This harp tip will address harp strings for antique and other early harps
We continue to encounter numerous cases of antique and other early harps having modern pedal harp strings installed. We regularly get harps in for restoration that have destroyed soundboards and sound boxes as well as broken necks, warped necks, bent columns and pulled apart bases. Just about all of these have modern pedal harp strings installed in lieu of the proper lower tension strings that are appropriate for these harps. As a specialist in restoring antique harps this is great for my cash flow but not so good for the owner’s bank accounts.
By antique harps, I am referring to Erard and other makers Rams Head single action, Grecian and Gothic harps. Early harps are typically Lyon and Healy and Wurlitzer harps from the early 20th century and late 19th century. These harps were designed for string tensions lower than the modern harps. Using modern strings on these harps is asking for the harp to fail. Some of these harps rebuilt by Peter Kempster in days past have a thicker soundboard than the originals and some people mistakenly feel that it is OK to use modern strings. The problem is that the soundboard might not fail but the soundbox, neck, and action are all under far greater stress than they were designed for and we see many failures due to this extra stress which exceeds what the harps were designed for.
There is some flexibility in the gut strings. However, all but the latest early harps should only be strung in the base with specially made metal-wrapped fibre core strings. These fibre core strings sound so much like the gut strings that the transition from gut to wire is virtually imperceptible. Using these strings will result in a substantial reduction in overall stress on the harp and harpist. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Modern pedal harp wires on these harps will cause nothing but problems and failures. The early L&H and Wurlitzer harps can be strung in the base with specially made lighter tension wire core wires.
As to the gut strings, the early 19th-century single action harps and Ram’s Head harps should be strung two octaves lighter than modern pedal harps. Grecian era harps should be strung with gut one octave lighter than modern gut strings. For Gothic harps, early L&H and Wurlitzer harps I recommend modern lever gut strings for harps in good condition or one octave light for questionable harps.
In summary, no antique or early harp should EVER be strung with standard modern pedal harp strings!