A Maple and spruce “lefty”

dsc05978Recently, I built a left handed autoharp for a musician in California. The autoharp he has been playing for worship services has been well worn and well loved for many years and he is ready for a new one. The old one is (I believe) is an “attache” style production model, left handed, and built into an attache case with a removable lid. He is right handed but has always played a left handed autoharp on his lap so he wanted his new one left handed.

dsc05961This thirty-six string chromatic is made with maple, Sitka spruce, and my one piece laminated frame and back. The custom twenty-one bar chord set was made by retired luthier Buck Lumbert and the instrument is amplified with an electromagnetic pickup from Greg Schreiber.dsc05962









dsc05964Unique to this autoharp is the cross shaped sound hole requested by the owner and oriented so that he can look at it while he plays.

A Folk Harp

dsc05878On my workbench this week is a small, twenty-eight string Celtic folk harp for some minor repair, re-stringing, and a little tidying up. The owner purchased it from an estate sale in Florida and brought it back to Ohio where it hangs near her fireplace. Hoping that her grandchildren might play it, she wanted it restored to playing condition.


dsc05879A brass plaque proclaims it to be “The Walton Harp, Brian Boru model No. 551, Made in Dublin, Ireland”. The owner had toured Ireland in the past and was delighted to learn that her harp is the national symbol of Ireland. Rightly so. It’s design resembles the Trinity College Harp once said to belong to Brian Boru the High King of Ireland (1002-1014).





The Spire in Dublin, Ireland

I’m guessing that this Walton harp is perhaps forty years old. I cannot locate any information about the company. On a past trip to Dublin I have visited Walton Music on Great George’s Street near the famous Spire. It’s a large store that sell harps but I haven’t found any indication that they are the maker.





The strings are fastened to the center strip of the soundboard with tapered wooden pins.

It’s actually a serious little instrument, much too nice to be only a” wall hanger”. It’s well built and in generally good condition requiring only a small crack repair and new strings. The body, column, and neck seem to be made with two kinds of mahogany. The soundboard is made up of several perpendicular pieces of spruce. The remaining strings were the original “gut” and tuning is accomplished with tapered steel tuning pins and very simple brass sharping levers.



The square heads of the tapered tuning pins


A tapered tuning pin and a threaded sharping lever

Before re-stringing, I extracted all of the steel tuning pins and brass sharping levers for rust and tarnish removal. The harp tuning pins differ from zither pins in that they are tapered rather than threaded. They are friction fitted through tapered holes in the neck rather like violin pegs. They hold by being pushed or wedged into the holes while being turned to tighten the strings. They are pretty reliable and being made of steel, cannot swell and seize with humidity as violin pegs often do.


The sharping lever pushes against the string to raise the pitch a half step.

dsc05954The  brass sharping levers are blade-like pins that are threaded into the neck adjacent to each string. The string array on this harp is open tuned to the diatonic scale for the key of “C” (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C…). To play a song in the key of “D” for example, would require an  F# and a C# in the scale. The levers adjacent to the C and F strings are turned into the strings bending them just enough to raise their pitches a half step to C# and F#.

The harp arrived missing several strings with the survivors being a mixed up bunch of plain and wound gut. Modern harps are usually strung with steel or tempered nylon. Each has its own unique sound and tension characteristics but since the original strings were gut, I chose to go with nylon. String diameters range from .050 inch for the longest string (C3) to .028 inch for the shortest string (B6). The strings ends are knotted, threaded through holes drilled in the center strip of the soundboard, and held by tapered wooden string pins. As with gut, nylon strings stretch a lot at first and require frequent tuning until they hold the proper pitch.


Where was WHBIT?


My last two posts here on “What’s He Building In There” were in May and June. I apologize for my absence but it was somewhat planned. I wanted to take some time off from the workshop to do some other, summer things. I caught up my orders, promised new ones for the fall, took a couple trips, and tackled some long neglected home projects.

dsc05841The hottest summer on record found me moving tons of gravel, topsoil, and mulch with a shovel and a wheelbarrow,  as well as painting, framing, glazing, and siding various projects around the house. I also refurbished our small fish pond and fenced a new veggie garden near the house.






img_0676Mrs. WHBIT and I got away on a couple of camping trips in our “teardrop camper” most notably to the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering in Newport, Pennsylvania. We had missed a couple of years so it was great to see old friends, meet new ones, jam in the campground, and hear amazing autoharp players.


photo-5Finally, before heading back to the workshop, we traveled to the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. Dingle is a small fishing/harbor town on the southwestern edge of the Republic and the western bit of Europe that is closest to Ohio. Besides the beautiful green countryside and the ancient Irish history,photo-7 dsc05842we are drawn to Dingle for the music.photo-3dsc05851




It’s a small village with less than two thousand permanent residents but has, I’m told, over fifty pubs. Some of Ireland’s greatest musicians perform there and it’s grand crawling from pub to pub, drinking a pint (or three), listening to the music, and enjoying the “craic”.photo-2-1



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:  http://luth.org/plans/instrument_plans.html

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:  http://www.harpkit.com/category/autochordplans.html

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: http://www.melbay.com/Products/99361/autoharp-owners-manual.aspx

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.