Building 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
The 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
Musicmaker’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
For 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.