Why an EarlHarpa?

Earl is serious about building the best nyckeharpas he can. To the best of our knowledge, Earl is currently the only nyckelharpa builder in North America who has traveled to Sweden, Germany and France to study building the instruments. He also appears to be the only full-time nyckelharpa builder in America. With his background in Engineering and woodworking, these instruments are a great ongoing engineering/physics experiment.

Plans: The standard 3-rowed Swedish style nyckelharpa is based on the Eric Salhström model as derived from plans by Esbjörn Hogmark and Sören Åhker with consideration given to input from other builders and players. The plan Earl is using is what he has evolved as his own.

Earl also builds Johan Hedin 4-rowed Tenor nyckelharpas.  He has modified the key box to eliminate the 1/4-tone notes and some of the upper keys on the G and A strings from the original plans, giving a 10-12-14-19 key set, as an option for players. He has developed an intermediate 4-rowed soprano instrument using the body derived from his 3-rowed nyckelharpa with 7-10-10-20 key configurations similar to what is used by several builders in Germany and France. He has an advanced key set (10-12-14-22) as well, with two styles of key setback. He is planning on developing an advanced soprano with bent-wood sides, similar to a violin, sometime in early 2018.

Materials: He made a decision early on to use woods from North America. He is using Luthier grade North American spruce and maple for the tops and backs. The thick figured maple for the tailpieces is currently from Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. The rest of the woods are obtained locally in northern Wisconsin. The only non-American wood he is using is a strip of ebony or bone on the nut. Due to potential travel problem issues, he will not use ivory for the nut.

Because the tops and backs are different sub-species from what is used in Europe, Earl has had to figure out how to make adjustments to account for slightly different engineering properties in the wood in order to get good sounding instruments. This also gives his instruments a slightly different sound to what you will get from a European one.

Earl thinks it is important to bring out and emphasize the natural beauty of the wood. His instruments reflect this approach to woodworking.

Earl talks with players about instruments whenever he has the opportunity.  He has made many minor adjustments in response to these player comments and suggestions.  Some of these are subtle, and not everyone will notice them.

In Sweden, the nyckelharpa is viewed as a “folk instrument”. The Swedish made instruments are often made to look a little rough to fit this image. The idea is that they are not being built by people in the high-skill level Luthier trades (violin makers).

The finish should be reparable. The primary finish being used is shellac.

He is using a dry lubricant on the keys and key guides. It is not pencil lead/graphite, which is what is primarily used in Sweden. Modern pencil lead is not usually graphite anymore, and may not have the lubricating properties that graphite provides.

Earl is using hide glue for the back, top and bass bar. If a repair is needed, any good violin shop should be able to fix it. Most Swedish builders use Titebond woodworking glue.  If you pick up a bottle of Titebond glue, check the back label.  You will find the words “Not for structural or load bearing applications”.  The chemical used for this glue is poly-vinyl-styrene, a petroleum product.  One of the well know characteristics of this glue is that it will fail under continuous high stress loading. Many repairs of Swedish instruments will require replacement parts.  With 16 strings, there is a lot of stress.  A bass bar separation typically results in a new top, which will slightly change the sound of the instrument.  The Swedish builders do not think this is a significant issue. Earl still uses some small amounts of Titebond glue in what he considers non-stress locations. He uses hide glue as well as another glue type that is recommended for structural applications (for locations that he does not think should ever need to be taken apart). For the full glue discussion, see the Glue Issues sub-page.

Musician friendly features:

The overall weight of the instrument is very reasonable. At about 4 to 4½ pounds for the Salhström model, it is lighter than many instruments. Earl is very aware of weight issues with players and tries to keep his instruments as light as he can, while maintaining the quality he demands.

The sides of the body may be tapered so that the back is smaller than the top. The back is also shaped to eliminate any sharp protrusions. This makes the body more comfortable for the musician to hold and play while either sitting or standing.

The peg head and tuner layout is set up to allow for all of the strings to go directly from the nut to the tuning post without touching. This makes for easier tuning. Having contact locations between the nut and turning post often results in minor sticking of the string so that when tuning, the string jumps. There is a picture of the peghead on the photo gallery page.

The peg head has separate strap attachment locations so that the strap connection cord does not have to go through the sympathetic string tuner slot. Recent instruments may have a quick-release guitar strap mechanism at one or both ends instead of the traditional tie chords.

If the sympathetic strings are attached to the tailpiece they will each have their own hole. This makes it easy to replace individual strings. Some Swedish designs have multiple sympathetic strings sharing a hole.

The key head size and spacing is set up to eliminate gaps between the keys and make for easy playing by a person with small fingertips. There is also a travel distance of about 1/4 inch on all keys, so if the player holds in multiple keys, they will not bottom out. This also allows advanced players to bend the notes if desired.

About sticking keys: Since the keys and key-guides are wood, high humidity sometimes causes the wood to swell which results in some keys sticking. To fix this you have to identify which end of the key is sticking and either shave (sand) some material off the key or the key-guide and add some appropriate dry lubricant. Earl is currently trying a few things to significantly reduce the swelling issue with keys and keyboxes. As of Earlharpa 39, he feels he has developed a way to treat the keys and key guides to mostly stabilize them against changes in humidity.

The standard Swedish 3-rowed key-box has the left side mostly glued together. Only the top plate under the big C string can be removed. You can remove keys in the top two rows fairly easily from the right side, but to remove a bottom row key you must take the key-guide off the instrument. To remove the left side key-guide on a Swedish nyckelharpa, remove the left top plate (you may need to loosen strings to get at the screw heads), look inside to find the two mounting screws that attach the key guide to the neck, remove the screws and remove the entire side on the key box. Make the needed adjustment to the key tips. Then you need to put the left key guide back on. We have been told by a leading Swedish builder that this is easy. Earl has done it, but finds it a bit tedious. We have talked to players who have done this and they did not like the experience.

The left key-box on an EarlHarpa Salhström model has a removable side cover plate. This allows you to visually inspect all of the key tips for sticking. The bottom row of keys are made so that if you remove the side plate and the tangent, the key slides out the left side. For key maintenance, you should not have to remove the left key guide. There is a photo demonstrating this in the gallery.

The key guide strips in the key box are notched to allow for the keys to pass through them.  The “teeth” between the keys sometimes break off.  To minimize this type of breakage, the key guide strips on EarlHarpas have a cross grain lamination.  They do not break easily.

Earl also provides a 60-day satisfaction warranty. If for any reason you are not satisfied with your purchase, you may return it for a refund (minus repair, shipping and use costs).

(Note: any text that is a different color and underlined is a link to another web page. Clicking on it will take you there.)

(Page last updated on 1/21/2018)