Category Archives: harpmaker

Harpe bardique

I have been discussing stringing possibilities of a harp made by a French harp maker, supposedly as a copy of one of the old Gaelic harps. Analysing its string lengths I noted that its scaling was suspiciously slow.

(Scaling is the technical word used to describe the ratio of string lengths across the range of a harp or other stringed instrument; a slow scaling means the strings increase in length more gradually as you move from treble to bass.)

Then I remembered that I had come across this slow, even scaling before, on harps modelled after the “Bardic harp” of Gildas Jaffrennou.

Continue reading Harpe bardique

Opening up the harp

I have been thinking for a few years now about the shape of the inside of my harp, in light of the new information we have from Karen Loomis’s PhD research at the University of Edinburgh.

When I commissioned the harp from Davy Patton in 2006-7, the thing we were most lacking was info about the inside – the shapes of the joints, and the profile and thickness of the soundbox. Basically, we had to make a lot of educated guesses.

Since then, we have the CT-scans and other technical studies of the Queen Mary harp that Karen has been working on, and many of our guesses have turned out to be pleasingly correct, such as our choice of timber – willow for the soundbox, and a bent limb for the pillar – but we were quite wrong in our decisions on how to shape the soundbox interior.

Luckily, we had erred very much on the side of leaving the wood too thick, so last week I took the harp to Natalie Surina, of Ériú Harps in Oughterard, Connemara, for her to cut a lot of wood from inside the soundbox.

Continue reading Opening up the harp

“Like medieval clockwork” – copying the missing Queen Mary harp iron tuning pins.

When I was commissioning my replica of the Queen Mary harp in 2006, I paid attention to the 30th tuning pin, which is obviously a later addition, shorter, made of iron, split end, different drive, and off the main row. This pin is now missing but I made a copy of it based on descriptions and old photos. I made the 29 brass pins with their scores on their shafts copying the museum photo of the 21 pins now in the harp, and for the 8 missing pins I made the same design of brass pins without scores.

If I had been more on the ball back then I would have noticed that those same old photos and descriptions I used for the 30th pins, also show the missing 8 from the main row, and those missing 8 are plain iron not decorated brass, and 5 of them have split ends.

So today’s project was to make 8 handmade iron pins, and install them in the harp. The contrast of the iron and brass pins is subtle but interesting in appearance, reminding me of my initial reaction to the handmade decorated pins: “like medieval clockwork”.

I broke the lowest gold B string taking it off but there was enough spare to rewind the toggle and reuse it. The string had thinned where it went over the pin – presumably a gradual process over seven years since I fitted it in 2007.


The past week or two have continued the making things theme. I have done a series of tuning keys as test-runs; I have made a page advertising them which I will send out for my 1st May Emporium Update.

I also have made the set of pins for my HHSI Student Downhill harp, and today while it was here with my student who has it, I fitted the pins – pulling each of the old steel pins out in turn and then replacing it with a new brass pin. I had to shim all of the brass pins because for some reason they are marginally smaller than the steel pins, and I used thin brass sheet to make the shims. Plenty of the antique Gaelic harps have brass shims in their pin holes and I find it works well.

We instantly noticed how much better the harp worked to tune, with the new pins – the key fits much more snugly on the new pins with their tapering drives, giving a much more positive touch to the tuning. And the new pins look rather good with their decorated drives. I am very pleased with the result.

I have always thought that handmade pins with tapering drives work so much better than machine made steel pins with parallel drives, but inertia has meant I have not bothered doing anything about it until now. Hardly anyone has handmade pins on their harps, even top players with quality decorated instruments. I can only think of 3 or 4 off the top of my head.

I am going to make a few more pins and then I think I will make a page advertising them for sale for the 1st June update! I think that this would make a fantastic upgrade to anyone’s harp, to replace the pins!

Tuning key

I lost my tuning key in Edinburgh last weekend. At first I was rather irritated; the replica Queen Mary clarsach has handmade tuning key drives, copying the original, which are rectangular rather than the usual square. So the key is also custom-made with a rectangular socket, and also has a second socket in the end of the handle to fit the square drive of the 30th pin. Basically it is useless to anyone else! I did have a rather ill-fitting spare with me

However after a while I realised this was a great opportunity. I made this key not too long after the harp was new, and while it was comfortable to use with its  roundwood quince handle from the garden here, the rectangular socket was always a bit oversized and was loose on all the pins. Also it was rather “rustic” in appearance.

So today I made a new key for the Queen Mary harp. This one builds on my experience making the first. The design is the same – a T shaped pin, with a brass socket made from a rod soldered inside a tube, the end of the rod slit with saw and files to fit the drives. The second socket, from a large clock key, fits in the end of the handle. Both sockets are fixed in with little brass pins running through the wood, and secured with glue to stop them shifting.

For the handle of this key I used a piece of ancient Irish bog oak which Davy Patton gave me years ago. I had thought of carving medieval West Highland designs into it, and even gilding the designs, but as the handle took shape it became very spare and elegant. The bog oak does not carve very cleanly anyway. So in the end the only decoration was a pair of parallel incised bands at each end of the handle and each end of the main socket shaft, echoing the pairs of incised bands on the Queen Mary harp tuning pins.

I have to make another soon as my student who has the Student Downhill harp has lost the key for it. It ought to have a brass socketed key anyway as the commercial steel-socketed key it used to have was starting to chew up the decorated brass pins I have started fitting to it. Which reminds me, I need to finish the set of brass pins for that harp. So many jobs lining up…

7 string lyre bridge

My previous reconstructions of the Iron age lyre bridge discovered by archaeologists at Uamh an Ard Achaidh (Skye Pasture Cave) on the Isle of Skye, have interpreted the broken fragment as having only 3 string positions, framed by 4 pyramids along the top of the lyre.

However, it is possible that the flat shoulder on the surviving half of the bridge represents the broken off base of two more pyramids. If this were repeated on the missing other half, that would give a total of eight pyramids with seven string positions.

This week I made a bridge following this plan. I used a piece of yew wood from near St Andrews.

I’ll have both interpretations of  the Skye lyre bridge as well as complete student lyres on my Emporium stand at the Edinburgh Harp Festival next week.