leaning over.
The soundboard on this instrument, which is thin plywood, is simply glued to the body, with no screws reinforcing the glued edges, and no top strips at the edges of the soundboard. The school that owns this harp also owns another one by the same maker, which is slightly smaller but exactly the same design and construction. On that one, the entire soundboard, on both sides, has ripped loose from the body, because there are no screws reinforcing the glue joint.
There are lots of lever harp makers out there, and I’m afraid that the bulk of them use construction techniques as ridiculous as this one. When they are new, these harps look and sound nice. But the way they are constructed, there is no chance of them lasting more than a few years, and the cost of trying to correct these stupid construction mistakes is prohibitive. In the end, these are throw away harps! I can’t fix all of these problems without basically re-building the whole instrument, and that would probably cost more than the original sale price. It would not have cost that much more money to construct this instrument correctly in the first place, thus avoiding all of these problems. I think that the moron constructed this instrument this way because he didn’t have the slightest clue about the effect of stress on the parts of the instrument. UGH!!!!!!
- This reply was modified 1 week, 4 days ago by carl-swanson.
One point perhaps being that most often one cannot see how a harp is constructed until it begins to fall apart. This is also a good argument for the player to understand something about harp construction, since some things (like the missing knee block) are visible.
Even very experienced professional players may not understand these things. One such wanted me to make her a double strung to her specifications – which after seeing them I refused to do. Nicely, but I did not wish to waste my time on something I knew would blow up after a few years: neck and pillar to be black walnut 1 inch thick not reinforced, no screws or staples holding down the SB, no inner braces and did I mention that the total tension would have been close to a ton. Yikes!
Back to the original topic: assuming the maker knows what he or she is doing and the harp is taken care of properly then 20-30 years is a reasonable estimate; but that can vary widely depending on many factors. There are excellent harps still being played that are 50 years or older.
I went to the web site of this maker, and all of their harps are still constructed this way. These instruments will last for probably 7 to 10 years at most, if the buyer is lucky, before the problems I mentioned get bad. But then the instrument is done. It doesn’t have to be that way. I own several Lyon & Healy troubadours that are probably 50 years old. The columns are all somewhat warped, and the levers are outdated. But these harps can easily be revived by changing the levers to something more modern. I like the Loveland levers. And these 50 year old harps still sound and play great.
Carl, I do not for a minute doubt your observations but just for the benefit of readers….
There are a lot of ways to deal with stresses, some of which may be visible and some not (speaking at the moment of lever harps). For instance:
-I can think of at least five effective ways to make the neck-pillar joint, one of which does indeed use dowels. [ The issue in that case is where they are placed, how long they are, how many, and the diameter. Two 3/8″ diameter dowels 2″ long and centered (I’ve seen some like that) – that’s guaranteed to fail within a few years.]
-Fastening the SB – it seems to be all the rage these days to leave off hardware and rub rails, just relying on adhesive. Bad idea in my opinion but if one insists on the “streamlined” look there are ways to reinforce from inside, e.g. carbon fiber tape, extra wide and beveled glue strips.
-Neck-body A couple of well known makers forego the knee block, instead inserting the full neck width as a big fat tenon into an internal block from the front. In this they are using a design from the 16th century. Works just fine if you like the way it looks.
No matter what you do wood will continue to flex and distort under pressure over time, so no harp will last forever. Maybe it could benefit from some touching up: modern levers on those Troubs for instance, lower tension strings on an old Clark. But it is worth emphasizing the it is up to the owner to maintain the harp, no matter how conscientious the maker.
I believe the major factor in aging a pedal harp is how often and how carefully it is moved. While I saw a professional harpist put her Style 85 in the trunk of her car with no padding, maybe not even a cover, few harps would stand up to that kind of treatment. Moving is very hard on the neck and the base. Clicking comes from playing a lot, and that can start after 20-30 years. If a neck is going to fail, I suspect is more likely to do so quickly, which is why they have the five-year warranty check-up. I will say that my harp’s sound improved with every rebuilding job, three of them. Especially when they put a stirrup on the bottom of the center strip. When I first got my harp, in 1979, it was very plain, but even from top to bottom. If it hadn’t been so even, I’d have sent it back. But I thought, something might come of this. So I worked at it, and eventually it became totally responsive and richly resonant as I dreamed it might be. Adding a gold crown gave it just the right distinction. So, now it is 42 years old, and the main problem is the riveting. But I also stopped moving it 11 years ago because I noticed I was having trouble tuning it after being moved in a car. That told me the neck was being destabilized by not having been cushioned sufficiently or laid totally flat.
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