Is a lap harp a good idea for me?

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    Biagio on #194971

    Hmmm…well I must say that the Callan looks lovely and yes, some small nylon/gut harps can be good with wire if you drop the range about 5 steps or more.  The Triplett Zephyr is one such, so too the Music Maker Limerick.  The issues one runs into are the bridge pins (not a good idea on a wire strung – they can kink the strings) and the soundboard is TOO responsive with softwood.  With the very long ring that wire with a spruce or cedar board will echo FOREVER!!  Which is why we use a thicker hardwood board.

    This next is a tad heretical but I’ll go ahead and write it.  High density laminate (aka aircraft grade Finnish birch) is a good though not great substitute for hardwood.  That is what I have on my little 19 and I love it for just kicking back an noodling around.

    If you are falling in love with wire strungs, why not ask Mr. Clallan to make you a custom one with hardwood or aircraft laminate board, and omitting the bridge pins?  The material for something like that is not terribly expensive and labor is not either.  I think my 19 took about 2 weeks to make, most of which was just waiting for glue and finish to dry; I’d guess that all told materials cost about $200.  Most of that was the cost of strings since I had to buy WAY more than the little harp needed LOL.

    Or of course keep the Ardival – they are just lovely harps! One final possibility would be to buy a Limerick kit and tell them you want tuning pegs put where the bridge pins would normally go ( and preferably have them drill and ream for #4 pegs).  Those folks are very accommodating and I can send you the appropriate string chart (bronze or brass).

    I do find the Limerick a bit heavier than necessary – the sides are 3/4″ thick – but it’s still not a bad little harp and 26 strings (“standard” spacing). The range on that modification is G an octave below middle C (G2) up to a D, yellow  brass (or bronze) with the lowest two strings red brass.

    Best wishes,



    Elettaria on #194973

    Yes, I meant a custom order, so that he could use the right woods from the start, and I’m glad to hear that it would keep costs low, especially since he’s presumably already got some wire strings in stock from that 14 string he made.

    I’m not snobbish about birch ply in a wee budget harp, and I know some harpmakers who think very highly of it. Did you mean just for the soundboard?  What other sorts of woods would be suited to a wire harp, and are any more likely to hold their tuning for longer?  When talking about his 26 string models, he lists ash, beech, cherry, walnut, birch, elm, sycamore, yew, hornbeam, maple and alder.  I met a yew harp at the Edinburgh festival and was rather taken, I must say.  Sycamore is popular for wire harps, I know.  I quite fancy something in a medium colour, like cherry or yew, but of course the physical properties of the wood come first, and the photos on his Facebook page make it clear he picks pieces with beautiful grain even when it’s just beech. I wonder how elm behaves as a harp wood?  There was a wych elm in the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens which had to be felled due to disease, and Mark Norris made an aeolian harp out of it which stands there instead.  I’m wondering if that means that elm is a more stable wood in terms of holding tuning and such.

    How well do you think one of those little harps would work as a wire harp?  Can the string spacing be altered, if it’s being done from scratch, so as to get a couple more strings on, or does that cause problems with tension or something?  Most importantly, what’s the magic ingredient that would make it hold its tuning better?

    Down a 5th – yum.

    The 26 string Limerick with standard spacing is probably going to be too big for my needs, especially since you say it’s heavy. I have no idea how well I’d fare with a kit (well, I love putting together flat-pack furniture, but have to be shooed away from it since it’ll make me really ill), but I suspect that the import costs would mean that I would be paying a lot more and still having to find someone to build the harp for me.  So a relatively local luthier makes sense if it can be done affordably.

    Biagio on #194974

    The woods you mentioned are all good to use though I must be careful about making a broad statement based on generic names rather than scientific species.  For example there are many “elms” and “maples”; “sycamore” in the US is a totally different genera than “sycamore” in the UK.

    Let’s separate the wood used in the box and board from that used for the neck and pillar (though you could use the same for both of course).  If you asked Paul Dooley – a REAL expert – he would tell you that a willow box with hornbeam pillar and neck is the only way to go.  You want strength for the latter that will grip the pegs, and strong interwoven fibers in the former – willow of course being a “soft hardwood”. Equivalents to willow are lyme and some poplars.

    As a generality the harder the SB wood the brighter the tone.  From brightest to less bright: rock maple, hard elm, cherry, black walnut as an example.  A perfectly adequate one can be made entirely from Baltic birch plywood although it will not sound as good as – for example – an all hard maple one.

    A friend has a converted Zephyr and it sounds OK, though the strings are a bit looser than desirable for wire.  I’ve converted a few Limericks and they sound great though they would be a lot better and more comfortable to play with thinner maple sides.

    Other than the 19 (narrow) I’ve made mine with “standard” spacing since I also play a nylon/gut strung and don’t want to alter technique too much.  With a generic design, you might as well do a completely new one if you don’t like the generic spacing.  The strings meet the board at a predetermined angle which likewise determines where the pegs (or pins) will be.  Change one and you change everything else.

    When doing the design the first thing we do is to decide on the string chart, given approximate size and weight – everything else flows from that.  Let me be honest and say that most experienced designers take an already successful design – their own or another’s – and then tweak it for customization. So really the string design come first and everything else is just a matter of drafting, cutting, shaping and gluing.  Seriously, a good harp is not that hard to make if you study other harps – which is what we all do!

    If the spacing is wide enough you can use larger #5 pegs which hold tune better than #4s.  As you already know, it does not take much of a turn to change the frequency with wire:-)  You can also get away with zither pegs, if the tension is not too high. My late friend, Chris Caswell, advocated using a split neck with guitar tuners for a small harp – those hold tune best of all.

    Best wishes,




    Elettaria on #194976

    So if you have the standard spacing and can have wider pegs, does that change how well it holds its tune, or is that more about how easy it is to tune?  The Ardival is a nightmare to tune, I was perpetually going up and back down and up again trying to hit the note.  If relatively wider spacing means it will last the week without needing daily tuning, I’m in!  21 strings is still plenty for a wire harp, after all.  Is that why some wire harps only need to be tuned once a week?

    In terms of the string design being the primary thing, does that mean that if you change the number of strings slightly (even from 21 to 22, because a full three octaves is useful), you need to redesign the frame?  I still don’t know his exact spacing, which does vary with harps anyway.  I didn’t realise until recently that Camacs have wider spacing than most lever harps, so the harp I’m renting is harder work for playing tenths on, and it was much easier when I tried Starfishes, Norrises etc. The spacing for the Camac Hermine and the Ardival Kilcoy for the whole octave going up from middle C is about 28 and 21cm respectively, and that’s a pretty big difference.

    As for woods, would I be better off with a harp made all in one wood than having a separate soundboard, then?  I get that spruce and cedar have too much sustain to be used as wire harp soundboards.  Is cherry something that can be used for an entire harp?  I thought it was a softwood?  Or would you do something like use a maple or birch ply soundboard with it?  I’m concerned primarily with whether it will hold its tuning, then the sound, then how it looks.

    Biagio on #194977

    Assuming the design overall is good, how well a harp holds tune largely depends on whether the pegs have a tendency to slip and whether the SB reaches stability (some never seem to, even well known individuals – wood grain differs from one tree to the next).  There is something of an art to tuning a wire harp since they are so sensitive to a slight turn compared to nylon/gut.  It may be that you simply need to turn the strings on the Ardival back a small amount, then press the pegs deeper into the wood,  then tune back up.  I have to do that a lot on some harps, less on others.  Softer woods such as walnut don’t grip as well as harder ones like maple – another factor.

    No, you usually cannot add more strings to a pre-existing design – that means taking the thing apart and usually the neck is not long enough (especially if the added strings are in the bass).

    A larger diameter peg of course has more surface area, hence more friction and holding power than a smaller one.  “Hardwood” just means a deciduous tree rather than a conifer.  Leaving that distinction aside, cherry is is pretty hard, about half way between maple and walnut on the Janka scale.

    Whether you make it all out of one species or several depends on what you want – an all cherry wire strung sounds wonderful – for example the Caswell Bard.  I personally like cherry because it is relatively inexpensive (atho a bit more than hard maple), easy to find,  and somewhat easier to work.  Koa and bubinga, on the other hand,  are lovely but expensive and dull your tools fast – although I realize that’s not your concern ha ha.

    Given all that we have discussed and what I guess, if you asked me to build one for you (please don’t though, I’m not doing any more ha ha) here’s what I would suggest: maple or cherry 22-26 strings standard spacing, #5 pegs, about 30″ tall.  That would weigh about 12 lbs +/- (those pegs are heavy).  A lighter, much less expensive harp I would make with Baltic birch ply body and neck-pillar, aircraft birch SB and zither pegs.  Or use maple for the sides and the rest as stated.

    I might have some hesitation about those zither pegs and might use instead Dusty Strings grooved pegs.  Those go all the way through the neck unlike zither pegs but are not tapered by grooved like the zither ones.  So in theory you have the best of all worlds.  They can be a bit “sticky” in really hard solid woods for a wire strung, but are just fine with Baltic birch or maple ply.

    A “best guess” for material costs one would expect in the US:  about $300-$350 for the all cherry one and $150-$200 for the ply one.  I made a bunch of double strung nylon 23s  with that Baltic birch/aircraft laminate approach; it could probably be adapted to wire though I haven’t thought about it until now.

    The bottom line here IMHO: a good luthier will make what you want and do it well if you are clear about exactly what you want – weight, size, cost, etc. – and leave it to him to recommend details such as type of wood.

    Fun, isn’t it?



    Elettaria on #194983

    I think we’re talking at cross-purposes about the stringing.  I have always been talking about a custom design, rather than modifying it myself.  So I’m asking whether a harp body designed for 21 KF strings and partial levering would have space for 22 wire strings spaced a bit closer together, without having to revert to smaller tuning pins.  Obviously this would be done at the design stage, rather than when everything is drilled and it’s too late to change anything.  Possible, do you think?  I just get the feeling that 22 strings, or even better 23 (low C up to D – if need be, I’ll make it a transposing instrument in order to fit both the harp’s natural voice and the repertoire, which you can do with a harp that doesn’t have coloured strings) since there’s so much dorian mode in early and folk music, would be a lot better than 21.

    By my calculations and looking at Blevin’s more compact lap harps to get an idea of what the narrowest string spacing is you can manage with Camac levers, let’s say he’s using 14mm spacing now for 21 strings, 22 strings would knock it down to 13.3mm and 23 strings would reduce it to 12.7mm.  The Ardival has 11.8mm.  I found this discussion where a luthier who uses 12.7 reckons it’s a good compromise.  What do you think?  If he’s willing to curve the pillar a bit to allow more strings in there, and if that would be structurally sound and not too much extra work, I imagine that would help.  It seems normal to have a curved pillar, I assume he made it straight just to save space, and I don’t need a harp that fits in a Ryanair overhead locker.

    I have finally realised how tiny Brian Callan’s 21 string harps are!  The Ryanair overhead luggage allowance is 55 x 40 x 20cm, aka 21 5/8″ x 15 3/4″ x 7 7/8″, and that will be including the harp case.  That’s giving the 19 string narrow-spaced Kilcoy (56 x 34 x 26, including things you can do without like the footblock) a run for its money.  No wonder it’s only partially levered; I’m amazed it’s levered at all.  And no wonder he’s so proud of getting a 21 string harp into that size. So while I was looking at the dimensions you suggested and wincing a bit (less at the size once I looked at other 26 string harps, but I’m still surprised at the weight), he evidently makes very compact harps and I don’t need to worry about that.

    Do you need much experience for making a wire harp, by the way?  He’s been building harps for five years, starting by making little ones for children to play, as far as I can tell from a video on his page.  (In which his wife looks astonishingly like our First Minister, by the by.)  He came to it from building furniture for years, as have other luthiers I’ve run into.

    Woods – we have different local woods to you, don’t we.  Bubinga is definitely not something that grows over here, for instance, whereas British and Irish luthiers have access to elm and hornbeam and such.  Cherry is definitely on my shortlist.  Any idea about elm or yew?  Also do you have any idea how cherry, say, would sound and hold its tuning with a cherry soundboard vs. a birch ply one or a maple one?  From what you’ve said above, am I right in thinking that making the whole harp in maple will hold its tuning a little better and sound a little brighter than cherry?

    Pressing the tuning pegs in a bit when tuning the Ardival – yep, Bill Taylor suggested that months back.  It helped a bit, some of those pegs were really loose to begin with, but I still ended up with a harp requiring daily tuning.  Historical models are not for me, it seems.  The pegs were a bit rusty and I wasn’t up to the job of taking them out of the harp to clean, so I gave them a bit of a rub with fine sandpaper but left them in place, apart from pressing them further in.  Bill said that shouldn’t make a difference, it’s cosmetic.

    Biagio on #194984

    Ah, I get it now! Yes you can probably squeeze in two or even three strings on a harp designed with concert harp spacing – which many lever harps are.  String spacing is one of those things that is not standardized and many builders have their own preferences so when players discuss they usually consider the width across an octave.  As strings get progressively thicker toward the bass the spacing gets larger too.  With wire harps we don’t have to deal with that issue very much if at all.  Vibrating length is a different issue.

    About the curved pillar – those are stronger than straight ones and also give the vibrating strings more free air to sound. That is an issue since the air in front of a harp vibrates too.  Part of the reason for raises as well, though many don’t realize that little factoid.

    For a wire harp to sound good you want the string’s tensile strength to be at or above about 50% of maximum and preferably closer to 70% or more, which is higher than you find on most lever harps.   So one must take that into account (which is why you have to drop the range a good bit and even then a conversion just may not work out).

    Designing a wire harp: You need to understand string theory and the physical parameters of the alloys you are using, just as you must for nylon, gut KF etc.  And you need to understand a wire harp’s little quirks and oddities: no bridge pins (usually) how much to offset the neck if at all, edge gluing and strengthening the hardwood board if used and how to orient the grain….these are all things that a competent harp maker will understand even if he has not done one before.

    Woods: our commonly used domestic woods are maple, walnut, elm, and cherry which should be pretty much what is found in Britain – we don’t have much domestic yew.  Those imported hardwoods are seen more often these days, as they come from sustainable forestry in Africa or South America- so we’re more or less on the same wave length here.

    All harps with standard tapered pegs will probably need some TLC up there eventually. Oxidation aside, the tapered hole will eventually get a bit out of true; and the fibers compressed, making the hole too smooth to hold well.  That may well be your Ardival’s “problem”. It’s an easy fix but most players don’t want to do it themselves so they send it to a technician.  Same for pedalists – it’s part of the regulation process.  I don’t know how much they charge just for that over your way.  Over here just removing the strings and cleaning the pegs, re-boring the holes a little, re-stringing and tuning would probably run several hundred US dollars – mostly for new strings and maybe two or three hours of labor.  Ouch!  Do-it-yourselfers just need patience and the correct size tapered reamer, light sand paper etc.

    Aside: I urge all lever harpers on every occasion that presents itself to buy David Kolacny’s little book “Troubleshooting Your Lever Harp”, available from Kolacny Music and most good lever harp outlets.

    To give you an idea of a very nice wire string chart I can send you the Caswell 27 string Bard with bronze (copying and pasting did not work which I guess is why the first post did not show up).  Total tension is 804 lbs./30 lbs average. Strung with yellow brass you can get it down about 100 lbs. total/26 average and it will still sound good.  If you consider a custom make this would be a good starting point for your luthier.  He could just delete a few for a smaller range (I’d delete in the treble personally, keeping that low C).  This one is a little over 32″ tall and 27″ wide with “modified standard spacing”.  Which translates to wider than a historical one but narrower than concert.

    Chris made the SB quite wide and it’s all cherry so that is a heavy harp, perhaps 14-15 lbs.  It could stand to lose some weight – with fewer strings, yellow brass, reduced SB width and aircraft birch SB one could probably get it down to around 10 lbs. or so.

    Best wishes,



    Elettaria on #194985

    I think you’ve accidentally deleted your last post!

    Biagio on #194986

    I can’t seem to be able to post the Bard chart but no matter; if you want to see that email me and I’ll send it off list.




    Elettaria on #195024

    Right, I’ve chatted to him!  The 21 string models are made with 21 strings even in wire as the spacing is already narrower, and he’s made three of those.  He uses guitar strings, which I’m a bit unsure about, but he says they do well, and suspects they will hold their tuning better than brass.  They’re tuned with the bottom note as A.  5mm pegs, thankfully.  Walnut has been the most popular wood for them, he says it balances the brightness of the strings nicely.  To my surprise, he uses a spruce soundboard.  I thought that was meant to be too resonant for wire strings?  He doesn’t know how well they hold their tuning, but he’s happy to ask the people who bought them.  How does this sound?

    Biagio on #195025

    Steel strings (which I guess is what he means by guitar strings) are a very different proposition from brass or bronze.  Their physical characteristics are such that one can substitute one for one from nylon to steel (smaller diameters of course). They also cost less and are more readily available than brass or bronze.

    I and many wire harp afficionados don’t like steel as we think the tone is too tinkly, but don’t be swayed by that bias.   Plenty of people who regularly play nylon or gut like a small harp that can be steel OR nylon.

    Just be aware that they do not sound at all like brass or bronze.  Steel though is more suited to bridge pins, you can use regular levers (with care), and the SB is less of an issue.  You can also restring with nylon if you wish without altering the range, which you can’t do with nylon to brass/bronze.

    I can’t comment further without knowing the specifics but will say I would not like that A to G range very much – it seems an odd choice.  Would that be the A an octave below middle C would be my first question?  If the A above that, not too interested if it were me.

    Hope that is helpful!

    Best wishes,




    Elettaria on #195028

    It’s the higher one, yep, and I don’t like tinkly.  I’m kind of going off the idea too.

    Biagio on #195030

    We’ve been talking mostly about wire strungs but I keep wondering whether a small nylon double strung might not be a good choice for you.  There are several good ones out there – from most to least expensive Rees, Blevins and Stoney End.  The latter even is available as a kit.  You can do a lot with a double that you cannot do on anything else – yet you can play it just as you would a single if you want.

    Just thinking….



    Elettaria on #195038

    I’m still not convinced a double is for me, and right now they’re outside the budget for a second harp.

    I’m wondering whether George Stevens might be able to do one of his basic lap harps (look at “other harps”) strung with wire. He makes serious wire harps (look at “clarsachs”) , so he does know his way around that side of things. I heard one of the basic nylon harps in a video and wasn’t thrilled, though I don’t know if it would sound better in wire.

    Biagio on #195049

    I suppose you could always ask him.  There is a sort of cultish attitude among some wire harpers and builders, insisting on hollowed out boxes, narrow spacing, and doubled Gs (the “sisters”).  OK if that is what one wants but I really don’t get it from a practical standpoint.

    To me that is akin to people insisting that gut strings and sitka spruce boards are the only acceptable ways to make any non-wire harp.  Maybe for large ones, but both are a waste of money as far as I am concerned in a lap harp unless the SB is quite wide and tension quite high. That is not a fun  thing to play on one’s lap however:-)

    Several fine makers whom I know do their wire harps with three part construction and they sound just great and cost less than with all that carving. James Skeen (Folc Harps) comes to mind.

    I just recalled that a friend is selling her Triplett 22 string Zephyr.  Here’s the ad….I don’t know how flexible Mi-Young is on price (or if she still has it) nor what shipping and VAT would be.  I do know that it can be re strung with wire:

    Best wishes,


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