My Harp Has a Boo Boo!



It happens to every harp sooner or later. You do your best to be careful when you move. You load your harp in the car with care. You ask the violists nicely for the thousandth time not to push their chairs into your harp. But no matter how hard you try, the time will come when someone knocks a music stand against your soundboard, or you drop a tuning key, or that overly helpful stage hand runs the top of your column into a doorway. The result. A dent! A ding! A scratch! What are you supposed to do now?

The good news is a small area of damage does not necessarily require complete refinishing to fix. It is possible to touch up a scratch or dent, making it virtually invisible.

Don’t Try this at Home

Making dings like these disappear is better left to a professional.

Making dings like these disappear is better left to a professional.

There are finish touch up products available at your local hardware store, such as touch up pens and wax pencils, but my advice is not to use them. It is difficult to make a good repair, and easy to make the situation worse than it was before you tried to fix it.
If you really want to make a dent or ding invisible, your best bet is to seek professional help. You’ll want to find a musical instrument or furniture touch up artist in your area. An expert in touch ups will know the best way to deal with the damage on your harp and how to match the color of its finish.

Talk to Piano Technicians

The best place to look for recommendations for touch up work is to contact piano technicians in your area. A lot of them do touch up work on pianos and would be well-qualified to do the same for your harp. If they don’t do the work themselves, they will probably be able to recommend someone to you. You can do the same with guitar repair shops. They may also do touch up work or refer to a local expert.
You can also search your area for furniture touch up services, but the reason I recommend going through piano and guitar technicians is that they may know of someone with experience working on musical instruments and will know the proper steps necessary to protect your harp’s strings and mechanical parts from overspray. To find qualified a piano technician in your area, try the search tool at the Piano Technicians Guild website.

Know Your Finish

A pro touch up artist can fill a dent like this with special equipment and make it flush with the rest of the surface.

A pro touch up artist can fill a dent like this with special equipment and make it flush with the rest of the surface.

If you talk to a touch up expert, it will be helpful to know something about the finish on your harp. A large number of harp makers, including Lyon & Healy and Venus harps, use a lacquer finish. This finish is a standard in the furniture industry and is well-known to people who do touch up work. Salvi and Camac instruments have a polyurethane finish. This is a more durable coating, but it is harder for a touch up expert to work with, and not all will be willing to help you. Whatever make of harp you have, I would recommend contacting the maker to ask what finish was used on the harp. There are multiple types of lacquer as well, including precatalyzed lacquer, so the more you know, the better informed your touch up artist will be.

So don’t just live with that unsightly dent. Good touch up artists can be quite affordable. In many cases they’ll even come to your house. Your harp will thank you.



Should I be Worried about those Cracks by my Tuning Pins?

Veneer Cracks around a harp's tuning pins

Cracks like these are almost never a cause for concern

If you own an older harp, say thirty years old or more, you may be familiar with the little cracks that can develop on either side of the tuning pins, as shown in this photo. In some cases, cracks like these crop up in harps that aren’t so old, especially if they have been subjected to a particurly harsh environment (as in, “my Grandma kept this harp in the garage for 10 years. Do you think it’s okay?”).

While I always recommend showing any crack, bulge, or other inconsistency in your harp’s wooden frame to a qualified harp technician, if your harp has cracks like these, chances are there is nothing to worry about.

Pedal harps, even hundred-year-old ones, are covered over much of their surfaces  in a layer of wood veneer almost as thin as a sheet of paper. the old saying, “beauty is only skin deep” certainly applies to the average harp. The gorgeous birdseye or flame maple pattern on your harp’s body is only a veneer.

On most harps made since the 1920’s, when you look at the top of the soundboard you will see its grain running vertically. If you take a look at your soundboard from inside the harp’s body, however (use a flashlight if you need to), you will notice the wood grain running horizontally. Again, the outer surface of the soundboard is a veneer, decorating the underlying board.

The cracks you see in the photo only extend through the veneer. The structural” bones” of the harp’s neck are most likely intact. This condition should not result in loose or slipping pins. What’s going on, in my opinion, is that the harp’s neck warps to some degree over time, due to the constant pressure of the strings. This causes stress to the veneer, weakening the glue joint which holds it to the underlying wood. In addition, each tuning pin is pulled downward on the string side of the harp (and upwards on the opposite side), causing additional stress on the veneer. Over time, it can crack. The good news is, cracks in laminated wood, i.e. two or more layers of wood glued together, cannot transfer from one layer to the next. Laminates are intentionally glued together at cross grains – meaning their grain directions are perpendicular to one another. This arrangement adds strength and stability, and also prevents the spread of cracks.

Could cracks like the ones in this photo be a warning that there may be underlying damage in the next layer of wood? It is possible, but unlikely. If a harp has lived in a harsh environment, there may be further damage underneath the veneer, which could cause problems such as slipping pins. However, I rarely see this. Most of the time the damage goes no further than the outermost layer.

If you’re looking at buying an older harp, or see this kind of cropping up on yours, I would certainly bring it to your technician’s attention. They are rarely anything but cosmetic, though, so don’t be too concerned.

A Little Bit of Water is Okay

042A lot of people look at me funny when I say it’s okay to clean your harp with a damp cloth. “You mean, like, put water on my harp?” they ask me. There’s a commonly held belief that lacquer finishes and water do not mix, and there’s certainly some truth to this. If you let water sit on a lacquered surface – say you keep a potted plant on your piano (please don’t do this!) and overflow from your watering gathers underneath the pot – it will seep into the finish, creating cloudiness or a white ring that is difficult to get rid of. If left unchecked, moisture trapped in a lacquer finish can cause an ugly dark mildew stain.

However, this same lacquered surface, be it a piano or a dining room table or what have you, can be wiped clean with a damp cloth periodically without any damage, especially if you dry it once you’re done. The same is true of your harp. Gently wiping with a damp cloth to prevent the buildup of dirt and grime is good for your harp’s finish. Just wring out the cloth enough so that it isn’t dripping, and make sure you that if any drips or puddles form you wipe them off right away.

I’ve come across a lot of harps that have years worth of dirt, grime, body oils, and lotions built up in commonly touched areas like the upper edges of the body and the upper soundboard. In many cases, this happened not because the owners are neglectful, but because of the misconception that dirt is better for the harp’s finish than water. Believe me, a little water from time to time is better than letting a layer of crud discolor your instrument.

If there is a layer of gunk on your harp, it’s not too late to get it off. Go ahead and gently wipe it with a damp rag. Use something soft, such as a cotton shirt or a polishing cloth from the music store. You can even use a little mild soap for a really dirty harp.  If you apply a little scrubbing pressure, you might cause drips. No worries, just wipe them up.

If you try to start cleaning a really dirty harp, something scary can happen. The place you’re scrubbing may become sticky and gooey, and you may be afraid you’re actually dissolving the finish. The first time this happened to me I nearly had a heart attack. But it’s not the finish you’re dissolving. It’s layer upon layer of lotions, deodorants, body oils, dirt, dust, etc. On contact with water many of these materials go back into solution. They may get sticky and difficult to remove. You may feel like you’re just spreading the gunk around rather than taking it off the harp. The best thing to do here is to wipe of some of the stuff and let the rest dry. Come back later and do the same thing. It make take several cleaning sessions, but eventually, you can get most or all of this stuff off your harp. Trying to clean off a dirty spot all at once may tempt you to use too much water or scrub too hard, and then you really can damage or remove some of the finish. Just take it slow, let the area dry and rest, and keep at it. The dirt took years to get there, and you’ll need to be patient in trying to get it off.

It’s fine to treat your harp like any other fine finished wood surface. It’s better to keep it from getting dirty, and a little moisture is your friend in this task. Just be careful and conservative. You’ll keep your harp looking newer longer, and a clean harp is a lot nicer to play than a filthy one, wouldn’t you agree?

Harp Touch-Ups

harp-kneeblockAny harp that’s in regular use – especially one that gets moved a lot – is going to collect its share of scratches, dents, and dings. Some harpists accept these as a fact of life and overlook them. Others tear their hair out at the slightest mark. Most likely you fall somewhere in between. You hate that that music stand fell on your soundboard, but you can’t change the past, right?

Well, in some cases, you can. There are experts in finish touch-ups who can make these blemishes on your harp’s finish invisible – or nearly so. Just how invisible can depend on the nature and the location of the blemish (and the skill of the touch-up person). But there is nearly always something that can be done to improve the look of a harp that’s been around the block a few times.

If you live near a harp dealer or harp builder, you may have access to someone with harp touch-up experience. But what if you don’t? If the harp resources in your area are slim, I recommend checking with area piano technicians to see who they refer for touch-up work.  Any touch-up artist who gets referrals from piano technicians will be used to working with musical instruments. Some touch-up techniques involve spraying a finish coat or two of lacquer over the repair, and you’ll want to avoid getting lacquer sprayed on your strings or your harp’s action or levers. For this reason, you’re best off working with someone who has experience with musical instruments. The local guitar repair shop may also have an experienced touch-up artist on staff or  someone they can refer.

If you can’t find someone through these channels, furniture dealers can usually recommend a touch-up artist. The common harp finishes, nitrocellulose lacquer, polyurethane, and shellac (on older harps), are the same finishes used on a lot of commercial furniture.  If you work with someone who is more used to furniture than instruments, talk to them about the importance of keeping overspray off your strings. Offer to mask parts of your harp off ahead of time if they are not willing to.

The bottom line for finding good touch up artists is: ask around. Get referrals. The finishing trade is an unregulated profession, and anyone can say they know what they’re doing. It’s really easy for someone who is untrained or inexperienced to make your harp look worse than it did before. Take the time to find out who is the best professional in your area. You’ll be glad you did.