HarpTech

THE HARP COLUMN May/June 2001

Closed for repairs: Is your harp suffering from one of these symptoms? Maybe it's time for a repair.
- By Mike Lewis

As a harp technician, I no sooner learned my trade than I found that my trade included giving advice like: "What harp do I buy?" "What's the best harp dolly?" "Should I marry the doctor, the musician, the engineer, or the harp technician?" (Duh!) All these mysteries are best left to other columnists and those who know you better. What I can tell you is when it is time to get your harp fixed. Sure it's not as exciting as thinking about a life with Bon Jovi or Doctor Von Lickdonstein, buy hey, leave it to me to make dating an engineer look down right exciting.

PROGNOSIS
What is the prognosis for the life span of your harp? I usually say that harps last five minutes to forty years before needing a major repair. I'm sure if you never play it, move it, or leave it out in the cold, it could last much longer. But since I've got friends and relatives in the business of making and repairing harps, where's the fun in that? Ask your medical doctor how long you're going to live. One aneurysm and all bets are off. Your harp is the same way: There are things going on that are not easily seen, yet may manifest themselves over time - or maybe tomorrow.
Another issue in deciding if you should repair your harp is whether or not it's worth it. Generally, the answer is yes, provided that you are not going to sell it right away. One of the interesting things about the pedal harp resale world is that old harps generally do not sell for above the price of a new one. This is not the case with other instruments, like violins or cellos. Another interesting thing is that a harp that doesn't sound great and one that is exceptional, all other things being equal, will change hands for close to the same price. And a harp listed on eBay as a piece of furniture could well sell for more than a fixer-upper. So if you are looking at repair from a financial standpoint, you would be wise to study the market and get several different opinions before picking your path.

WHAT IS A MAJOR REPAIR?
Major repairs deal with the soundboard, neck, action, body base frame, or baseboard of your harp. We'll leave cosmetic issues out of the equation for now, although if you are having any of these other repairs done, you should seriously consider spending the extra money to have cosmetic work done as well; that way, you only have to pay to have your harp taken apart and put back together once. The soundbox, or body of the harp, and the column can also need repairs, but these are rare compared to the above mentioned food groups. By the way, major repairs will run you somewhere in the range of $2000 to $7000, not counting cosmetic work like gilding.
How do you know if your harp needs one of these major repairs? Let's look at them one by one:

BODY BASE FRAME
SYMPTOMS: Your harp will not stand upright; the strings buzz a lot in the flat position; the harp creaks when you shoulder it.
PROGNOSIS: If not treated, the body base from will break off the bottom of the soundboard. The harp will not stand up and risks breaking its neck and shattering its body when it falls.
PATHOLOGY: This is the area of the harp where the download of the column and the upload of the strings is reconciled. The body base frame does the best it can to hang onto the bottom of the column via the baseboard and to the soundbox via glue. (see figure 1). There are several reasons why your harp's body base frame can come apart: side glue-joint failure, stirrups bending, the inside center strip pulling out, baseboard deformation, and pin block delamination.



TREATMENT: Replacing the body base frame is what I call a major minor repair, because it can generally be done quickly and the cost is usually below $3000. Your repairman will cut out your old base frame and replace it with the material of his choice. (They will have a fun time getting the various corners and wood surfaces to match.)

NECK
SYMPTOM: Your harp's fourth or fifth octave sharp disks don't engage properly; you just had your harp re-riveted, and already it's making noise; all the strings are slack; there is a funny block of wood sitting next to your harp seat.
PROGNOSIS: If left untreated, the harp's action will wear out more quickly, and the harp will become unplayable.
PATHOLOGY: String tension puts a download on the harp's neck; the point of reconciliation is the knee block, where the neck meets the soundboard. There are several things that can go wrong here from all out cracking and failure, to the knee block separating from the rest of the neck, to the neck simply warping out of shape. Since the harp strings are on one side of the neck, the string tension does not just pull the neck down, but adds a torsional twist to the whole operation. This torsional twist is a problem in two ways: it bends the action, causing it to wear more quickly, and it causes the disc pins of the sharp discs not to engage the strings (see figure 2). Before your harp repairman starts seeing too many dollar signs, let me tell you that there is a "cheat" your technician can do to mask the last problem. Downsizing your adjustable nuts and upsizing your disc pins will buy you some extra time before the harp has to be repaired for this reason.



GENETIC PREDISPOSITION: There are two other reasons to consider having your harp's neck replaced: 1) Harps of a certain vintage have a large string reserve between the top of the string and the adjustable nut (see figure 3). This string reserve will cause your harp to go flat in the natural and sharp positions when you play very loudly. 2) Other harps have very little clearance between the bottom of the action and the soundboard in the first octave range. This lack of clearance makes it hard to get your right hand in there to play. A new neck with more clearance and less string reserve will make your life, especially as a professional harpist, better.
TREATMENT: Your repairman will disassemble your harp and use your old neck as a pattern for the new one if it is broken or twisted out of shape; if your problem is not as severe, as is the case with string reserve, he may use your old neck as a starting point for the new one. The new neck will most likely be made out of piano pin block, which may also include an outer veneer; the knee block can be made out of maple or pin block. Carving or cutting the decorative grove in the top edge of the neck, along with gilding or painting the groove, will take more time and cost more money. The price of a new neck will vary depending on the vendor, wood, and finishing touches you choose; plan on $3500 to $7000 depending on these factors and the style of your instrument.

SOUNDBOARD
SYMPTOMS: Holes in the soundboard next to center strip; intonation with pedals in sharp is very sharp; sound is cardboard like.
PROGNOSIS: If left untreated, your harp will remain unplayable. If the soundboard is not fully blown already it could rip free and cause you physical harm. (This may be just an urban legend, but how much do you really want to bet?)
PATHOLOGY: The tension of your strings can cause an elastic deformation in the soundboard; this is also known as a "belly." New harps generally begin to belly after several years, usually associated with the sound of the harp "opening up." When the belly stays in place after the string pressure is off your harp, it is called plastic deformation or "creep" (see figure 4). Your harp will generally stay in this secondary, steady state creep for years. In the last stages of your soundboard's life, the belly gets bigger at an accelerated rate; this is called tertiary creep. Finally, a rupture can occur; your harp is now D.O.A.



Creep has been around for years, but it has not fully been understood in the material sciences world until the 1950s. (We're talking behavior of the atoms in the wood here.) Since your harp's sound generally opens up as it enters the second stage of creep, my question is this: Is the sound of your harp married to the creep? (I know a few harpists who are.) Or put another way; is it possible to get a great sounding harp with a flat soundboard or one that does not rupture for a century or two?
TREATMENT: The process of changing the soundboard is straightforward, assuming you have the wood ready to go. After disassembling the harp, your repairman will carefully remove the decorative wood strips from the top of your soundboard, remove the screws, and then gently pound a beater chisel into the decorative side strips of the soundboard. Your repairman will then remove the old soundboard and craft a new one to match your harp in its current state. Putting the string holes into your replacement soundboard will be a little tricky given that your center strip is now longer, due to creep. Making a new harp is in some ways much easier.
If you are having your soundboard replaced, expect to be without your harp from two to nine months depending on the amount of work that your harp needs. Expect to pay $3500 to $7000 depending on the vendor and options you choose.

RERIVETING
SYMPTOMS: As you move your pedals, you hear the click and clack brothers at work. Moving your pedals rapidly halfway from the flat to natural position (called "fluttering") will give you a chance to summon these guys to the front.
PATHOLOGY: Every time you move a pedal on your harp, you are wearing out the action. Unlike the old proverb, action wear is unseen but heard. As you pedal, the gap between your rivet and the oink in your action becomes gradually enlarged. This enlargement causes the rivet to click from one side of the hole to the other (see figure 5).



TREATMENT: The solution is to push the old rivet out, and put a new, larger one in. The process includes some measuring, drilling, reaming, and polishing.
PROGNOSIS: Good news - no clicking! Bad news - you'll now experience tighter pedaling, and a shorter time until it's necessary to rerivet again. Next time, other things being equal, it will take less time for your action to wear out. Each time you have the operation done, the cycle will get shorter and shorter. You will only be able to do so many rerivets (two or three) before your action will have to be replaced or extensively reworked.

MAKING CHOICES
If your harp is experiencing any of the above-mentioned symptoms, it may be time for a major repair. Before making a decision, however, talk to your harp technician and the manufacturer, and get opinions from knowledgeable sources like your teacher or other harpists who have had repair work done recently. Determine if the benefits outweigh the costs, and investigate different harp repair vendors: some use traditional harp-repair methods, while others experiment with newer materials and techniques. While you're at it, ask these folks if you should marry the musician, the doctor, the engineer, or the harp technician - I'm curious to know what they have to say.

THE HARP COLUMN May/June 2001