When YOU build a harp…

Posted In: Coffee Break

  • Participant
    goatberryfarm2010 on #220638

    I’m amazed & quite curious about those who’ve built their own harps! (Biagio, I’m thinking of you!) I suspect there are others, too; please come in!
    Have you been a professional wood worker as well as a pro harpist? (I’m so fascinated by wood & the pre-electric tools, altho I have no objection to them.)
    What drew you into this adventure? Please tell us all about it!

    Participant
    goatberryfarm2010 on #220683

    Please forgive my lack of editing, above. I was writing in the wee hours of the morning.
    I’ll try to recall how to edit, after sleeping.

    Participant
    Biagio on #220687

    Hi Jennifer,

    OK, here’s my tale and a few others whom I know.

    I was a finance manager and, earlier, Intelligence officer. Retired early and while rebuilding a cabin in the mountains started making musical instruments during the winter to pass the time. Just a hobby as many do around there; one day I decided to make a harp, did tons of research, and got hooked. Same sort of story of many I know from many backgrounds. For instance:

    David Thoramahlen (geology student), Ray Mooers (densitry I think), Marco Paganni (Italy, mathmatician and teacher), Mark Blessley (doctor), Rick Kemper (engineer)James Skeen (statistician)…what we all have in common is that we were curious and fell in love with the harp, and decided to make one rather than buy it.

    In some cases back in the 1970s making it was about the only option at least in the US.

    I can only think of a handful who were both professional harp makers AND harpists: Alan Stivell, Chris Caswell, Melville Clark, Timothy Habinski, Carl Swanson (on this list).

    A small simple harp is not difficult to make, but just like learning to play one must do some study and research to understand the theory and then practice the craft: theory will only take you so far! Some players have the idea that it is all very mathematical.

    Well, yes, you do have to understand string vibration under different conditions, be able to make informed choices about different woods species, and have a good idea about how vibrating length affects tone. None of this is complicated though, there is lots of literature that address these subjects, and thanks to computers you will rarely have to grab your calculator.

    After all, harps have perhaps the oldest history of any stringed instrument. They certainly did not have computers in ancient Egypt, nor the 14th century Gaelic cultures for that matter! I’m sure that many earlier harp makers just copied the ideas of others and made several changes – just as most harp makers do today.

    Several people today still prefer to just use antique hand tools, particularly for wire harps. Others are more impatient which is perhaps not entirely a good thing all the time ha ha.

    We joke that it is an addiction; you make one and it’s OK but then you think you could do some things better, want a larger one or different kind and so it goes.

    There are plenty of folks who make pretty good harps but just do it for themselves and/or a few friends. Others don’t have a large shop so they customize kits; at first at least. I know a number of professionals who got started that way.

    Harp makers are among the most generous people around and we share ideas all the time. It is one of the things that keeps the field alive and growing. That is especially true of folk harps, which can vary a great deal, but it is also true about the concert harp.

    There’s my little homily and like most homilies it has a moral: “You Too Can Build a Harp.”

    Best wishes,
    Biagio

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 10 months ago by Biagio.
    Participant
    goatberryfarm2010 on #220744

    Thank you for sharing your stories! I so appreciate it. I’m all thumbs; I even put a pre-fab bookcase together backwards! However, I’ve always wished wood shop had been available for girls, when I was a teenager.

    Participant
    Charles on #223313

    I agree with everything Biagio mentioned. It’s a real addiction Even if you are not going into business it difficult to only build one. Collecting tools is addictive too. I became intrested in harp in the late 90’s after I graduated college and moved to Atlanta. I had a choice buy a car or a harp. You can’t really get around Atlanta without a car so…. many hours of research, group chats and looking at catalogs I made a small lap harp. Shortly after larger harps followed. I have a music degre and many years woodworking experience. There is a certain satisfaction from performing on an instrument you designed and built even if you see all its flaws. There’s a tremendous margin of error ( within reason) that will still yeild a decent tone and look nice. I started with simple diatonic harps then added levers not being satisfied with flipping levers I made a cross strung chromatic based on the Plyel chromatic Cross strung harp. Building it was a challenge 60some strings however, getting comfortable playing it was fun. Right now I’m in the process of building a triple strung harp.
    Within the past couple of years I’ve been able to buy used working pedal harps and hope to be able to concentrate more on making music.
    Another fun route to building a harp are kits that you put together several really good ones are available.
    Charles

    Participant
    Biagio on #223326

    A kit is a good way to get started: the basic design including vibrating lengths is fixed so all you really have to do is put it together and if you wish customize it. Most of the good kits I know of are from Musicmakers; a nice thing about their designs is that they are easy to customize since, although they are meant to be relatively inexpensive and for those who may be “all thumbs”, with a little thought you can upgrade them easily. A few examples:

    The Limerick: as designed is fairly heavy (3/4″ thick sides) – with access to a planer and a few little changes you can take off several pounds. You can string it with brass instead of nylon (or steel) by dropping the range four steps. If you really want a “classic” wire harp you can simply place the tuning pegs where the pins would be located and use a hardwood sound board. Or you can make a few modifications and turn it into a double strung.

    The Voyageur and Cheyenne: both very nice as is but you can replace the laminate SB with a solid wood board (which you can order from Betty Truitt or Rick Kemper for about $200) after extending the pillar foot. If you prefer a mellower tone than nylon and metal wrapped bass strings, substitute gut and bronze core nylon wrap. And/or drop the range two steps to a bass A rather than C.

    To repeat: none of these (and other changes you might like) are difficult if you have spent a little time studying the basic principles. From there it is only a step or two away before you will be designing your harp from scratch (and maybe getting harp builder counseling).

    Biagio

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 7 months ago by Biagio.
    Participant
    hearpe on #223329

    Hey Biagio-

    I just read your last post and was coincidentally just exploring again putting at least some brass strings on such a said Musicmaker Limrick-
    I have both string charts on adobe file (Trinity Queen Mary and Limrick steel string) and was flipping back and forth between the two comparing lengths and gauges.

    I’m a little confused by what you said about “dropping the range four steps). That would, I guess make the low note F instead of the current C- but which way? An F LOWER is what I think you mean, or is that you mean putting the higher F lower but the same octave it is currently. In general the Limrick harp strings are about 1/4 again LONGER than the Trinity harp)

    I’ve just been listening to some Siobhan Armstrong recordings and I can hear that the brass seems to have a broader resonance somehow in the same range if I play my steel strings alongside- mine are more “clippy”, not as long sounding or ringing. I’d love to get that brass sound, but getting more confused all the time. So would my low C string be an F below the C or is it then the higher F brought down lower?

    The Trinity harp of course has 29 strings and my Musicmaker only 26- I was planning on still probably having some wound bronze wires at the bottom- currently guitar string types it appears, and maybe even leaving steel in the very high range, but it seems the better part of 15 strings would be replaced.

    Participant
    Biagio on #223330

    Hi Hearpe

    I guess I was not entirely clear – to be specific, lowering the Limerick four steps would make the last string a G (when counting steps, we include the first ie a fifth in Cmaj would be C to G, a fourth would be G up to C). If you wanted to do that the Limerick range would be G2 up to D6. That’s a nice range for a lot of Celtic music.

    One must be more careful with brass or bronze than with nylon when selecting gauges – they don’t stretch much LOL and rarely can you just put the same as on a different wire harp. Here’s one version that would work with the Limerick:

    Yellow Brass or Phosphor Bronze
    D6-D5 0.016
    C5-G4 0.018
    F4,E4 0.020
    D4 0.022
    C4,B3 0.025
    A3,G3 0.028
    F3,E3 0.032

    Red Brass
    D3,C3 0.035
    B2,A2 0.038
    G2 0.040

    There are others, with higher tension (and some silver in the bass) but if your Limerick has bridge pins the above will be fine and not so “tinkly” as with steel.

    Have fun!
    Biagio

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