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Kit Review: Musicmaker’s Regency Harp

Kit Review: Musicmaker’s Regency Harp

Reviewed by John Calkin

Originally published in American Lutherie #69, 2001 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013

Regency Harp
from Musicmaker’s Kits

Decades ago, a mountain dulcimer kit provided my introduction to lutherie. Fortunately, it was a well-made kit that turned into an instrument that inspired me to try building from scratch. A while later I bought another dulcimer kit on sale for very little money. I took a few construction ideas from it, put it on a shelf, and eventually put it in the trash. In those days the quality of kits was very uneven.

Not so today. The kits I’ve reviewed in the past two years made fine, if at times unconventional, instruments. There are only two criteria for judging the worth of a musical instrument. It must produce a noise that pleases us, and it must make that noise physically available to the musician. Tone and playability are everything. The way that kit designers put the builder on the road to good tone and playability is often the most intriguing thing about them. Ideas are much easier to exchange than skills. We may have only temporary need of the kit maker’s skills, but the ideas we can keep forever.

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Kit Review: Musicmaker’s Regency Harp

Reviewed by John Calkin

Originally published in American Lutherie #69, 2001 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Six, 2013

Regency Harp
from Musicmaker’s Kits

Decades ago, a mountain dulcimer kit provided my introduction to lutherie. Fortunately, it was a well-made kit that turned into an instrument that inspired me to try building from scratch. A while later I bought another dulcimer kit on sale for very little money. I took a few construction ideas from it, put it on a shelf, and eventually put it in the trash. In those days the quality of kits was very uneven.

Not so today. The kits I’ve reviewed in the past two years made fine, if at times unconventional, instruments. There are only two criteria for judging the worth of a musical instrument. It must produce a noise that pleases us, and it must make that noise physically available to the musician. Tone and playability are everything. The way that kit designers put the builder on the road to good tone and playability is often the most intriguing thing about them. Ideas are much easier to exchange than skills. We may have only temporary need of the kit maker’s skills, but the ideas we can keep forever.

Kit building is fun. Instrument creation involves a fair deal of mess and drudgery. The opportunity to escape the grunt work is very appealing, as is the chance to develop some lutherie skills without first having to assemble a machine shop.

Another reason for trying a kit is that some instruments are so far outside of our past experience that beginning from scratch is simply too intimidating. Such is the case with the Musicmaker’s Regency harp under review in this article. There’s no reason that even a seasoned guitar or mandolin builder should be expected to have the skills or equipment to deal with the large timbers and complex shapes involved in harp construction. Scratch building a large harp is more akin to cabinet making and sculpting than guitar making. On the tuning cassette that accompanies the kit, Musicmaker’s head honcho Jerry Brown compares maintaining a harp to owning a pet. I’d go even further and suggest that owning a large harp is like keeping a pony in the house. Not as messy, but you’ll definitely be walking around it a lot.

Here are some figures that may impress you. The Regency is more than 5' tall and weighs more than 40 lbs. The 34 strings encompass just over 4 1/2 octaves and produce a combined tension of roughly 1,000 lbs. In curly maple the kit costs $1695, or $3295 as a finished instrument. Friends who are no longer fazed by my guitars are awestruck when they see the Regency. It’s a lovely instrument and a serious piece of furniture, and if you live in tight quarters, you should really consider a smaller harp.

Jerry Brown offered me this model because its large panels create a lot of room for decoration, but the quality of the curly maple was so nice that I decided to let the wood speak for itself. The model is also available in cherry or walnut, either of which will save you $300 and several pounds in weight. My mama didn’t raise me to be a wood junkie, but that’s how I turned out, and I couldn’t turn down the figured maple. Working with either of the softer woods might have been a bit easier, but the kit is easy enough to build that this shouldn’t be a factor.

The biggest problem was finding the space to build the beast, as none of my benches was large enough. I ended up working on a hollow door converted into a table.

A harp consists of three main units, the soundbox (or body), the neck, and the column. The neck is the timber to which the tuning pins are fitted, and the column supports the end of the neck not attached to the body. Think of it as a triangle with sculpted features. The column and the neck of the Regency are complete as they come from the box, which only leaves the body of the harp to be assembled. The pictures of the construction process are probably self-explanatory, so only a brief description is necessary. The sides of the body are the only major pieces constructed of one piece of maple. The neck, column, and base are all laid up from several pieces each. Laminating the larger members of a harp is common practice as it makes a stronger instrument. The sides are rabbeted to receive the laminated front-and-back panels as well as a base panel that’s not visible in the finished harp. This base panel is also rabbeted to accept the front and back. The first step is to glue the sides to this base panel and a top block. This can be tricky, since none of the joints are square. This harp abounds in compound angles. Pipe clamps were used on the base, but nonskid pads on the clamps would have been a big help. I used cam clamps to glue up the top block, and the cork faces of the clamps made them pretty cooperative.

There are three braces inside the body. The sides are slotted to receive them, but none of the braces were long enough to fit. The instruction sheets (which are generally pretty good as well as humorous) mention that minor fitting of parts might be necessary here and there. I used rosewood shim stock — guitar scraps, actually — to build up the ends of the braces and see no reason the instrument should suffer from this. Blocks of cherry also support the braces. The photos also illustrate the complex cuts made necessary by the tapered sides. This is not an insurmountable problem if you decide to scratch build a harp, but is no doubt one of the reasons that good harp kits are so expensive. Care must also be taken to ensure that the braces are flush with the rabbets in the sides since they will anchor the back as well.

The back panel is already cut to shape, but a bit of planing was necessary to make a good fit into the side rabbets. The ports necessary to make the interior of the harp accessible are precut. The back is glued to the side assembly using clamps and wire nails. Nails may seem out of place on a musical instrument, but in this application they make good sense. (The limited research material at my disposal suggests that nails have always been used at certain stages of traditional harp building.) Without them it would take dozens of large clamps to secure the back and front panels, and the taper in the sides would make the use of clamps a trial. According to the instructions, the nails in the back could be driven in flush or pulled after the glue was dry. I pulled them. The nail holes are later covered by maple trim pieces which also hide any gaps in the back/side joints, another traditional technique.

The body of the harp, ready for the back and front. All photos by John Calkin.
The braces of the harp are let into compound cuts in the sides, and will also be glued to the back. Shims had to be used to bring the braces to the correct length.
C clamps and cam clamps were used to glue the back to the end blocks and braces. Wire nails, which will later be pulled, were used to assure a tight glue joint to the rabbets in the sides. The soundports were precut by Musicmaker’s.

Making up the soundboard is only slightly more complicated than the back. The soundboard is made from aircraft-quality laminated birch. It, too, had to have its edges planed to make a good fit into the rabbeted framework. And again, the rabbet that accepts the soundboard is so generous that a perfect fit isn’t necessary to achieve a sound glue joint. Before the top is glued, a single tapered lengthwise brace must be fitted to its backside. A lighter center strip of maple is also glued to the show side of the soundboard. The center strip is punched to mark where the string holes will go, and I drove wire nails through some of the punch marks to act as clamps in areas where my clamps couldn’t reach.

I should mention that I predrilled all the nail holes in the instrument. Driving small nails into maple isn’t easy, and I didn’t want any nails to bend outside the trim areas and mar the wood.

The inner brace and the outer center strip are the only additions to the soundboard, and once the glue is dry, the thirty-four holes can be drilled for the string grommets.

Aside from the laminated wood, this is standard construction for harp tops. More and more harp companies are going to laminated soundboards not merely for convenience and ease of manufacture but because they hold up much better than solid spruce soundboards. Very seldom is an aged harp with a solid soundboard found without many cracks in the table. Laminated wood can extend the life of a harp. Nevertheless, the laminated top bothered me until I had the opportunity hear two harpers play duets. One had a harp about the size of the Regency with a solid spruce top, the other was somewhat smaller (and obviously cheaper) with a laminated top. Both harps sounded very much the same, and the smaller harp was perhaps a bit louder. I was glad to hear the two, and I put away any concerns about the laminated top of the kit harp. It’s possible that the anti-plywood prejudice is just one more instance of closed-mindedness that luthiers and musicians of the future will have to get over.

The soundboard is attached to the body in the same manner as the back, with the exception that the instructions insist that the wire nails be hammered in to stay. They must be set flush, or deeper, so that they don’t interfere with the trim strips.

The trim strips come overly long and must be mitered into place. This is not a big deal, but is just about the most painstaking operation involved in building the kit. For awhile I considered making up some fancy multipiece and multicolored moldings that would add some contrast to the harp, but I’m glad I didn’t. The curly maple trim looks understated and elegant.

The string bar comes prepunched for the proper string spacing. Small nails were used to assist the cam clamps during the glue-up to prevent skidding.
This simple brace is all that supports the top from the inside.
True to standard harp construction, trim strips are used to hide the nails left in the top and to cover the joints where the top and back are let into the sides and blocks.

A glitch in the harp as it came to me was that the rabbets for the back were very slightly too shallow to let the back drop in flush. The outer veneer of the plywood is very thin, and dressing the plywood to the sides would have exposed the core wood. Dressing down the rabbet would have also meant dressing down the back braces. I stewed about this for a few days, then built the kit as it came to see how it would work out. I sanded the back to the sides as much as I dared, then mounted the trim. After I heavily rounded all body corners with a router, some gaps still showed between the moldings and the sides. Later, during the final sanding, I filled the gaps with superglue and sanding dust, and they are invisible enough that I haven’t thought about them since. On a small instrument the fills might be obvious, but the scale of the Regency makes them insignificant.

The moldings and all members of the soundbox overhang the top block and the hidden bottom plate, and must be made level with them. The small size of the top block made the leveling chore a modest effort, but the bottom plate was a different matter. Or maybe the ease with which this project went together had me spoiled. The thin plywood of the top and back was easily planed flush, but rasping the maple end grain got old in a hurry. My router was still at hand begging to help, so I popped in a flush-trim bit. I wasn’t even thinking that the sides weren’t square to the base plate. Zip! One side was quickly trimmed, and just as quickly I saw what I had done. The side was not going to make contact with the real base of the harp. Well, heck. After another couple days spent stewing, I routed the other side the same way. The gaps look intentional and give the harp a bit of lift off its base. No one has mentioned them and I haven’t confessed.

Only after the curly maple base is screwed to the body will it stand on its own. The base is thick, heavy, and cut to an artsy shape that adds a touch of grace to the instrument. It is also heavily molded on its edges, and I knew that if I put off sanding it until the harp was complete, the effort involved would be much more extreme. I padded the railings of my shop balcony and sanded the base and the body to 120 grit outside. I wish I had a picture of it. There’s a whole lot of surface area on this beast, and I began to appreciate the work I was in for when the real finishing process began.

A pair of deck screws and a couple large bolts hold the base to the body. Deck screws also hold the feet to the base, and the bottom of the column to the base. Deck screws are a modern marvel, but driving them into hard maple, even predrilled hard maple, seemed risky. The instructions don’t mention it, but I lubed the screws by rubbing them on a bar of bath soap. I used Irish Spring to gain that Celtic influence.

At this point the harp almost began to build itself. Except for sanding, the neck and column are supplied in a finished state. The neck comes drilled for string guide pins and the tapered tuning pins. It only remains to glue the column to the neck. This is done with a huge tenon (made of cherry in my case) that fits into properly located mortises in the neck and column. Dry assembly is called for first, and the tenon is such a tight fit that I worried about getting it out again.

A small plate of maple and a rounded cap sit on top of the body. The massive end of the neck that adjoins the body is coved to mate with the cap. On the completed harp these two parts are held together by string tension, and neither glue nor a mechanical joint is used. A bit of a juggling act is required to get the neck/column and the cap to sit on the body in proper context, but once found, the neck/column will balance nicely on its own, and for the first time the true scale of the instrument is revealed. The only problem was that when the column/neck sat centered on the body, the cap was out of square, and that if the cap was made square, the neck/column balanced at an angle to the body. The instructions were pretty sketchy about this. At this point I drank a lot of coffee, stared at the harp, and stewed some more. I guess I do that a lot. I decided that the column had to stand straight to the center strip of the harp and that the neck had to maintain a good press fit to the cap to keep the harp stable. If that meant that the cap had to sit a bit off square, so be it. I traced the position of the cap on the body, dismantled the column/neck, and screwed the cap permanently in place. Just to be safe, though, I left out the glue.

The neck wiggled off the column with no problems, and the tenon came out of its socket the same way. I immediately put them back together, this time with glue. The fit was so tight and precise that no clamp was necessary, even if I had a clamp long enough to do the job.

The neck and column come completely shaped. They must be joined with a large hardwood tenon.
The domed cap is permanently mounted on the body. The neck is mated to the cap and merely held in place by string tension.

The bottom of the column attached to the harp base with deck screws through holes that Musicmaker’s had predrilled. That’s it! The woodwork was done!

I took the Regency to the Huss & Dalton shop, where there was enough room and enough light to sand and finish it. Fortunately, the company had just acquired an air-drive random-orbital sander that took much of the drudgery out of the sanding process. Jerry Brown and I shared the same expectations for the finish on the harp. It deserved a nice gloss lacquering. I was tempted to apply a light stain to enhance the figure in the maple, but I liked the catalog photo of the unstained instrument. It looks ghostly, almost ethereal. I left the wood as it grew in the tree. However, it’s hard for me to leave well enough alone. The soundboard was unfigured, and I felt that dressing it somehow in black would enhance the harp. The catalog harp is decorated with black pin striping and black decals. I wanted to keep the black-and-white theme but at the same time offer more information to AL readers. I decided to lace the soundboard.

Twenty-five years ago my youngest brother Karl painted his motorcycle about every other day. Lacing was a decorative process then popular among bikers. Lace fabric was taped to various parts of the bike and paint was sprayed through the lace, which left a reverse pattern on the bike. The new paint became the background color and the original color took the lace pattern. I’d laced many electric guitars in the past, and even a hammered dulcimer. I knew it would add real pizzazz to the harp, but I also knew that certain problems would present themselves.

I found myself in Wal-Mart shopping for lace. The selection was pretty limited. Lace comes in all sorts of patterns. Wedding laces and table cloth laces are decidedly unmasculine, but that was about all that was offered. The price was right, though, only $3.50 per yard. Lace can run several times that much in an uptown fabric boutique. I pulled down a bolt and told the saleswoman in my deepest voice that I wanted two yards. “That’s a lovely pattern,” she offered. “You bet,” I countered, “I’m going to use it to paint my Harley.” Then I had to explain the process of painting through lace. If you try it, do yourself a favor and take your wife or girlfriend to the fabric store to save yourself some embarrassment.

To get the cleanest image of the lace on the wood, it’s important to pull the lace as tight as possible and as close to the surface of the wood as possible. Taping the lace panels inside the trim of the harp meant that it might be tight but it wouldn’t necessarily sit close to the wood. The pattern would come out cloudy or slightly out of focus, but I was pretty sure I could live with it.

The harp was initially sealed with several coats of lacquer which was sanded flat after drying for a few days. Spraying was done with the column/neck mounted in place, but it was removed for sanding and lacing. The body of the harp was thoroughly masked, then the lace was taped in place. The black was sprayed through the lace in several rather dry coats. Heavy coverage will obliterate much of the detail. Note that when the lace is first pulled the paint pattern looked crisp and bright, but that the tape interfered with the pattern at the edges. Once the sunburst was sprayed over the tape lines the entire image became darker. Much of the off-spray can be removed with a tack rag, restoring some brightness. I didn’t do this, however, as the off-spray makes the pattern seem antiqued and older, not quite so modern. It’s still quite striking, however.

A bit of texture also helps to make the harp seem aged, so I didn’t worry about a perfectly flat, high gloss surface on the lace. All flattening of the surface must be achieved in the clear coats, since sandpaper will destroy the lace pattern if it touches it at all. If you wish a mirrorlike surface, a minimum of six coats of clear is necessary before you begin wet sanding to flatten the surface. Don’t hurry the process, and use more lacquer rather than less just to be safe.

Once the masking was pulled, the harp was reassembled and given another four coats of clear. Once I got it home, I hand-rubbed it with fine polish to enhance the gloss and give the surface a silky feel.

Preparing to lace the top. The string bar and trim are taped off.
The lace is cut to fit the top panels, then taped as tightly and as close to the wood as possible.
The rest of the harp is masked off with paper and placed in the spray booth.
Black paint is shot through the lace, then the lace is pulled.
A narrow sunburst was shot around the laced panels, the masking removed, then the harp was reassembled for the clear coats.

Stringing the harp went without incident. At first it sounded so tubby that I thought I was tuning an octave too low, but raising the highest strings an octave would have put them into the range of dog hearing. Jerry Brown had warned me that tuning harps an octave low was a common occurrence. Unfortunately, I listened to the tuning tape in my truck to save some time, and the pitches seemed to sound the same as my harp. More about this in a minute. The instructions maintain that a harp may take fifty tunings before it settles down, and that the sooner it is tuned that many times, the better. It didn’t take many tunings before the harp began to develop a good tone, and by about the twentieth tuning, it would hold its pitch long enough to a make playing session possible. The wound strings settled in the quickest, followed by the highest of the monofilament strings. Six gauges of monofilament are used to string the harp, and an extra string in each size is included in the kit. A set of thirty-four strings for the Regency currently costs about $130, so changing the strings isn’t something to be rushed into. The audio cassette included with the kit offers some stringing instructions not mentioned in the printed matter, some harp humor, and a complete set of pitches to which any of the Musicmaker’s harps can be tuned. It won’t make the Top 40 on anyone’s play list, but it’s a nice addition to the kit. Personally, I don’t see how a harp owner can survive without a decent electronic tuning device. I was pleasantly surprised by how easily the tapered steel tuning pins function. I’ve strung many an instrument using zither pins and fought with many a wooden friction peg, and I have to say that the harp pins have them all beat for smooth and precise tuning.

Tapered steel tuning pins are prefitted and work smoothly.
Most of the monofiliment strings are held inside the harp by knots and a plastic bead. The wound strings come with string anchors attached.

Eve Watters, a harpist from across the Blue Ridge, was kind enough to have a go at my Regency and offer an experienced evaluation. She was immediately impressed with the Regency and the laced soundboard. Unfortunately, her first observation was, “Gosh, these strings feel awfully slack.” My heart sank. We brought her Webster harp in from her station wagon, and a side-by-side comparison revealed that I had indeed tuned the Regency an octave low. Damn! After thirty years of messing about with stringed instruments, it was disheartening to realize that I had no idea of how any of them related to middle C. We immediately tuned the Regency to Eve’s harp, but I had no illusions that it would stay in tune long enough for her to play.

Professional harper Eve Watters was kind enough to test fly the kit harp. She was more impressed with the harp than with the author’s ability to tune it correctly.
Ms. Watters brought her own Webster harp to the session. The Regency compared very favorably.

However, a strange and wonderful thing happened at this time. Tuning up the Regency was like awakening a sleeping beast. The power of its voice grew as each string was pulled up, and the uneven response between some of the low monofilament strings vanished. It was an exciting experience, and I immediately became a harp convert. It was evident that once it settled down, the Regency’s voice would be bolder and a bit louder than Eve’s Webster. Despite our tuning problems, she was able to make some useful judgments about the Regency.

The string spacing was standard and immediately playable. The tension was also going to be what a folk harpist expected once the strings stopped stretching. The geometry of the Regency was pleasing as well. Her Webster had one string higher and two strings lower than the Regency, but additional strings weren’t necessarily desirable if they couldn’t be reached. The Regency was comfortable to play (and tune) throughout its range. Eve especially liked the high end.

“The top two strings on many folk harps might as well not even be there. Their volume is so poor that they can’t be heard. The Regency sounds very good way up there.”

The wide base balanced the harp nicely, and its weight was not a factor during playing once we found a chair of the right height for her. As a non-harper, I wouldn’t have thought of these minutiae.

“A harp this good deserves a full set of sharping levers,” she insisted.

Eve was also taken by the curly maple tuning wrench that accompanied the kit. Sadly, it didn’t fit on the pins of her Webster.

All in all it was a wonderful — if slightly frustrating — afternoon. Thank you, Eve.

One other event happened that day. While tuning the harp after Eve’s departure, there was a fierce cracking noise, the kind that scares every luthier. The bottom of the soundboard had pulled loose from the subbase. Musicmaker’s reported that they had already addressed the problem in kits made since mine, and sent me an upgrade kit to remedy the situation.

I’ve ordered a bunch of instruction stuff, and I hope to become a harper. Probably few harp tyros start out with such a fine instrument, and I expect to build others as time goes by. Having one’s horizons widened is one of life’s great joys. Thanks again, Musicmaker’s. ◆