Tuning for stability

DSC04259The tuning of autoharps, hammered dulcimers, bowed psaltrys, zithers, kanteles, lap harps and many other zither family instruments is adjusted and maintained by square headed, finely threaded steel rods called zither pins. Their threaded sections are driven into the undersized holes of the wooden pinblocks inside the structure of the instrument. Depending on the integerity of the pinblock, the tuning pins can sometimes be very tight with a lot of holding power. This is a positive condition but it warrants some care and a slightly different tuning technique.


almost useful


soft brass with little leverage


poor quality pot metal with poor fit

To care for the tuning pins, it is necessary to use a quality tuning wrench that engages the square heads of the pins at a variety of positions without excessive wiggle. It must be made of quality materials and shaped so that there is adequate leverage and control for fine tuning. Unfortunately, most of the wrenches we acquire with our instruments are disappointing if not downright hazardous. Most smaller L-wrenches and “clock key” style wrenches with square tips are cast with inferior metals and do not fit solidly on the tuning pins. Since they lack leverage and grip, their tips become stripped and they chew up the tuning pins.


Tuning wrenches with star tips

Don’t be tempted to buy or use those types of wrenches. You will have disappointing results and can risk expensive damage to your instrument’s tuning pins. Instead, acquire a “star tipped” wrench. Two types are readily available in music stores and online. One is a “T” type wrench and the other is a longer “L” type that resembles a piano tuning wrench. Both feature hardened alloy metals with a star shaped tip that firmly engages the pins at a variety of angles. They have longer handles that make them easier to control even very tight pins.






                                 Tuning for better stability

Zithers are very much like pianos only smaller. With my experience as a piano technician I have learned that properly “setting” the pins and equalizing string tension results in a more stable, long lasting tuning. The following techniques that I employ tuning pianos also work with zithers.

When turning a pin righty-tighty, two things happen that affect stability. A section of the string is drawn over the bridges and, in a tight block, the tuning pin twists. These forces briefly become part of the string’s and pin’s short term memories. Tiny kinks where the string previously crossed the bridges are drawn ahead and the twist introduced to the pin lingers. As these forces equalize, the string un-kinks and the pin straightens. When they do, the string is no longer in tune.

As a tiny kink in a string slowly relaxes, the pitch goes slightly flat. While changing the pitch of a string by more than a few cents, stretch it by pressing down on the speaking length with a finger or a narrow piece of wood like a popsicle stick. Check the tuning, pluck the string rather hard, and then check the tuning again. This will help ease the kinks, seat the string on the bridge, and stabilize the string tension.

When a pin retains a twist it is called “flagpoling”. The torque of turning it in a tight block actually bends it into a spiral. It takes a little time to relax into its former shape. To minimize this effect I like to use a long handled L-wrench. With its extended handle and wide swing, I can “bump” the pin with a wigglely/jerk that turns the whole length of the pin at once with less twist . I tune the string a few cents sharp and then wiggle it back to the target pitch which helps the pin return to its straight shape.


Autoharps left and right

I’m finally returning after another absence. A close family member has passed away and my limited time in the workshop has been spent  finishing up older projects and repairs. I’m back at it, building autoharps and working through my waiting list for Cigar Box Autoharps.


DSC04022In some previous posts I have described my one piece autoharp frame/backs carved out of a single piece of laminated pinblock. I built a tool called a “Copy Carver” to help me safely and accurately rout the inside pockets. The “Copy Carver” has been a success but, like much of technology, the latest acquisition soon  becomes obsolete.  A friend and fellow woodworker from our dulcimer club has offered to rout my frames with his CNC machine. The program he has written can rout the blanks that I provide for both left, and right handed instruments. His machine performs this previously tedious task with a great deal of accuracy and at a very reasonable price.


The “Lefty” is on the right, the “Righty” is on the left, and a back is in the front.



Chopping chordwool


DSC03868The new “lefty” has fifteen, 1/4″ wide cherry chord bars with the buttons arranged in three rows. The chosen chords are a common setup for this type of chromatic autoharp and are ordered like this:



C7         G7         D7     A7       E7

F        C          G          D        A

Dm      Am       Em     Bm    F#m

The four major keys here are “C”, “G”, “D”, and “A” arranged in the middle row with their 7ths adjacent in the top row and their relative minors in the bottom row. By centering the middle finger on a  major chord button, the accompanying chords in that key can be easily reached with the index or ring finger. To change keys, that same pattern can be moved a position or two to the right or left and the same fingering can be used.


DSC03864Premium chord bar felt is densely packed (not woven) and comes with “peel and stick” adhesive on one side. It adheres well but to avoid problems down the road, I apply contact adhesive to the bar and let it dry a little before applying the strip. For this type of chord bar holder, I trim the felt about 1/32″ beyond the end of the bar to eliminate noisy clatter.



Chord bar felt is cut to allow the notes of the chord to ring and to mute the rest. Each chord, of course is different and I don’t want to make any mistakes, so I work methodically by marking each bar on the inside end, applying the labels on the buttons, and returning each bar to its place in the holder. Sheets of labels for strings and chord buttons can be purchased from Pete Daigle.













A strip of graph paper with the string notes helps me mark the string positions on the felt. After placing the chord bar in its actual slot, I press it down and mark the felt with a fine point “sharpie”. This “F” chord has three notes, “F”, “A”, and “C”.  Starting in the bass with the tonic note, in this case  “F”, I make a light mark on the felt where it meets each “F”, “A”, and “C”. The process is repeated with each chord bar and its relevant notes, checked, and rechecked, before the cutting.

DSC03866At each mark I cut a neat little “V” notch using a sharp utility knife. Back in the holder, I check again to be sure the notch allows the marked strings while leaving the rest muted.









Oh, the carnage!

Left handed autoharp, a preview


This configuration can be strummed in the “sweet spot” with the right hand and chorded with the left without having to cross arms.

I’m putting the finishing touches on my new left handed autoharp and I’m eager to share photos for the folks who have been asking what it will be like. As I said in a previous post, reverse autoharps are difficult and somewhat expensive to acquire without placing a custom order with an autoharp luthier. Left handed autoharps from my workbench will also be custom orders with a (hopefully) short wait, but by keeping the design rather basic while retaining quality features, I intend to make them more affordable.


The fifteen wooden chord bars can be ordered in two rows or arranged in three rows like this one. After the chords are chosen and cut, labels will be applied to the fronts of the buttons.

The design is based on the old, traditional, black box Oscar Schmidt’s with quite a few improvements. It has the same scaling, loop end strings, and bridge style as the old “Model A “style autoharps but I reverse the pattern so that they may be played on a table or on the lap without having to cross the hands. Improvements include a deeper, one piece laminated frame and back, a solid wood soundboard, an improved string schedule, 15 custom chords with premium white felt, and some optional features. I’m aiming for all of this in a handmade instrument for just a bit more than the  price as an Asian factory made autoharp.




Black plastic chord bar holders with glued in springs. Premium white chord bar felt (this one not yet cut).

To do this I’m cutting some corners, but in a good way. Instead of wooden chord bar holders that are time consuming to make, I am using OS plastic holders with the glued in springs. they are cheap and not particularly attractive but they are stable and entirely adequate for their purpose. I do make the wooden chord bars to a closer tolerance for a better fit and easier action. With the most basic autoharps,  I intend to merely stain and finish the exposed laminated sides. Again, cheaper and less attractive, but OK. This new one features an optional cherry veneer on the sides.


Laminated backs are very stable and resistant to splitting. Small rubber feet will be installed on the back to elevate the autoharp when resting on a table.

The back is the bottom two or three plys (1/4″ thick) that remain after I hollow out the laminated frame. It’s maple that can be finished natural or stained. This instrument has an optional cherry veneer around the sides but the more basic ones will bear the exposed laminations. Veneer choices (at extra cost) will include cherry, walnut, and maple as well as more exotic woods when legal and available.














The chord bars will be cut to the new owner’s needs. The three row button layout is useful for a “Bryan Bowers” type setup where (and this is not always the case) the major chords are arranged in the center row, the 7ths in the top row, and the minors in the bottom row. This creates a comfortable, consistant playing pattern that can be shifted sideways by a position or two to change key.

A new left handed autoharp

The first project using my new Copy Carver is a left handed autoharp. Since posting about reverse autoharps, I have had so many inquiries that I have decided to make a few for sale.


A reverse autoharp

Reverse autoharps are not only for left handed players. When playing them on the lap or on a tabletop, the strings can be picked in the “sweet spot” with the right hand and chorded with the left hand without having to cross the wrists. There are other advantages as well. With the autoharp on the lap or tabletop, it’s easier to hear, to see what you’re doing, and it’s much kinder to your shoulders and arms.

Left handed autoharps are hard, if not impossible to find. I have never seen a left handed Oscar Schmidt or Chromaharp (except those awful “Carolers”) new or used. Most autoharp luthiers will accept custom orders but the $1000 to $2000 prices discourage many newbies seeking an entry level instrument. My goal here is to build a few high quality, basic, left handed autoharps with some limited options at around two-thirds the price of other luthier built autoharps.

Dense, laminated pin block is the best material for holding tight tuning pins and because it is so stable, it’s often used for the entire autoharp frame. The frame can be a single unit or of several joined pieces and is sandwiched between the soundboard and back. Soundboards and backs can be of solid or laminated wood.


The back is the bottom two plys, about 1/4″ thick.

No matter how carefully constructed with select, dry wood, there is always the risk of future cracks and joint failure. A one piece frame has no joints to fail and quality plywood is resistant to cracking. Instead of gluing a plywood back to a one piece laminated frame, I make the entire body as one unit by hollowing it out with my Copy Carver. This even eliminates the back to frame joint.



The hollowed out body while fitting the top braces. The sides will be covered with 3/16″ cherry veneer.

There are a couple of tradeoffs to this construction method. It’s time consuming and a bit wasteful removing the whole interior as sawdust instead of constructing the frame and back with multiple pieces, but there are no joints to fail. Many players believe a laminated back doesn’t sound as good or is as attractive as one made of solid wood. In my thinking, a laminated back sounds and looks better than a cracked one.


The “Copy Carver”


The Copy Carver is set up on two sawhorses. The carriage and table can be seperated and stored when not in use.

Today, I put my new Copy Carver into operation. The Copy Carver is the invention of Ed Walicki, a wood carver from Michigan, who developed it to easily duplicate three dimensional wood carvings and other sculptures. I made mine from his plans so that I can duplicate banjo necks, hollow out autoharp bodies, and custom manufacture large quantities of fine sawdust. To me, the Copy Carver represents an affordable, analog alternative to the CNC routers that are so popular nowadays. CNC, or Computer Numerical Controlled routers cost thousands of dollars and are just not right for a small shop such as mine. I like to think of my Copy Carver not as a CNC router but rather a P (pencil)NC router.


The stylus is guided around the inside of the model/frame while the router begins to cut the autoharp body.

The Copy Carver has a work table upon which are clamped a model of the item to be duplicated and a rough blank to be carved. A rolling “swing box” holds a powered trim router and a stylus in precise alignment. The carriage rolling on the tracks guides one axis while the swing box can be guided up and down and back and forth on the other two axes. Carving involves guiding the stylus over the model while the router precisely cuts the blank.

I have been making very stable autoharp bodies by hollowing out 1-1/2″ laminated maple  such that the pinblocks, sides, and back are of one unit with no joints to fail. It’s a bit wasteful but I think much less so than a finished instrument that could fold, warp, or crack requiring future repair. To rout the bodies in the past I tried to control a router by hand and the process was positively frightening. Now, the Copy Carver allows me to safely complete the task with less effort.

DSC03760My initial (r)outing with this machine is a left-handed, or reverse, autoharp made to play on the lap without having to cross hands. I’m routing out the inside of 1-1/2″ laminated maple to a final depth of 1-1/4″. That will leave 1/4″ (or two plys) for the back. The model is just some scrapwood framed into the exact inside shape that I will cut into the autoharp body. Later, I can turn this same frame/model over to rout an autoharp body in the conventional, right-handed configuration. The work is as slow  as the old way but at least I’m confident that I will finish the task with all or most of my fingers and eyes.

DSC03759The Copy Carver’s swing box is counter balanced with 15 pounds of barbell plates and fine tuned with a few handy spring clamps so that guiding the stylus and router is almost effortless. A screen door handle grasped with the left hand makes it easier to roll the carriage on the tracks.DSC03757

How to replace a wound autoharp string with a guitar string

Caitie from Amsterdam contacted me recently regarding her old German zither that was missing a wound string. She wasn’t prepared to replace the entire set and was doubtful that sets are even available. Can the string be replaced with a suitable guitar string? How does one do that?

DSC03646Ideally, an ancient string set should be replaced but what if availibility or expense is a problem? What do you do when an autoharp string breaks the afternoon before the big gig? A guitar string of the correct size and construction can be a quick, temporary fix until a proper string can be found and installed.


Substituting a plain (not wound) string is easy. Determine the correct diameter and use the same size guitar string keeping in mind if it requires a loop end or a ball end. The thicker strings with windings around a core wire are more difficult because they must be modified so that no windings cross the bridges. This can be done by carefully unwinding portions of both ends so that only core crosses the bridges. Most guitar strings aren’t made to be unwound so in doing so, the remaining windings can become loose and noisy. Here, I’ll describe how I successfully unwind and secure guitar strings.



The guitar strings winding is too thick to fit in the slot.

This Oscar Schmidt “B” model features bridge pins on the tuning pin end and a slotted comb on the tail end. It requires a ball end string but the thick windings at the ball are too thick to fit in the slot. I snip the ball and the thick bit off, unwind and expose enough core wire to twist around the ball, and continue to remove enough winding to clear the bridge when the string is seated in the slot (this hassle is mostly unnecessary for autoharps that use loop end strings).


The ball is removed and the winding unraveled.












A small finishing nail, inserted through the hole in the ball and clamped in a vise, makes it easier to hold the ball while twisting the core wire around it. Three or four turns will hold it and the ball can be twisted to tighten the loop. Leave a small tail on the core wire to prevent it from twisting loose.





The core wire is twisted around the ball and enough winding is removed to clear the bridge.








The end of the string is trimmed 2″ beyond the tuning pin.


The tuning pin has already been backed out three complete turns to accept the new string. With the prepared ball end seated in the slot, the other end is positioned around its bridge pin, pushed through the tuning pin hole, and held to hand tension. While holding everything in place, I snip the string off 2″ beyond the tuning pin and mark the winding 1-1/4″ below the bridge pin. The 2″ tail will allow three complete turns on the tuning pin and the mark is where the winding will end without crossing the bridge.



The winding is marked 1-1/4″ below the bridge pin.










Only the winding is cut, not the core wire.



Only a slight tap is necessary to flatten the last few turns of the winding.




I lightly score the winding where I marked it being careful not to cut the core wire. The winding is unreveled to this point.





I “peen” the last few winding turns at each end to prevent the winding from becoming loose.










With the new guitar string in tune, the windings stop short of the bridge pin. The new string will sound different than its mates but will fill the gap untill replacements arrive. Flattening the ends of the windings is usually successful but if they work loose, it sometimes helps to crimp them tighter with pliers or apply a small drop of CA glue to stop the buzz.




Continue reading

Make a “Speedloader”……for your fingerpicks!

images-3It’s a frightening scenario from an old movie. Hot lead is flying right and left. A dedicated lawman, trapped behind a bicycle rack, has already emptied his revolver and yet the remaining bad guys are closing in. There is no time to reload! If only he had a speedloader….

But wait! That’s only film fiction. Reality is even scarier…..

You are trapped with only a microphone between you and the restless audience. The pressure is building. Hecklers are lobbing (mostly truthful) insults right and left. The oily stage manager is fuming….”You are out of time!” Standing on their folding chairs, the audience is pleading, pleading that you stop murdering “That’s Amore” on your kazoo and play something nice on your autoharp.

Unbelievably it  gets worse. Where did you lay your fingerpicks? There! Oh no!, one rolled under the accordion! OMG I got them on the wrong fingers! That one’s not even mine! Hey! who stepped on this one?  “Will y’all just give me a minute?” (if only I had a “speedloader”).

I don’t know about you but I sure wouldn’t want this to happen to me. That’s why I made a “speed loader” and you can make one too.

images-1An actual speedloader is a fairly simple device used by law enforcement officers and shooters to quickly load bullets into the round cylinders of a revolver. They hold the correct number of shells in the proper positions for fast reloading.



DSC03254An autoharp (or banjo) player commonly wears a thumbpick and one to four fingerpicks that are carefully fitted to their respective digits. When switching from an autoharp to another instrument during a jam or a performance, the picks come off and on and must be parked someplace handy (usually a pocket) for the next switch. It’s all too easy to mix them up, drop them, or misplace them altogether.


DSC03255So, here’s my speedloader. It’s just a piece of foam with holes that hold the picks in the correct order and position to facilitate putting them on and taking them off without having to sort or even look at them. It will fit into your case. You could tie a string around it and hang it on the microphone stand, music desk, or around your neck.


You can easily make your own with a foam pool toy.

I got mine for free. I located an unattended child playingDSC03261 with one at the pool.

“Is that a cell phone on the bottom?” I asked him.

By the time he had surfaced, I was already in the truck.

You can also get them for $3 at Dollar General. Be sure to get one with the large hole. It makes it easier to grip your fingerpicks when you take them on and off.


DSC03262Start by cutting off a 1-1/2″ section. I used a saw but a serrated knife would also work.





DSC03264Cut the holes for the picks a bit smaller than the pick diameter so that the foam will grip nicely. I used a drill but a sharp knife will work. The fingerpick holes on mine are 1/2″ and the thumbpick hole is 3/4″.






DSC03267I used scissors to snip a short slot in the larger hole for the protruding part of the thumbpick.












There you have it, a fingerpick speedloader for almost no cost. That kid at the pool didn’t even notice the missing bit from his Super Whacky Noodle.









As I left “Happy Hour(s) at the Chord Bar” with “The Old Black Autoharp” tucked under my arm I remembered that in the first post of this topic I promised to address the instrument’s worthiness.  Why would I or anyone spend time and money on this frail and dusty old zither? What is the instrument worth? Wouldn’t the money be better spent on a shiny newer model with lots of chords and a pickup?

Oscar Schmidt autoharp #6011 was purchased on Ebay for $35 plus shipping. Around 11 hours of my expert attention and an expense of nearly $100 was required to return it to playable condition. It has a nice traditional sound and an improved playing action but  it was not a very good instrument to begin with. The workmanship (particularly the internal bracing) and wood of choice did not make it  very resonant or durable. The 12 noisy chord bars aren’t arranged in a logical order or position for most player’s needs, and by current standards it is quite primitive.

So, what is it worth? Probably…well… ah….$35.  Why did I bother?  Well, for several  reasons. Instrument repair and restoration is something I love to do and I wanted to see how this harp might be improved.  I have a fondness for these old harps. The old black autoharp is the instrument of the early greats like Pop Stoneman and Kilby Snow and I can think of them as I try to recreate  their sound and playing style.  Restored, Ole Blackie can enjoy his golden years in my autoharp stable contentedly munching premium chord bar felt and tuner batteries.

Ernest "Pop" Stoneman

Kilby Snow

Another reason for doing this is for folks who visit this blog with questions like “What’s it worth?” and “What’s it gonna take?”. This old harp had a little bit of every kind of trouble a harp can have and still be saved. For that reason it is a good example to anyone who wants to try this or understand why a luthier might charge as much as $300 (or more) to work their magic. Is it worth almost the cost of a new Asian harp to restore an Ebay treasure? probably not. What about the harp Grannie played for us every Christmas when we were kids? You bet!… just don’t interrupt her while she’s playing Angry Birds.


Happy hour(s) at the Chord Bar

As we near the end of “The Old Black Autoharp” job the final task is restoring the chord bars and reinstalling them on the harp. This part takes about three hours and involves removing the old felt, sanding and leveling the bars, installing new felt, and notching the felt for the chords.

The old original felt was glued to the undersides of the bars in blocks. They weren’t badly scored but they were hardened and of uneven thickness. Many were missing but I was able to see where they were so I could mark the bars where the new felt will be notched. I cut the old felt away with a utility knife and removed the glue with a rotary cutter. Next, I sanded the bottom of the bars with abrasive paper  glued to a flat steel plate.

With the bars all cleaned up I’m ready to apply the new 1/4″x1/4″ felt.  For small jobs, felt can be purchased in single 11-1/4″ strips from Elderly Instruments (http://elderly.com/ ) for $2.75 each. Since I build and repair many autoharps, I buy felt in 25′ rolls for around $45 from Bob Lewis (http://www.autoharpworks.com/index.html ) or Pete Daigle (http://www.daigleharp.com/ ). The felt is self adhesive and adheres OK  but I like to brush a thin coating of contact adhesive on the bar and allow it to dry a little before applying the felt.

I notch the felt in the positions that I marked using a sharp utility knife to cut a precise “V” over each open string of the chord. This leaves the felt in a continuous strip that won’t come loose like the old blocks.


The chord bar holders with the springs are fastened to the harp, the bars are returned to their original positions, and the notches are double checked. I re-line the undersides of the chord bar holder caps with craft felt to quiet the noisy bars. After a quick search for any left over parts I carry “The Old Black Autoharp” into the house for Mrs. WHBIT’s picky evaluation.