Novel research: old harp

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    Mary Song on #256562


    I’m a novelist and amateur harpist and I’m hoping that someone would like to go down this hypothetical lane with me, so I can get this right.

    What do you think will happen to a harp that is left in an unused room for some decades? Will the strings be broken? Will there be cracks on the soundboard? Will it be possible to fix it and play on it after so much time?

    I appreciate any theories you might have. 🙂

    • This topic was modified 2 months ago by Mary Song.
    charles-nix on #256564

    To even take a guess, I’d want to know more…..

    What kind of harp?
    Gut strings?
    Is unused room heated or cooled?
    Near the coast?
    In the desert?

    1 decade, 8 decades?

    Anything _can_ be fixed………..

    Biagio on #256565

    Assuming that the harp is of 4 octaves or more and is stored:
    – at ambient temperature and humidity
    – with the strings at playing tension
    – the sound board is wood (not a laminate or carbon fiber)

    it is likely that at the least some strings will be broken, and very possible that the neck will be too. You need to be more specific before we can give you a better answer.

    I restored an 80 year old harp that had been stored in metal storage bin for over ten years – all of the (gut) strings had to be replaced, the neck was bent at the pillar joint and cracked at the knee. That storage facility was outside San Diego (ouch!).

    So yeah it can be done.

    Mary Song on #256566

    Thanks for your replies so far!

    It has not been used for 40 years. It’s a lever harp, probably with 34 strings. It will be of a cheap brand and it will probably have some cheap strings as well. I assume that the strings are left at playing tension.

    The room is in the attic, not heated, but it has windows. The house is near the ocean.

    So here’s the thing: I kind of want the strings (preferably all of them) to be broken. Some visible cracks would fit my story well. However, I’ve never thought about the broken neck! I really don’t want that. Is it probable that the strings could be broken, but the neck could still be fine? Does a neck break suddenly or gradually?

    charles-nix on #256567

    In the US, lever harps would be pretty uncommon before the 1960s or even 1970s, so the harp would need to have been built after then-unless the original owner might have come from a country with a harp playing tradition.

    You also said inexpensive which would make me think of nylon strings, and at typical inexpensive lever harp tensions, I’m not sure there would be very many broken at all.

    In an attic, with huge ranges of both temperature and humidity, you might have wood damage, or not. You probably would have to finish on the wood crazed or sticky or messed up in some way, and with an ocean climate I’d expect all the tuning pins rusty perhaps beyond use, and the brass parts of the levers corroded green.

    But I’m making a lot of assumptions. The biggest problem I see with the harp as you laid it out, depends on when the story is set. We’re only 50 years now from the earliest time when a 34 nylon string harp might have been built. nylon strong

    Biagio on #256568

    When you write “lever harp” I assume you mean simply that it is not at concert (pedal) tension. Morely and Clark are the best known vintage harps of 40+ years ago – those were from the 1920s and earlier. It was not until the 1970s or so that actual levers were coming into use; before that they used blades.

    That restoration I mentioned was a Clark model A. I doubt that it would have been salvageable if the strings had not broken fairly soon after going into storage. That saved the body and particularly the sound board from too much damage.

    Clarks were in fact designed to be inexpensive and some later models had nylon strings – in fact, it was Melville Clark who approached Dupont to come up with a formula. Later on L&H subcontracted for them for several years.

    So in this scenario you might consider a Clark as your hypothetical; but older than 40 years. Otherwise perhaps a Bolles, Witcher or early Caswell. Do some research into harp makes and models of the 1970s.

    Nylon or gut, it does not make much difference in this scenario; I’ve seen nylon strings break after only a few months if left unplayed. As to the neck…
    if it is going to go typically small unseen cracks begin to develop internally then suddenly – POW!

    catherine-rogers on #256569

    If the strings were gut and broke early on, that would relieve pressure on the neck. If a broken string is not soon replaced, there is extra tension on neighboring strings, encouraging more breakage. Attics can be very hot in summer, which could affect the glue that helps hold the wood joints together, along with damage to the finish from temperature extremes.

    carl-swanson on #256570

    I couldn’t count the number of old pedal harps that I have bought over the years that were in exactly the situation you describe. First, most of the nylon and gut strings would be broken: the guts because they dried out, the nylons because nylon gets brittle with age. The wire strings would still be under some tension, but probably not full tension. Because of this, the soundboard could be bellied up at the lower end (because of the wire string tension). The tuning pins could be rusted and frozen in place, and would have to be removed by hammering them out. The finish would deteriorate and look dirty. But it’s partly dirt, and partly oxidation to the surface. Wood joints would likely have opened up in some places because of the wild swings in humidity and temperature. On a pedal harp in this situation, the action would be almost black, and would work slowly, like a freight elevator, or not at all. Any gilding would be darkened considerably, and very likely would be deteriorating because the gesso would be turning to powder or cracking and falling off. It would not be unusual for the neck to break or the soundboard to rip open, or start separating from the body on one side or the other.

    Mary Song on #256573

    I love that you all come up with so many details that I haven’t thought about! 🙂

    The harp is supposed to come from the UK. It’s probably bought in the 60s.

    How many strings would be normal for a non-pedal harp in the 60s or 70s?

    Biagio on #256574

    Probably 31 or 34 strings. There were and are many individual harp makers in Wales, Britain and Scotland so I’m thinking that your Novel harp does not need to be by any well known maker? John Weston Thomas did a lot to revive harp making in Wales, Teifi Harps come from that tradition.

    Mary Song on #256579

    Yes, you’re right, I don’t really need to find the harpmaker. I just need to make sure that the kind of harp I describe existed. I’ll look into Teifi Harps, though.

    It seems to me like 31 strings have been around for longer than 34, so I guess I’ll go for that.


    Biagio on #256580

    It seems that you have a good idea at this point. Just one further comment that may be helpful….

    I mentioned the Clark model A and without specifying that particular harp here are some details:

    Clark based his design on an “Irish style harp” that he had seen while on a trip to study pedal harps in the UK – likely a Morely. The early model As were gut strung, with a range from first octave G to E, 31 strings with the lower (bass) being brass or bronze wound. Later production had nylon strings in the upper registers.

    Clarks are still being played and you can find pictures all over the internet. Most of those still extant will have the original range but lower tension nylon strings.

    Two of those that I have seen had the blades replaced with modern levers. Purists would consider that a sacrilege LOL, but in fact I toyed with the idea. Decided not to as that would have lowered the resale value. But if I had decided to keep it for my own I might have done so.


    Mary Song on #256581

    The Clark model A looks perfect for my story. Excellent idea to replace the blades with levers. 🙂

    I found a picture of an old Clark harp where quite many of the upper brass strings were broken. Are these most likely to break before the nylon/gut strings?

    Does anyone know if the blades will turn rusty or green?

    • This reply was modified 2 months ago by Mary Song.
    Biagio on #256583

    I don’t know if anyone has the original string specs and many have certainly looked for them. Judging from the harmonic curve though, and some best guesses by Mark Bolles and others, those are where %tensile strength is pushing up against an acceptable limit (C3 B2 and A2). As someone mentioned earlier though, that can also start a cascade.

    In any case, if this harp has been in an attic for some decades, such as are not broken will be as soon as someone tries to tune them!

    The blades were stainless steel but their shank slides into a sleeve. Any oxidation there will cause it to stick. I think there were three or four that I had to make replacements for. Bridge pins were also steel and many were also stuck. Most of the tuning pegs had oxidized and were useless.

    Mary Song on #256584

    Thanks a lot for all the information! It has helped me a lot. 🙂

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