John's harp page

Wire strung harp
A few years ago I got round to working on a long-standing harp project again, and that inspired me to put together a harps page.

The original inspirations were Billy Jackson of Ossian and Derek Bell of the Chieftains, Alan Stivell (of course), Patsy Seddon and Mary McMaster who had a wire strung harp (I think before the Poozies), and Alison Kinnaird and Ann Heymann - a record "The Harper's Land" (Temple TP012) by these last two was what convinced me that I wanted a wire-strung harp.

I realised that the only way I was ever going to afford a harp at that time was to build one - so I went to the Edinburgh City Music Library and asked if they had any books about harps. "Why?" the lady asked, "Do you want to build one?"! Obviously I was not the only one at that pastime just then, but I took the books out and started thinking and drawing.

In summary, I have built three harps altogether. The first was a trial - it's a little wire strung harp, built using a simple shape with a flat soundboard, but with the thickness tapered properly. This was a trial before I started work on the second harp, a full size nylon strung clarsach (I couldn't afford the gut strings!).

The harp on the right is the third, which is a wire strung harp based roughly on the Queen Mary harp in the Museum in Edinburgh. It's still somewhat experimental, especially in terms of stringing, but it works.

Details of the building of all three harps are given further down the page.

Here's a sound clip of "Yddigan y Droell" from the Robert ap Huw manuscript, pages 56-57. At least, it's my attempt to play it after a class at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival with Paul Dooley in 2010. Paul's web pages have some details about the manuscipt and its interpretation.

Hopefully I will eventually have a better sound clip once I can play a bit better and the harp stringing is finalised - it's still a work in progress; see below.

This year (2014) I attended another course at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival taught by Karen Marshalsay. This course was on Pibroch on the wire strung harp, and again I really enjoyed it. After the course I made a recording (somewhat edited - I need to work on this piece!) and here it is:

These recording were made with the third harp I have built - so here's the story.

Harp 1 - 16 strings, wire

The first harp was a test piece. I didn't know how difficult it was going to be, or what was really involved. The designs in the book I had used a soundboard constructed the wood grain across the board (the centre would probably be ripped out with the tension if the grain went the other way in a thin soundboard!); so one test was to see if I could make such a soundboard.

Small clarsach

The flat sound board was made from pine (well, cheap softwood!) pieces, butt jointed and the grain across the width to take the strain of the string tension. It has to be planed thin at the treble end down to thicker at the bass end - quite tricky and the soundboard has to be made on a jig that is later sawn off. The rest was made from bits of wood lying around. The tuning pegs were home made, from steel engineering taper pins - that's quite a job, especially filing the flats to produce the square section for the harp key. The harp key was originally a clock key from a junk shop in the Grassmarket; I replaced the brass "butterfly" handle with a steel pin enclosed by wood, which makes a nice little harp key.

The harp had to be wire strung of course, and it has quite a nice tinkly sound; it was originally strung with phosphor bronze harpsichord wires. It has some simple pokerwork decoration. This harp was completed around February 1984.

Harp 2 - 31 strings, nylon

31-string clarsach

The success of the first harp encouraged me to make a full size clarsach, nylon strung, with a soundboard made from real pine, neck and pillar made from laminated oak (which came originally from my granny's wardrobe!) and soundbox (curved sides) made of hardwood strips covered with veneer. The tuning pegs were home made again, an even longer job with more pegs; and I even added some (but not all) semitone hooks - just enough to change the key for my favourite pieces! This harp was finished around November 1984, decorated with celtic designs based on those in a lovely series of little books entitled "Celtic Art" by George Bain. I fitted semitone levers (from Pilgrim Harps) to this harp in 2010, to replace the incomplete set of semitone hooks I had originally made.

soundboard decoration

The decoration is pokerwork - done with a small electronics soldering iron with a pointed bit!

Harp 3 - 29 strings, wire

Wire-strung harp

Of course the full size wire-strung harp had to come next - by this time I had seen Mary McMaster playing with Patsy Seddon (whose father worked at the Royal Observatory when I arrived there as a student) in Sileas, and I recognised Mary's wire strung harp as being very close to the design I had seen in one of those books from the Edinburgh Music Library. I really fancied the Queen Mary harp (The Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh) or the Brian Boru harp (Trinity College library, Dublin) and so drew a design something like those. I found some wood in a timber merchant in Leith - had to find the cheapest I could get so it's teak, and the soundbox is constructed rather than hollowed out; however the soundboard is carved to what is hopefully a sensible thickness. The wood was bought in 1986, and I know from the carved figures inside the harp that the basic construction was complete in 1993, but since then not a lot happened until recently. The pitcture above was taken after I had tentatively strung the harp with a selection of stuff including bouzouki strings!

Wire-strung harp

The image above (needs replacing with a better) was taken in April 2008 after restringing with proper brass strings from Malcolm Rose. I spent quite a lot of time on this, and obtained much help from the web (and Malcolm); some details have been added below. It sounds like a wire-strung harp now - there's a sound file linked near the top of this page.

Wire-strung harp pokerwork

The pokerwork decoration was started in the early 2000s (I can't remember when), and I completed one side; in 2006 I completed the other side and started on the front of the soundbox (above). It was completed in 2007 with the roundels on the pillar (below).

pillar roundel 1 pillar roundel 2 pillar roundel 3 pillar roundel 5

The tuning pegs were bought from Pilgrim Harps(as opposed to being home made on the first two harps - see above). I attempted to string the harp with a combination of guitar and mandola / bouzouki strings, plus some old phosphor bronze wire from the first wire-strung harp trial, that I thought, from reading, would be suitable. However this wasn't - it didn't sound right at all. It is now strung with a mix of brass and silver strings; details are below.


The wire harp stringing is an ongoing process. Currently (April 2014) it's set up as follows:

String Note Frequency Length Density Diameter Tension

Hz m kg/m3 mm kg
1 f''' 1397 0.078 8536 0.40 5.20
2 e''' 1319 0.091 8536 0.40 6.31
3 d''' 1175 0.102 8536 0.40 6.29
4 c''' 1047 0.114 8536 0.48 8.98
5 b'' 988 0.125 8536 0.48 9.62
6 a'' 880 0.133 8536 0.48 8.64
7 g'' 784 0.143 8536 0.48 7.92
8 f'' 698 0.152 8536 0.56 9.66
9 e'' 659 0.162 8536 0.56 9.78
10 d'' 587 0.174 8536 0.56 8.95
11 c'' 523 0.187 8536 0.60 9.42
12 b' 494 0.201 8536 0.60 9.71
13 a' 440 0.218 8536 0.60 9.06
14 g' 392 0.236 8536 0.65 9.89
15 f' 349 0.256 10250 0.60 9.44
16 e' 330 0.279 8536 0.65 9.80
17 d' 294 0.303 8536 0.65 9.17
18 c' 262 0.328 10250 0.60 8.74
19 b 247 0.354 8536 0.65 8.84
20 a 220 0.381 8536 0.65 8.12
21 g 196 0.407 10250 0.60 7.53
22 f 175 0.434 8536 0.75 8.88
23 e 165 0.463 10250 0.70 9.40
24 d 147 0.495 10250 0.70 8.52
25 c 131 0.527 10250 0.70 7.67
26 B 123 0.560 10250 0.80 9.98
27 A 110 0.592 10250 0.90 11.29
28 G 98 0.624 10250 1.00 12.29
29 F 87 0.660 10250 1.20 15.60

I did have the harp set up with "na comhluighe" ("sisters" tuning, two strings on g below middle c) but found this more of a nuisance than not for the Robert ap Huw music; also without the sisters I can have an extra F in the bass, good when the harp is tuned to F.

The tension can probably go higher; I compared my harp to others at the 2010 EIHFand it's heavier with a thicker soundboard; the tension is now (2014) about twice as high as it was in 2010, and the sound is good. We'll see how it goes, ther's still room for experiment.

I joined the Clarsach Society in 2006; they organise the great international festival in Edinburgh in the spring each year.