Is a lap harp a good idea for me?

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    Biagio on #197095

    “LeStik” by Blevins is very popular in lieu of a stand.  A bit pricey, but it is easy enough to make:


    Elettaria on #197124

    I’ve seen them!  They look very nifty, but I don’t think they’re the best option for raising a 20lb harp by 2″.  I asked Jewsons and they said I’d have to buy an 8′ sheet of timber and then cut it down, which is a bit silly for a 16″ x 16″ block.

    Elettaria on #197126

    Sorted!  I found a wooden laptop tray, the sort with folding legs, tucked away in the cupboard.  So it even gets the extra resonance.

    I need another tuner anyway, should I just get the Korg one everyone recommends, with a plug-in pick-up?

    Biagio on #197127

    If you get a Korg definitely get a pick-up.  The digital red Snark is a real favorite around here; no pick-up required for that, just clip it to your tuning wrench or a tuning peg.

    Sorry about the height issue (LeStik) I thought for some reason we were still on the wire harp.  Glad you found a solution.


    teifiharps on #197128

    Just a quick note about harps on house boats. Most narrowboats (in the UK at least) have steel hulls and frames and therefore get very cold and damp during the winter. Not ideal for a harp (or any musical instrument for that matter).

    I had a friend last winter who was living in a houseboat and had a lap harp on which the tuning pins got stuck, due to the wood taking on moisture and expanding. If you are planning on taking the harp on and off the boat, you might find that this sort of movement between temperature extremes creates movement in the joints and ultimately leads to damage. Harps need stable and constant temperature and humidity.



    Elettaria on #197129

    Owen – yep, it’s an old narrowboat.  I’m not the one living there, it’s my friend who loaned me the Ardival Kilcoy.

    Biagio – I just figured out that you can clip a tuner to the tuning key, funnily enough!  It was after googling Snarks and harps to see how popular they are, and finding out that Dusty Strings has made tuning keys with Snarks built into them.  It worked nicely, especially since I have now learned to switch it over from vib to mic for the top strings.  So I’ll probably get another Snark.  They’re adorable things, like little red aliens.

    Elettaria on #197132

    (Arggh, my fingertips are sore!  I’d forgotten that will happen when you’re out of practice and the strings are a higher tension!  I’m guessing it’s a case of little and often until they’re used to it again, and don’t play when my hands are cold.)

    Elettaria on #197252

    Biagio, thank you for advising me to tune the bottom octave with a Snark and then tune the rest by ear.  I’m doing that for the wire harp and it is now sounding a lot better, as well as generally working out easier while also helping me learn to tune better.  It’s back to needing to be tuned every day, so I’ll send it in to Ardival soon.  I’m trying to figure out the best position to play it in now, in order to hold it comfortably and minimise getting achy afterwards.

    Tacye on #197253

    With small harps, I find a roll of anti-slip drawer liner really useful stopping them sliding away, and letting me relax and stop clutching them so hard.  This sort of thing:

    Elettaria on #197255

    I have some, funnily enough! That’s not the problem I’m having, though thanks for the reminder, it may be useful at some point. If I put the harp on my lap, it sits there fine but it’s a little high for me, my hands get tired reaching up and I end up with an achy back. People generally have wire harps sitting a bit lower than I do, but then I’m 4’11 and most adults are a lot taller than me.

    Elettaria on #199882

    I’m now having wire harp lessons, so positioning and such is all being taken care of.  I have the little Kilcoy to play in bed at my flat, and a beautiful old Ardival 26 string Rose in dark sycamore wood on its way from the Netherlands to keep at my partner’s.

    They’re right about harps being addictive.  An artist friend and I are plotting to try making cardboard harps, so that I have something to play when I’m at my partner’s and stuck in bed.  (I’m bedbound for most of the day due to having severe ME.  That poor rental Starfish is being neglected at the moment due to a nasty flare, although I still need to sort out the ergonomics for that one as it’s still making my fibro pain flare up every time.)  The Waring harp is well-spoken of for a cheap and cheerful thing, but the cost triples if you want to get it to the UK, my friend should be perfectly capable of making it from a book, and it would end up beautifully painted.  I’ve been wanting some of their artwork for years.  Their partner, who’s a folk musician and also has ME, would love one two, which will make it more economical for buying strings and such, and we were happily chatting about colours and tree designs.

    So I got a couple of Dennis Waring’s books about making musical instruments out of the library.  Here are the intro pages plus the pages about making cardboard harps.  If anyone who knows about these things is willing to have a look, that’d be great.

    1. Is there anyone here who has tried a cardboard harp, especially the Waring one?  If so, what can you tell me about it?  Sound, feel, anything you did that changed it?

    2.  There’s a luthier in Spain who makes an adapted version of these, slightly larger with 22 strings instead of 19.  He told me they’re strung in nylgut and that it vastly improves the sound, although it looks like nylon on the site where he’s selling them.  We were communicating via Google Translate so it was a bit limited.  (Again, too expensive to be worth importing.)

    3. I am tiny, and I need to be able to play this sitting up in bed, with my legs crossed around the base.  I am 4’11/1.50m.  This is the height of an average twelve year old, in the UK at least. A cardboard Backyard harp would be far too tall for me.  The Waring harp is apparently 25 3/4″/65.5cm tall, and looks promising from the photos I’ve seen of various people playing it.  I know I’m fine with the Ardival Kilcoy, which is 22″/56cm tall, and could manage something a bit taller, but the 31″/75cm County Kerry is too tall for me to play in bed like that.  So I don’t think we’ll be changing the dimensions of the wooden frame, unless there’s a way of introducing a harmonic curve that doesn’t make it a much bigger job and is manageable to calculate.

    19 strings is enough for playing around with, doing little exercises on, and might help me get into improvising and folk music.  I asked Dennis Waring if I could increase the number of strings, as I could probably manage slightly narrower spacing, and he said No, but didn’t answer when I asked why.  Do you think it’s likely to be possible?  Would the tension be too great?  If I did manage to get in another string, could it go at the bottom where I’d use it more?

    4. A friend has recommended Kuerschner for the strings.  She said they can help me calculate the right gauge, and supplied great nylgut strings for one of her harps when she was switching string type.  She also recommends nylgut.  (I don’t want gut due to being vegan.)  Hopefully it will be less prone to tinkliness.

    5. The soundbox, on the other hand, looks a bit skimpy, and a bigger soundbox should produce a better sound.  (Certainly judging by the cardboard dulcimers I’ve been finding videos of.  There aren’t many cardboard harp videos around and they often aren’t very good or in tune, which is understandable in a model aimed at beginners, so I’ve been checking out the dulcimers, since those are popular and I’m used to dulcimers.  I think a cardboard dulcimer may be in my partner’s future, because realistically how can you expect anyone to cope on only three dulcimers?)  Maybe that’s handy if they are being used for very small children, which I understand happens.  I am probably going to mock up some harp shapes in cardboard and figure out what is the biggest I can handle.

    On the design plans, the soundboard is 26″/66cm long, 1 3/4″/4.5cm deep, 4″/10cm wide at the top, and 8″/20.5cm wide at the bottom.  The length stays, obviously.  I’m trying to work out how much I can increase the other two by without making it unwieldy.  Definitely 9″ at the base, possibly 10″.  Perhaps 5″ at the top?  A Harpsicle, for comparison, has a soundbox 6″ wide all the way down, and 2 1/4″ deep.  That’s a similar depth to the Kilcoy, so that sounds like a start.

    6. From what I’ve heard from the luthier James Skeen, I should probably try to keep the soundholes as small as possible.  After stringing a wire harp it’ll be easy to manage this, and it explains why the County Kerry has unusually small soundholes.  James also mentions in his article about small harps that the sound on a small harp is better when you have nothing interfering with the string, no bridge pin or lever, so that’s a good thing here.

    7. Any idea about sourcing zither pins in the UK?  What about nice, dense cardboard, specifically in Derby?

    Thanks to anyone who can help!

    Biagio on #199899

    These are all great questions Elletaria.  Probably the best way to address them is to think about a harp’s design conceptually, so let’s start with an electric harp as the simplest concept .

    Point 1:  There is no sound box and no sound board to speak of; all you hear is the string’s vibrating against a piezo pickup.  Those plug into an amplifier (with of course usually a modulator).  With the Waring or any other harp the box is just the “amplifier” and the flexible sound board acts like a pickup.  Conclusion: you can build the frame (neck, column, and board) separately and just tack on the amplifier part (the box).   That’s the principle behind the Waring and indeed the Harpsicles.

    Point 2:  Strings can be anything that is strong enough to carry required tension without breaking but not so elastic as to sound like a rubber band. Conclusion:  your string band design is very important, so start there; beg borrow or steal a good design with fairly light tension.  For a harp this size I’d suggest 23 or fewer strings, starting at G below middle C.  Write me off list for one such design, or look at the Harpsicle and Musicmakers’ Limerick for inspiration.  Or turn to a string designer as you mentioned.  Personally I don’t think it is worth spending the money on Nylgut vs. Tynex for this small size, but that is up to you.

    Point 3:  There is no such animal as “standard spacing” among small harps.  Those who play with their finger pads prefer wider spacing than those who play with their nails.  As a generality that might be respectively about 1.25cm and 0.9-1.1 cm.  Now think abut the angle where the strings meet the board at the player’s end.  That may be from about 25 to 40 degrees: a smaller angle means a taller harp and less volume than a larger angle.  To compute the spacing at the board dig up your trigonometry. The spacing at the board will be Xtan(Z) where X is the chosen spacing and Z is 90 minus the string angle (in degrees, or use radians if you must).  Then draft the harp’s profile with the chosen vibrating lengths.

    Point 4: Volume depends on many things, largely on the thickness and width of the board (vibrating surface).  Air must move in and out and you need some way to access the strings.  Study the wire strungs like you Ardival:  sound holes are in front and you access strings from the front. There is however no formula to dictate the holes’ sizes other than “less is more.”  For a little 19 – 23 I’d put access holes in the back – in fact I might just use one long narrow one, say 5 cm wide.

    Point 5 and last:  The SB length will depend entirely upon your string spacing, and width at top and bottom somewhat arbitrary.  A good size for a 19 might be 25.5 cm wide at the base and 11cm at the top.  That is essentially the Kilcoy – if you choose wider string spacing than the Kilcoy the board may of course be longer (by perhaps 6-7 cm) depending on your chosen spacing and chosen string angle.  Some wire harps (in fact most in the US) use wider spacing than a traditional clarsaech since makers assume their market is mostly gut/nylon harpers. There is no reason you should not go the other way: use let us say 1cm spacing and play nylon with nails.

    Can’t help out with zither pegs and bridge pins in the UK, I’m afraid, but postage and customs would not cost too much if you order from Dusty Strings or Musicmakers for instance.  Just be sure that the peg’s string holes are oversize if the string diameter is larger than 0.040″.  Both often show up on eBay too.  I have a bunch too (used) which you can have if you tell me how many and if you need a few oversize.

    Have fun!


    • This reply was modified 4 years, 8 months ago by Biagio.
    Elettaria on #199921

    Thanks, I was hoping you’d reply!

    We’ll be looking at the sort of spacing range used on lever harps rather than wire harps.  I don’t play with nails and will be using technique more like that for lever harp, my friend’s partner is a lot taller than me so will have bigger hands, and my friend also may end up designing these to sell to other people, so we don’t want something that only wire harpers are comfortable with.

    If we can get 20 strings on instead of 19 that’d be great, but after that the spacing gets too narrow for our purposes, I think.  My friend may be able to make a harmonic curve, they said it shouldn’t be much more work, so I hope that should make it possible to have a lower bottom note, F instead of G.  Would that sound OK?  Is the additional tension likely to cause problems?  We really don’t want this exploding or falling to bits!  And is it really worth the extra bother of making a harmonic curve rather than a straight piece of wood?  The Ardival Rosemarkie doesn’t have one, for instance, but then it goes down to G, and it’ll be better made throughout.

    The main thing that had me looking at nylgut is that the Spanish luthier making a slightly larger version of these cardboard harps is using it, and says it makes a big difference to the sound.  It’s also meant to be more stable under temperature and humidity changes.  I don’t remember enough maths to be able to make those calculations, I’m afraid, but if Aquila (my friend misremembered the string supplier, it’s Aquila) are happy to, that’s great.

    I put together a cardboard soundbox from the plans yesterday, and found that I wouldn’t actually want it any wider for the way I sit with a small harp in bed.  Possibly 1/2″ deeper, though. I’m tired and having trouble understanding what you wrote: is it worth making the soundbox a bit deeper?  I’d have thought it would help, surely the sound is more than what you’d get without it, after all?

    It’s definitely already long enough.  A Limerick or Harpsicle would be much, much too big for me, and this is also why we didn’t start from a Backyard harp.  So while we might be able to raise the height of the pillar a tiny bit to accommodate a harmonic curve, the soundbox is not getting any longer.  I’ll finish mocking it up in cardboard and post a picture when I do, so you can see the scale of me to the harp.

    I’ll look into Musicmakers and Dusty Strings for the zither pins (been advised against bridge pins), thanks.  In my experience a lot of US shops charge incredibly high shipping even for small packages, you should see what it’s like with quilting fabric, but we might be lucky.  And thank you for your offer, that’s very kind.

    Any idea whether fretting semitones against the edge of the arm is likely to be possible?  I understand that’s common practice with historical harps.

    Biagio on #199922

    Hi Elletaria,

    The reason harps have that curve is because the frequencies of the occidental diatonic scale is an exponential one, there is not getting around that fact.  Think about it this way: going from low A to high A for instance it goes from 55 Hz to 110 to 220 to 440 to 880 to 1760.  What that implies in terms of string acoustics and physics is that for a given diameter the length would double in length going in the opposite direction.  That makes a pretty tall harp! We get around that by making lower range strings heavier and therefor shorter, but except on a very small and lightly tensioned harp the the neck will not be straight and look pretty.  You are stuck with a harmonic curve.  You could use a straight board of say 8″ wide but the pegs are still going to curve up from treble to bass.  Or if the pegs are in a straight line, the lower you go the lighter the tension of them will be – which is exactly the opposite of what we want in a harp that sounds good.

    That leads to fretting against the neck.  The strings must be close enough to the neck to be able to do it and it is not easy even if they are.  James is a friend and I respect him, but when he suggests no bridge pins he is talking from a wire harp perspective.  It is rather pointless to leave them off a nylon strung harp unless you intend to play it like a wire strung.

    With that out of the way LOL let’s address spacing.  A half inch (1.27 cm) is a very typical spacing in the mid to treble which is the range you are looking at in this endeavor.  The issue is: how do you lay it out given your string lengths?  You can buy a work sheet from Musicmakers or make your own.  Here’s how:

    Get a large sheet of drafting paper, say 1 meter by .60 meters, preferably graph paper laid out in 1/4″ or millimeters.  If you cannot find graph paper – draw 19 or more parallel lines on the long direction.  The draw a sloping line at the angle you have selected.  That represents the sound board; measure up from that for each of your string lengths.  Voila!  You have now located where to place the bridge pins (or tuning pegs if you cant to leave bridge pins off).

    Let’s assume bridge pins for the sake of completeness though.  Harp strings seem to be happiest when they slope from 15-25 degrees back from the pin to the peg at a distance of 1″-1.5″ (2.5-3.8cm).  Draw those lines and now you know where to put the pegs.

    To answer our question about the range: the lower you go the longer the string or the heavier.  That F you mention would have to be fairly long or else wound to sound any good.  The G above it would be 0.060 diameter Tynex which is as big as it gets.  You could go to Nylgut or Savarez Allliance for that F however but to repeat:

    Do the string design first.

    I tried to post the design for a little 23 but it looks all goofy, so email me offlist an I’ll send it to you, along with instructions for using the analysis program it is in.  You really do need to understand string theory to make a harp; read Rick Kemper’s String Theory discussion and go from there:

    These harps were about 28″ high and 15″ wide at a 35 degree string angle but remember what I said about the angle? If you changed that to 40 degrees it would be shorter and wider.  I suggest that you get the grid or drafting paper and play around with this to get a “feel” for the process when I’ve sent you the analysis.

    The Rosemarkie is a very light tension medieval harp and if that’s what you want, go for it.  Although the neck is straight you will notice that the strings themselves still follow a geometric curve, and in fact splay in the treble.  I think you would be setting yourselves up to a lot of work trying something like that.  And you will still need to do a analysis if you want decent tone.  I’d really suggest doing something simpler first go.



    • This reply was modified 4 years, 8 months ago by Biagio.
    Elettaria on #199934

    This may take you to a link for what I’ve put together with cardboard so far.  A curved pillar would look better than the cut-out, if it’s not too much extra work.  I am now absolutely exhausted from putting it together, so this may be a bit scattered!  I’ll dig out your email address later, thanks for the offer.

    OK, no fretting and ignore the Rosemarkie, got it.

    I can’t make much sense of Rick’s article.  I have a GCSE in maths which I obtained when I was 15, and it’s now 24 years later and I can’t remember a speck of it.  Ditto physics  at 16.  I skimmed and saw that the calculations were almost all for nylon, so further info would be needed for another stringing material, right?

    28″ seems a reasonable height if there’s a harmonic curve, and making sure the soundbox doesn’t get longer than 26″.  I’m not sure of the angle at the moment, I’m crashed out in bed.

    12.7mm sounds a bit narrow, are you sure?  I was thinking more like 13.5.  Obviously we’ll need to figure that out first, as it affects the shape.

    Is fluorocarbon an option for the bottom couple of strings?  I know some small harps do this, but not whether it would work for this sort.

    A low E would be nice if possible, so that I can sing in E minor.

    I thought James was talking about nylon harps as well as wire strung when he said bridge pins weren’t necessary, but I don’t know any more about it.  I’ve seen quite a few simple small harps which don’t have bridge pins, and realise they’d significantly increase the cost.  How necessary are they likely to be in this sort of thing?

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