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 ( ) for $2.75 each. Since I build and repair many autoharps, I buy felt in 25′ rolls for around $45 from Bob Lewis ( ) or Pete Daigle ( ). 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.

Installing the strings

The new strings are packaged in 36 individual  envelopes numbered from the lowest bass string, #1, to the highest plain string, #36. I polish the metal wire bridge caps and then hold them in their proper place by first stringing #1 and #36. All of the tuning pins  have been adjusted to the same height by turning them in or out so that about a 1/4″ of the threads are showing above the top and  all the string holes are aligned  to receive the strings. 

Each new string is looped on the hitch pin, hand stretched past the bridge pin, pushed through the hole in the tuning pin, and then snipped off 2″ beyond the pin. Using needle nose pliers, a small hook is bent at the very end of the string which wraps around the pin so it is less likely to snag that Father’s Day tie. A properly trimmed and hooked string end should make a tidy coil on the tuning pin in three complete turns. The string should be seated on the bridge cap and there should be enough height from the autoharp top to the bottom of the coil so that the tuning pin can turn in deeper as the strings are tuned.

Installing all of the strings has taken about 1-1/2 hours of measuring, coiling, checking alignment, and making sure that the loops are seated. What follows are hours of careful tuning by increasing the tension in increments and spreading the load evenly over the instrument. The pitch is raised in the reverse of the way it was de-tuned, that is, tuning all the “C”s then “C#”s and so on. 

More about autoharp strings

Autoharps and their stringsets are “scaled”. Scaling is a lengthy design process that really stretches my cognitive abilities, usually leaving me with a high gauge tension headache. I don’t even want to cross that bridge so I’ll leave it to the experts. Simply explained (Ha!), scaling involves sizing the string length and diameter to pitch and tension. Properly scaled and tuned to pitch, all of the strings on the harp will be at nearly the same tension so that they all feel about the same, none too floppy or too stiff. Much of this design is accomplished by tweaking the mass of the string in a given position. The higher pitched plain strings have a smaller diameter and the lower pitched strings are overwound to a greater diameter.

This old black autoharp now has thirteen wound strings in the bass section, one more than before. I did not compare the original 36 string diameters with those in the new set but I believe the better quality Fladmark set has improved scaling across the harp that will make it play and sound better.

There are charts available that designate the plain wire sizes required for strings #14 through #36 and I have on occasion made those strings by looping the proper size piano wire (which I purchase bulk in coils). Loop end guitar type strings will also work. The wound bass strings are another matter. They must be custom made by tightly winding  a softer metal wire around a steel core wire in such a way that the windings are within the speaking length of the string and do not cross the bridges. If the thicker wound parts crossed the bridges the tops of those strings would be higher than the tops of the plain strings and would cause damping and picking irregularities. Substituting wound guitar type strings does not work because they are wound their entire length. Sometimes, as a temporary replacement for a broken wound string I have removed a portion of the winding at both ends of a guitar string with limited success. The remaining winding is usually loose and noisy.

Autoharp Strings

A question I often hear is “How often should autoharp strings be changed?”. I have heard  luthier George Orthey answer that question as follows; ” If you only get the harp out at Christmas to sing “Jingle Bells”…Never! If you play a lot …. change the wound strings every two years and all of them every four years.” ( I hope I reported that correctly). Wear, fatigue, dirt, and oily fingers all do their mischief on these high strung singers and your mileage will vary but 

loop end style "A"

you will almost always benefit from timely string changes.

I have discarded the old strings so as I install new ones I’ll describe the process.

This old harp  with hitch pins  requires the looped end string set  called “Model A”.  Newer harps with slotted metal anchor bars and those fitted with fine tuning systems require the lug/ ball ends called “Model B”. Autoharp strings are available from the Oscar Schmidt company but I believe that the finest are made by autoharp luthier Tom Fladmark ( in Pennsylvania. A set of 36 precisely gauged and scaled strings costs around $65 and can be purchased directly from Tom, many other autoharp luthiers, or Elderly Instruments (

The Sinister Autoharp

That sounds scary doesn’t it? Can you hear the creepy chord progressions? I remember from way back in my high school Latin classes ( I think  Latin was still spoken then )  that ” sinister” is the Latin word for left or left hand. I’d now like to explore right and left hand orientation as it applies to autoharps. This comes about as I finish building the latest cigar box autoharp which is left handed.

You might note that its layout differs from the others on this site. Its owner is pursuing music as a therapy for  spinal cord injuries  he received in an accident. He reports that since the injury, everything is “upside down and backwards”. His right hand functions normally but  he has weakness in his left hand and arm. He plans to play his CBA on his lap chording with his left hand and picking with his right. In a standard layout I could have moved the chord bar set up a bit to allow strumming below the bars. This was the way autoharps were played for years before the more modern custom of hugging them in an upright position. Playing closer to the bridge where the strings feel stiffer yields a harsher tone and some unpleasant pick noise. Most of us prefer the more mellow, sweeter tone produced when picking nearer to the middle above the chord bars.

In the usual layout the player can chord with the left hand and pick in the “sweet spot” with the right but it becomes necessary to cross the hands. For some of us this can be ungainly and lead to playing inaccuracies. By reversing the orientation of the harp  and keeping the strings in the same order (bass closest, treble farthest ), we’ve created a “sinister autoharp” that can be played without crossing hands or played left handed in an upright position.

Left handed autoharps are not  uncommon. I have never seen a factory made “lefty” but I and most other luthiers will make them on request. I favor playing my reverse instrument in the traditional way on my lap for comfort. A left handed player can play a “sinister autoharp” with dexterity.

left handed autoharp

standard right handed autoharp

Cyanoacrylate and tuning pins

Last April (Fool’s) 1st I posted (chuckle! chuckle!) advertising my “WHBIT Replacement Tuning Pin Holes” which promised to magically repair the loose tuning pins that render accurate tuning an exercise in frustration. The WHIBIT hole idea is preposterous but in most cases the frustration is real. In the “Old black autoharp” topic I have described shimming pins to make them tighter but what can you do when taking the instrument apart isn’t an immediate option?

As a piano technician encountering loose pins, I have had many opportunities to “save” instruments where proper repair or rebuilding has not been an option because of expense or time. These same procedures can be applied to the zither pins of an autoharp or hammered dulcimer to extend the life of the instrument until a better alternative can be found. In many cases , a liquid pin treatment has had permanent success.

Homemade pin block restorer

Very old piano tuner correspondence school texts implore students to guard this trade secret formula. Sorry! but here it is. Mix well a 50/50 solution of isopropyl alcohol and glycerin. Use a dropper to apply as much to the base of the pins as they will absorb. Wait a week and tune. The alcohol eventually evaporates and the glycerin remains. Being hygroscopic, the glycerin absorbs moisture from the air which swells the wood making the pins tighter. For years this was all we had and it actually works quite well  improving with time. It is messy and can cause corrosion on pins and strings.

Instant Pin-tite

Sold only  to piano techs, it is an improvement over the homemade stuff in that it won’t cause rust and you can tune in 20 minutes or so.

Cyanoacrylate (super) glue

CA glue is amazing…and dangerous! The water thin variety available from hobby shops and hardware stores has really changed how we tighten tuning pins. After applying a few drops to the base of the pin, it wicks into the porous wood fibers making the surrounding wood harder and tighter but doesn’t glue the pin in a solid position. At the piano it works pretty much instantly  allowing me to complete my  tuning without having to schedule an expensive return visit. While not as effective as other methods, CA can be applied without removing anything and in many cases can be a permanent fix.

…and dangerous! CA glue’s speedy chemical reaction gets extremely hot and the smoke-like gas it sometimes produces is a nasty irritant to eyes and respiration. Sometimes the surfaces to be glued seem to absorb a lot of glue that travels rapidly through invisible seams and cracks to emerge somewhere far away. Without care, it is even possible to glue an autoharp to your forehead! To your forehead… don’t ask!

So, carefully consider the risks involved and the extent of the problem before trying CA glue on your instrument. By all means read and follow the safety warnings. Ventilate the area properly. Use a sharp bottle tip or a specially made pipette to accurately apply the CA keeping in mind that unsightly runs cannot be easily removed. Resist the urge to wipe off an excess drop with your finger and be sure to have CA glue remover at hand. Try the worst pin first and evaluate its improvement before going on. With care you can make a measurable difference in your instrument’s ability to hold tune.