26 String Gothic Harp

The typical harp of the late Medieval and early Renaissance period, the tall, slender gut-strung gothic harp of between 19-29 strings (usually between 23-26) was represented in almost every form of artistic rendering known.  These harps were built from the 1200s through the 1600s.  Almost all of them were set up with brays, which were string pins with club-shaped heads that could be set to buzz against the vibrating string to give a raspy sound similar to a reed instrument.  They are referred to as gothic not because of the location or time of manufacture, but because the tall, slender, pointed and sharp-spired appearance is closely associated with Gothic architecture.

I have chosen to build 3 different sizes of gothic harp, a 23 string with a range of 3 octaves + 1 note (F to g"), a 26 string (C to g") and a 29 string (C to c"')  This is a documentary of the medium (26 string) harp.  The construction of the other two is the same with the exception of the wood types and finish.

The parts laid out on their rough boards.  The harmonic curve and pillar are made of sycamore, the soundbox of quartersawn lime (basswood).


Here is the harmonic curve laid out in the proper grain direction


The three major parts of the instrument laid out together to give an idea of size and angles.


The same three parts showing their positions relative to each other (an exploded view)

The harmonic curve is taken to it's finished profile before being joined to the pillar. Mar is working on this one so he gets some hands-on in the design before building his out of cherry, and I don't mind the help


The neck and pillar joint will be made with 3 dowel free tenons set at an angle so that the tension of the string pulls the joint together tighter.  The dowels are 1/2 inch maple.


This joint is strong and provides good lateral stability as well as making sure the joint is flush and tight under tension.


This is the joint closed up - the dowels are glued into the neck, then after final shaping the joint will be glued. Even though the joint is designed to remain tight under just the tension of the strings, I know the kind of accidental abuse ends of travelling instruments sustain, and gluing this joint will just help assure that jolts and bumps will not knock the harp out of alignment. The neck to soundbox and pillar to foot joint will not be glued, making disassembly of the instrument much easier if needed.

A small amount of glue is used to hold the halves of the soundbox blank together while shaping.  This glue is only where the boards will be hollowed out, it is not anywhere a final joint will be.

Here the outside of the body is shaped with plane, spokeshave and scraper.  Lime is beautiful to work with hand tools.

The body seperated waiting for hollowing.





Using a spoon plane to hollow out the halves of the body.  This was surprisingly quick, much faster and more precise than the same tool on the hard maple of the smaller 23 string harp.


A dial indicator is used to finalize the thickness of the soundboard side of the body, the back side of the body is not so precisely measured, but is thicker to help resist the bending tension the strings apply.

5 ply birch ply used as the string rib.  This is mainly to keep the strings under tension from tearing right up the soundboard, as the grain of the soundboard is running top to bottom.

The holes are drilled for the strings, sized for a tight fit for the dowels that will make up the bray's peg section.  These will hold the string in place.


Here violin body clamps and flexible cauls are used to glue the two halves of the soundbox back together, this time for real.

The arm (harmonic curve) is relieved below the sharping ridge. Without modern levers, this ridge acted like the first fret on any fretted instrument, so that the performer could manually sharpen each string as necessary.



The cove is cut into the pillar. This gives a more graceful look, lightens the instrument, provides less chance of splintering, but the T shape still provides a lot of strength.


Shaping the back of the pillar. This harp will have long flat gothic arch window shapes running most of the way up the arch, and the capitol will be radiused and relieved beneath the top of the arches.


The windows end in tall peaked arches, and the rest of the upper pillar is radiused in relief.

The neck and arm joined prior to radiusing the top of the set. In order to provide the ability to sharp the strings without making the arm so thick and bulky as to be gaudy, I had to arrange the tuning pins very close to the top of the arm at the low string end. Some renderings of these harps had the top edge of the arm and pillar inlet fairly deeply, leaving a sharp central ridge. This harp will have a significantly rounded top.


The foot of the pillar is cut as a tenon to join to the foot of the soundbox. A pullsaw and chisels for this operation.



The mortise for the pillar foot. Drilled with 2 passes of a forstner bit to remove the majority of the unwanted material, then chiseled. Lime works perfectly with sharp tools, couldn't have done better or faster with my mortising machine.



I am leaving a bit of the soundbox as 'slips' to help cover the joint between the curve and the soundboard. Just a decorative touch I like from one of the harps currently made in Germany. The most sincere form of flattery and all that, you know...

I am using a floating dowel tenon for the curve/soundbox joint, because I can get really precise alignment and really close tolerances without too much possibility of breaking off the thin cover slips.




The maple floating tenon inserted into the curve. Since this is an alignment pin, and not necessary to hold a position of rotation, it makes good sense to use this type of joint.

Here is the harp essentially complete. From here on it is just sanding and finishing, building brays and stringing. Won't be long now.



An important part of finishing. especially with water-based stains or dyes. Dampening the surface of the wood will raise the severed ends of the grains that were cut while shaping, sanding and scraping. You can knock these off with a light pass of fine sandpaper once they have curled up. If you don't do this with plain water, the water-based finish will do it for you, and it is much harder to fix then.

I am using a micronized pigment in water as a dye. The material I am using is called Transfast powder, and is very strong and extremely transparent. Period wood dyes were made of a suspension of organic particles in water, but many were not lightfast. This powder is very lightfast because of the addition of metal oxides and goes on even and clear.


The simplest finish is wax. I could use any number of period finishes, but this is going to be a travelling harp and I want a finish that is durable, weather-resistant and easily repairable. I believe that the medieval craftsman would have come out of this same consideration with only a few finishes, with wax being one of them. So beeswax and carnuba applied thick, burnished with an ice block in a plastic baggie, then polished was my solution. Not as deep as french polish, but still pretty and durable.

Just because I wanted to see what I couldn't accurately picture, here is the unfinished pillar on the harp. While the color scheme is interesting, I don't have any recollection of anything like it being medieval. I will dye and wax the pillar and arm.


Here the arm and pillar are waxed and ready for the tuning pins. Again, waterborne particle dye and wax, burnished cold and buffed.

And the harp ready for strings. I got the pins I needed from Robinson Harps and Vermont Strings, and as soon as I make all the brays I will begin stringing. Not long now.



Stringing with brays. I am loading the body with strings before I attach the arm and pillar so that I can custom fit the string slots in each hole. It is hard to get a tool into the lower holes with the pillar attached.





Success!!! Now it is time to start bringing it up to tension. I will bring it up 2 notes under scale, then take the whole harp to one note under scale (man, it sounds good), then tune it to scale. Now, with all the tension on the harp, all I have to do is to bring the little tiny top F string into tune (just a few little pounds) and it will sound perfect. And...



SNAP!!!! There was a flaw in the piece of sycamore that I used for the arm, and it failed. Just a part of harp building, but it is why I like to take the instruments to tension, and treat them to some hard environment changes while inspecting and listening every time I tension and tune. But the best part is that the harp tension and tone felt really nice, and now I have the opportunity to change the profile of the top of the arm, which will be a nice thing. Hey, it's a piece of woodwork after all, and I can and will rebuild it.

And another view. I don't know any craftsman who doesn't have the occasional thing go wrong, the occasional project self destruct, but when a harp goes, it is impressive at least for a part of a second. Luckily the soundbox was untouched, but rather than patch in another arm, which would never look or be right, I am going to rebuild the entire arm / pillar assembly. I was glad to have had the chance to study the esthetics of this harp assembled and strung, it gives me a chance to make changes in this, the 26 string that will remain as my demo, that will at least in my opinion improve the looks of the harp. That is the bright side..Stay tuned, with all the jigs and stuff I have already made, rebuilding this will only take a little

A quick trip to my hardwood pusher...er...dealer...er...wholesaler, yeah, that's it, and I was in posession of some nice new sycamore. I added 1/2 inch to the inside of the main curve (the top of the curve) and that let me create the same cove I like on the inside of the pillar. The bottom cove is the same 1/2 inch radius I used on the old arm for the fretting ridge. The blue push pins are used to set the distances for the 1st and 26th strings, and the old pillar is being used for alignment purposes, and to let me know how much longer I need to make the new pillar. I also left a bit more wood at the sharp neck curve where the neck comes up out of the soundbox, and dropped the top of that same arch a bit, accenting the bird beak. Shiny.

really nice evening, decided to do the grain raising prior to dyeing outside at the bar. It has been several days of work since the unfortunate mishap, but the new arm and pillar are an improvement over the old, and I know it will be a better instrument for the changes. All that is left after this is to dye and wax the wood, then re-string. I have refigured the strings to bring my tensions down a bit to make the tension / length ratio as close to 1:1 at each string as I can get - this gives adequate tension so that a modern harpist won't feel it too sloppy and gives a strong enough vibration profile that the brays sound out well. Will drop the overall tension on the harp by about 2 pounds per string, but will even out the strings a bit. If it doesn't sound good, I will put the older string set back on. Tomorrow's the day.


Back on the chair for another picture that is the same as the first go-around.  The biggest differences are that the neck curve is a bit shorter and a bit meatier, and the front point is higher.  I also think I matched the colors better this time around, in spite of the darker natural tone of the sycamore I used on the rebuild.

Here's the world-reknown harp critic Cael giving this harp his careful inspection.  It passes.  Yeah!!!!  (Oh yeah, ignore the finger splint.  You never use your pinkies to play harp anyway).


Strung and playing, the brays are really eerie, makes it sound like a Turkish opium den on steriods.  It will be some time before the strings settle in, and I will not be confident until they do, but I think this is really a super instrument.