Introduction: Building a 35 String Paraguayan Harp
When I first listened to a clip of a harp being played on YouTube, I was captivated by the sound it made and I knew had to find a way to play one. Being someone who loves to build things, (and also someone who doesn't like to spend a ton of money), I immediately began to look for ways to build one myself! So, after a few months of work up in an apartment on the third floor, I built my first harp, a basic looking 26 string harp out of pine. It was simple. But it worked.
A year later, I decided I wanted to explore the harp a bit further, so over the course of a year on and off, I worked with my friend over the summer to build a thirty five string Paraguayan style harp, complete with a resonating sound chamber! This harp can play from C2 to G7 for a nice range of 35 notes. The timbre is nice, clear, and bright, and although the bass could be better, the sound quality is pretty good!
This is my first post since I normally just read around here, but I think this project should make an interesting read. I hope that with this Instructable, I can share some info on how to build a harp, share nice color pictures which may be of use to anyone who attempts it, and encourage others to build one too! There are very few resources online on this topic, so hopefully I can change that with this.
If you want to see pictures of the completed harp, you can skip to the last step.
Here is some audio of "Trip to Sligo" played on the harp:
I apologize in advance for the buzzes and awkward tempo, I'm not a great harpist quite yet!!
If possible, I'll try to upload a video with more audio sometime soon. Anyways, let's get to building.
Step 1: Expectations and Notes
This kind of project is not something I recommend for first time woodworkers, you should have experience using wood tools, as well as cutting, finishing, and sanding wood.
NOTE: You should only attempt this project after thoroughly studying the safety tips or better: with help from someone with experience who knows how to use power tools correctly. Woodworking can be dangerous if done wrong, but safe if done properly.
If you want to build this harp, understand that it is a major time commitment. This probably took me at least 50 hours spread out over a year, although that's because I'm usually very busy. If you have more free time, this could be done in a few weeks.
Nonetheless, those were fifty very rewarding hours! If I were to build another one, it would probably take half that time, since a lot of it was spent learning how to work with wood.
This instrument was built with instructions and plans from John Kovac's book, Harpmaking Made Simple. I am incredibly thankful for this detailed resource. Thanks John!
In respect to the author, I will NOT be releasing the plans or exact measurements in this Instructable. I spoke with Mr. Kovac and he gave me permission to write this post under these conditions. This Instructable is not a substitute for the book, but rather, a supplement, intended to show you the building process from my point of view. If you are interested in building a harp too, you will need the book from his website below:
Without any further ado, let's move on to the Preparation step.
Step 2: Preparation - Tools
You will need access to the following tools:
- Band saw
- Jig saw
- Table saw
- Drill press & drill bits (Hole saw and Forstner bit)
- Screwdriver (regular size and mini)
- Brushes, tarps
- Mini triangle file
- Electric sander
- Sandpaper of various grits
- Router or chisel
- A limitless supply of clamps (As many as you own will suffice too)
Turns out, Harbor Freight has lots of very inexpensive clamps of many kinds.
NOTE: I did not use a router, instead realizing a table saw can do the same job, however, a router makes cutting the dados a lot easier and I recommend it if you have one.
Again, PLEASE remember that power tools, especially the table saw, are dangerous if used incorrectly. Remember to study the safety instructions very well, and ideally have someone will more experience guide you.
Step 3: Preparation - Materials
Harpmaking materials are sometimes obscure, but I was able to source these from online and shops in person. I hope these links can be of use. This is what I ended up choosing for my harp:
- Pine boards for the sides, Home Depot (HD)
- High quality birch plywood for the neck and soundboard, HD
- Oak boards for the pillar, HD
- Metal pins/dowel, HD (I found that 5 mm steel pins from the hardware aisle work well)
- LOTS of wood glue, Titebond 2 is good
- Birch iron on edge banding, HD
- Stain of choice (optional)
- Finish of choice. I will elaborate on this later on.
- Harp Strings, Robinson's Harp Shop: http://www.robinsonsharpshop.com/strings.html
and also Markwood's Strings for the lower strings: http://markwoodstrings.com/
- Levers (optional), Harpkit.com: https://www.harpkit.com/universal-lever.html
- Metal eyelets, also Harpkit.com
- Tuning machines, https://www.cbgitty.com/guitar-instrument-parts/ci...
Like I mentioned before, the exact measurements and quantities can be found in John Kovac's book.
Step 4: Structure, Soundboard, and Back.
Paraguayan harps are characterized by the neck, which is hollow and made of two parts rather than one single part like most Celtic harps. This makes them more stable, meaning we can build them with lighter woods, not needing to withstand so much torque. I chose clear, knot free pine for the sides, oak for the pillar, and birch plywood for the neck and soundboard.
Purists will probably scoff at me using plywood for the soundboard, but really, the harp makes a great sound, which I can't complain about!
The first line of work is to make the sound chamber, made of two sides, with the soundboard and back board inserted into dados in the sides. Three dowels and six screws hold it all together.
First, cut out the paper templates, lay them out on the plywood, and trace them.
Then, cut out two pieces, one for the top and one for the bottom, using a jig saw. Cut just outside the lines; you can use a band saw to cut them exactly right later on.
Step 5: The Soundboard
Select one piece that you just cut out to be the soundboard. This is where the strings will be attached. When the strings vibrate, they will set the soundboard in motion, increasing the surface area of vibration, thereby amplifying the sound.
Choose which face looks best. This will be the visible face. Cut out strips of the same plywood and glue them along the backside in the center of the board. This wooden rib should provide support to the soundboard.
Then, drill out the thirty five holes for the strings to pass through. Consult your plans for measurements. These holes will house the metal eyelets, which improve sound quality.
Step 6: The Back Piece
The back piece provides structural support and also has holes for the sound to escape, as well as for you to insert the strings from the back. Take your second plywood piece and cut out various holes using a hole saw drill bit, making sure they all line up and are evenly spaced for maximum aesthetic!
Enjoy this pic of the board resting peacefully by a daffodil flower.
Step 7: Cut and Drill Sides
I used select pine from Home Depot for the sides. They are knot free and resonate surprisingly well. I was scared they wouldn't be able to handle the hundreds of pounds of tension of the strings, but in reality they work just fine.
The sides can easily be cut out with a jig saw. Clamp your work down well.
TIP: Make sure to use a fine tooth blade to avoid leaving excessively jagged edges.
If you have access to a tapering jig, it's much better to cut these on a table saw, but a jig saw and some sanding work will work too.
Then, in order to accept the three dowels which hold the box together, you must cut six holes in total: three on each side. These holes, however, must only go halfway down into the wood, so set a stop on your drill press. A Forstner bit is ideal for this.
The holes are supposed to be drilled at an angle to fit the dowels better, but that was difficult to do. If you have a drill press with a table that can tilt to angles, by all means do it, but if not, you can use your normal drill press -- just cut the holes a hair or two bigger. This is what we did, and it turned out just fine.
Step 8: Cut Side Dados
In order for the soundboard and back piece to slot into the sides, you must create a slot, or dado, which will accept the plywood pieces. The method I used was to set up the table saw with the fence offset the amount desired, and the blade poking up about halfway up the wood. You can then run all your pieces through. Although it would be a good idea to use a dado blade, I did not have access to it. However, the task can still be achieved if you simply move over the fence a little bit and pass all the pieces through again to cut the slot in multiple passes.
TIP: Make a test cut on a smaller piece of wood to make sure the dado you're cutting will fit the plywood snugly, with very little movement.
Two Options: You can choose to cut the slot so it runs along the whole length of the board, or have the ends stop just before the end of the wood. It looks better if the dado does not cut out the ends of the board, but it is more difficult to do. The way I did it was to turn on the table saw, butt the board against the fence, and with the tip of the board held a few inches further out than the blade, push the board directly down onto the blade slowly to start the channel inside the wood. Then, just push the rest of the board through like usual to cut the dado. Stop just before the blade cuts out the bottom end.
REMEMBER: This step has a lot of potential to cause dangerous kickback, so support the piece wherever possible!!
Alternatively, you can choose to rout out the channels on a router table, which is easier, but we didn't have access to that.
Now is also a good time to test fit all four pieces to make sure they fit! If not, take some time and sand them until they do!
Step 9: The Pillar
The pillar can be made from one thick piece of wood, or several thinner ones laminated together. I couldn't find thick wood, so I glued together two pieces of oak and clamped them for a day. This worked out well.
Use a harder wood for the pillar, NOT pine, because it will be receiving a lot of tension structurally.
Once the piece is glued up, use a jig saw or band saw to cut out the curved shape. You can use a belt sander to sand down the pillar to a smooth, pleasing curve shape.
TIP: Go slowly to avoid jamming the blade and causing burns, and cut just outside the line. You can always sand it to fit. You can never add woodback.
After cutting it out, drill out a hole, which the dowel will go through.
Step 10: Cut Dowels
Cut the three dowels to length on a miter saw or table saw with crosscut jig.
Oak or Maple dowels are best, really any hard wood, but I ended up using a pine dowel, which I really did think would break, but surprisingly, ended up working well!
When in doubt, it's better to cut the dowels too long than too short! Later, you can easily trim them to fit. We cut two of the dowels a good inch too short and had to go back and buy new dowels to re cut. Save yourself the hassle; measure twice, cut once.
Step 11: Neck - Cutting the Pieces
The neck is made of two sides, connected by spacers at the front and the back. I modified the neck design slightly by extending the right side of the neck down, to make room for sharping levers. By itself, the harp can play all notes in a C Major scale, enough for plenty of songs, but I wanted the extra room on the neck so that I might be able to add levers: small devices which shorten the length of each string like a guitar fret, so that I can play sharps and flats, and thus, play in other keys. On the pictures you'll notice I haven't yet added the levers. Maybe another day.
This is optional however, and you may choose to make both sides symmetrical.
Choose a high quality birch plywood for the neck. You want a piece with practically no holes or gaps.
First, cut the neck sides using your templates. First, rough cut them from a piece of plywood with a jig saw, then cut them closer with a band saw, and finish them by sanding the bottom ridges only to final shape. The other edges can be left rough for now.
Next, glue up various sizes of plywood to get the right height for the spacers. This height will be the distance between both halves of the neck. Once the blocks are dry, you can cut the spacers to their final shape.
Step 12: Neck - Glue Up
Next, stack the neck sides and spacers, and glue them together. Use many clamps.
Once dry, you can cut the rest of the curve on the band saw. By using this technique, both halves and the spacers can be cut simultaneously, ensuring they are identical.
Now, spend a good time sanding all the edges to match the pattern as best as possible. Use common sense: sand down the lumpy parts until you get a pleasing curve.
Step 13: Drill 72 Holes in Neck
Whooo this part is good: now you must drill 124 (!) holes in the neck! This is done in stages.
Think of it as therapeutic!
NOTE: You really do need to use a drill press for this part. You will be sad if you use a hand drill and all your holes are crooked. :(
1. Dowel Holes: 36 holes are drilled on the bottom edge of the neck, reaching halfway through the other side of the neck. These will hold dowels, which serve as one end where the string will be held, like a nut on a guitar.
2. Tuning Machine shaft Holes: 18 holes are drilled on each side to fit the shaft of the tuning machines. The tuning machine holes are placed alternating left and right so that they fit on the neck.
2.5. Tuning Machine enlargement holes: The tuning machines I bought had a strange washer around the base, so they didn't lie flat in the holes. I figured out that to make them fit, I can drill a larger hole just a hair into each tuning machine shaft hole to accommodate the washer. This worked well.
These pictures show the holes mentioned so far.
Step 14: Drill 72 More Holes in Neck
You thought we were done drilling? Wrong!
First, acquire a formidable army of 36 tuning machines. They should have a parallelogram shaped plate with two holes for screws.
Place 18 tuning machines in one side of the neck and move them around until their metal plates don't overlap. It's fine if the plates go off the neck, as long as you can twist all the knobs freely without overlapping, you'll be fine.
Now, drill tiny pilot holes for the 72 screws which will attach the tuning machines
Step 15: Edgebanding the Neck
Although some may say the many plys of plywood look nice, they soak up stain like a sponge, making terrible dark spots. The solution is to edge band the sides with iron on birch tape. If you have never done this before, look for tutorials online, there are plenty.
Step 16: Drill Neck and Pillar Attachment
The neck and pillar are joined by four metal dowel pins, as seen above. This type of connection is called a dowel joint. In this case, it's very important that the pins be made of some strong material like steel.
Drill the eight holes, and check that the dowel pins fit well before moving on.
Really, I doubt you need four pins; I think two would be fine, but it's up to you to decide.
NOTE: Don't drill the holes too deep or else you will not be able to retrieve the dowel when it falls in.
Step 17: Dry Fit the Whole Harp
Now is the time to fit together all pieces to make sure they fit correctly. This part takes a while because usually they don't fit immediately. You may need to cut out parts of the soundboard or pillar or dowel to make it all fit right.
It's okay to feel frustrated; this took us a few hours.
Just take your time and make sure the pieces connect without too much tension before moving on.
Now, you may drill 6 more holes through the sides, through which six screws will connect the dowels to the sides to seal up the box.
Step 18: Sanding Party
Now, sanding!! Sand every piece with progressively finer grits until smooth. An electric sander makes this quick work. When you're done, use a tack cloth to remove all sawdust to prep it for finishing.
Rougher sand paper leaves scratches that sometimes show up when you add stain and finish, so take your time and sand fully and completely. I guess you could say it takes determination. And grit. (I'm so sorry)
Use a respirator. Sawdust is surely not good for your lungs.
Now, the end is in sight!
Step 19: Staining
You may choose to leave the wood with its natural color or you can opt to stain it to a color you like. I really wanted a reddish brown color like rosewood, so I experimented mixing different stains on test blocks to see which one I liked best. If you would like to replicate this color, I found that a mix of 3 parts Minwax Sedona Red and 1 part Minwax Red Mahogany gave a color that was not too dark and not too light. Just right!
Read the instructions for the stain you buy. It usually takes a day to dry fully, and you should wait. Smeared stain is no good.
Here are some tips which I learned going through:
- Use rubber gloves and an apron when staining. Stain is really hard to wash off.
- Cover the walls and floor with tarps to prevent splatter stains. I cut up plastic garbage bags and taped them to the wall. This is cheap, effective, and easy to do if you don't have tarps.
- Use a respirator rated for organic vapors. Although I can't confirm it, I suspect the fumes aren't good for you.
- You can cut several small triangles out of wood to prop up the pieces you are staining. If you do this, then you can stain one side, then rest it on the triangles, allowing you to paint all sides without worrying about the piece touching the table and smearing.
- Always have a jar of paint thinner around. You can use it to clean your brushes and clean places you spilled the stain. If you spill on the wall, rest assured, it does come off with a paper towel dampened with drops of paint thinner.
Step 20: Optional: Fancy Veneering
Since I was modifying the neck to have a longer right side, I decided this would be a good opportunity to add a fancy touch! I chose to glue on thin wood veneer on the exposed area of the neck to add a strip of white wood that matched the soundboard. I picked up a pack of birch veneer from Rockler.
First, mark out the shape of the area you will veneer. I made a paper template. Next, decide how you will cut the shapes out. I decided to have the grain running vertically, parallel to the strings, so I went down, cutting various section of veneer to build up the full strip. I thought I would have to buy some special veneer knife, but I found that kitchen scissors do the same job!
Once you have cut the pieces, glue them on carefully by spreading a thin layer of wood glue on, pressing, and using pieces of blue tape as clamps, to hold down the veneer onto the wood while it dries. You can remove the tape after a few hours have passed.
TIP: Use just enough glue to moisten the surface of the veneer. You want to avoid too much excess squeezeout, which is hard to remove without ruining the stain.
Notice, this step should be done after staining the whole neck. This was by far the best way to do it.
Step 21: Finishing
Now, the end is near. You must apply a clear finish to protect the pieces, give them a pleasing texture, and make them look professional.
I wanted a glossy, plastic finish on the wood, so I picked lacquer, but you can research other finishes that work well on musical instruments. Ideally, the finish should be very thin and flexible, as to not inhibit the vibrations of the body, which would worsen the sound.
You can use brushing lacquer or spray lacquer, but I picked the brushing kind because it is a little cheaper.
My strategy was to tape off the edges of the soundboard and back, so that they could accept the glue easier later on. This worked OK.
Apply a few coats until the pieces shine in the light. Again, use a respirator, as lacquer puts out a lot of vapor, and use the little wooden triangles to prop up your pieces so that you can do all sides at once.
Lastly, I thought it might be a good idea to scrub in some finishing wax to make the surface very smooth and shiny; it's a real tactile pleasure. I highly recommend this, as it gives it that final touch of class.
Step 22: Assembly
You must now assemble all the pieces. Just like with the dry fit, put all the pieces in on one side. This time, however, fill the necessary areas with glue, to make a more permanent fit. The neck and pillar dowel joint should also be glued. For us, this joint was pretty tight, but with a few good whacks, the pieces came together.
Now, you may choose to add internal supports. We cut long right triangular prisms out of pine and glued them in the corners of the box to add extra support. It's still not certain how effective this was, but you can try it too.
Put in the six screws, and let the harp dry for at least a day for the glue to harden.
Step 23: Hardware and Stringing
Next, glue the metal eyelets into the soundboard. I found superglue to work well for this. Avoid clogging the eyelets with glue. This is the point when we realized the pillar covers the hole for the 36th string (B1). Tough luck. Although we couldn't get the full 36 strings, 35 is still enough to play basically anything we want.
Next, screw in the tuning machines, including all 72 screws.
Now, cut wooden dowels to fit inside the dowel holes, and pound them in. For my purposes, I decided that the dowels would be just long enough to go halfway into the other side of the neck, and stick out a few mm so I can grab them with pliers and move them in and out if desired.
Using a mini triangle file, file small channels into each dowel, close to the middle of it, to act a place where the string will rest comfortably without moving too much from side to side.
Now, you can string up the harp! Tie harp knots and thread each string from behind the soundboard, through the eyelets, over the dowel, through the tuning machine, and do the "twist" to ensure they will wind the right way. Then, hold the string taught one or two spaces over with one hand, while twisting the tuning machine and holding the loose end tight as well with the other hand, until the string is tight and secure. Snip off the loose end to leave a cm. and a half tail.
That paragraph probably didn't make a lot of sense... really, the stringing process is kind of complicated and hard to explain with only words, but there are already tutorials on YouTube which you can use. Although the first few strings will be difficult, you will eventually get in a rhythm and learn to string the other strings very quickly.
One essential video I used is the following:
Step 24: At Last, Completion!
Now, after tuning it repeatedly for a week, you are DONE!!! Hours of labor have paid off in a stunning, heirloom quality Paraguayan harp. You can now learn to play many simple tunes on your new harp.
I hope I haven't discouraged you with such a long list of steps; in reality each step is a pleasure in and of itself.
Don't build this solely for the end result. The true reward is enjoying the process of building ;)
I hope this guide can help people learn the basic idea of harpmaking, provide some new visuals, offer some new tips I have come up with, and possibly encourage you to build a harp too! It's certainly an intensive project, but it's an extremely rewarding process which will also yield you a beautiful harp, both in looks, and sound.
Thank you James, for working with me to build this great project, I had a great time. Really, this would not have happened without you.
And thank you Mr. Kovac for your indispensable resource which let me build this! Again, if anyone is interested in building this harp, you will need the details in the book: http://www.johnkovac.com/harpmaking.html
Musical instrument making is a fascinating opportunity to use physics, math, engineering, woodworking, art, design, and music all in one project. I highly recommend it.