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.



Soundboard Veneer Splits

Splits in the soundboard veneer do not migrate into the board itself.

Splits in the soundboard veneer do not migrate into the board itself.


So, you see some small cracks or splits running along the center strip on your pedal harp, and you’re wondering if this is a sign of scary expensive repairs to come. Fortunately, splits like the one shown in this photo are rarely a cause for concern. As ominous as they look, they are cosmetic, not structural.

The wood grain on this harp’s soundboard appears to run parallel to the center strip, but the wood you see is only a very thin veneer. The grain of the underlying soundboard actually runs perpendicular to the center strip. While the veneer is splitting, there is no way this split will transfer into the soundboard, since the grain direction is different.

If you have a pedal harp, take a flashlight and look at the underside of the soundboard inside the body. You’ll see that the grain of the board is horizontal back there, not running the length of the soundboard the way the top veneer does. In essence, the split you can see on the top is only “skin deep,” and won’t go past the surface layer of wood.

Seen from behind, the grain of the sounboard runs perpendicular to the center strip.

Seen from behind, the grain of the soundboard runs perpendicular to the center strip.


Why do these splits happen? Under string tension, the soundboard is naturally pulled upward. As harps age, they develop a degree of bowing or “bellying” in the soundboard. This is actually an important part of the harp’s sound. A bowed soundboard is more resonant than a flat one. This is one reason sound improves with age.

While the soundboard itself is built to withstand the stress of constant string tension, at least for several decades if not more, the veneer is literally paper thin. Moreover, wood is weakest along grain lines. The tension on the board is highest right in the center where the strings are pulling. Where the underlying soundboard can flex under tension, the surface veneer can’t always follow suit. This can results in splits like the ones shown above.

Can these be repaired? First of all, the word “repair” is probably too strong of a word. Nothing is really broken. Okay, you might say, can they be touched up? While I haven’t asked this question of a touch-up expert, I suspect any touc-up work would be temporary. This section of the instrument will continue to bow up over time, and finishes, like wood grain, don’t necessarily flex under tension.

When is a crack in the soundboard something to worry about? If you notice a crack running parallel to the center strip, but about one half inch to one inch away from it, then you have cause for concern. Underneath the board, there is another center strip, much thicker and wider than the one on the surface. A split or crack along the edge of the larger bottom center strip can be an indication that the soundboard is on its way to coming apart. If you do see something like this, shine a flashlight at it. If you can see light on the other side of the soundboard, it’s time to start thinking about replacing the board, or the harp, depending on its monetary and sentimental value.

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.