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Building an Orphan Harp

July 1, 2014
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The orphan harp idea was born when Martha Gallagher, harpist from upstate NY, toured our workshop. She spied a rack of dusty parts in the corner and asked what they were. When we told her they were waiting to be matched with new mates, having lost one along the way, the story-teller in her went on high alert. Before we knew it, we were modfiying our long-held belief that all the wood parts in a harp needed to match, not only in species, but also in grain and color characteristics. We are constantly vigilant to meet that standard, but the tree can have other ideas. A flaw may show up part way through the construction, and we lose one member of a set of matching parts, which means that the rest of the parts go on the shelf and wait for a new mate - sometimes a long time.

So, for Martha, we took a deep breath, closed our eyes (well, not really), and rescued some lonely but beautiful harp parts from the shelf. We built an FH34 of walnut, maple and bubinga parts that sang so beautifully, Martha launched into writing songs and telling its story. You can hear her talk about it here.

Because we had never made an orphan harp before, we documented parts of the building process and we thought it would be fun to show you a little of what goes into making a harp! So here are some of the highlights from the first orphan FH34 we built…

Our solid wood comes to us in large boards, and the first step is to roughly trace parts and cut them out on a bandsaw.

Cutting a large walnut board into rough harp parts on the bandsaw

After a great deal more cutting, shaping, measuring, sanding, measuring, drilling and more measuring, the parts are glued together and clamped in elaborate jigs while they dry.

Gluing braces into a harp body

Normally, all the parts would match (usually they are all cut out of the same board!), but since these are orphaned parts who have lost their mates, we’ve got bubinga sides and a walnut back.

Elaborate clamping jig holds the back of the harp on while the glue dries

This crazy contraption is pressing the bubinga T-brace into the curves of the maple pillar while the glue dries.

Bending and gluing the T-brace on the front of the pillar

Contrasting maple stave panels are glued into the corners of the body, creating a comfortable faceted shape where it rests against the player’s shoulder. Again, these would normally match.

Inserting the faceted stave panels at the top of the harp body

At this point, the harp is in six pieces – body, neck, base, stand, and a pair of feet – which are hung in the spray booth...

Orphan harp body hanging in the spray booth ready for lacquer

and sprayed with multiple coats of clear lacquer.

Orphan harp neck being sprayed with clear lacquer

Then the parts are put together and the harp gets its strings. (Did you know that the neck would come off if the strings weren’t holding it on?)

Harp being strung

After strings come levers...

Adding sharping levers to the orphan harp

Then the levers are regulated, the harp is tested and inspected, and the first orphan harp goes out into the world.

The finished orphan FH34 is made of bubinga, maple and walnut
Close-up of the orphan FH34 harp

Reflecting on how fun the first one was to build, owners Ray and Sue envision the potential patchwork futures of these other orphaned parts...

Ray and Sue look at leftover harp parts to plan the next orphan harp

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