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Design

I wanted to share my process of building a wire strung Irish harp because I love this instrument and I am hoping if there is more information out there for people It might make building and playing them more accessible, one big disclaimer I am not a professional harp builder this is just a slice of how I do things as a hobbyist that will hopefully at least inspire someone to learn more on their own. I will preface this entire entry with an acknowledgement that I learned a tremendous amount from the Sligo Harp website (http://www.sligoharps.com/btlh.html) I can't speak highly enough of the resources there. That being said, the content on that website is geared towards building a modern, gut/nylong strung lever harp, which is almost a completely different instrument from a wire strung traditional Irish harp, so this guide will focus mostly on the unique aspects of the wire harp and design/construction techniques. Again, Definitely check out the Sligo harp website if you are considering building any type of harp. Enough with the preamble, on to the content:

Design

The first part of building a harp is doing the design. Fortunately you don't have to start from scratch if you don't want to. The first option is to appropriate a historical design, Rick from Sligo harps mentions this in his guide but in context of a historical Irish harp there are some advantages and disadvantages

Disadvantage: there are only 17 surviving examples of Ancient Irish harps and they are all behind museum glass so good luck measuring one
Bookcase Furniture Shelf Book Interior design


Musical instrument accessory Musical instrument Folk instrument Wood Clàrsach


Advantage: they are museum pieces so for the most part people have been studying them in great detail leading to some great information such as Laser scans and MRI tomograms.

If you want to borrow a design, check out the following resources. The historical harp society of Ireland has been collecting resources for builders for the past few years, Karen Loomis wrote an ENTIRE PhD thesis on two Irish and Scottish harps that includes aforementioned MRI scans of two very famous harps, and "the Irish and Highland Harp" by Robert Bruce Armstrong is the seminal survey of existing ancient Irish and Scottish harps at the time. the Wire strung harp website also has good information, and there are many others.

HHSI: https://www.irishharp.org/

Loomis: https://www.karenloomis.com/research

Armstrong: https://archive.org/details/musicalinstrumen0000arms

https://www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/

If you want to design your own, Then the first step is to pull out your preferred spreadsheet program and sharpen your pencils, because before you think about the structure of the instrument you have to know how long the strings are going to be

Again, I can't recommend the Sligo harp guide enough. In fact, I follow the principles laid out in the "String Theory" article (http://www.sligoharps.com/string.html) pretty closely when designing new string regimes and new harps, just with a few tweaks unique to the Cláirseach. For the rest of this part I will procede as if you have read the above linked article and just highlight a few considerations for the Cláirseach.

...Now that you have read the string theory article, I can show you a snip of the spreadsheet I use to calculate the string lengths for my most recent harp
Rectangle Font Line Parallel Pattern


there are a couple things to note
1) You will notice the strings are metal, brass, silver, and even gold have historical precedent and are one of the major differences between a modern harp and a historical Irish harp. These strings are also monofilament (i.e. just wires, not wound strings like on a cello)
- for brass I recommend using spring hard wire, often called music wire. This is often sold for instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords and is available from multiple online sources
- gold and silver are a little more tricky and I am just now experimenting with silver bass strings, stay tuned.
2) I try to stay within the bounds of plausible string lengths for historical Irish harps
3) The metallurgy of the strings becomes denser (red brass) and softer (silver) towards the bass end to compensate for the shorter length of the strings. Because the strings of the Cláirseach are metal they are already shorter than the equivalent range of gut or nylon strings.
- for a "low headed" cláirseach, there is some evidence to suggest that they would use precious metal bass strings such as silver and gold to get the same tone quality that you would from a longer bass string
- later in the history of the cláiresach "high headed" models were developed where the harmonic curve of the harp swooped upwards so that the bass strings could be made from brass rather than gold or silver

Now that you have determined the number, range, and length of the strings you can start designing the rest of the harp around that.

It pays to futz over the design for a while here. As a starting point I assume a string spacing on the sound board of between 0.75" and 1", and a string angle between the soundboard and the strings of about 30-35 degrees and adjust from there. The angle of the strings and even the spacing between them changes from bass to treble and can be adjusted based on the aesthetics of the harp. I have learned two hard lessons but your millage may vary.
1) assume the strings will be slightly closer together than they look drawn on the page
2) you don't have to be dogmatic about the calculated string lengths, A small change in the lenght of a string in order to reposition it better on the neck is less noticeable than a wonky tuning pin sticking way out of line because you decided it HAD to be EXACTLY 29.329" long
Rectangle Wood Font Slope Parallel


The actual shape of the harp is up to you, I would keep a couple design considerations in mind.
- the harp is 3 dimensional, Consider the shape and size of the soundbox as well
- the one I have built here is between 4.75" and 5" thick and tapers from 4" at the top to 14" at the bottom
Musical instrument Wood Folk instrument String instrument Plucked string instruments


Wood selection is another dimension. This particular harp is under approximately 650lb of pressure from the strings alone, so the structural elements have to be thick enough and strong enough to withstand the pressure. However, the wood has to be thin and flexible enough to produce a strident sound quality.
- Many historical examples are made out of a willow soundbox and use other hardwoods for the neck and fore pillar.
- I have never been able to obtain Willow, I have had success with maple, walnut, and Cherry for all components of the instrument, so far I think I like maple the best.
- I use 8/4 material for the neck and pillar but The pieces don't always stay 8/4. Between carving, decoration, the fore pillar of the most recent harp is only about 1.25" at its thinnest part but the cross section is a fat "T" and is the full 8/4" at one end. there is historical evidence that the components of the harp could be thinner I have just not done it myself.
- The sound box is traditionally one big hollowed out log of Willow. This is not practical for many builders and I piece my soundbox together with separate boards
Wood Rectangle Shade Floor Composite material

The soundboard itself starts as 1/2" thick, I have made soundboards that are much thinner (0.25" thick) this one is so thick just because I ended up doing some carving on the inside (more on that later)
The sides are approximately 3/8" thick and were resawn from a 5/4" board
The top and bottom blocks in the picture above need to be thick because they will take the main loads and be accepting the large mortise and tenon joints that secure the pieces of the harp together. I glue the bottom block up from several pieces. I will go into more detail on this later but for now just make sure you consider the size of the parts when laying out the strings and designing the shape.

There are many more design considerations but I think they will become evident as I outline more of the build process. for now, if you only take away one thing here it is:

Design the harp around the strings, whether you use a historical example as a guide or use the Sligo Harp article accommodate all your other design choices around the strings
 

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Design

I wanted to share my process of building a wire strung Irish harp because I love this instrument and I am hoping if there is more information out there for people It might make building and playing them more accessible, one big disclaimer I am not a professional harp builder this is just a slice of how I do things as a hobbyist that will hopefully at least inspire someone to learn more on their own. I will preface this entire entry with an acknowledgement that I learned a tremendous amount from the Sligo Harp website (http://www.sligoharps.com/btlh.html) I can't speak highly enough of the resources there. That being said, the content on that website is geared towards building a modern, gut/nylong strung lever harp, which is almost a completely different instrument from a wire strung traditional Irish harp, so this guide will focus mostly on the unique aspects of the wire harp and design/construction techniques. Again, Definitely check out the Sligo harp website if you are considering building any type of harp. Enough with the preamble, on to the content:

Design

The first part of building a harp is doing the design. Fortunately you don't have to start from scratch if you don't want to. The first option is to appropriate a historical design, Rick from Sligo harps mentions this in his guide but in context of a historical Irish harp there are some advantages and disadvantages

Disadvantage: there are only 17 surviving examples of Ancient Irish harps and they are all behind museum glass so good luck measuring one
Bookcase Furniture Shelf Book Interior design


Musical instrument accessory Musical instrument Folk instrument Wood Clàrsach


Advantage: they are museum pieces so for the most part people have been studying them in great detail leading to some great information such as Laser scans and MRI tomograms.

If you want to borrow a design, check out the following resources. The historical harp society of Ireland has been collecting resources for builders for the past few years, Karen Loomis wrote an ENTIRE PhD thesis on two Irish and Scottish harps that includes aforementioned MRI scans of two very famous harps, and "the Irish and Highland Harp" by Robert Bruce Armstrong is the seminal survey of existing ancient Irish and Scottish harps at the time. the Wire strung harp website also has good information, and there are many others.

HHSI: https://www.irishharp.org/

Loomis: https://www.karenloomis.com/research

Armstrong: https://archive.org/details/musicalinstrumen0000arms

https://www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/

If you want to design your own, Then the first step is to pull out your preferred spreadsheet program and sharpen your pencils, because before you think about the structure of the instrument you have to know how long the strings are going to be

Again, I can't recommend the Sligo harp guide enough. In fact, I follow the principles laid out in the "String Theory" article (http://www.sligoharps.com/string.html) pretty closely when designing new string regimes and new harps, just with a few tweaks unique to the Cláirseach. For the rest of this part I will procede as if you have read the above linked article and just highlight a few considerations for the Cláirseach.

...Now that you have read the string theory article, I can show you a snip of the spreadsheet I use to calculate the string lengths for my most recent harp
Rectangle Font Line Parallel Pattern


there are a couple things to note
1) You will notice the strings are metal, brass, silver, and even gold have historical precedent and are one of the major differences between a modern harp and a historical Irish harp. These strings are also monofilament (i.e. just wires, not wound strings like on a cello)
- for brass I recommend using spring hard wire, often called music wire. This is often sold for instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords and is available from multiple online sources
- gold and silver are a little more tricky and I am just now experimenting with silver bass strings, stay tuned.
2) I try to stay within the bounds of plausible string lengths for historical Irish harps
3) The metallurgy of the strings becomes denser (red brass) and softer (silver) towards the bass end to compensate for the shorter length of the strings. Because the strings of the Cláirseach are metal they are already shorter than the equivalent range of gut or nylon strings.
- for a "low headed" cláirseach, there is some evidence to suggest that they would use precious metal bass strings such as silver and gold to get the same tone quality that you would from a longer bass string
- later in the history of the cláiresach "high headed" models were developed where the harmonic curve of the harp swooped upwards so that the bass strings could be made from brass rather than gold or silver

Now that you have determined the number, range, and length of the strings you can start designing the rest of the harp around that.

It pays to futz over the design for a while here. As a starting point I assume a string spacing on the sound board of between 0.75" and 1", and a string angle between the soundboard and the strings of about 30-35 degrees and adjust from there. The angle of the strings and even the spacing between them changes from bass to treble and can be adjusted based on the aesthetics of the harp. I have learned two hard lessons but your millage may vary.
1) assume the strings will be slightly closer together than they look drawn on the page
2) you don't have to be dogmatic about the calculated string lengths, A small change in the lenght of a string in order to reposition it better on the neck is less noticeable than a wonky tuning pin sticking way out of line because you decided it HAD to be EXACTLY 29.329" long
Rectangle Wood Font Slope Parallel


The actual shape of the harp is up to you, I would keep a couple design considerations in mind.
- the harp is 3 dimensional, Consider the shape and size of the soundbox as well
- the one I have built here is between 4.75" and 5" thick and tapers from 4" at the top to 14" at the bottom
Musical instrument Wood Folk instrument String instrument Plucked string instruments


Wood selection is another dimension. This particular harp is under approximately 650lb of pressure from the strings alone, so the structural elements have to be thick enough and strong enough to withstand the pressure. However, the wood has to be thin and flexible enough to produce a strident sound quality.
- Many historical examples are made out of a willow soundbox and use other hardwoods for the neck and fore pillar.
- I have never been able to obtain Willow, I have had success with maple, walnut, and Cherry for all components of the instrument, so far I think I like maple the best.
- I use 8/4 material for the neck and pillar but The pieces don't always stay 8/4. Between carving, decoration, the fore pillar of the most recent harp is only about 1.25" at its thinnest part but the cross section is a fat "T" and is the full 8/4" at one end. there is historical evidence that the components of the harp could be thinner I have just not done it myself.
- The sound box is traditionally one big hollowed out log of Willow. This is not practical for many builders and I piece my soundbox together with separate boards
Wood Rectangle Shade Floor Composite material

The soundboard itself starts as 1/2" thick, I have made soundboards that are much thinner (0.25" thick) this one is so thick just because I ended up doing some carving on the inside (more on that later)
The sides are approximately 3/8" thick and were resawn from a 5/4" board
The top and bottom blocks in the picture above need to be thick because they will take the main loads and be accepting the large mortise and tenon joints that secure the pieces of the harp together. I glue the bottom block up from several pieces. I will go into more detail on this later but for now just make sure you consider the size of the parts when laying out the strings and designing the shape.

There are many more design considerations but I think they will become evident as I outline more of the build process. for now, if you only take away one thing here it is:

Design the harp around the strings, whether you use a historical example as a guide or use the Sligo Harp article accommodate all your other design choices around the strings
Interesting, looking forward to more on your approach.
 

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Registered
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6,943 Posts
Design

I wanted to share my process of building a wire strung Irish harp because I love this instrument and I am hoping if there is more information out there for people It might make building and playing them more accessible, one big disclaimer I am not a professional harp builder this is just a slice of how I do things as a hobbyist that will hopefully at least inspire someone to learn more on their own. I will preface this entire entry with an acknowledgement that I learned a tremendous amount from the Sligo Harp website (http://www.sligoharps.com/btlh.html) I can't speak highly enough of the resources there. That being said, the content on that website is geared towards building a modern, gut/nylong strung lever harp, which is almost a completely different instrument from a wire strung traditional Irish harp, so this guide will focus mostly on the unique aspects of the wire harp and design/construction techniques. Again, Definitely check out the Sligo harp website if you are considering building any type of harp. Enough with the preamble, on to the content:

Design

The first part of building a harp is doing the design. Fortunately you don't have to start from scratch if you don't want to. The first option is to appropriate a historical design, Rick from Sligo harps mentions this in his guide but in context of a historical Irish harp there are some advantages and disadvantages

Disadvantage: there are only 17 surviving examples of Ancient Irish harps and they are all behind museum glass so good luck measuring one
Bookcase Furniture Shelf Book Interior design


Musical instrument accessory Musical instrument Folk instrument Wood Clàrsach


Advantage: they are museum pieces so for the most part people have been studying them in great detail leading to some great information such as Laser scans and MRI tomograms.

If you want to borrow a design, check out the following resources. The historical harp society of Ireland has been collecting resources for builders for the past few years, Karen Loomis wrote an ENTIRE PhD thesis on two Irish and Scottish harps that includes aforementioned MRI scans of two very famous harps, and "the Irish and Highland Harp" by Robert Bruce Armstrong is the seminal survey of existing ancient Irish and Scottish harps at the time. the Wire strung harp website also has good information, and there are many others.

HHSI: https://www.irishharp.org/

Loomis: https://www.karenloomis.com/research

Armstrong: https://archive.org/details/musicalinstrumen0000arms

https://www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/

If you want to design your own, Then the first step is to pull out your preferred spreadsheet program and sharpen your pencils, because before you think about the structure of the instrument you have to know how long the strings are going to be

Again, I can't recommend the Sligo harp guide enough. In fact, I follow the principles laid out in the "String Theory" article (http://www.sligoharps.com/string.html) pretty closely when designing new string regimes and new harps, just with a few tweaks unique to the Cláirseach. For the rest of this part I will procede as if you have read the above linked article and just highlight a few considerations for the Cláirseach.

...Now that you have read the string theory article, I can show you a snip of the spreadsheet I use to calculate the string lengths for my most recent harp
Rectangle Font Line Parallel Pattern


there are a couple things to note
1) You will notice the strings are metal, brass, silver, and even gold have historical precedent and are one of the major differences between a modern harp and a historical Irish harp. These strings are also monofilament (i.e. just wires, not wound strings like on a cello)
- for brass I recommend using spring hard wire, often called music wire. This is often sold for instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords and is available from multiple online sources
- gold and silver are a little more tricky and I am just now experimenting with silver bass strings, stay tuned.
2) I try to stay within the bounds of plausible string lengths for historical Irish harps
3) The metallurgy of the strings becomes denser (red brass) and softer (silver) towards the bass end to compensate for the shorter length of the strings. Because the strings of the Cláirseach are metal they are already shorter than the equivalent range of gut or nylon strings.
- for a "low headed" cláirseach, there is some evidence to suggest that they would use precious metal bass strings such as silver and gold to get the same tone quality that you would from a longer bass string
- later in the history of the cláiresach "high headed" models were developed where the harmonic curve of the harp swooped upwards so that the bass strings could be made from brass rather than gold or silver

Now that you have determined the number, range, and length of the strings you can start designing the rest of the harp around that.

It pays to futz over the design for a while here. As a starting point I assume a string spacing on the sound board of between 0.75" and 1", and a string angle between the soundboard and the strings of about 30-35 degrees and adjust from there. The angle of the strings and even the spacing between them changes from bass to treble and can be adjusted based on the aesthetics of the harp. I have learned two hard lessons but your millage may vary.
1) assume the strings will be slightly closer together than they look drawn on the page
2) you don't have to be dogmatic about the calculated string lengths, A small change in the lenght of a string in order to reposition it better on the neck is less noticeable than a wonky tuning pin sticking way out of line because you decided it HAD to be EXACTLY 29.329" long
Rectangle Wood Font Slope Parallel


The actual shape of the harp is up to you, I would keep a couple design considerations in mind.
- the harp is 3 dimensional, Consider the shape and size of the soundbox as well
- the one I have built here is between 4.75" and 5" thick and tapers from 4" at the top to 14" at the bottom
Musical instrument Wood Folk instrument String instrument Plucked string instruments


Wood selection is another dimension. This particular harp is under approximately 650lb of pressure from the strings alone, so the structural elements have to be thick enough and strong enough to withstand the pressure. However, the wood has to be thin and flexible enough to produce a strident sound quality.
- Many historical examples are made out of a willow soundbox and use other hardwoods for the neck and fore pillar.
- I have never been able to obtain Willow, I have had success with maple, walnut, and Cherry for all components of the instrument, so far I think I like maple the best.
- I use 8/4 material for the neck and pillar but The pieces don't always stay 8/4. Between carving, decoration, the fore pillar of the most recent harp is only about 1.25" at its thinnest part but the cross section is a fat "T" and is the full 8/4" at one end. there is historical evidence that the components of the harp could be thinner I have just not done it myself.
- The sound box is traditionally one big hollowed out log of Willow. This is not practical for many builders and I piece my soundbox together with separate boards
Wood Rectangle Shade Floor Composite material

The soundboard itself starts as 1/2" thick, I have made soundboards that are much thinner (0.25" thick) this one is so thick just because I ended up doing some carving on the inside (more on that later)
The sides are approximately 3/8" thick and were resawn from a 5/4" board
The top and bottom blocks in the picture above need to be thick because they will take the main loads and be accepting the large mortise and tenon joints that secure the pieces of the harp together. I glue the bottom block up from several pieces. I will go into more detail on this later but for now just make sure you consider the size of the parts when laying out the strings and designing the shape.

There are many more design considerations but I think they will become evident as I outline more of the build process. for now, if you only take away one thing here it is:

Design the harp around the strings, whether you use a historical example as a guide or use the Sligo Harp article accommodate all your other design choices around the strings
An interesting read, maybe could be used in other stringed instruments. Thanks for sharing.
 

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1,407 Posts
Design

I wanted to share my process of building a wire strung Irish harp because I love this instrument and I am hoping if there is more information out there for people It might make building and playing them more accessible, one big disclaimer I am not a professional harp builder this is just a slice of how I do things as a hobbyist that will hopefully at least inspire someone to learn more on their own. I will preface this entire entry with an acknowledgement that I learned a tremendous amount from the Sligo Harp website (http://www.sligoharps.com/btlh.html) I can't speak highly enough of the resources there. That being said, the content on that website is geared towards building a modern, gut/nylong strung lever harp, which is almost a completely different instrument from a wire strung traditional Irish harp, so this guide will focus mostly on the unique aspects of the wire harp and design/construction techniques. Again, Definitely check out the Sligo harp website if you are considering building any type of harp. Enough with the preamble, on to the content:

Design

The first part of building a harp is doing the design. Fortunately you don't have to start from scratch if you don't want to. The first option is to appropriate a historical design, Rick from Sligo harps mentions this in his guide but in context of a historical Irish harp there are some advantages and disadvantages

Disadvantage: there are only 17 surviving examples of Ancient Irish harps and they are all behind museum glass so good luck measuring one
Bookcase Furniture Shelf Book Interior design


Musical instrument accessory Musical instrument Folk instrument Wood Clàrsach


Advantage: they are museum pieces so for the most part people have been studying them in great detail leading to some great information such as Laser scans and MRI tomograms.

If you want to borrow a design, check out the following resources. The historical harp society of Ireland has been collecting resources for builders for the past few years, Karen Loomis wrote an ENTIRE PhD thesis on two Irish and Scottish harps that includes aforementioned MRI scans of two very famous harps, and "the Irish and Highland Harp" by Robert Bruce Armstrong is the seminal survey of existing ancient Irish and Scottish harps at the time. the Wire strung harp website also has good information, and there are many others.

HHSI: https://www.irishharp.org/

Loomis: https://www.karenloomis.com/research

Armstrong: https://archive.org/details/musicalinstrumen0000arms

https://www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/

If you want to design your own, Then the first step is to pull out your preferred spreadsheet program and sharpen your pencils, because before you think about the structure of the instrument you have to know how long the strings are going to be

Again, I can't recommend the Sligo harp guide enough. In fact, I follow the principles laid out in the "String Theory" article (http://www.sligoharps.com/string.html) pretty closely when designing new string regimes and new harps, just with a few tweaks unique to the Cláirseach. For the rest of this part I will procede as if you have read the above linked article and just highlight a few considerations for the Cláirseach.

...Now that you have read the string theory article, I can show you a snip of the spreadsheet I use to calculate the string lengths for my most recent harp
Rectangle Font Line Parallel Pattern


there are a couple things to note
1) You will notice the strings are metal, brass, silver, and even gold have historical precedent and are one of the major differences between a modern harp and a historical Irish harp. These strings are also monofilament (i.e. just wires, not wound strings like on a cello)
- for brass I recommend using spring hard wire, often called music wire. This is often sold for instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords and is available from multiple online sources
- gold and silver are a little more tricky and I am just now experimenting with silver bass strings, stay tuned.
2) I try to stay within the bounds of plausible string lengths for historical Irish harps
3) The metallurgy of the strings becomes denser (red brass) and softer (silver) towards the bass end to compensate for the shorter length of the strings. Because the strings of the Cláirseach are metal they are already shorter than the equivalent range of gut or nylon strings.
- for a "low headed" cláirseach, there is some evidence to suggest that they would use precious metal bass strings such as silver and gold to get the same tone quality that you would from a longer bass string
- later in the history of the cláiresach "high headed" models were developed where the harmonic curve of the harp swooped upwards so that the bass strings could be made from brass rather than gold or silver

Now that you have determined the number, range, and length of the strings you can start designing the rest of the harp around that.

It pays to futz over the design for a while here. As a starting point I assume a string spacing on the sound board of between 0.75" and 1", and a string angle between the soundboard and the strings of about 30-35 degrees and adjust from there. The angle of the strings and even the spacing between them changes from bass to treble and can be adjusted based on the aesthetics of the harp. I have learned two hard lessons but your millage may vary.
1) assume the strings will be slightly closer together than they look drawn on the page
2) you don't have to be dogmatic about the calculated string lengths, A small change in the lenght of a string in order to reposition it better on the neck is less noticeable than a wonky tuning pin sticking way out of line because you decided it HAD to be EXACTLY 29.329" long
Rectangle Wood Font Slope Parallel


The actual shape of the harp is up to you, I would keep a couple design considerations in mind.
- the harp is 3 dimensional, Consider the shape and size of the soundbox as well
- the one I have built here is between 4.75" and 5" thick and tapers from 4" at the top to 14" at the bottom
Musical instrument Wood Folk instrument String instrument Plucked string instruments


Wood selection is another dimension. This particular harp is under approximately 650lb of pressure from the strings alone, so the structural elements have to be thick enough and strong enough to withstand the pressure. However, the wood has to be thin and flexible enough to produce a strident sound quality.
- Many historical examples are made out of a willow soundbox and use other hardwoods for the neck and fore pillar.
- I have never been able to obtain Willow, I have had success with maple, walnut, and Cherry for all components of the instrument, so far I think I like maple the best.
- I use 8/4 material for the neck and pillar but The pieces don't always stay 8/4. Between carving, decoration, the fore pillar of the most recent harp is only about 1.25" at its thinnest part but the cross section is a fat "T" and is the full 8/4" at one end. there is historical evidence that the components of the harp could be thinner I have just not done it myself.
- The sound box is traditionally one big hollowed out log of Willow. This is not practical for many builders and I piece my soundbox together with separate boards
Wood Rectangle Shade Floor Composite material

The soundboard itself starts as 1/2" thick, I have made soundboards that are much thinner (0.25" thick) this one is so thick just because I ended up doing some carving on the inside (more on that later)
The sides are approximately 3/8" thick and were resawn from a 5/4" board
The top and bottom blocks in the picture above need to be thick because they will take the main loads and be accepting the large mortise and tenon joints that secure the pieces of the harp together. I glue the bottom block up from several pieces. I will go into more detail on this later but for now just make sure you consider the size of the parts when laying out the strings and designing the shape.

There are many more design considerations but I think they will become evident as I outline more of the build process. for now, if you only take away one thing here it is:

Design the harp around the strings, whether you use a historical example as a guide or use the Sligo Harp article accommodate all your other design choices around the strings
Interesting project and thanks for a super thorough writeup. Looking forward ot learn mopre
 

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Design

I wanted to share my process of building a wire strung Irish harp because I love this instrument and I am hoping if there is more information out there for people It might make building and playing them more accessible, one big disclaimer I am not a professional harp builder this is just a slice of how I do things as a hobbyist that will hopefully at least inspire someone to learn more on their own. I will preface this entire entry with an acknowledgement that I learned a tremendous amount from the Sligo Harp website (http://www.sligoharps.com/btlh.html) I can't speak highly enough of the resources there. That being said, the content on that website is geared towards building a modern, gut/nylong strung lever harp, which is almost a completely different instrument from a wire strung traditional Irish harp, so this guide will focus mostly on the unique aspects of the wire harp and design/construction techniques. Again, Definitely check out the Sligo harp website if you are considering building any type of harp. Enough with the preamble, on to the content:

Design

The first part of building a harp is doing the design. Fortunately you don't have to start from scratch if you don't want to. The first option is to appropriate a historical design, Rick from Sligo harps mentions this in his guide but in context of a historical Irish harp there are some advantages and disadvantages

Disadvantage: there are only 17 surviving examples of Ancient Irish harps and they are all behind museum glass so good luck measuring one
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Advantage: they are museum pieces so for the most part people have been studying them in great detail leading to some great information such as Laser scans and MRI tomograms.

If you want to borrow a design, check out the following resources. The historical harp society of Ireland has been collecting resources for builders for the past few years, Karen Loomis wrote an ENTIRE PhD thesis on two Irish and Scottish harps that includes aforementioned MRI scans of two very famous harps, and "the Irish and Highland Harp" by Robert Bruce Armstrong is the seminal survey of existing ancient Irish and Scottish harps at the time. the Wire strung harp website also has good information, and there are many others.

HHSI: https://www.irishharp.org/

Loomis: https://www.karenloomis.com/research

Armstrong: https://archive.org/details/musicalinstrumen0000arms

https://www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/

If you want to design your own, Then the first step is to pull out your preferred spreadsheet program and sharpen your pencils, because before you think about the structure of the instrument you have to know how long the strings are going to be

Again, I can't recommend the Sligo harp guide enough. In fact, I follow the principles laid out in the "String Theory" article (http://www.sligoharps.com/string.html) pretty closely when designing new string regimes and new harps, just with a few tweaks unique to the Cláirseach. For the rest of this part I will procede as if you have read the above linked article and just highlight a few considerations for the Cláirseach.

...Now that you have read the string theory article, I can show you a snip of the spreadsheet I use to calculate the string lengths for my most recent harp
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there are a couple things to note
1) You will notice the strings are metal, brass, silver, and even gold have historical precedent and are one of the major differences between a modern harp and a historical Irish harp. These strings are also monofilament (i.e. just wires, not wound strings like on a cello)
- for brass I recommend using spring hard wire, often called music wire. This is often sold for instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords and is available from multiple online sources
- gold and silver are a little more tricky and I am just now experimenting with silver bass strings, stay tuned.
2) I try to stay within the bounds of plausible string lengths for historical Irish harps
3) The metallurgy of the strings becomes denser (red brass) and softer (silver) towards the bass end to compensate for the shorter length of the strings. Because the strings of the Cláirseach are metal they are already shorter than the equivalent range of gut or nylon strings.
- for a "low headed" cláirseach, there is some evidence to suggest that they would use precious metal bass strings such as silver and gold to get the same tone quality that you would from a longer bass string
- later in the history of the cláiresach "high headed" models were developed where the harmonic curve of the harp swooped upwards so that the bass strings could be made from brass rather than gold or silver

Now that you have determined the number, range, and length of the strings you can start designing the rest of the harp around that.

It pays to futz over the design for a while here. As a starting point I assume a string spacing on the sound board of between 0.75" and 1", and a string angle between the soundboard and the strings of about 30-35 degrees and adjust from there. The angle of the strings and even the spacing between them changes from bass to treble and can be adjusted based on the aesthetics of the harp. I have learned two hard lessons but your millage may vary.
1) assume the strings will be slightly closer together than they look drawn on the page
2) you don't have to be dogmatic about the calculated string lengths, A small change in the lenght of a string in order to reposition it better on the neck is less noticeable than a wonky tuning pin sticking way out of line because you decided it HAD to be EXACTLY 29.329" long
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The actual shape of the harp is up to you, I would keep a couple design considerations in mind.
- the harp is 3 dimensional, Consider the shape and size of the soundbox as well
- the one I have built here is between 4.75" and 5" thick and tapers from 4" at the top to 14" at the bottom
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Wood selection is another dimension. This particular harp is under approximately 650lb of pressure from the strings alone, so the structural elements have to be thick enough and strong enough to withstand the pressure. However, the wood has to be thin and flexible enough to produce a strident sound quality.
- Many historical examples are made out of a willow soundbox and use other hardwoods for the neck and fore pillar.
- I have never been able to obtain Willow, I have had success with maple, walnut, and Cherry for all components of the instrument, so far I think I like maple the best.
- I use 8/4 material for the neck and pillar but The pieces don't always stay 8/4. Between carving, decoration, the fore pillar of the most recent harp is only about 1.25" at its thinnest part but the cross section is a fat "T" and is the full 8/4" at one end. there is historical evidence that the components of the harp could be thinner I have just not done it myself.
- The sound box is traditionally one big hollowed out log of Willow. This is not practical for many builders and I piece my soundbox together with separate boards
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The soundboard itself starts as 1/2" thick, I have made soundboards that are much thinner (0.25" thick) this one is so thick just because I ended up doing some carving on the inside (more on that later)
The sides are approximately 3/8" thick and were resawn from a 5/4" board
The top and bottom blocks in the picture above need to be thick because they will take the main loads and be accepting the large mortise and tenon joints that secure the pieces of the harp together. I glue the bottom block up from several pieces. I will go into more detail on this later but for now just make sure you consider the size of the parts when laying out the strings and designing the shape.

There are many more design considerations but I think they will become evident as I outline more of the build process. for now, if you only take away one thing here it is:

Design the harp around the strings, whether you use a historical example as a guide or use the Sligo Harp article accommodate all your other design choices around the strings
Thank you for taking the time to do this! I'm enjoying it!!

Mike
 

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·
Soundbox

The soundbox frame is essentially composed of 5 pieces. If you want to be fancy you can also apply two semicircular boards to the bottom like I did here (prepare for crappy schematic)
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the two "sides" of the harp are 3/8", the top and bottom boards are glued up from multiples layers to end at the final thickness. Dowels are embedded laterally to pin the sides to the top and bottom. I have made soundboxes without them and they have been fine. The most value you get in my opinion is that they help align all of the pieces of the soundbox which makes them much easier to assemble.

The bottom "projecting block" is very important in that it takes the mortise for the bottom tenon of the fore pillar and is attached to the bottom board with a half lap dovetail.

The profile of the soundbox for this harp has a swell from bass to center and then back down at the treble end as shown. this type of profile that is skinny at the bass end, and deeper in the middle is noted on several historical examples in Armstrong's book (see part 1). Get ready for another crappy schematic

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another feature of this harp is that the top block is angled downward. Loomis notes this in her thesis and comments that it could help the neck of the harp take the downward load of the strings better. She has a diagram and a very good explanation showing how tilting the top of the harp to be more in line with the vector of the strings places more of the load in a compressive direction relative to the grain of the neck rather than a shearing direction. That being said. If you were to make a harp yourself there is nothing wrong with making a soundbox with a rectangular cross section, i have made several harps just like that and it does simplify the build significantly.
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Here I am using my bandsaw and my grandfather's/great grandfather's compass plane to profile the board that will become the two sides.

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I then resaw the profiled board to make the two sides. I don't even plane the bandsawn surface, let-er rip, those ribs from the bandsaw blade improve sound quality (at least that's what I tell myself)

gluing up the bottom board is pretty straight forward, just two boards face glued together to make up the ~1.75" total thickness
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The top block is more tricky. Because it is essentially a trapezoid profile in two directions I glue up several layers in a stair step formation and then cut it down to shape with the bandsaw…If it is not clear by now a bandsaw is a harp makers best friend.
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It might not be clear from the description to this point but I have made full sized sketches of the harp soundbox (both profile and plan) and use those drawings in conjunction with a sliding bevel to lay out the angles for the top and bottom blocks of the soundbox. The below image shows me cutting the downward tilt of the top block
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Here is after I have cut the angle of the sides into the top block. I do this by tilting the bandsaw table. You can see this in the picture of me cutting the bottom board. I just keep the table tilted at the same angle and make all four cuts (both sides of the top block, both sides of the bottom board) at the same time do yourself a favor and make all of these cuts at the same time, they should all be symmetrical and if you change the angle of the table for some reason you will never get that same angle again
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Congratulations, you are well on your way to having a harp soundbox, I like to make the sides over long and just flush cut them to fit the top and bottom blocks. This gives me a little wiggle room if the angle isn't quite right or something else goes wrong.
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Now on to the dowel pins. While this is extremely gratifying it is also not brain surgery. Space them in an aesthetically pleasing way and drill the holes, you can use some light clamping to aid you in the layout. If you don't want the dowels to be exposed you can use dowel points to mark the inside of the sides and drill non-through holes.
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Once the pins are in I will glue up the soundbox frame
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You will notice that the top and bottom board don't match the swell profile of the soundbox sides. to fix this I just use handplanes to match the profile. If you build a rectangular soundbox profile with no swell you won't have this problem

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You are now ready to make the projecting block, this is one of the most fun pieces of joinery in the entire project. First I make the projecting block that is the length of the "projecting" part, plus the joinery, I lay out the joinery area with blue tape

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I then use a bevel gauge to transfer the dovetail between the two pieces and remove the blue tape in the area I need to excavate
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I then cut the half lap dovetail "mortise" as much as I can with a dozuki saw, i drill, chisel, or rout the rest of the waste.
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Remember, this joinery has to be strong but it doesn't show. I use the bandsaw again to cut the half lap dovetail
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you may have to futz with it a bit but it is fairly simple and fun, this part can be glued up and planed to match the swell profile of the soundbox.
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soundboard
We are now reaching a critical part of the instrument. The soundboard has to fulfill several competing priorities. The strings are going to be pulling up on this thin piece of wood with 650lb of force so it has to be strong. But it is also the vibrating surface of the instrument so it has to be thin and flexible to amplify the sound from the strings.

I resaw the pieces of my soundboard to make ~3/8"-1/2" thick boards. I can do this with a 5/4 board. If you want to hit that target thickness do not use a 4/4" board. you might be able to get a thinner soundboard out of it but I don't have a jointer or planer, so if there is too much variability in the thickness from the resaw I don't have a great way of addressing it efficiently when I glue up the panel. Quick tip here. Remember to make the soundboard long enough to cover the length of the soundbox AND the projecting block.
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I resaw the soundbaord from a rectangular board. if you are an astute observer you will notice that the soundboard is not in fact a rectangle, but a trapazoid. I will start by gluing the two resawn boards together into a rectangular panel. I then put the panel onto the soundbox frame I glued up earlier and trace the trapazoidal shape onto the underside of the soundboard using the seam of the soundboard as a center line

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I then cut outside there lines on the bandsaw which leaves you with two little triangular off cuts. Because I am a cheepass I then flip these around and glue them to the bottom end of the panel to make the full width of the soundbaord. This is how I stretch a 5" wide plank into a soundboard that is 14" wide.
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At this point we do something a little unique to the cláirseach. If you take a look at Karen Loomis' thesis (I highly recommend that you do, I promise it is a lot more interesting than most PhD theses) You will see that the she has thickness profiles and computer generated models of two harp soundboards from surviving historical instruments based on MRI scans. These scans show a tapering down in thickness from bass to treble as well as a ribbed profile on the inside of the Queen Mary harp. It is possible that this was just the most efficient way of thinning the soundbox to the right thickness, but it might also have acoustic benefits, with the arched ribs acting like resonating internals to help promulgate the sound. I did some profiling on this soundboard before I glued it to the soundbox for easier access. If you do this just remember to stay well away from the mating surfaces where the soundboard will be glued to the frame of the soundbox.
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Before I glue on the soundboard I make the little round lobes that go on the bottom of the soundbox. I don't have a lot of pictures of this but I basically use the bandsaw, rasps, and spokeshaves to make these pieces and face glue them on to the bottom of the soundbox. It was kind of a pain in the but and I don't have a great way of doing it so you wouldn't be getting much insight even if I did do a good job of documenting it.
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With that done you can now glue the soundboard to the soundbox. a glued but joint is the only thing keeping the strings from pulling the soundboard off of the soundbox frame, it is very important that you get good glue coverage between all possible mating sufaces on this joint and that you get good pressure across it. A set of curved cauls would be helpful when your soundbox has a swell profile or a set of straight calls if it is just a rectangular profile. I did neither because I am a doofus and opted instead to dress up the soundbox like pinhead from Hellraiser.

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once the soundboard is glued on you can trim any excess overhand with a flush cut saw and a plane and you will have one of the three main components of your Irish harp done.

One additional thing I did not document.
The back of the harp soundbox is usually closed up with a board that sits in a rabbet in the back. You can indeed cut a rabbet all the way around the inside perimeter of the back of the harp. In most cases (including this one) I will just make a back board much in the same way I made the sound board, and just glue battens to the inside of the soundbox sides that the back panel can rest in. This way I don't have to cut a perfect rabbet into the sides of my soundbox and I can adjust the depth of the battens based on the actual thickness of the back panel.
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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Musical interlude

(firs time embedding a video, lets see if it works, link below in case it doesn't)

This is just a short sound sample of how it plays so far. The tune is the first section of a Scottish lament called Cumha Iorla Wigton

 

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Musical interlude

(firs time embedding a video, lets see if it works, link below in case it doesn't)

This is just a short sound sample of how it plays so far. The tune is the first section of a Scottish lament called Cumha Iorla Wigton

Nice sound. Almost has the flavor of A harpsichord.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
Musical interlude

(firs time embedding a video, lets see if it works, link below in case it doesn't)

This is just a short sound sample of how it plays so far. The tune is the first section of a Scottish lament called Cumha Iorla Wigton

Thank you Jim,

That is no coincidence, the strings I use are the same ones used in harpsichords. The construction is different but they have some similar principles, instead of a plectrum and pad plucking and damping the strings like in a harpsichord, you use your fingernails and finger pads to play and damp the strings.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Neck and Pillar

Wow, a lot of firsts here. First blog post post software upgrade...hope this works!

There are three main components of the harp. The soundbox (discussed in previous blog posts), the neck, and the pillar. The neck is the "s" curve shaped beam that holds the tuning pins and the pillar is the crescent shaped...pillar, that spans between the soundbox and the neck. These three components are joined with mortise and tenons and are held together with the tension of the strings.

The joints are not glued so as to allow for the instrument to move and adjust to the shifting tension from tuning, seasonal wood movement, and humidity swings that it will be subject to. Common points of failure in some harps can be linked back to over constraint of the joinery (i.e. gluing or nailing joints together) so that the three pieces of the harp can't move relative to each other. Cracking, splitting, and failure are the inevitable result of an instrument that can't accommodate stress via movement. below is a horrendous schematic of how the three components are joined together
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In my process I start by making full sized drawing of the neck, pillar and soundbox together. I then use tracing paper to make replicas of each individual component, and then glue those replicas onto plywood to make templates
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For the harp I built here, I went through several iterations of the neck and pillar design before I got to something I thought would work. This part involved a lot of trial and error, mocking up the basic shape, laying out the strings, futzing with curves and trimming the templates to get something I was happy with. It pays to put in the time here because every minute you spend adjusting the templates saves you 30 on the actual workpiece.

Once the templates are done I lay them out on the lumber I will be using
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Notably above, the templates overhand the actual board I will be using. For harps with deep swooping harmonic curves and large arches in the pillar I will have to widen the board to bring it to the desired width.

The first thing I will do is trace out as much of the component as I can on the board You should also give some mind to the grain orientation, you want to avoid having short grain in areas of high stress (such as thin spots or the inflection points of curves). I am not always the best at following this advice but I am still learning.

Next I will "make up" the missing material by edge gluing extra blocks of material onto the neck or pillar comonent. I reinforce this edge joint with splines gong perpendicular to the grain of the neck/pillar. This is more easily explained in pictures.
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In this case, I chose to use a piece of the off cut from the neck as the make up material. I added in a maple spline to align them and strengthen the edge joint.
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after gluing up the full width component i bandsaw the final shape and start shaping it with hand and power tools. The spindle/belt sander you can see in the background of the above picture comes in very handy.

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At this point the neck and pillar are still pretty rough. I do the majority of the shaping and carving later after the joinery is complete. I will talk about the joinery in the next post but the main takeaway from this is that you don't need full width boards to make the harp components, some creativity with the material you do have can get you to where you need to be.
 

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