Regardless of type of harp, harps are triangular in shape. The upright sound-box of the harp forms the edge of the triangle held closest to the harp player, with the neck and pillar (also called the post) forming the other angles. There is, and has been, much variation in the sizes of these three components over the years, and there is no standard today.
Regardless of the style of the harp, the process of construction is rigorous and complex, usually done by hand. An excellent video on the making of a lever harp illustrates the many steps that go into crafting the harp:
Harp makers often start by creating a template or pattern from which the parts of the harp are cut out of wood. These parts are planed and glued together to form a strong bond, after which they are sanded and the shape fine-tuned. Sound boxes may be made in parts or may be hollowed out of a single piece of wood with a back or front later attached permanently when the instrument has been strung.
“The single most important part … is the soundboard…A soundboard that is poorly made or constructed of inferior materials will result in a poor sounding harp” . Soundboards can be made of solid wood or plywood. Solid wood soundboards will improve dramatically over time, whereas a laminated soundboard is more durable, particularly in response to temperature or humidity changes .
“The easiest part of the triangle to make is the post as it plays little part in the sound production and can therefore be over-engineered; the compressional force is in any case mostly axial. The neck has to withstand the total tension of all the strings, and also a large torque, as all the strings are mounted on one side…. The soundboard has to be both thin and also to withstand all the string tension. … The soundbox is a light, hollow shell, with holes at the back for improved sound radiation and access to the strings. The whole structure bends alarmingly under the string tension … so the veneer has to be very well bonded ” .
Strings and Levers
The strings of the harp are wound around pins in the neck and run down to the sound-board. The sound-box itself may have sound openings in either the front or the rear of the harp, depending on it’s use and construction. The type of string used can include metal, nylon, and/or gut.
Lever harps (non-pedal harps) can have levers or blades installed below the neck pins to allow for playing of accidentals (sharps and flats). Pedal harps do not have levers, but have pedals in the base of the harp for playing sharps and flats.
Once the parts are made, the harp is assembled. Joining methods vary, but good joinery techniques are critical to ensure that the harp will not come apart or the soundboard separate from the soundbox due to string te
A brief visit to the Salvi factory provides an interesting overview of their approach to harp making, particularly for the fine detail required of pedal harps:
“Modern harpmakers use a wide variety of finish materials…A good finish should be smooth and free from drips and bubbles. Finishes are available in either gloss (shiny) or satin (matte)” (Geller, p. 15).
The metal parts of the harp (bridge and tuning pins, levers, and pedals) should be machined and smoothed to eliminate any sharp edges that could harm the player or the strings. Metal eyelets or shoes are also usually installed at the base of the string where it meets the soundboard to prevent the strings from wearing away the wood.
Some harps (usually larger harps) come with a detachable stand or legs to help stabilize it when playing.
- The construction of a double-action pedal harp
- Building a Lever Harp
- Structural Analysis of a Folk Harp
- Musical Tuning
- Heartland Harps Construction
Note about this article. Some of this content has been copy-pasted from Peggy Coates' website dorveille.com The website has disappeared, but the content remains on the internet archives. Attempts have been made to get in touch with the original author, but have been unfruitful. Should Peggy come across this content, please get in touch with @harpwiki!
- Geller, Janna McCall and Mallory (1993). Exploring the Folk Harp. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, Inc. 1993, Pg 14
- Waltham, Chris (2005). Harp Design and Construction. Retrieved from http://www.aip.org/149th/waltham.html