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


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


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.





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.















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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.




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