A new autoharp

DSC05485Lately, much of my workshop time has been spent building left handed autoharps for the musicians who realize the advantages of that reverse configuration. Finally, (pun alert!) I made one right.

 

This new autoharp is built in the standard right handed configuration and will be played by its owner in the upright position, sometimes with a strap. It’s a 37 string chromatic, eighteen chord, with a Sitka spruce soundboard, walnut trim, and a dragonfly shaped rosette.

 

DSC05493There are several rather deluxe features. The back is fitted with a removable resonator and “snap lock” strap attachment.

 

DSC05489 Eighteen very thin chord bars were made by Buck Lumbert and allow for ample playing room at the high strings.

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Black oxide zither pins and Daigle Flatline fine tuners make for precise tuning adjustment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Showing the pickup strip between the chord bar holders before stringing.

Concealed beneath the strings and chord bars is an electromagnetic pickup that was ordered from Greg Schreiber for this 37 string instrument. The metal tabs on each end of the strip are held in channels that are milled on the undersides of the chord comb bases. Wiring passes through the soundboard to a jack that is imbedded in the curved treble side.

 

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A diatonic autoharp conversion (part six and final)

G-A-B-D-E-F#-G-A-B-C-C-C#-D-D

 E-E-F#-G-G-A-A-B-B-C-C#-D-D-E-E-F#-G-G-A-A-B-C

The 36 string, Oscar Schmidt 21-C has finally been converted from a standard chromatic to a two key diatonic in the keys of “G” and “D”. The new tuning schedule shown above lists from low to high the wound bass strings from number one, “G”, to number fourteen, “D”. The remaining twenty-two plain strings continue from number fifteen, “E”, to number thirty-six, “C”. This new tuning differs from the previous chromatic tuning in two significant ways. Notes that do not appear in the diatonic (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) scales of “G” and “D” will just get in the way so they aren’t invited to the party. Their absence  leaves room for some double notes in the center of the dance floor where the real party animals play. When playing melody, these note pairs are easier to strike accurately and they sound louder.

DSC05471With the change in tuning comes a change in the chord array. As the keys of “G” and “D” are adjacent in the “circle of fifths”, they share some of the same chords. These chords are arranged in a common pattern that can be played mostly the same in either key by shifting the fingers over a row or two. This autoharp has twenty-one chord bars arranged in three rows. Initially, only thirteen chords are needed along with two “lock bars”. The extra six bars remain felted but uncut until such time as other chords are desired.

 

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The plastic buttons can slide in the U-shaped chord bar to any position in the three rows.

Chord bars and buttons on these Oscars allow placing the cut chords almost anywhere in the array. The channeled bars can be swapped about on different combs and the buttons can be positioned in any of the three rows. The old buttons that are labeled with standard chords may be recycled but some labeled chord buttons aren’t included in the standard sets. For consistency, I purchased blank buttons from Elderly instruments at $1 each, and labeled them with peel-and-stick chord bar labels.

Most parties have their little cliques and our autoharp party with the “G”s dancing with the “D”s is no different. Everybody has a good time but there always seems to be those who don’t get on well with the other group. In this case you “C”s and “C#”s know who you are. Since there is no “C” note in the key of “D” scale and no “C#” note in the key of “G” they are locked out.

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The “D lock bar” button has a portion cut away.

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The “D lock bar” is engaged.

On this two key diatonic autoharp I have installed two “lock bars”. The “G” lock bar mutes the two “C#” strings and the “D” lock bar mutes the four “C” strings that are unwanted in their respective scales preventing those strings from being played accidentally. I modified old buttons for these two bars by cutting away a portion of their tops. A lock bar is engaged by pressing the button down and sliding/wedging the lower part under the plastic chord bar cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Engaged, the “D lock bar” mutes four “C” strings.

A diatonic autoharp conversion (part five)

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Chord bars with the old felt.

Now I turn my attention to the original chord set by preparing it for the new diatonic tuning. The 21 extruded aluminum bars are in poor condition. The felt, besides being the wrong chords for the new tuning, is moth eaten and heavily worn. Before I can install new felt strips I must remove all of the old along with the adhesive residue.

The original felt blocks are easy to break free of the bars but the old brittle adhesive remains. The tedious task of removing it involves soaking/heating the bars in very hot water and scraping it off with my thumbnail and a chisel. I use a stinky solvent called Goof-Off and 0000 steel wool to clean up the remaining glue boogers. A soft cloth and naphtha puts a final end to the old glue and leaves the bars clean and shiny.

DSC05233The chord bars are aligned on each side of the autoharp with plastic combs. On the end of each bar is a slot and on the opposite end a hole. These apertures must slide freely up and down on their combs. The holes in most of the bars were improperly drilled leaving sharp burrs that could snag on the combs. It was easy to deburr the soft aluminum with a file.

DSC05234With all of the bars smooth and shiny, I install new premium chord bar felt. I purchase rolls of felt in bulk from Aetna Felt Company but bar sized strips can be ordered here, from other autoharp luthiers, or Elderly Instruments in Lansing MI. The felt is peel-and-stick which works good on clean bars but I like to improve adhesion by first applying a thin coat of contact adhesive to the bars and letting it dry a bit before applying the felt. When I cut the strips a little long I can trim it back with a sharp knife when I cut the chords.

A Diatonic Autoharp Conversion (part four)

While I wait for the arrival of the custom string set, I prepare the autoharp body, install new tuning pins, and re-name them.

This modern style “C” has a multi-ply pin block frame and a plywood top/back that are painted with an amber/brown sunburst. After I removed the grime with a damp cloth and a little 409 cleaner, it seemed in pretty good condition except for some scuffs on the sides. Fortunately, it didn’t require re-finishing. I lightly sanded the abrasions, re-colored them with a matching brown aniline dye/alcohol mixture, and then applied a light coat of “Tru-Oil”. Later, I polished  the painted surfaces with a paste wax being careful not to get any in the open tuning pin holes.

DSC05235The note designation of each tuning pin was painted in white just south of each hole. In its former career this autoharp was a standard chromatic tuned from a low F2 to a high C6. The new G/D diatonic tuning schedule will require new names for more than half of the pins so I re-labeled them all. For this I used gold, peel-and-stick labels that were printed for this purpose by Judy Danzer. She no longer makes them but I think they are now available from Daigle Autoharps.

DSC05239The exposed threads of the original tuning pins were corroded and most of their heads had been mutilated by bad tuning wrenches. I replace all 36 with new nickel plated pins which I carefully drive into the holes with a hammer. Newly manufactured pins seem to have a light coating of oil to help keep them shiny. Since I don’t want even a little amount of lubricant to contaminate the pin block, I clean the pin threads with naptha before driving them.

A Diatonic Autoharp Conversion (part three)

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On the original bar, the ball end strings are hooked in the slots and then stretch up across the cap of the pointed bridge.

A “C” model autoharp like this  Oscar Schmidt has a 5/8″ x  9-1/4″ x 15/16″ pocket routed into the top at the anchor end for an extruded aluminium anchor bar. The bar is a combination  bridge and the slots that hold the ball ends of the 36 strings. It merely sits in the pocket and is wedged tightly in place by the lateral string tension.

I think that the anchor bar is quite a clever design. It’s light in weight and does its job very well… except when it doesn’t.  Sometimes it can creep up and even jump free of the pocket. That’s frightening when it happens but it can usually be re-seated, blocked, and screwed to the frame inside the pocket.

 

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On a conventional installation, the Daigle fine tuners are screwed to the tail end of the autoharp. A wood knee rest will cover the base plate and screw heads.

The Daigle Flat Line Fine Tuners aren’t designed as a direct replacement for the OS anchor bar. In a conventional installation, the back plate hangs over the end of the autoharp and is firmly screwed to the frame. A flat, brass wire capped bridge rests just in front of the aluminium bar.

 

 

 

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The precision base is screwed to the head of the Dremmel router. It makes it easier to guide the cutter and can be finely adjusted to control the depth of cut

To install the Daigle tuners in the OS  I must widen the pocket so that the new bridge will be in the same position as the old. I use my Dremel router attached to a Stewart-MacDonald precision router base to widen the pocket from 5/8″ to 7/8″. First, I cut to the depth of the plywood top and then into the soft wood below as deep as the base will allow. For the last 1/4″ or so of depth, I remove the material freehand without the base.

 

 

 

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A filler block is screwed to the front of the fine tuner bar to hold the assembly to the rear of the slot. The ends are painted black to make the maple less visible beneath the chrome cover.

 

 

 

Now, when the bar is positioned all of the way to the rear of the pocket, the flat, brass wire capped bridge will be in the same line as the original bridge. To fill the empty area of the pocket in front of the new bar, I cut a 3/4″ wide piece of maple and attach it to the bar with flathead wood screws.

 

 

 

 

DSC05211The new fine tuners with the the block fit snuggly in the pocket. This assembly should  work much the same as the old OS bar but I have concerns that it could fail. Since I cannot conceal retaining screws in the pocket, I am going to shim it tight and glue it. This raises a new concern. What if it’s necessary to remove the fine tuners for replacement or repair? Gluing doesn’t seem easily reversible. I’m spectulating that if anything happens to the fine tuners, say fracture or extreme wear, they will require a new replacement. In that case, the old is no longer useful and can be cut from the frame. That would be a “worst case” but I’m confident of the quality of the Daigle tuners and don’t expect them to fail unless the instrument is abused or dropped.

 

A diatonic autoharp conversion (part two)

Modern autoharps with laminated pinblocks are easier to tune and keep in tune. They are not perfect but their multiple laminations resist wear, fracture, and wood movement better than the solid, softer wood construction of the older models. Precise tuning with metal friction pins and a wrench requires a high degree of skill, finesse, and perserverance. Strings drift out of tune too soon, sometimes before a complete tuning pass is made. Even when we have achieved tuning Nirvana, we are soon reminded that nothing is permanent and even tiny changes can add up to disappointment.

Coaxing thirty-six or more strings into perfect harmony is daunting at first but it gets easier. We all learn little tricks, shortcuts, and procedures to a pleasing result but diatonic autoharps bring an extra challenge to the task. Many of the strings in the center octave are paired and tuned to the same note. The paired notes are tuned as precisely in unison as possible or they create audible “beats” that, simply put, sound sour. These paired notes require a degree of tuning percision that is sometimes difficult to achieve with friction pins.

Many players can achieve good tuning results with only a wrench. The rest of us can’t so that’s where fine tuners are mighty useful. They are a rather expensive option ($100 to $300 depending on brand and installation) but in most cases worth the cost.  Most kinds work basically the same. A small allen screw at each string anchor is turned to fine tune the string in the tiny increments that cannot be easily achieved with the friction pins. The instrument must still be tuned with the pins but the fine tuners are great for touchups and bringing string pairs into perfect unison.

For this autoharp conversion I will be installing Pete Daigle‘s patented “Flat Line Tuners”. They are made for new installations and “A” style autoharps but in a later post I will show how I modified this “C” style to fit. I could have just swapped out the old aluminium anchor bar for an Oscar Schmidt brand fine tuning system but I don’t like them. They are made of very heavy brass, they have too many small moving parts, and it’s difficult to keep the strings level.

Here’s a weight comparasion:

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The original alumunium anchor bar is 3.4 ounces.

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An Oscar Schmidt brand fine tuning system is a full 1.0 pound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Daigle Flat Line tuners with a bridge is only 6.1 ounces.                                                                              

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC05216At each string on the Oscar Schmidt tuners is a cam, a screw, and a lock washer. Turning the screw raises and lowers the cam (which is also the string’s bridge) to change the pitch. By and by, many of the strings end up higher than others causing damping issues. To install or change a string, all three parts must be removed from the anchor bar to thread the string through the cam.

 

DSC05219The Daigle fine tuners have only one moving part at each string, a set screw that presses against the string to change tension. Changing a string involves removing the screw, laying the string in the slot, and replacing the screw.

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Because all the strings cross the same flat bridge, it’s never necessary to level them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The many shortfalls of the Oscar Schmidt fine tuners have motivated autoharp luthiers such as George Orthey, Bob Lewis, and Greg Schreiber to develop similar systems with many improvements in quality and function. I like the Daigle tuners because they are lightweight and simple to use and install.

 

 

A diatonic autoharp conversion (part one)

I’ve begun a new project that I will post about as I complete the makeover. The instrument is an Oscar Schmidt model OS21C/R that began its life as a standard 36 string chromatic with 21 chords. The owner wants it converted to a two key, G/D diatonic with fine tuners, useful chords with lockbars, and new strings optimized for the new tuning schedule.

She’s been “rode hard and put away wet” but I will enjoy the challenge of giving her a new voice and identity, especially on someone else’s nickel. The process will involve modifying the frame for the installation of fine tuners, installing new tuning pins with shims, re-felting the chord bars and re-naming the chords and string pins.

DSC05203First, I removed the strings, the extruded aluminium anchor, and the chrome anchor trim. The tuning label won’t be relevant with the new string schedule so I warmed it up with a hair dryer and peeled it off.

 

DSC05205Curiously, the tuning pins were only driven into the frame a very shallow 1/4″. String tension had pulled them into a slant toward the anchor end distorting the pin holes. Their tops were chewed up from an inferior tuning wrench so I removed and discarded them. Later, I’ll repair the holes and drive new pins.

 

 

DSC05208The extruded aluminium string anchor bar on this model merely rests in a pocket. String tension alone pulls it forward wedging the base tight against the rear of the pocket. The forward edge forms the string bridge. I will be discarding this bar and have already routed the pocket (pictured) to accept the fine tuners.

The next post will concern installing fine tuners.

 

 

Two New Leftys

DSC05062I’ve recently completed two new left handed autoharps. Both are rather basic 36 string  chromatics, built with my one piece laminated pinblock frames, and featuring some available options. My goal here is to make basic left handed “A” style autoharps at a price only a bit more than new Asian manufactured autoharps (mine $600-$750). Extra options, accessories, and shipping can add to the cost, but I believe these are a good value for a hard to find, luthier built instrument.DSC05080

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Just the basics in the keys of “A”, “D”, “G”, and “C”.

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The optional magnetic chord bar covers lift off for easy bar removal.

 

 

 

 

 

First, a basic lefty with a mahogany soundboard and a twelve chord set. I made it for myself to try out a couple of options but sold it recently to a beginning left handed player in New York. The simple three row chord set up plays in four keys. With twelve chords, there is plenty of playing area at the high strings. I made extra chord bars so that when the present twelve chords seem limiting, different chords can be swapped in easily after lifting off the optional magnetic covers.

 

 

 

 

 

An additional option on this autoharp is a second back that serves as a resonator, for more tone and volume.

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DSC05083Next, Is a lefty built on commission for another beginning player who experiences pain and discomfort when playing her other autoharp in the upright position. A left handed autoharp can be played on the lap or on a table to considerable advantage.

Options ordered for this 15 chord instrument include a spruce soundboard, walnut side veneer, maple and walnut chord bars, a soundhole rosette, and Daigle “Flat Line” fine tuners.

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“Bondic”

Lately, much of my workshop time has been spent building left handed autoharps and most of that has involved designs and techniques that I have already posted about. So finally, here is something new.

DSC04920Today I installed a laser cut rosette in my newest instrument’s 1/4″ thick spruce top. The soundhole was cut to match the outside diameter of the rosette. Under the hole I glued a “donut”, a thin circle of wood that created a little shelf for the rosette to rest on. I wanted the thinner rosette to sit more or less flush with the top so it was necessary to shim it above the donut. To do this, I applied little beads of “Bondic”, a unique sort of plastic adhesive that I’ve been playing with.

DSC04922“Bondic” is much like superglue but instead of waiting for it to set up or misting it with a liquid accelerator, it hardens almost instantly with exposure to ultraviolet light. It can then be sanded, shaped, and even painted. Apparently it is nearly the same as the product dentists use to fill and build up teeth. So far, I have used it to repair chips in guitar nuts and piano keys, cracks in my old garden sprayer, and now to shim a rosette.

DSC04925This was very “squeezy” and fun to do. First, I squeezed small beads of the adhesive onto the underside of the rosette where it will rest on the donut.  Then I squeezed the little UV LED light to shine it for a few seconds on each bead. It hardened instantly so I could go around again to build each bead to the thickness I wanted. Lightly sanding the beads on a flat surface flatened them to a uniform thickness for a flush fit in the soundhole.DSC04926

 

 

 

 

 

 

DSC04929To make future removal easier, I will glue the rosette in the soundhole with hide glue or possibly hot melt glue.

 

A simple autoharp resonator

DSC04287Anyone who has played an autoharp, mountain dulcimer, or other stringed instrument that is is is held by a strap or placed on the lap has experienced the pleasant vibrations coming from the instrument’s back. “I can feel it sing against my chest”, is a compliment often payed to a well designed autoharp. The experience can be like hugging a purring kitty. The entire instrument vibrates and the back has a big effect on volume and tone.

Sometimes it is a problem when you take your purring kitty to a jam or performance that is dominated by a bunch of slobbery, barking dogs. Your quiet instrument cannot be heard and playing harder removes much of the control and subtlety that you’ve practiced so much to achieve.

A lot of volume and tone is lost when contact with the lap or torso absorbs the backs vibrations. Guitars, mandolins, and (especially) fiddles can be held in such a way as to leave much of the back free but with autoharps and mountain dulcimers, the player actually presses the the instrument against the body.

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Lois’ Galax dulcimer with a double back

A second back, fastened to the instrument with a small gap between, can make a noticeable improvement in volume and tone. Many mountain dulcimers feature double backs in their original construction. Some are merely placed on a temporary arrangement sometimes called a “possom board”. The double back allows the instrument to vibrate freely without the dampening effect.

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McSpadden’s “possom board”

 

 

 

 

I have fashioned a very basic double back resonator for an autoharp that I’m building. It’s inexpensive and can be easily removed for bare back riding. I cut it to shape with my bandsaw from a 12″ x 24″ x 3/16″ x 5 ply birch “hobby panel” that I purchased from Menard’s. After sanding and sealing it with shellac, I sprayed it with three coats of lacquer.

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The original bumper positions

I had already fastened four rubber bumpers to the back of the autoharp so I removed them to locate the 5/32″ screw holes on the resonator. The bumpers were reinstalled, this time on the outside of the new resonator and into the existing holes. To create a space between the autoharp’s back I used felt piano punchings as spacers but washers or small wooden blocks would work equally.

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Green felt spacers create a gap.

 

The new resonator adds only 3/8″ to the height of the body so the autoharp will still fit in its case. This autoharp has exposed and finished ply sides so the hobby ply matches nicely.  The panel could be easily stained to match almost any instrument’s appointments.