Tonewoods and Soundboards for Harps


Harp Myth 8


This article is the eighth in an extended series of articles addressing issues and myths surrounding traditional harps and their construction. This iteration is the fourth of five which deals with materials.

Give Me Tonewoods or Give Me Death

There is no doubt, luthiers live and die by tonewoods. No amount of genius can bring out a voice that is not there in the first place. Interestingly, tremendous debate is going on in the lutherie community as to how tonewoods should be selected. There is the traditional school which says that tapping a wood and listening to it ring (or not ring), in addition to the touch/feel and look of the wood, will tell the story. The more scientifically minded are thought to look only for specific, quantifiable characteristics at the exclusion of all else. In reality, virtually every luthier works somewhere between these extremes. [For the excruciating detail on these two perspectives, the quarterly publications of the Guild of American Luthiers and the Catgut Acoustical Society are excellent resources.] Optimal soundboard design, building and tuning requires tremendous skill. It is the heart of any stringed instrument. Nowhere will the individual mastery of lutherie craft be more critical. When purchasing a harp, be conscious of where, on the learning curve, the luthier of your prospective harp resides.

There was a time when the title for this section could have been "Give Me Spruce or Give Me Death". German, Sitka and Engelmann spruces are a perceived standard. Unfortunately, early in the 1990ıs all three of these species were moved on to the Threatened Species List. (Different than the Endangered Species List, which would automatically trigger international protections, species on the Threatened Species List are not afforded any sort of aggressive protection and, therefore, generally continue to decline.) Luckily for the declining spruce groves, other woods have now earned respectable reputations as excellent lutherie tonewoods. Many of the newer woods gaining acceptance are not traditional tonewoods because they are not European and Europe has been the nexus of lutherie traditions. Not surprisingly, the strengthening of the constituency for other woods has been coincident with the development of a strong Pacific Rim lutherie community. The mechanical factors evaluated when considering a new wood include the need for long, straight, close grains, strength, flexibility, and dimensional stability. Everything else that is important to voicing a tone wood, then falls to the hands of the individual luthier.

Harp soundboards do have some unique aspects which distinguish them from other instruments. Foremost is the amount of string pressure. While a standard acoustic guitar will have around 130 lbs of string pressure, a 36 string traditional nylon-strung harp will have well over fifteenhundred pounds. This only gets more dramatic as additional strings are added, as in multi-course harps. Harp soundboards, therefore, are on a precarious line between being thin enough to dynamically voice and thick enough to maintain mechanical integrity. Distribution of mechanical stress is clear ly essential to good harp design.

Beyond Spruce

One of the most exciting newcomers to the field of lutherie woods, is poplar. When used to full potential, solid poplar soundboards yield a full, rich voice that is even across the spectrum. Poplar soundboards mature faster than spruce in voice and, just like any quality tonewood, they continue to mature and improve as the years go by. Poplar is also not as prone to potential cracking as are more brittle woods, like spruce. Additionally, poplar is more dimensionally stable than spruce. Because it expands and contracts less, a poplar soundboard will hold tune better. Perhaps the reason that poplar has not been widely used by luthiers in the past is because it is not an especially attractive wood. Application of a thin veneer of maple over the solid poplar does not interfere with the voice of the instrument (in fact, it lends some of its own color to the voice) while allowing the poplar to sing through and the soundboard to look wonderful.

Basswood is another great tonewood and it has many of the same advantages as poplar with a full dynamic range and even voicing throughout the spectrum.

Redwood and cedar both make excellent tonewoods and are widely praised and utilized by the worldıs finest classical guitar luthiers. Mahogany joins these as a wood which voices beautifully and has a strong following.

Most interesting, is the use of the split soundboard, where part of the soundboard will be of one tonewood and part of it of another, both covered by a thin layer of veneer. This configuration is testament to the importance of the knowledge of the luthier and his or her experience in drawing out the best from an individual harp design.

Just as consumers were once told that milk was good for everyone, there remains the lingering adage that spruce is the only top quality tonewood. Consideration of non-traditional woods is not only an environmentally driven necessity, it can be an acoustically desirable advantage. As with all stringed instruments, the single factor which contributes most to the final voice of the instrument is the knowledge of the builder.

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