On 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.
A 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).
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.
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.
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 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.