Build Your Own Autoharp

imagesBuilding an autoharp had always been on my “to do” list. Over the years I have repaired quite a few for the local music store and even purchased a couple of old “Oscars” from auction sites but Mrs. WHBIT and I wanted something better. As a luthier and piano technician I was confident that I could figure it out but I knew the task would be much easier if I had plans or access to a quality instrument as example.

In 2006, with few ideas of where to start, a slow internet connection and Google, I began my research. Ten years ago I did not turn up very much. Nearly every stringed instrument was represented with plans, blueprints, books, blogs, forums, and “how to” sites but not autoharps. The autoharp world has grown a bit since then but there still doesn’t seem to be any kits and only one source of comprehensive building instructions. For that reason I receive frequent requests for plans and information so I will outline below what I have found so far.

Plan for Schmidt Model 73 Autoharp

pl01The Guild of American Luthiers offer for sale plans/prints for a variety of stringed instruments including the Model 73 autoharp, a thirty-six string chromatic with twelve chord bars installed in slotted holders. I have not seen these autoharp plans but they appear to be drawn to scale on large paper from an extant model 73. It’s possible that some of it is drawn to actual size and can be used as a template. There is a photo and some text that may or may not include construction details. Most of the old 73s have not aged well but their traditional design could make a nice instrument if made with seasoned hardwood and improved joinery. The plan is available on the Guild’s website:

The Autochord

autochordMusicmaker’s Kits in Stillwater, Minnesota once offered kits for their version of the autoharp and named it “The Autochord”. Although they discontinued the kits years ago, they still offer the plan as a free download and sell the non-wood materials such as strings, pins, springs, and felt either separately or as a package.

I built my first autoharp with the Autochord plans and found them easy to follow resulting in a nice sounding but somewhat different kind of ‘harp. Its design is a bit larger and heavier than most and features an internal bass bar, acoustic spaces between framing members, and a hollow tubular bridge. It’s a thirty-eight string chromatic with fifteen chord bars installed on Delrin combs. The comb arrangement is the only thing I have had issue with. The plans called for the 1/8″ Delrin comb rods to seat in holes drilled directly into the soundboard. Having difficulty adjusting them, I replaced them with 1/8″ brass rod that could be adjusted by bending. This worked OK but were I to build another, I would install conventional screw-on comb units like Oscar Schmidt uses on their 21 chord ‘harps.

The free plans can be downloaded at Musicmaker’s website:

The Mountain Laurel Harp 

ResizeImageHandler.ashxFor the beginning autoharp builder, The Mountain Laurel Harp plans are the best yet. They were developed by master autoharp luthier George Orthey and written as an article for The Autoharp Quarterly by George Orthey and Tom Fladmark. The complete plans plus an eight year update can be found in “The Autoharp Owner’s Manual” Everything from Maintaining to Building an Autoharp Compiled and Edited by Mary Lou Orthey. It can be found online or purchased from the publisher:

This plan produces a traditional style autoharp much like the Model 73 but with many improvements and possible modifications. It has thirty-six strings, twelve chord bars in slotted holders, and simple anchor pins but can be altered to carry thirty-seven strings, more chord bars, and even fine tuners. Sound and stability can be improved by using solid woods, laminated pin block, and the update’s suggested bracing pattern.

My second and third autoharps were built to these excellent plans. One is a chromatic with fine tuners and the other is a diatonic that I made left handed by reversing the pattern. We still own and play these beautiful instruments and I still refer to the articles many, many builds later. Even if you are not sure you want to build your own autoharp, you must have this book. The expert articles from The Autoharp Quarterly hold a wealth of information that every autoharp owner and player needs.










A mahogany “lefty”

DSC05796The most recent finding from here at Lefty Laboratories is an all mahogany, left handed, chromatic autoharp built for a beginning player in South Carolina. It was ordered by her husband who described her as “petite and left handed” adding that she may play the instrument in either an upright position or on her lap. For simplicity and easier playing, she insisted that there be only twelve chord bars.  Because her husband plays music in a variety of keys, additional chords were provided that can be swapped in as needed.



DSC05811This rather traditional shaped autoharp is built with my one piece laminated frame and back, a solid  mahogany soundboard, matching mahogany side veneer, and a mahogany chord set.  Fastened to the back is a simple birch plywood resonator stained to match.


DSC05816The three row chord setup places the major chords in the middle row, the sevenths in the bottom row, and the minors in the top row. With the middle finger positioned over the major chord of the desired key, the index and ring fingers can easily reach the other  chords in that key. With the keys arranged in the “circle of fifths”, the same fingering pattern may be played by merely shifting the middle finger to another major chord in the middle row.


The alternate chord bars reside in a little tray when not in use.

The twelve bars installed on the autoharp  are arranged in this pattern for the keys of “A”, “D”, “G”, and “C”. Additional bars were provided for the keys of “F”, “Bb”, and “Eb” to be swapped in as needed. You might have noticed that there are two “F” chords. Because of the pattern, “F” appears in the bottom row for the key of “C” and in the middle (major) row for the Key of “F”.

DSC05800The covers of the chord bar holders are attached with rare earth magnets and the chord bar springs are glued to their bases. Swapping out chord bars is accomplished by popping off the covers and changing the bars (without losing springs).



DSC05793I have discovered another left hand problem in our right handed world…. cases for the left handed autoharps I make. I have yet to find a “gig bag” type case that is not backwards and upside down in its configuration of pockets and zippers. I have found a more than acceptable but costlier alternative in the hardshell Oscar Schmidt cases.  I modify them by removing the inner triangular accessory pocket.







DSC05724In addition to the instruments that I make and the pianos I service, I’m fortunate to find other interesting instruments on my workbench from time to time. Not only do I get to play with other people’s toys but each encounter teaches me something new and becomes a catalyst to new instrument ideas.



The virginal on the workbench with the legs removed.

Recently, I received this virginal for repair. A virginal is a simpler, earlier type of harpsichord with the strings parallel to the keyboard on the long side of its rectangular body. The sixty inch long case is made of solid mahogany with a spruce soundboard. Four lathe turned legs screw into threaded sockets on the bottom corners. There is a fret sawn music desk (not shown) but no other decoration or top lid (dusty!).



Jacks in place on the soundboard. One is elevated.


A view of a jack showing the tongue, quill, and felt damper.

Each key plays a single string by elevating a “jack” with a tiny “quill” that plucks the string. When a key is pressed you can feel the “pluck” and the string sustains only as long as the key is held.




imagesThe body of a jack is made of a Delrin type of plastic material with a spring hinged tongue that holds the tiny triangular quill. The jacks rest in rectangular openings in the soundboard adjacent to their respective strings and intersect the key ends below by a thin metal rod.



imagesWhen a key is pressed, the jack rises and the quill plucks the string. As the jack returns by gravity, the tongue hinges back allowing the quill to pass the string, the small felt damper to mute the string, and the quill to reset.




This seemingly simple mechanical arrangement requires a lot of maintenance. The jacks must be regulated for a consistent feel and voiced for a consistent sound. The fine threaded rods that intersect the keys adjust the quills’ height and fine threaded screws on the top of each jack adjust the distant of the quills’ tips to the strings. The quills themselves are wedged in the tongues. Their shape and flexibility affect tone and volume so they are voiced by trimming and scraping with a sharp knife.

The keyboard is arranged like a piano keyboard but with shorter, narrower keys all of the same color. The fifty-four keys range from C2 to F6 and are tuned by the owner to A-440 in equal temperament. There are no pedals or other means of expression. With long strings under fairly low tension, it’s a quiet instrument with a distinctive sound that you can feel with your fingers as well as hear with your ears.

This instrument usually resides in the owner’s parlor but on occasion, the four legs were removed and it was transported to musical gatherings. It had not been played or had any attention for a number of years and as I received it, required some string replacement, a cleanup, and a lot of regulation.



My First Million


A million visits!

“What’s He Building In There?”, my humble little weblog here, has passed a milestone today. Since I began publishing, or rather since I included the counter plugin at the end of each page, my WordPress blog has received over one million visits. That’s not a great accomplishment in the World Wide Web’s scheme of things but to me it’s quite a rush. When I began the blog in January 2012, weblogs were already old fashioned and out of style. Social media sites like Facebook had become the way to discuss ideas, present a message, and accumulate “Likes”. I just wanted to build and repair stringed instruments and share my ideas without wasting a lot of my time responding to vapid comments or trying to sell something. I am so grateful to all of my visitors who have contacted me with kind words, meaningful inquiries, and instrument commissions. Mike “Likes” that. Wish me luck on my next million!

A new maple and spruce “lefty”

DSC05666The latest finding here at “Lefty Laboratories” is another custom left handed autoharp that I made for a musician in Tennessee who owns, plays, and composes with a variety of left handed guitars and other stringed instruments. This will be his first autoharp and he wanted a large variety of conventional and unusual (to the autoharp) chords all contained within a twenty-one bar chord set. By his design, I cut and arranged the twenty-one chord bars in patterns that when pressed in combinations, can produce fifty-nine full and partial chords and six scales!

DSC05664This rather deluxe autoharp is built upon my one piece laminated pin block frame and back with a book matched  Sitka spruce soundboard and nicely figured curly maple trim. The tuning and bridge pins are nickel plated and dragonfly rosette adorns the sound hole.


DSC05671The maple chord bar set contains twenty-one very thin chord bars that were made by Michigan luthier Buck Lumbert. Fine tuning is accomplished with a set of Daigle Flat Line fine tuners, and the beautiful music can be amplified with the on board electromagnetic pickup from Greg Schreiber.



DSC05672Most autoharps can be found to carry anywhere between five to twenty-one chords. Many players are attracted to the range and versatility of twenty-one chords but soon discover that even that is not enough. Adding more chords may be accomplished by changing or swapping bars in the set, installing different sets, or owning several autoharps with different chord setups.

ScanThe owner of this new autoharp choose a different path. He designed a personal system  based on the “ultratonic” autoharps that have been around for some time. With this custom setup of twenty-one chords, he can squeeze out many additional chords by pressing two (or more) bars at once. For example, there is no “C” chord in the array but by pressing the “C7/6” chord and the “G core” cord together, a “C” chord can be played. The same “G core” chord can be played with the “A9” chord to produce an “Em” chord. In all, these combinations can produce fifty-nine full and partial chords.














The Punchline

As a woodworker who builds and plays stringed musical instruments, I love the tools and accessories that go along with the craft. I’m a sucker for always looking for the “next new thing” that I think will help me work and play better. With “paper or plastic” in my wallet and $1.48/gallon gas in the truck, there’s nothing I wouldn’t drive to town for in order to get my “tool fix”. My intoxication is usually sobered somewhat when I return home to Mrs. WHBIT’s all too familiar inquisition. “What do you need that for?” or, “How much did that cost?”. I always feel a little twinge of guilt, but like any addiction, I tell myself, “I can stop anytime I want…sure I can”.

DSC05647With that unpleasant thought in mind, I was pleasantly surprised when Mrs, WHBIT actually bought me a tool as a gift! At a dulcimer retreat last weekend, she presented me with a “Pick Punch”. A Pick Punch resembles a stapler and houses a die cutter that punches guitar picks out of recycled plastic container lids, old compact discs, expired credit cards, and many other types of sheet plastic. This cool new tool, I rationalized, was money saving recycling at its best. More than that, I was delighted that Mrs. WHBIT gave me this new tool. The gift seemed to be a nod of approval to my tool buying habit. Perhaps I now had “Carte Blanche” to buy new tools without that twinge of guilt.

I could hardly wait to use it on some materials that Mrs. WHBIT collected for me to try. Her favorite picks seemed to be the ones that I cut from my old expired VISA card. “Have we any more expired cards?”, I asked. Smiling,  Mrs. WHBIT says, “That wasn’t your “expired” card”.


Octave mandolins (part five)

With the two curved sides attached to the neck and tail blocks, I have the basic pear shaped outline of the body. The soundboard and back will be cut to this shape and glued to the sides. Because the sides are only .10″ thick and I will be installing binding, I need to increase the gluing surface by gluing kerfed linings along the edges of the sides.

Linings are sometimes solid strips of wood that are steam bent to the inside shape of the sides. That’s difficult to do because thin strips often break or splinter. I will be making “kerfed” linings. A kerf is a saw cut and kerfed linings are thin strips of wood (in this case spruce) with perpendicular kerfs cut almost all of the way through and with a uniform spacing. Cut in this way, it’s easy to bend the linings to the curve of the sides.


The sled has a fence on top to align the strips. The narrow slider on the bottom fits into the channel of the bandsaw table.


A clamp positioned at the end of the channel (not shown) stops the sled before the blade cuts all the way through.


Uniform kerfs make the strips flexible.






Two mandolins will require a lot of linings. I can cut them with my bandsaw and to make the job less tedious, I made a little saw sled. The kerfing sled holds two blank strips square to the saw blade and stops the cut short of going all of the way through. There are small index marks on the top of the fence so that after each cut, I slide the stacked strips over one mark (about 3/16″) to make the next cut.





DSC05512The finished linings are glued inside the top and bottom edges of the instrument’s sides. I clamp them with binder clips, some odd clamps, and most of Mrs. WHBIT’s clothes pins.



Octave mandolins (part four)


Mahogany tail block attached to the sides and back.

After bending the OM’s sides, I glued them to the mahogany neck and tail blocks. The tail block is rather simple being 3/4″ x 2″ wide x 2-3/4″ (or the height of the sides). The wedged shaped neck block is 1-1/4″ x 2-5/8″ wide x 2-7/16″ high. It was more complicated to make because of the 3/4″ mortice for the neck joint, the countersunk hole for the neck bolt, and the 3 degree angle on the top to match the neck angle.




A decorative insert at the tail.

Gluing the two sides to the tail block was straightforward. I aligned the squared ends of the sides to the centerline of the block and clamped them. After the glue had dried, I sawed away a wedge shape from the sides and installed a trim piece.




Neck block glued to the sides and back.








Gluing the neck block was much more difficult. I clamped the sides in the mold and aligned the wedge shaped block in the apex but the glue was enough lubrication that it wanted to slide askew. Finally, with a creative clamping arrangement, everything held in place long enough for the glue to set.


Octave Mandolin (part three)

DSC05615Many months ago I began building my two octave mandolins by resawing genuine and African mahogany into rough sized pieces for the sides, tops, and backs. These were the first pieces that I sanded to thickness with my new Grizzly drum sander. This power sander handily milled these components to a smooth, uniform .10 inch thickness without gouging, sniping, or tearing out grain. I’m really excited to have this new tool in my shop. It will save me from a lot of tedious planing and hand sanding and greatly improve the overall quality of my future instruments.

DSC05616The OMs’ sides are 21-1/2″ long and are tapered with the tail block end being 2-3/4″ high and the heel end being 2-3/8″. This slight taper will arch the top somewhat so that the bridge will reside higher on the top than the fretboard and the heel end of the top will follow the angle of the neck.

The pear shaped body only requires a gentle curve. I bent the sides individually on a capped piece of 4″ steel pipe that I heat with a propane torch. I place a wet piece of terrycloth over the pipe which produces steam. While I gently rock the sidepieces over the steaming cloth, they gradually bend to the shape I want. I bend the two sides to the same curve but it is difficult using this method to keep them symmetrical because as they cool, they spring back a bit remembering their former shape..

DSC05513To keep the sides symmetrical while I glue them to the heel and tail blocks, I built a plywood mold using a full size half pattern that I cut from the plans. Coupled with the exact shaped outside mold is an expandable inside mold. I can align the side pieces and clamp them to hold the body shape and keep them perpendicular when I glue them to the top and back.



Octave Mandolins (part two)

Octave mandolins have been around for a long time. I have seen and played round, Florentine, and guitar shaped OMs, but most often they have been pear shaped. OM tops and backs are sometimes flat but are usually carved or bent into an arch. Floating bridges and tailpieces seem the most popular but many feature a glued, fixed, saddle/pin/bridge.


I’m not going to reinvent the octave mandolin (not yet). Instead, I’m going to base my two instruments on the excellent plans that I purchased a couple of years ago from Don Kawalek. He has designed and developed an octave mandolin kit that he sells and conducts workshops with for small groups of students who want to make their own. A Google search of ” mandolin kits” will likely turn up a lot of folks who have built Don’s kits with great results. Some have documented the process with photos much better than I’m about to, but I intend to build from scratch. I will be milling and drilling, bending and shaping all of the components myself. In a sense I am making my own kits but if I had any sense at all I would just buy Don’s.

Besides having the materials (and hopefully) the time to build two OMs, I intend to construct them a bit different from each other to compare how they sound. Both instruments will be constructed mostly of mahogany. The main difference will be that one will have a Sitka spruce soundboard. There’s nothing remotely scientific here. So many other factors are involved in the production of tone and voice that I cannot build enough nearly identical instruments to isolate each and every one. I can only accept the end product and learn from the little things that it teaches me along the way.