The most important thing in a student harp is the spacing and the layout of the strings - it means your fingers meet the strings at the right places. Many cheap harps have the strings set too wide apart, leading to uncomfortable stretches, especially for little hands. When you are beginning to learn the ancient clarsach traditions, you need to repeat the basic finger movements many times, to fix them in your muscle memory, and so it is best if you can practice on a harp that is set up with the correct string spacing and layout.
It’s also important to have a useful range of notes. The beginners tunes for the old Gaelic harp tradition (as detailed in my tutor books Progressive Lessons for early Gaelic harp and also Clarsach Lessons for Young Harpers) are naturally centred around the two unision strings at g below middle c (na comhluighe or the sisters) - it is frustrating to learn on a miniature harp where everything has to be played up an octave, sounding shrill and high.
The overall shape and proportion of the instrument is important too - if a harp is too narrow, then the hands, wrists and knees meet the instrument in awkward places. Copying the medieval archetype ensures that these aspects of the design are right.
The idea of these drawings is to show a harp that has 29 strings, tuned from bass G (two octaves below middle c) up to top f''' including na comhluighe. It has the string spacing, layout and overall ergonomics of the Queen Mary harp - the iconic medieval Scottish clarsach or Gaelic harp.
I have prepared these templates for a basic "beginners" version of the Queen Mary harp. You can download each image file and print it out at 100% or 78DPI. Your computer and printer should have a setting to print out full size on more than one sheet of paper, which you can then tape or glue together to make up a full size template. These drawings are based on R.B. Armstrong’s from 1904 and are not guaranteed to be exactly the right size or shape, but they should give you a workable instrument. The soundbox is shown built up from pieces and the neck and pillar asssembly is shown as one piece. Any questions, please ask.
This drawing shows an overview of the assembly of the harp. Hopefully this will give you all the information you need to turn the individual templates below into a complete instrument.
Note that the neck-pillar assembly should be mounted centrally on the soundbox, so the strings are fanned out and angled. This is indicated in the views at the bottom right of the assembly sketch.
Front of soundbox
Side view of soundbox
Soundbox layout sketches
Layout sketch of soundbox
Perspective sketches of the construction of the soundbox
The old harps had a soundbox carved from a solid piece of timber, with the open back closed by a press-fit panel. You can do this, or you can glue up planks to imitate the carved box by keeping the grain direction and orientation parallel. Or you can glue the box up from plywood. You can make the back press-fit as shown, or you can just glue the back panel on without recessing it.
Neck/pillar combined templates
Neck and Pillar assembly
Neck/pillar combined sketches
Annotated sketch of the neck-pillar assembly
This is designed for a laminated one-piece neck-pillar assembly. You can use as few as 2 layers with a staggered join, or as many as you are happy to laminate together. You could even use a sheet of 2 inch plywood and cut it in one piece. This drawing also includes the shape of the fish on the forepillar which widens it into a T cross-section, and the shape of the metal cheek bands should you wish to include these.
For a more basic version, squared off at the top and bottom of the soundbox for ease of assembly:
Soundbox side view with square shoulder
Soundbox front view with square shoulder
Neck and pillar with square shoulder
For a more fancy version, with jointed neck and pillar
Neck and Pillar with joints
The old harps were made from pieces of solid timber, assembled "dry" with mortice and tenon joints, as shown in this diagram.
Once you have the wooden components as shown in the drawings above, you need to add the metal hardware.
Tuning pins: you need 29 taper tuning pins. Don't skimp by using cheaper zither pins - they make tuning much more difficult that it should be. I recommend you get tapered tuning pins from Dan Speer, and I suggest you ask him for no.4 pins, 3 inches long. Get brass if you are feeling flash, or steel if you are feeling cheap. Ask for him to drill the string holes 1.2mm, this will fit your thickest wire string and bigger holes just make stringing harder. Ask him also to send a matching taper reamer for making the tapered holes in the harp. Drill the holes from the left side of the neck, and ream from the right side - this will help keep everything in line. (left and right from a player's point of view). The tuning pins are inserted from the right side, so that the player tunes with their right hand holding the tuning key applied to the square end of the pin, and the string is attached to the left end of the pin.
String shoes: these protect the wood where the string enters the soundbox. If you have used plywood for your soundbox, you can use 1/4" metal eyelets or grommets. If you have used real wood, then a bent wire horseshoe works better and helps prevent splitting.
Strings: I can supply you with brass and silver wire strings suitable for this instrument. See my wire page for details. The ideal configuration for this instrument is 8 silver and 21 brass strings. If you have less money, then you can have fewer silver, but the sound in the bass will suffer. Click here for a stringchart for this harp.
Bag: An old sleeping bag is an ideal quick and easy bag to carry the harp in. For a bit of extra luxury, cut and stitch it to shape and add a button to close it over the neck of the harp.
Tuning key: I have cheap keyring tuning keys available. You can add a wooden handle to make a full sized functional key.
Electric tuning machine: just get a cheap "chromatic tuner" from your local music store. Or if you have a fancy phone, try the Cleartune app for iPhone or Android. Select the ‘Pythagorean’ setting to help you tune more accurately.
Stool: If you are small, you can play this harp by resting it on the ground, and sitting on a low stool. If you are bigger, you might prefer to raise the harp. You can use a guitar footstool from your local music shop.