Buying A Used Harp
Collected and edited by Joyce Rice
What to Look For When Buying a Used Harp
When I had grown up and was ready to buy a larger
pedal harp than my parents
had been able to afford, I called the only harp company I knew, Lyon & Healy,
and asked “Do you have any used harps?” They replied, “We have one, a
Wurlitzer Starke Model Orchestral Grand.” “How much?” “$2,500.”
“I’ll take it.”
This was in 1965. It’s still my only pedal harp today.
Fourteen years later, when I decided to start teaching,
I knew I needed some student harps. Where to find them? I opened the yellow
pages and started calling music stores. Long story short, after following
leads to stores and harpists, I found eight Troubadour
lever harps in one
weekend (in 1979 most of the other now famous small harp makers hadn’t even
started yet). All were in various conditions, but playable, so I took
what I could find.
I wouldn’t advise you to buy your personal harp the
way I did, and probably today you wouldn’t feel that you had to take poorly
maintained ones to begin teaching, as there are so many harps around now. After
reading this article you won’t have to just trust to luck.
I’ve contacted harpmakers and repairers and harpists to
get their input on what you should look for when you’re thinking of buying someone
else’s harp. Those who responded are: harp restorer and builder
Howard Bryan; harp tech and regulator
Karen Rokos; harp builder
and repairer Carl Swanson; master
harp technician Peter Wiley; and
harpist colleagues/Harp Spectrum committee members John Carrington,
Patricia Jaeger and Patti Warden.
If you don’t care to read this whole article,
here are some basic guidelines.
Lever Harp: you would like a reasonably
straight column, a fairly flat soundboard, and no visible cracks inside (use
a flashlight) or outside. You want the levers to make accidentals without
sounding out of tune (use an electronic tuner to check).
Check the functioning of the levers for tone – is
the quality of sound about the same when the levers are engaged and disengaged?
Accuracy – check with an electronic tuner to see if the strings stay in tune
from natural to flat or natural to sharp. The latter can be readily
You may want to replace the strings, which
can run you a couple of hundred dollars depending on what kind and how many
you buy. You will want to play the harp and hear it played by someone else
to see if you like its sound.
Parts of the Lever Harp; used with permission
Sylvia Woods Harp Center
Pedal Harp: as with the lever harp,
you would like a reasonably straight column, a fairly flat soundboard, and no
visible cracks inside (use a flashlight) or outside. Be sure the discs engage
the low strings by putting the pedals in the lowest notch and checking that
the strings are not “falling off” the pins of the discs. If they are,
the neck needs to be replaced.
Pedals: You want all the pedals
to work and to move smoothly with no clicking, and you want them to make the
accidentals in tune – check all the octaves with an electronic tuner, in flat,
natural and sharp. If the pedals are working quietly and smoothly, the
tuning can be fixed by getting the harp regulated by a
harp technician. You don’t want to hear buzzes in the harp, though
these, too, may be fixed.
You will want to play the harp and hear it played
by someone else to see if you like its sound. You may want to replace the
strings, which can run you up to four hundred dollars depending on what kind
and how many you buy.
If you want to investigate the harp in much more
detail, please continue reading.
Anatomy of the Harp,
from A Guide for Harpists
by Carl Swanson
Thoughts Before Starting the Search
(This is primarily about pedal harps, but some information
could apply equally to lever harps.)
Karen Rokos: “Finding
a good used pedal harp can be tricky and time-consuming. Many people looking
for a pedal harp see the prices of the new harps and assume that buying a used
one will save them several thousands of dollars. It seldom turns out this way
in the long run. You can find a good used harp, but you need to know the facts
about pedal harps, what to look for and what to ask the seller.
“Before you start looking for
a used pedal harp, you should think about what you need the harp to do for you.
Do you only need the harp for a couple of years? What's most important, the
sound or the appearance of the harp? Do you just need a decent practice instrument
or will this harp need to perform at high professional standards? Having your
goals in mind can help you make a better decision about what harp to buy and
stay focused on your needs.
“Don’t even consider buying a pedal
harp [unless you have money for repairs] if:
- There are two small holes in the front of the soundboard just behind where
the column meets the soundboard.
- You see a large jagged crack in the veneer on the neck.
- There is a large gap (you could stick a pencil into it) between the back
of the baseboard (the platform the column sits on), the bottom edge of the
body and the top edge of the base. The gap will be worse on the side near
the D pedal.
- Any of the pedals or action parts do not work.
- Several of the sharping discs in the lower row of
discs are touching the
string at the very end of the disc pins or not touching at all.
- There is any evidence or an admission from the seller that the harp has
- You jiggle the pedal near the middle notch and the
action makes loud clicking
- There is a crack in the soundboard running parallel to the strings that
is visible on the back (inside the harp) of the board.
- The harp has many strings missing and it seems as if they have been
missing for a number
of years. [The added tension of new strings might cause cracks.]
- There are lots of deep cracks on the back of the soundboard and lots of
places on the body where seams are separating badly.”
Cautions About The Older Pedal Harp
Karen Rokos: “Probably
the most important thing to know about pedal harps is that unlike other string
instruments, pedal harps do not last 300 years. Due to the stress of 2,000 lbs.
of pressure placed on the frame of the harp by the strings, pedal harps usually
have structural problems by the time they are 40 years old. If the harp has
been played and moved a great deal, this could happen even sooner. Also, the
action is riveted together and these [rivets] wear out, leaving the harp sounding
like an old manual typewriter when the pedals are moved. Pedal harps can be
rebuilt, but this is quite expensive (about $6,000 - $12,000) and even the best
may only buy you another 15 years of service from the harp.
“In my work as a professional
Harp Technician I've had many calls from new owners who tell me how they just
got a "great deal" on an old pedal harp. They fell in love with it because it
was "so pretty and sounded great" but now one of the pedals is not working right.
I often end up giving them the news that there is little I can do for the harp,
it needs to be rebuilt. Now they can add $8,000 for the rebuilding work to the
$11,000 they paid for the harp, and they may get only fifteen years out of the
harp for their $19,000 investment.”
Examining The Harp
If you are new to the harp, it’s a good idea to have your
teacher or someone else familiar with harps evaluate and play your prospective
finish crackled? Gilding (gold-leaf) original, re-gilded or painted over?
de-lamination (veneer separating from wood underneath)?
Size: Can you move it a
few feet, or is it just too heavy?
Age: Using the serial
number, determine its age with the harp builder. Older isn’t necessarily
better with harps.
Finish: Any large cracks
Fairly straight? Actually, a newer harp’s column may lean slightly to the
left as you’re standing in front of it.
Neck: Is the neck warped
or bowed? Are the low strings close to the end of the discs? Howard
Bryan suggests: Examine the neck from behind the harp. If there
is significant warping it is easy to see as one sights down the neck to the
straight column. If there is obvious warping, put the C pedal in sharp and
see how the 5th octave C# engages the string. There should
be a minimum, of 1/8 inch between the string and the end of the disk pins.
Less engagement will lead to regulation problems.
Soundboard: Is it bowed?
Some bowing is normal in older harps, but eventually the belly will increase
until the soundboard reaches its elastic limit and will break. Are there cracks
visible inside the harp parallel to the strings? Look for them with a flashlight.
Is there a separation at the base between the pedestal and the soundboard
(a gap where the board meets the top of the base)? More than 1/8 inch
means there will be some base frame repair in the future. Are there lots of
seams separating? Look for signs of delamination of the soundbox shell.
Base/Feet: Check for
finish and wood damage, glue failure or de-lamination, and that feet are firmly
Noises: Any squeaks,
rattles or buzzes? If so, first try moving the harp to a different room
to be sure the noise isn’t coming from something other than the harp. Any
noises need to be repaired.
Strings: Are there
many missing? Then you might have trouble when they’re replaced and
tuned up, as the pressure has been less on the board. Are there tiny cracks
in the soundboard at the place where the last gut and first wire strings meet
on the soundboard? As the tension at that point differs greatly, an
old board might have been injured when strung with new wires.
harp technician Peter Wiley says:
is the control of the harp's operation and maintenance
of that operation. The three primary purposes of regulation are to see that
the pitch control is correct, to eliminate buzzes, and to maintain the overall
health of the harp. It is similar to tuning a piano, but entails more mechanical
work. This is because a pedal harp has over seventy feet of moving parts that
change the pitch of the strings.”
Ask about the harp’s
frequency of regulation as harps, like cars, last longer when well maintained.
Check it by playing in various keys. If more than two years have passed
since the last regulation, get it done before buying, and see if the tech approves of the harp.
Good pedal felts probably indicate a recent regulation.
“Play something loudly, then softly, and note the effort required and the
perceived dynamic range. The greater the dynamic range and the less
effort required to get a true fortissimo the better, as long as the
instrument is not flabby and muddy sounding when played loudly.”
Check for noises in the mechanism. There should be no clicking- check when
holding each pedal near the middle notch, and move the pedals from flat to
sharp and back to flat. How do the pedals feel - stiff? loose?
They should move smoothly. Are the pedal felts in good shape, not worn
through levels of felt? This is an indication of recent care.
one in case a problem isn’t found until you get the harp home. Howard
Bryan: “One should insist on the right to return the instrument
for a full refund if any structural or mechanical problem occurs within a
reasonable time. A week should be enough time to get to know the harp
and discover anything important that may have been missed during the initial
inspection. Most dealers in pedal harps are honest, and most harpists
selling a used instrument are also, but these are complex instruments and
it is easy for even a technically competent person to miss something.”
Was it done where the harp was made or purchased? If not, you might
take several digital photos and e-mail them to the maker, who might be able
to tell if everything looks OK.
Karen Rokos says: “[If you have a Lyon
& Healy harp and the rebuild was not done there,] the
column block (the
asymmetrical piece at the bottom of the column that offsets the column)
may not have been reset. If you can’t confirm that this critical part
of the rebuilding work was done, don’t buy the harp.”
She continues: “The term “rebuilding” in harp
repair may have the same number of definitions as the number of people whom
you ask, but I’ve always understood it to mean the following:
“Full rebuild: New neck, rebuilt baseframe
(should include resetting the column block ) action re-riveted and possibly
the soundboard replaced.
“Partial rebuild: may include just one
of the above frame parts being replaced and the action re-riveted.
“Resetting the column block: very few
harpists know about this and they won’t be able to make a fully informed
choice about where to get their harps rebuilt, buy a used harp or even a
new one without this critical information. If you stand facing a well-built
new harp, you will notice a very slight lean to the left in the vertical
orientation of the column. Now, if you look at the last “ring” or platform
that this column is sitting on, you will notice that it is asymmetrical,
built a little higher on the right and lower on the left. All of this is
done to help the frame resist warping from the string tension over time.
“(Personally, I would not even consider buying a new
harp whose column is absolutely vertical when it is new!)
“When a harp is rebuilt properly, the column block
is reset to give the harp the advantage of the offset column to help the
rebuilding work last longer.
“It is CRITICAL for a person shopping for a rebuild
that includes rebuilding the baseframe to know that the quote must include
the cost of resetting the column block. This is a high-skill, labor-intensive
job that usually adds about $1,000.00 to the repair bill. If this step is
not done, the harp’s frame will likely warp in a very short time. When I
worked at the Lyon & Healy factory for my technician training, I spent some
time with the people who do this work. They told me that they frequently
see harps sent to them for a second rebuild only three or five years after
the first one was done because whoever did it left out the column block
reset just to make it look like their quote for the rebuild was lower. They
ended up wasting thousands of dollars having much of the same work done
a second time!
“It is entirely possible that there are service providers
out there who don’t even know how to do this part of the repair properly.
I don’t know how one would find out if they did or not. I am having my 23
rebuilt right now. I did not even consider sending it to anyone except Lyon
“The bottom line is that there are good used harps
out there that have been properly rebuilt. That’s why I suggested to people
that if they can’t confirm that the column block was reset, just keep moving.”
Peter Wiley adds the following:
“The main reason for setting the column to lean slightly to the
player's right is to have the strings at a right angle to the soundboard
- the strings will be pulling the soundboard straight upwards. You see,
the strings are wound on one side of the neck. When a column is straight
that puts the center of the neck over the center of the soundboard. When
the neck is centered over the soundboard the strings (at the neck) are
not. Thus the strings are pulling not only upward but also off to the
player's left. This angular, uneven pressure can cause the soundboard to
crack. Nearly all of the soundboards that I have seen that have had a
final, failing crack have failed parallel with the center strip, on the
player's right side and in the fifth octave.
“Note the “right side” in that statement. Since the strings are on
the left, as the harp ages the column will naturally warp to the left.
When repairing or rebuilding it is important to consider resetting the
column block to cause the top of the column to be in a position that has
the strings pulling it straight upwards.”
Howard Bryan has permitted us to use his checklist
that might be helpful to take along when you’re evaluating a used harp.
Top and bottom blocks
** This refers to Teflon bushings that were used in Lyon
& Healy harp mechanisms from 1961-1986, or roughly from Serial Number 5120 through
10124. The reason for using the plastic bushings was to reduce friction in the
mechanism and get a smoother action, which they have done, but when the
plastic has eventually worn out they are difficult to replace, and Lyon & Healy
has removed and replaced the linkages.
How much should you pay?
Any of the negative conditions detailed in this article
might give you reason to counter-offer a lower price for the instrument you’re
thinking of buying, as repairs could be in your future if you buy it. One place
to get an idea of today’s price range is in the
Harp Column online classifieds,
where you can get an idea of the range of prices for your type/age harp.
Patricia Jaeger suggests that if you want to dig
deeper, you could try to find the year it was built by calling the company and
quoting the serial number. The company might know its original selling
price or some people have price lists from over the years (Pat has years of
Lyon & Healy and Salvi, dating from the 60s.) “With as much data as possible,
and allowing that moneys have changed value, one could have a perspective on
whether to make a counter-offer. Perhaps the seller would take a bit off if
there is an obvious flaw, or if the age of the harp means a limited use before
major repairs would be needed.”
Pat continues, “I’ve bought several harps from other states
unseen, using escrow. The seller authorizes (sometimes for a nominal fee)
a bank officer to receive a check from a buyer. The check arrives at the
bank. The seller then ships the harp. The buyer receives the harp
and if it seems as advertised, lets the bank release the check to the seller.
Both parties are protected. If the harp does not please the buyer he ships
the harp back to the owner and gets the check back.”
If you are new to the harp, don’t buy a used one
without having someone look at it – a harp technician or even a teacher.
If you locate a harp some distance away and don’t know whom to call, email Harp
Spectrum and we’ll look in our harp directories for a teacher or player in that
For more information
Salvi Harps has published a brief, informative owners manual covering a
range of basic harp care topics including cleaning, moving, stringing, and
maintenance schedules. Much of the information contained is applicable to
other harps as well. You can find it
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