Sanitizing Harps in Therapy Settings
We talk to more and more harpists all the time who are finding great satisfaction in bringing harp music to people in hospitals, assisted living homes or hospice situations. The harpists often insist that they get more out of it than the listeners do! Regardless of who benefits the most, harp therapy is an undeniable force for good and it is wonderful to hear stories of our harps being used in this way.
One hurdle that therapy harpists sometimes run into is the need to disinfect their harp. Depending on the situation, there may be specific protocols that have to be followed, and harpists are understandably worried about what this means for their instrument. So to help ease those fears, we did an experiment with sterile alcohol swabs from our first aid cabinet (70% isopropyl alcohol on a cotton pad) to test the effect on the finish we use.
We had tested alcohol swabs on our instruments before with no problems, but this time we wanted to know what would happen during an extended period of regular use. We took a piece of ash (the wood our Ravenna harp necks are made from), sanded and finished it the same way we would a harp, and made it our test subject. Twice a day for a month we wiped the same half of it with an alcohol swab and then dried it with a cloth. At the end of the month we compared the swabbed side with the un-swabbed side to see if there had been any noticeable effects, and we are happy to report that the two sides look identical!
You won’t be able to tell from the photo, but here it is anyway:
We have only tested this method on our own harps, so you should be aware that different types of finish will react in different ways. Alcohol is a very minor ingredient in the lacquer thinner we use, and once the lacquer has cured, wiping on a thin layer of alcohol and drying it off is pretty safe. If your non-Dusty harp is also finished with nitrocellulose lacquer, you can be reasonably certain that alcohol wipes will be okay. However, alcohol will dissolve other types of finish, such as tung oil or shellac, so be careful! If you are unsure what was used on your harp, you can ask the harp maker. In all cases, it would be wise to do your own tests on the underside of your harp or in another inconspicuous area before you start using a particular product.
The Dusty Harp Sanitizing Method
- Sterile alcohol swabs
- Soft cloth or towel (paper towels will also work)
- Thoroughly wipe a section of the harp with an alcohol swab.
- Working quickly, use a soft cloth or towel to dry the area.
- Repeat as necessary.
- Alcohol is a solvent, and although we didn’t see any problems with it in our experiment, it is still prudent to limit the amount of time it’s in contact with the lacquer. This is why we recommend doing a section at a time and drying it quickly, rather than wiping down the whole harp and letting it evaporate.
- You should never pour alcohol directly onto your harp. The lacquer is not a perfect seal, and while a thin layer of alcohol wiped on is okay, a larger amount could potentially soak in to the wood, causing swelling and lacquer damage.
- We don't recommend using hand sanitizer on your harp. In addition to the alcohol, most hand-sanitizing products contain skin softeners that can also soften lacquer.
- Although we feel good about the results of our month-long test, we can’t say with 100% certainty what will happen after years of regular swabbing. Ultimately, you are assuming some amount of risk by sanitizing a wooden harp. However, you can rest assured that worn-away lacquer is usually repairable!
- The International Harp Therapy Program recommends alcohol-free Benzalkonium Chloride Antiseptic Towelettes for sanitizing harps. We have not tried them ourselves, but would welcome feedback from anyone who has.
Alcohol does not have any solvent effects on our nylon or wire strings, so it is safe to wipe down the strings with alcohol wipes. We have not tried this on gut strings, but we suspect they will not hold up as well as nylon or wire.
Therapeutic harpist Laurie Riley says that in her experience, wiping strings with alcohol can give them an unpleasant squeaky feel. If you feel the same way, her alternate suggestion is to use a terrycloth towel and wipe the strings with a small amount of Dawn dish detergent. Then rub the strings with a clean wet towel to get the soap off. This won’t sterilize them, but it’s a similar level of protection to hand-washing.