Strings for a tuned-down antique

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    After doing a great deal of work on an old Clark Irish harp (1915) I inherited, I’ve decided that perhaps it’s safest to simply tune it down by a decent interval. I know it’s fine at an octave below, so I’m testing it at a fourth below (C string tuned to G) to see whether its various small cracks stay stable. (Unfortunately, the nearest expert is about 600 miles away, so I’ve been learning a LOT about old harps and repair techniques.) This is, for the record, my first harp.

    My question: if it stays tuned to a fourth below, what should I do about the string colors? I haven’t been around harps enough to have a good feel for how string gauges map to their nominal notes… It strikes me that simply moving the strings down a fourth, so the C string is once again red, is just asking for trouble: different lengths beget different tension, which might put more stress on the string or make it sound dull, and so on. The lowest nylon string sounds a bit dull as it is, and I’ll probably trade it for a lighter one (or an eighth bass wire) eventually. The rest sound all right.

    I suppose I could live with my Gs being red and my Cs being black, as I don’t have habits already, but it would confuse the heck out of anybody else. It’s currently strung with Bow lever nylon strings and Bow lever bass wires… is there some set I could get for low tension harps that would be more suitable? I have no idea what’s out there. The local harp shop sold me the Bow strings, but the staff there get pretty uncomfortable any time I mention I have a Clark; I suspect it’s way out of their experience. I’d love some advice at this point.

    [For the curious, I played lower brass for 12 years and I’ve recently spent 18 months learning basic cello, so I’m familiar enough with music, just not this particular instrument. I’m hoping to teach myself enough to sound pretty on this old antique, at least… who knows, it may be the first step to addiction, and before you know it I’ll be building one. 🙂 ]




    Firstly if whoever is 600 miles away really knows old harps it is quite probably worth the trip!

    Secondly, as an historical aside the standard strings of the era of your Clark harp are an excellent match for modern lever harp strings (in gut that is) so by putting lever harp strings on tuned to pitch you would not be reducing tension. Just so you know the starting point.

    Without, in anyway assessing the harp for what it can take, your colour choices include:
    Moving the lever harp strings down the harp – moving them down an octave and then tuning to pitch would be in the same tension ball park as keeping them where they are and tuning a 4th low and would probably sound better. If you still don’t like the sound of the thickest nylons try gut. If you don’t have perfect pitch and won’t be playing with others I would suggest move the strings down an octave, tune as high as you feel comfortable and have a transposing instrument.

    Pedal harp strings moved an octave down from their pedal harp position (I have a 1930s blade harp strung like this) – this works out similar to moving the lever strings down about a 4th. Howard Bryan has kindly put string charts on his website so you can see what one maker’s thicknesses are.

    Dye or pens -if it comes off on your fingers you can still navigate by the colour at the ends of the strings.

    What sort of wires do you have? I hope they are ‘soft core’ without a central steel wire. I don’t know which Bow Brand make.


    Hi Li Shan! First of all, so cool to get a new harp!! As for deciding which finish to go for, besides what you like best, there is one small thing to consider. I have three harps, one natural, one mahogany, and one walnut. The two darker harps show scratches very easily! The natural one, not so much. So, if the harp is going to be moved a lot, you might want to consider a lighter finish. However even with that being said, its relatively easy to touch up small scratches on the darker harps with a furniture pen. Don’t know if that helps you to decide 🙂


    HI Alison

    Get in touch with these people, and specify that you want low tension strings, with fiber-core bass wires. I’ve restrung a number of Clarks with these strings, and they sound good without putting undue strain on the harp.



    According to the newspaper I receive,which has reports of weather 6 days out of seven, around the world, Singapore seems to have thunderstorms constantly; I have never seen a report of fair weather there.. This certainly makes it humid, as you say. However, if I lived there I would choose a lighter wood, simply because it would seem more optimistic than a dark color, with your dark sky, and perhaps dark furniture. If people have lighter colors around them, their mood might be more serene than if they were always surrounded by dark things, and sunny days were few and far between.

    Gretchen Cover

    Li Shan,

    If you are going to get the soundboard painted, I would go with a natural finish. If you wanted a more contemporary look, I would consider an ebony finish and no soundboard decoration. I think the mahagony finish makes the harp look lost on a stage. Ebony and natural are much more striking to me.

    I had a Salvi Aurora with an ebony finish.. It looked almost new when I sold it 35 years later. It had a couple of scratches which I easily concealed with a marker.

    I would check with Lyon Healy to see what color your harp will turn. The older LH natural finish harps did turn a goldish color which I don’t particularly like. I rented a 1980’s Salzedo before buying my new harp and I thought the color it turned was not very attractive. But the new harp may be different as it ages because of the wood and the modern finishes.

    In the end, you must make the decision as to what you like. You can’t make a wrong decision with such a beautiful concert harp. Please post a photo when you get your new harp.


    I am a guy with dark hair so I like it natural.

    It fits better to my home as well. I have bright parkett floors so the harp looks as if it “grew” out from the floor in my living room 🙂


    I like walnut because it fits with the color of the wood in orchestra (strings).


    That particular mahogany finish has an unpleasant purplish tone, like Victorian furniture. I’d go for walnut or ebony if you have the option,


    Natural maple ages over the years into a lovely gold color (has nothing to do with humidity). As mentioned above, it also shows fewer scratches and dings. When the harp is new, the natural maple is kind of pale, so decide if you would like that. Here is a photo of a natural maple at about age 32.


    That’s gorgeous.

    I ordered a mohagany and it’s still in production. I almost went with natural but decided on a darker wood as that is more appealing to me. Waiting on it is driving me nuts.



    That looks like the harp the my teacher and I just sold in a little partnership thing. Is it a 17? Our was built in 1956 (one year after I was “Built”). Loved that harp! We both thought seriously about keeping it. The tone of the wood was/is just LOVELY!

    Li Shan Tan

    Thanks for all your comments and advice! The Style 23 above looks lovely. I’m probably going for a natural finish after seeing that picture! =)


    Yes, that was my 17, built in 1979, which I sold a couple years ago. Great sound but I just wasn’t using it and it deserved a good home, which it now has with two harpists!

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