When does wood choice in harps matter?

Jan 19, 2015

harp wood comparison

So you’re reaching the end of your quest for the perfect harp. You’ve considered the number of strings you want, the size of the harp, pedals vs. levers and so on, and you’ve finally found the right model for you. But one last decision remains: which wood will you choose? Perhaps your eyes prefer a certain color, but is there anything to consider besides visual appeal?

The answer is yes… sometimes. Depending on the harp and the maker, wood choice can be purely visual, or it can have some bearing on the tone of the harp.

If you’re familiar with the pedal harp world (including lever harps that are made by pedal harp companies), you’re probably used to choosing a harp’s finish but not the wood it is made out of. A walnut finish will not make the harp sound any different than a natural maple finish will because the underlying wood is the same. This is true in parts of the lever harp world as well, including laminated wood harps like our Ravenna models, which come in a choice of colors but are made of the same materials underneath. It’s a little like buying a car; once you’ve decided on the model, you can be pretty sure that the color won’t affect how it feels to drive it. (This may not apply to the color red, however…)

Many parts of the lever harp world are different in that the actual wood can change. In the case of our FH series, for example, a walnut harp is made of solid walnut wood and a maple harp is made of solid maple, and each species of wood lends its own character to the tone of the harp. This opens up an opportunity to tailor the sound a bit to match your tastes, as well as creating a wider range of visual variations between different colors and grain patterns. In this case, a walnut harp actually does feel different to drive than a maple harp does.

For some people this makes for an exciting array of choices, and for others it’s a bewildering level of complexity. When you don’t have a chance to sit down and play five harps next to each other in five different woods, the search for your soul mate can seem a bit daunting. So to go along with our harp recordings (now including all five wood choices), we thought a verbal description with a visual element might be helpful.

Keep in mind that the differences are relatively subtle, and all of our harps (except the Boulevard) fall in the brighter range of the general harp spectrum. But within that bright range, we tend to refer to the following diagram when we’re comparing the tonal nuances of different wood species.

harp wood comparison diagram

Everyone hears things a little differently, so the reality is of course more fluid and subjective than the diagram shows, but listeners generally seem to agree with the main features of this triangle arrangement. The three points represent the three woods that have the easiest-to-differentiate tonal characteristics. Maple has a very bright, crisp and focused tone. Walnut has a softer, mellower, warm-and-fuzzy tone. Bubinga is loud and bold with a big and resonant bass.

Cherry and sapele are more difficult to characterize, which is why we put them between the points of the triangle. Cherry has a lot of the characteristics of bubinga (depth, boldness and resonant bass), but also has some of the warmth and softness of walnut. We think of it as being between the two, but somewhat closer to bubinga.

Sapele is the hardest to describe because it has a little of everything and not too much of any particular characteristic. It could be considered the one-size-fits all wood, or it could be the perfect solution for someone who feels that maple is too bright, bubinga is too loud and walnut is too mellow. Sapele could be just right.

It is also worth noting that different woods have different densities, and therefore wood choice also affects the weight of the harp. An FH36S made of bubinga is about three pounds heavier than one made of maple, and about four pounds heavier than sapele, walnut or cherry.

And here’s one more diagram that might be useful if you’re having trouble relating to the first one.

harp woods compared to wine

We’d love to know what you think about all of this! Is there a particular wood that speaks to you? What words do you use to describe your own harp? Do you agree or disagree with any of our descriptions? Shall we discuss it over a glass of wine?



Category: Useful Info

Comments

Posted by Pam on
This is great! I'm not surprised to find my sapele wood harp right in the middle, as it has a little of everything and not too much of anything. I listened to the cherry recordings, and that's coming in a close second. I didn't so much chose the sapele Crescendo 34 as that's what was available in the (VA Harp Center) showroom, but I'm loving it!
Posted by Ann Robinson on
I love my FH36S Babinga. The bass is very much bold and deep, which I love. My higher notes are clear and add a great contrast to the lower bass tones. It has not disappointed and has received great comments about its tone from pedal harpists. I love the wine comparison. This is a great metaphor for explaining the differences in wood.
Posted by Pam Stohrer on
Before I even really knew how to play, I sat and listened as the wonderful harpist at the Harp Connection played the same song on every lever harp they had in stock. And I knew the walnut 36 was going to be my harp after maybe 15 seconds of listening to it. I think the triangle graphic is spot-on. I think my walnut harp sounds more mellow and rich as it ages. I rented a bubinga for a few weeks while my harp was in the shop. If I was strictly a soloist I might consider it, but I didn't find it great for blending with other instruments, and it was truly too heavy for me to manage easily. But the sound was wild!
Posted by Thomas Payne on
I assume you are referring to the wood the back and sides of the sound box are made of. Does the species of the neck and pillar also make a difference? Also, what about the sound board? How do soundboards of different materials (Sitka spruce, Finnish birch plywood, Baltic birch plywood . . . ) affect the tone of a harp? Thanks!
Posted by admin on
We tend to talk most about the soundbox materials, since that's where most of the sound-producing vibrations happen, but the neck and pillar do have some effect on the tone as well. Our theory is that a more dense neck and pillar will contribute to a clearer and louder tone, since the string energy can't move it much, and is mostly funneled into the soundbox. A less dense neck might absorb more of the string vibrations and give the harp a more mellow tone overall. We've had a great time building orphan harps, which are a patchwork of different wood types, and experiencing the really unique voice of each different harp.

Soundboard materials are also an important part of a harp's tone. We didn't talk about that here because we don't offer a choice of soundboard woods, but we have done extensive testing to find the woods we like the tone of best. Our solid wood 34- and 36-string harps actually have soundboards made of two different wood species. In all of our tests, we liked the warm, resonant and full tone of softer spruce in the bass range, and the clear, crisp and pure tone of harder mahogany in the mid and treble ranges, so we ended up making a two-part soundboard to incorporate the best of both worlds. For our laminated soundboards, we have switched from Baltic birch to Finnish birch, and and we think a slight increase in tonal clarity could be due to the Finnish birch being a bit more dense.

To generalize, our experience has been that less dense woods produce softer, more mellow tones, and more dense woods produce louder and clearer tones, but there are many other factors involved, including the complexities of string design and structural engineering. Ultimately, we make all of our tonal decisions based on controlled blind sound tests, and we are sometimes surprised when our ears tell us something different than our brains predicted!
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