• Alex Tree

Making a small harp that goes beyond its size.

Several years ago we decided to start work on a new project, joining the wave of the future and creating a lightweight carbon fibre harp. After a lot of research and testing, we adapted the designs of our existing Blondel lever harp. Crafting a special lamination of carbon fibre and wood allowed us to create a lever harp that was stronger and lighter, cutting nearly a third of the weight of the traditionally constructed wooden harp. Although this harp was a success, we knew we could take things even further.

So we hatched a new plan to create a small harp that would pack the punch of a much larger instrument, but without the need for amplification. To do this we had to go back to the fundamentals and there was really only one answer - to get a significant increase in volume without a large increase in size and weight, it had to be an extended soundboard. With that decision made we got to work.

The first step was the body of the harp. Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as slapping a couple of wings onto a regular body. The entire structure of the harp had to be designed to accommodate for the extra stress that the oversized soundboard would put on the frame of the body. Luckily with over 40 years of experience in repairing concert and lever harps of all varieties, we had a good idea of where to start. After a great deal of plotting and sketching, a working template was produced. From there we set about crafting the twelve individual pieces that make up the wings and the internal structure as well as vacuum forming the shell of the body using our unique carbon fibre composite. A quick photo montage later and the body was done!

Next up, the soundboard. Possibly the most important part of any instrument and particularly the harp. Unlike most stringed instruments, harp strings pass through and pull directly off the board meaning there is a lot of strain being put on the wood. In a lever harp this is equivalent of nearly a tonne of tension and the wider the soundboard gets the more the wood will bend. The trick is striking the perfect balance between flex and thickness, creating a board that will sound great and stand the test of time. Drawing on our experience of repairing and replacing hundreds of concert harp and lever harp soundboards, we began work. The board is constructed with hand selected Sitka spruce with a back strip that is specifically shaped to provide extra support where the soundboard is at its widest and weakest. We also decided to include a feature rarely seen on other small harps, harmonic bars. These are strips of spruce that run perpendicular to the grain of the soundboard, stiffening the board and allowing the sound waves to spread more evenly to create more resonance, something that is seen on all concert harps.

The neck and pillar is the final component. The harmonic curve that makes up the iconic shape of a harp neck is in fact a compromise between the true exponential nature of the curve and what is practically possible. If the neck were to have a truly correct shape it would continue to rise ever higher. Starting with the theoretically correct string lengths, we created a neck that is as close to the perfect curve as possible, which is part of the reason why it so closely mimics that of a concert harp. The neck and pillar is made of best quality hard rock maple which, as the name would suggest, is one of the toughest woods around. Although the actual construction may look simple, the arrangement of the joints and orientation of the grain has to be carefully considered to maximise resistance against the twisting forces of the strings. The joints where the neck meets the pillar are aligned in an overlapping pattern for exactly this reason.

Once all the stages have been completed, the component pieces of the harp need to be lacquered, and although the raw carbon fibre finish of the body has a certain appeal, we decided to go for a royal-”ish” blue colour for the back of the body, providing a beautiful contrast between that and the highly figured flame maple side strips. The rest of the harp is finished with a high gloss clear lacquer that brings out the natural beauty of the wood grain. As a last touch we wanted to add a little decoration to the soundboard. We decided not to go for the standard transfers used on most harps, but to make a custom design using 23 ¾ carat gold leaf. The pattern first needs to be cut into a special stencilling film, gilding oil is then painted over the design before the gold leaf is laid over the top. Once the film is removed it reveals the completed stencil.

The final stage of every lever harp, this being no exception, is stringing and fitting the levers. Each one has to be fitted individually, checking the semi tones as you go to make sure the lever is fitted in the optimum position and allowing for the most adjustment in the future. Multiple tunings later, this harp is finally ready to go out in to the world.