Woods

Harps can be made out of virtually any type of wood, but it is important that the wood chosen be strong enough to withstand the significant pressure of the string tension.  Some harps are made from plywood (wood that is glued together in layers); some are made from solid wood; and some are made of both solid and plywood.

“It might seem to be stating the obvious that the stronger the wood, the better. But this is simply saying that some wood is too weak to resist warping, cracking, and splitting when the harp is brought up to tension. Likewise the finer the grain, the more the wood is able resonate, so the finer the grain the better. Some wood is so coarse that it is altogether unsuited for harp making. Most pine and fir wood lacks the strength to endure the tension the strings exert on the soundboard or to resist the warp and torque the neck and pillar must withstand. On the other hand, oak is immensely strong but the grain is so coarse (and often irregular) that it has a muffling effect on musical resonance.

Density is a different matter. It doesn’t go in a continuum of the denser the better or the less dense the better. Density of the wood certainly affects the harp’s characteristic sound but it is not an issue of good or bad, only different from one another. Dense wood has a very bright sound and sharp ring with a quicker decay. Lighter wood has a mellower sound and a more subtle ring with a longer sustain at the same intensity. Both are marvelous and one chooses the effect by choosing the characteristics of the wood” (Skeen).

Various woods produce subtle differences in sound and tone.  Some general characteristics of some woods used for building harps are:

  • “Cherry: a warm and sweet tone that is very pleasing and mellow. It darkens with age to a beautiful amber color.
  • Maple: a bright tone that is well-balanced with good projection and a strong fundamental
  • Walnut: a medium bright, clear, open sound, rich with overtones (Thormahlen)”
  • “Bubinga—deep and full bodied, with an authoritative bass and bell-like treble and mid range
  • Sapele—bright and clean, with a balance of warmth and depth
  • Koa—both deep and bright, with a strong but very smooth voice (Dusty Strings)”

The choice of wood for a harp is a mixture of aesthetics, sound quality, availability, and price.  Rarer woods are more expensive, but rare doesn’t necessarily equate to better quality when it comes to harp construction.   “There are three basic factors to balance in choosing wood: appearance, price, and sound. The first two are fairly straightforward. People will be drawn visually to a particular wood for many different reasons, and everyone has their own budgetary issues to address. Price relates to the scarcity factor of the wood… Sound, however, can be the hardest to pin down if you aren’t in a position to play and compare the woods first-hand. Because they all sound good, deciding which is “best” becomes purely a matter of personal taste and there is no wrong answer (Dusty Strings)”

 

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Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune. (Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)