Dusty Strings Harp and Hammered Dulcimer Makers logo(206) 634-1656

Several of us are away at the Somerset Folk Harp Festival, and we may not be able to respond to emails and phone calls as quickly as usual. Thank you for your patience!

person stringing a lever harp

Harp Maintenance & Troubleshooting

Here is where you can learn how to set up your new Dusty harp, what safety precautions to take, what sorts of ongoing maintenance you can expect, and how to troubleshoot problems that might come up further down the road.

If you don't find what you're looking for here, you can also try our FAQ page or give us a call!

Receiving and inspecting your harp

Before Throwing Out the Box...

Inspect the harp: If your new harp was shipped to you, please carefully inspect the instrument for shipping damage. Do not judge this solely by the condition of the shipping box.  An impact that is strong enough to cause damage to the harp may have minimal effect on the box. Conversely, a box could look totally destroyed while the harp inside is just fine! Re-inspect the harp after you tune it the first time. If you see anything questionable, call us. This is an important responsibility of the recipient of the harp. If shipping damage is not reported immediately, neither we nor the shipping company can take any responsibility for repairs or replacement.

Accessories can be hidden: Be sure to locate the tuning wrench, case strap, and any other accessories you ordered. In order to keep them safe in shipping, accessories are often disguised as packing materials or hidden behind cardboard and can be easy to overlook. Sometimes they are packed in case pockets, and you might be surprised that your case has more pockets than you thought!

Consider keeping the box: If the shipping box arrived in good enough shape to be used again, consider flattening and storing it. If you ever need to ship the harp in the future, having the box can be very handy. While we can always ship you a new box, it's a very expensive option!

Register the Warranty

You can read the terms of the warranty and register you purchase on our warranty page. Registering is not required in order for the warranty to apply, but will make it quicker and easier for us to help you in the event of a warranty claim. Proof of purchase may be required, so be sure to retain your original purchase receipt.

Setting up and playing your harp

FH26 Leg Installation

Our FH26 legs can be installed by laying the harp on its back on a table with the harp base hanging over the side (so it doesn't wobble on the curved edge of the base), or by turning the harp upside down (see video below). Each leg has a locator pin that fits into the smaller of two holes in the base. Then, you'll use the included 1/4" hex wrench to turn the screw, making sure it threads smoothly into the larger, threaded hole without cross-threading. Sometimes jiggling the screw a little bit can help it to seat into the hole. When the screw is properly threaded and tight, and the locator pin is all the way down in its hole, the leg should be flush against the surface of the harp base, and will not wobble when you try to move it. Make sure to test each leg before standing the harp up!

Allegro Leg Installation

The Allegro legs can be installed by laying the harp on its back on a table with the harp base hanging over the side (so it doesn't wobble on the curved edge of the base), or by turning the harp upside down and stabilizing the pillar between your knees (see FH26 video above for an example). Being careful with the angles so that you don't cross-thread the legs and damage the threads, screw each leg into a threaded nut on a corner of the base. If a leg doesn't screw in easily, don't force it! Back it out and try again. Once all four legs are snug and flush with the base, you can set the harp on the floor to play.

Ravenna, Boulevard, Crescendo 34, and FH34S Stand Assembly

The Boulevard, Crescendo 34, and FH34S have a stand included by default, and it's an optional accessory for the Ravenna harps. Each stand looks a bit different from the others, but the way you assemble and use them is the same.

Locate the flat stand base, which has large knob in the center. With the knob facing you, thread each of the four legs into a metal nut on the outside corners of the stand base. Be careful not to force them or get them cross-threaded, as it's easy to accidentally damage the threads. Once all four legs are fully screwed in, flip the stand over so the legs are on the floor. Then lift your harp up and set it down on top of the stand, making sure it's seated correctly. Reach underneath and tighten the knob until snug.

To remove the stand, undo the knob and then lift the harp off the stand.

Here is an example of the Crescendo stand:

FH34 Stand Assembly

The FH34 stand makes it possible to put the feet on your harp and remove them without having to turn the harp upside down. First, attach the two feet to the stand base using the small thumb screws. The right and left feet are not interchangeable, so we have put keying tabs on the edges of the inner base and on the top surfaces of the feet. They fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Once the feet are attached and sitting on the floor, you can lift the harp up and set it on top of the stand base. The triangular cutout in the center of the stand base points toward the front of the harp, and the harp won’t seat securely on the stand base if it is backward. Spin the large knob under the stand base until the harp is securely attached and ready to play. To remove the stand, undo the knob and lift the harp off of the stand.

Serrana Legs

The Serrana 34 has two legs built in, which can be adjusted to any comfortable height for sitting or standing. To extend a leg, lay the harp down on its back and press the button next to the leg (see photo below). The leg will pop out from its seated position. Continue to press the button as you pull the leg out. When you reach the desired length, release the button and continue extending the leg until it locks into position. You can use the holes as a reference to set both legs to the same length. Before standing the harp up to play, firmly push on both legs to make sure they are locked. If they are not, jiggle or rotate them until you hear a click, and then test again. To retract a leg, lay the harp down on its back, press the button, and slide the leg back into the base. Just before it’s all the way retracted, you’ll feel a bit of resistance. At this point, release the button and push the leg firmly into the base to lock it into the seated position. With the legs fully retracted, the harp will stand stable on its base.

Underside of Serrana harp base showing labels for the leg (on the right) and the release button (on the left)

Tuning

To tune the harp, locate the tuning wrench (wooden handle with metal shaft) and fit it onto the square end of a tuning pin. Pluck the string that's attached to that tuning pin and use an electronic tuner or an app on your phone to tell you what pitch is sounding. Likely, the strings will be a bit flat (low in pitch) to begin with, and you'll need to figure out which way to turn the pin in order to raise the pitch until the tuner shows the correct note. If you're not sure what the notes should be, you can download a string chart from our harp strings page.

The strings may be new and still settling in, and could require a couple of weeks of regular tuning before they stop stretching. When you tune, be careful to not tune the metal core strings higher than normal pitch. These cores do not stretch. They come up to pitch quickly and will easily break if taken too high. The nylon core wound strings and the monofilament strings do stretch, and can be tuned very slightly over pitch to hasten the stretching process.

Using Sharping Levers

The purpose of a sharping lever is to raise the pitch of an individual string by a half step. With no sharping levers, you can play in only one key unless you re-tune several strings, but with sharping levers, you can switch between keys easily by flipping levers. The more sharping levers you have, the more keys are available to you.

Harps with levers on the C and F strings can play in three major and three minor keys. For example, if your harp is tuned to C major, you can play in C major or A minor with no levers engaged, in G major or E minor with the F levers engaged, and in D major or B minor with the C and F levers engaged. There is a lot of music written in these keys.

A harp with sharping levers on all the strings can be played in eight major and eight minor keys. E-flat is a popular key to tune a fully-levered harp to because it starts you out in a flat key. You can then use your levers to sharp certain strings to get to B-flat, F, C and then beyond to the common sharp keys - G, D, A and E. You can also tune your harp to C, which allows you to play in the keys of C, G, D, A, E, B, F-sharp and C-sharp, although the last two are not very commonly used in folk music.

If you are new to the lever harp, you can read our handout on Using Sharping Levers for a more detailed look at tuning schemes, lever configurations and available keys.

Harp Cases

Shoulder Straps and How Not to Rip the Case Fabric

On our 26-string and 34-string harp cases, there are sets of D-rings meant for attaching the included shoulder strap, and separate sets of D-rings meant for the optional backpack straps. If you use the wrong D-rings, you risk ripping the case fabric.

Diagram of case: The four D-rings that point to the sides are labeled for backpack straps. The visible D-ring that points upwards is labeled for the shoulder strap.

More details here: CD34 case instructions

Features of the CD34 case

Because the bottom flap zips open, there are a couple of different ways you can load your 34-string harp into the case - either with the harp standing up, or with the case lying on the floor.

CD34 case instructions

Also take note of the hidden handle below the larger pocket on the front of the case. It's helpful as an additional point of contact when you've got the shoulder strap over your shoulder.

Loading your 36-string harp into the case

Using Backpack Straps

The cases for our 34-string and 26-string harps have extra D-rings for attaching optional backpack straps. The case is designed to be worn upside down, so the base of the harp is pointing up when it's on your back. If you wear it the other way, or if you attach the backpack straps to D-rings that are meant for the shoulder strap, the case fabric could rip. For pictures and more detailed instructions, read our PDF on Using Backpack Straps.

Keeping your harp safe

Temperature

Never leave your harp in a parked car on a warm day! Even in the shade with the windows cracked, it can take very little time for the inside temperature to reach 120 degrees or higher. At this temperature, the glue that holds your harp together begins to soften, and joints can start to slide or pull apart. When the harp cools, the glue will re-harden, but a major portion of its structural strength will be lost. Any joint so weakened can give way right then, or at any point in the future. With between 850 and 1200 pounds of total tension exerted by the strings, that sort of heat damage can easily start a harp on its way to slowly pulling apart and eventually exploding.

It may be some time later that the damage will actually show itself, but some shifting of glue joints will be observable to any instrument repair person, and is evidence that the instrument has been subjected to too high a heat. Damage resulting from exposure to high temperatures is not covered by your warranty. A good rule of thumb to be safe is to never leave your harp in an environment where a human would not be comfortable.

People often worry about extreme cold, because low temperatures can cause certain types of finish to crack. We have never seen this happen with the type of lacquer we use on our instruments, so we are not worried about the cold. However, cold temperatures often coincide with low humidity, which can put your harp at risk of cracking. Please read the next section on humidity and dryness for more information on keeping your harp safe.

Humidity & Dryness

There is so much to say on the subject of humidity and dryness that we've written a long article about it, as well as a shorter informational sheet, and we strongly encourage you to read them. The biggest risk is that your harp could get too dry and develop a crack, and this is likeliest to happen during a cold winter. But don't worry - there are relatively easy ways to monitor this and to keep the humidity in a safe range!

Blog article about keeping instruments safe from extremes of humidity and dryness

PDF: Humidity, Dryness, and Musical Instruments

Harps Are Top-Heavy

Due to their shape, harps are inherently top-heavy, and can be vulnerable to getting knocked over. A firm, flat, unpadded surface is more stable than a thick cushy carpet, and if you keep your harp in a corner or against a wall when you're not playing, that will offer some extra protection against accidental bumps.

Ongoing maintenance

Maintaining the Finish

Our harps are finished with multiple coats of clear nitrocellulose lacquer, which doesn't need to be oiled or polished to keep it looking nice. In fact, we recommend against using instrument or furniture polishes or oils, as these can interfere with the lacquer and make it difficult to do any future repair work.

The best thing you can do for your harp is to keep it clean by dusting routinely. You can use a soft cloth or feather duster for the main areas, and a paintbrush or can of compressed air works well for cleaning around the levers and tuning pins. If needed, you can wipe the harp gently with a damp cloth. To remove skin oils or more persistent grime, spritz some Windex or other mild cleaner on a cloth, but avoid spraying water or Windex directly on the harp. Too much moisture can actually soak through the layers of lacquer and swell the wood underneath, turning the lacquer cloudy. Also, be careful about too much vigorous rubbing in one spot, as this can create a shiny spot on your harp's semi-matte lacquer.

We have successfully tested one type of furniture oil called Tibet Almond Stick, which can safely be used on your Dusty harp to help hide dents and scratches in the lacquer. See the Anti-Aging Kit for more details.

Well-loved harps can end up with bare spots where the harp is frequently handled or rests against skin, and where finish has been worn away. Many types of lotions, sunscreens, and hand sanitizers contain skin softeners that also happen to work as lacquer softeners, and using those products before handling your harp can result in premature wear to the lacquer. We may be able to recommend some DIY lacquer repair or touch-up products, so feel free to send us photos of your harp and we'll offer what advice we can!

Replacing Strings

Unfortunately, broken strings are a normal part of playing and owning a harp! Though it's impossible to predict which string is going to break next or when, it seems to be one of those unwritten laws that it will happen at the most inopportune time. You can order a single string through our website and we'll get it in the mail within two or three days, but that won't help you if your string breaks right before your recital or wedding gig! If you might find yourself in that situation, consider keeping a backup set of strings on hand so that you don't have to wait for a replacement to come in the mail.

Our Harp Strings page contains all sorts of information about ordering and replacing strings.

About Tuning Pins

Current Dusty Strings harps are made with threaded tuning pins, which are different from the standard tapered pins that are traditionally used in the harp world. You may not notice the difference on a daily basis, but there are some important points to pay attention to.

These pins are very finely grooved like a screw, with the threads hidden inside the neck of the harp. As you tune a string up in pitch, you are also advancing the pin into the neck of the harp, just like screwing in a screw. This means that any time a string breaks and needs to be replaced, you'll want to back out the pin (unscrew it) by a few turns first. If you skip this step, the pin will eventually work its way so far into the harp neck that you won't be able to get your tuning wrench onto it anymore. See the Harp Strings page for more details on replacing strings.

Unlike tapered pins, threaded pins do not need to be re-seated by pushing them into the harp neck. Some pins may feel looser or tighter than their neighbors, and that's normal. There's no need to worry unless a pin is so loose that once you remove your tuning wrench, you can see it rotating backwards under the tension of the string. That's extremely rare, but can be fixed, and we're happy to provide advice.

We recommend never removing a threaded tuning pin from the neck of the harp except as a last resort. Removing and replacing a pin runs the risk of enlarging the hole to the point where the pin will no longer hold pitch.

Note: Older Dusty harps were made with tapered pins, and there is advice on the FAQ page on how to deal with loose tapered pins.

Regulation

Over time, your harp will subtly change shape under the tension of the strings. The most noticeable change is usually the soundboard "bellying up," which is desirable because it contributes to your harp's voice. However, this process, combined with the everyday bumps and knocks a harp may encounter, will eventually change the relationship between the lever, string and bridge pin. Then, when the lever is engaged, the string will no longer sound an exact half step above its open position. Sometimes a buzzing string is another sign that regulation is needed.

Regulation is the process of bringing the levers back in tune, and is part of the ongoing maintenance of any lever harp. Because a lot of the settling in and shape-changing happens right after a harp is built, new harps sometimes go out of regulation more quickly than harps that have been played for many years. Regardless, there are no rules about how often to regulate your harp, so here is a simple test you can use to decide if it's time:

1. Using an electronic tuner, carefully tune your harp with no levers engaged.

2. Engage the levers to a key you often play in.

3. Play a tune. If the harp sounds out of tune with some levers engaged, it's probably time to regulate!

If you want, you can get more precise by tuning an open string, then engaging that lever and using your electronic tuner to determine if the sharped note is in tune or not. But if you've done the test above and didn't hear anything that bothered you, then there's probably no need to go crazy checking each individual lever.

If you live in or near Seattle, you can bring your Dusty harp to us for regulation. If you're not near us, you can look around for a harp technician in your area, or you can regulate your own harp. You really can do this yourself! It takes time and concentration, but it's not hard to learn, and it makes you a fully independent harp owner. We've put together a complete Dusty Harp Maintenance Kit that contains everything you'll need, including step-by-step instructions, or you can buy the basic tools and the instruction booklet individually. For a general overview of the process, see our basic guide to lever harp regulation.

Troubleshooting

String Buzzes

There are a number of easily-fixable things that could cause your harp to buzz when you play. Sometimes the string is actually hitting something when plucked, and sometimes there is a loose connection elsewhere on the harp that is vibrating in sympathy with a particular note. To help you track it down, we've created an interactive troubleshooting guide that walks you through all the possibilities, starting with the ones that are the easiest to find or the most common culprits.

Troubleshooting Buzzing Harp Strings - Interactive

Basic Printable Flow Chart

Replacing Levers & Cams

At some point in your harp's life, you may find yourself with a dysfunctional lever. Loveland levers (you can identify them by the black plastic handle and gold-colored metal base) occasionally develop cracks in the cam (handle) due to use. They can be hard to see, but if you notice that the string sounds buzzy or thunky with the lever engaged, it could be a sign that the lever is no longer pinching the string tightly. Generally, it's just the cam that needs to be replaced, not the entire lever, and this is something you can do yourself with the proper tools.

Replacement lever cams can be ordered on our website here. Depending on which cam you're replacing, you may be able to reach it without moving the lever, or you may have to mark the lever position, then loosen and swivel it a bit to get at the cam. Before you start, we recommend reading our cam replacement instructions. If you need a tool you don't already have, you can find it at a hardware store or on our levering and regulation tools page.

Camac levers (the silver-colored metal ones) also have replaceable handles. Because they are cast metal and slightly brittle, they can break if hit or bumped a certain way. If that happens, you usually have to remove the whole lever in order to replace the handle, and you'll need some specific Torx tip screw drivers (T8 and T6). Give us a call and we'll help you get what you need to fix it.

Replacing Eyelets

The metal eyelets in your harp's soundboard are an important part of the harp, and it is a good idea to inspect them every so often for any that are cracked or missing. As well as contributing to the tone of the string, the metal protects the soundboard from the string's upward pressure and keeps it from digging into the wood and elongating the hole.

Eyelets are pressed into their holes, not glued, so it is possible for them to come loose, especially when changing strings. They can also crack due to age and environmental conditions, and may periodically need to be replaced as part of maintaining your harp. We have packs of replacement eyelets available, and you can download a sheet of instructions for replacing them, including how to epoxy them in place if the holes have become enlarged.

Other topics

Transporting Your Harp

Car Travel

Position the harp lying down, either on its side with the levers facing up, or propped up securely on its back. Do not pile other things on top of the harp, and never leave it in a parked car on a warm day. Even in the shade, temperatures can quickly reach glue-softening levels. (Read more about this under "Temperature" above.)

Shipping Your Harp

If possible, save the original shipping box. You can reuse the box if you move, want to travel with your harp on an airplane, or need to ship the harp to Dusty Strings for maintenance or repair. If you don't have the original box, you can have a box made for you by a shipping store, get creative with finding your own large pieces of cardboard, or if you live near Seattle, you can purchase a box from us and pick it up at our workshop. Although we can sell and ship someone an empty box, it is quite costly, since shipping companies charge by size and not by weight.

When packing the harp in the box, make sure that no part of the harp is touching the box. You want it to be securely positioned so that it can't shift around (even if the box is turned upside down) and well-cushioned with foam or multiple layers of large bubble wrap in order to withstand the shock of a three-foot drop. Call us if you have any questions as you are packing it up!

To give you a visual, here is a diagram showing how we pack our harps for shipping. You probably won't be able to do exactly the same thing without custom pieces of foam, but you can get a sense of how we do it and figure out your own way to achieve the same goals.

Air Travel

The rules for bringing musical instruments on planes have recently been changed, but unfortunately they mostly apply to instruments that can fit in overhead compartments. Dusty Strings harps do not fit in the overhead compartments, so you generally have two options. You can buy a ticket for your harp so that you can take it on the plane with you and buckle it into the seat next to you, or you can check it as baggage. Often, harps fit into the oversize baggage category, so it's a good idea to check with the specific airline beforehand to make sure you know what the size/weight restrictions and fees are. If you do check your harp, you'll need to either pack it up the same way you would for shipping (see above), or protect it in a rigid flight case.

Warning: We have heard a story of a harp that was carefully packed in one of our cardboard shipping boxes with our custom foam pieces, then opened by TSA for inspection, and carelessly repacked by them without the foam pieces in place, leaving the harp to bounce around inside the box. Miraculously, the harp survived the journey, but we took this as a good reminder that no matter how prepared you are, there are never any guarantees. You may be a bit safer with a rigid, padded flight case, as there would be no possibility of the padding being put back incorrectly. In any case, we recommend an insurance policy if you plan to travel with your harp!

Adding Sharping Levers

If you have a partially-levered Dusty Strings harp, adding more sharping levers to it will allow you to play in a wider range of keys. If your harp has Loveland levers and pre-drilled lever screw holes, the installation of additional levers is something you can do yourself with our detailed instructions. It is a fairly time-consuming and exacting process, but not difficult.

If you own our tool kit and levering guide, you already have everything you'll need except the levers themselves. You can also buy the basic tools and the instruction booklet individually, and you can download our brief instruction sheet to get an overview of the process. To order the levers, give us a call and be prepared to tell us the model of your harp, which notes you want to add levers to, and the serial number so we can make sure we send you levers that will match what you already have. See the Additional Sharping Levers page for current pricing.

If your harp does not have Loveland levers, or does not have pre-drilled lever screw holes, adding levers gets more involved. Give us a call and we can help you figure out your options.

Other Hardware Questions

You should be able to find most of what you need for maintaining your harp in our Tools & Maintenance section, but if you need to do more extensive repairs, feel free to give us a call and we'd be happy to see if we can supply what you need.

We also sell some of our unique harp hardware for use by other harp or instrument builders. Threaded tuning pins, threaded bridge pins, and our specialized screws for installing Loveland levers can be found on our Hardware page. At this time, we do not sell sharping levers or plans, and we unfortunately do not have the resources to provide advice on designing your own harp. However, you can find some of those things on the Musicmakers website!