Build Your Own Autoharp

imagesBuilding 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

pl01The 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

The Autochord

autochordMusicmaker’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 

ResizeImageHandler.ashxFor 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A mahogany “lefty”

DSC05796The most recent finding from here at Lefty Laboratories is an all mahogany, left handed, chromatic autoharp built for a beginning player in South Carolina. It was ordered by her husband who described her as “petite and left handed” adding that she may play the instrument in either an upright position or on her lap. For simplicity and easier playing, she insisted that there be only twelve chord bars.  Because her husband plays music in a variety of keys, additional chords were provided that can be swapped in as needed.

 

 

DSC05811This rather traditional shaped autoharp is built with my one piece laminated frame and back, a solid  mahogany soundboard, matching mahogany side veneer, and a mahogany chord set.  Fastened to the back is a simple birch plywood resonator stained to match.

 

DSC05816The three row chord setup places the major chords in the middle row, the sevenths in the bottom row, and the minors in the top row. With the middle finger positioned over the major chord of the desired key, the index and ring fingers can easily reach the other  chords in that key. With the keys arranged in the “circle of fifths”, the same fingering pattern may be played by merely shifting the middle finger to another major chord in the middle row.

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The alternate chord bars reside in a little tray when not in use.

The twelve bars installed on the autoharp  are arranged in this pattern for the keys of “A”, “D”, “G”, and “C”. Additional bars were provided for the keys of “F”, “Bb”, and “Eb” to be swapped in as needed. You might have noticed that there are two “F” chords. Because of the pattern, “F” appears in the bottom row for the key of “C” and in the middle (major) row for the Key of “F”.

DSC05800The covers of the chord bar holders are attached with rare earth magnets and the chord bar springs are glued to their bases. Swapping out chord bars is accomplished by popping off the covers and changing the bars (without losing springs).

 

 

DSC05793I have discovered another left hand problem in our right handed world…. cases for the left handed autoharps I make. I have yet to find a “gig bag” type case that is not backwards and upside down in its configuration of pockets and zippers. I have found a more than acceptable but costlier alternative in the hardshell Oscar Schmidt cases.  I modify them by removing the inner triangular accessory pocket.

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A new maple and spruce “lefty”

DSC05666The latest finding here at “Lefty Laboratories” is another custom left handed autoharp that I made for a musician in Tennessee who owns, plays, and composes with a variety of left handed guitars and other stringed instruments. This will be his first autoharp and he wanted a large variety of conventional and unusual (to the autoharp) chords all contained within a twenty-one bar chord set. By his design, I cut and arranged the twenty-one chord bars in patterns that when pressed in combinations, can produce fifty-nine full and partial chords and six scales!

DSC05664This rather deluxe autoharp is built upon my one piece laminated pin block frame and back with a book matched  Sitka spruce soundboard and nicely figured curly maple trim. The tuning and bridge pins are nickel plated and dragonfly rosette adorns the sound hole.

 

DSC05671The maple chord bar set contains twenty-one very thin chord bars that were made by Michigan luthier Buck Lumbert. Fine tuning is accomplished with a set of Daigle Flat Line fine tuners, and the beautiful music can be amplified with the on board electromagnetic pickup from Greg Schreiber.

 

 

DSC05672Most autoharps can be found to carry anywhere between five to twenty-one chords. Many players are attracted to the range and versatility of twenty-one chords but soon discover that even that is not enough. Adding more chords may be accomplished by changing or swapping bars in the set, installing different sets, or owning several autoharps with different chord setups.

ScanThe owner of this new autoharp choose a different path. He designed a personal system  based on the “ultratonic” autoharps that have been around for some time. With this custom setup of twenty-one chords, he can squeeze out many additional chords by pressing two (or more) bars at once. For example, there is no “C” chord in the array but by pressing the “C7/6” chord and the “G core” cord together, a “C” chord can be played. The same “G core” chord can be played with the “A9” chord to produce an “Em” chord. In all, these combinations can produce fifty-nine full and partial chords.

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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.