Harp Maintenance & Troubleshooting
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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. 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.
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. But don't worry - there are relatively easy ways to monitor this and to keep the humidity in a safe range!
Transporting Your Harp
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.
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.
There are never any guarantees, so we recommend an insurance policy if you plan to travel often with your harp!
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.
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.
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.
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 elecronic 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 can be a tedious process, but it's not hard to learn. We've put together a complete Dusty Harp Tool Kit that contains everything you'll need, including step-by-step instructions, or you can buy the basic tools and the instruction booklet individually.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.