Harpist -- Harp Technician
'Lyon & Healy and Salvi Certified' Harp Technician
This article first appeared in THE AMERICAN HARP SOCIETY JOURNAL - Summer 2013
"The Thing about Strings"
The Lyon & Healy/Salvi Harp Technicians Guild - London Meeting & Visit to the Bow Brand String Factory
For three days in February 2013, the Lyon & Healy/Salvi Technicians Guild converged on London, England, to meet for their bi-annual continuing education conference. Hosted by Bow Brand Strings of the UK, technicians arrived from the USA and Europe, along with a number of spouses, braving the cold and snowy conditions to both work and socialize in this exciting city. Meeting highlights included sharing of the participants’ extensive experience in harp maintenance, repairs and the latest design improvements. Our meetings are a valuable opportunity for regulators/ technicians to learn how to solve problems around the inevitable changes that occur to a harp over its lifetime. The guild was formed to identify harp technicians that have been trained to service both Lyon & Healy and Salvi Harps, as well as to keep them abreast of the latest developments.The Lyon & Healy/Salvi Technicians Guild Members are either full-time factory employees or self-employed and working independently. Many began their careers at either Lyon & Healy or Salvi in an apprentice program in which they learn all the technical aspects needed by regulators such as the assembly of levers and pedals, the installation of pedal rods and actions to the final regulations for intonation and noise control. Our conferences bring together both the factory technicians and road technicians who travel the globe maintaining and regulating the instruments. Road technicians must deal with all manner of maintenance issues using their tools, skills and ingenuity to correct problems on the spot. These same technicians also become the liaison between the harp community and the factories, providing valuable feedback.
Basic harp maintenance, aka regulation, is like your car's lube, oil and filter. It is relatively straightforward and consists of re-felting, oiling, pedal rod adjustments, disk intonation and noise control. More challenging is the art of diagnosing and solving unique and unusual problems. As harps age, they may require replacement of parts, structural gluing, dismounting of the action for re-riveting, as well as the endless search for and elimination of elusive buzzes, clicks and squeaks. In an instrument designed to amplify sound these noises can be maddeningly irritating. Four years ago our guild met in Italy at the Salvi factory, and at that time, I wrote an article which was published in the AHS Journal (Summer 2008) called “What's the Buzz?! The Art of Harp Maintenance.” In it, I described the detailed discussions at our conference meetings, who's who in the Guild and the myriad issues that harp technicians encounter.
The highlight of this year's meeting, hosted by company executives Carolyn Clarke and Rosina Russell, was a journey by train through the English countryside to tour the Bow Brand String Factory. Part of a technicians' continuing education is to understand all aspects of the harp, including the forty-seven strings. By day's end we had absorbed more string facts than we could have imagined.
The factory is a ninety-minute train ride from London's King's Cross Station to the small town of King’s Lynn, located by the North Sea. From the train windows, we could see hundreds of swans in the snowy fields as we headed north passing Cambridge, the towering spires of Ely Cathedral and the Norfolk Broads (Britain's largest inland canal system). King's Lynn has a charming rail station, evocative of post WWI Edwardian England, and a three-minute walk from the factory.
Originally started in 1902, Bow Brand String Factory has been in business for more than 100 years, having supplied surgical sutures for both World Wars and tennis racket stringing service for Wimbledon for many years. Currently Bow Brand only produces strings for harps and tennis rackets. The factory was initially built next to the local abattoir (slaughterhouse), now long gone. All strings are made from small intestines of cows and not cat gut. Nevertheless, Bow Brand is popularly known as the “gut factory” and locals refer to factory workers as “gut slingers.”
We spent a number of hours at the factory seeing the whole process beginning with the cow intestines in barrels to the final packaging of the strings. It takes the intestines from approximately fourteen cows to string a harp from the top 0 octave G down to the 5th octave A and about four to five cows for one tennis racket. The factory processes approximately 1,050 cow intestines daily. It takes innumerable steps and a minimum of six weeks to produce one hand-made string. Bow Brand employs twenty-five workers in a loyal family atmosphere with several generations working alongside each other.
Here's the six week process in a nutshell:
Big blue barrels each with 1,000 intestines, packed in salt, arrive monthly now from Ireland and Scotland. Depending on what the cow has eaten, as well as the time of year, the strings may be lighter or darker in color. To keep the string color as light as possible, the cows are all carrot-free as carotene stains strings a dark orange. The intestines are washed, then separated into their four layers: mucosa, sub mucosa, muscularis and the serosa--the outer and strongest layer which is used for the strings. The serosa is trimmed, split into 19mm strands and cut into forty-foot lengths which look and feel like spaghetti. The strings are washed in a series of baths for three days allowing the strands to separate. Next they are picked over for dirt and imperfections and separated into the required number of strands to make each string (for example: three strands for the top 0 octave G, nine strands for 3rd octave C, and forty-four strands for the 5th octave A). Before being loaded onto an impressive machine that twists and spins the multiple strands into a single string, the strands are put through nine more baths of rinsing, cleaning and bleaching. All these various baths lead to a unique smell in the factory that takes a bit to get used to. The strings are then dried, from the inside out, on forty-foot-long racks for seven days in a special humidity controlled room in which they are given a new and different “memory” so the string holds its shape.
At this point the strings are cut into shorter lengths, gauged for thickness, and sent to the polishing rooms for a smooth surface and consistent diameter. Following two-to-three passes through a polishing machine, they are sent to the varnishing rooms where they are varnished and colored (red Cs and black Fs) all with natural sea sponges. A final string trimming precedes quality control and packaging. With perfect precision, strings are hand-wound into coils for packaging. (Strings with minor defects are packed as Burgundy Level). We also had a chance to see the wire strings made. Wire strings are comprised of three parts: an inner steel core, silk threads and an outer metal winding. Both the inner core and silk threads are strung together on a special machine. The outer metal wraps both the core and silk together with a quick and impressive flourish. The machine can produce 180-195 strings per day.
Carolyn and Rosina hosted a delicious lunch of English pasties and small tea sandwiches. Other unexpected surprises included an amazing coffee and espresso machine. Our send-off included a goody bag with a remarkable combination screw driver pen (a harp technician’s dream), a small box of strings ends, and locally made shortbread in a unique Bow Brand tin. They encouraged ALL harpists to make the pilgrimage to visit the Bow Brand String Factory. (Visit bowbrand.co.uk for contact info.)
As regulators/technicians, we are often asked why strings break. Strings break for a variety of reasons, or for no apparent reason, when you are not using your harp or, of course, during a performance! Breakage can be due to several factors; excessive wear on the string by the string disk or eyelet in the sounding board, changes in temperature or excessive humidity which cause gut strings to unravel and fray, or just a plain old worn-out string. Strings lose their brilliance and resonance over time. Gut strings will break more regularly than nylon or synthetic strings. The best remedy is to maintain your strings or replace them on a regular basis.
As a harpist, we all want the best possible sound from our instrument. The controlling factors are that we can play only as well as is the quality of our harp, the performance hall or space and how it favors the sound, our skills as a performer, and the condition of our harp strings. In keeping with the string theme of this article, here are some simple suggestions to maximize performance and enjoyment of your harp.
Learn how to string a harp properly.
There are reasons for proper stringing that will help eliminate buzzes and extend the life of your string. Do not let strings wrap on the tuning pins all the way to the neck of the harp or get so stretched that they do the same. If this happens, replace the strings. It might be time for a new string, or unwind it, pull up most of the slack and rewrap the string and trim the end.
Know how to tie the knot properly. Do not leave any extra string at the base near the knot. Be sure when the string is on, that the string ends are not touching each other inside the body of the harp. This is a major source of buzzes.
Wire strings do not stretch so they need to be given enough slack to allow them to wrap around the pin neatly with 2-3 turns. More than that will not benefit your harp. A good rule is to thread it up through the tuning pin, allow slack so you can pull it back one octave and a half (and no more!) then turn slowly to allow for a neat inward wrap on the tuning pin.
Know when to change strings.
A new set of strings every year for professionals and every two to three years for non- professionals. Good quality strings make for a livelier, happier resonance.
Change wire strings: yearly for the professional and every two to three years for students or non- professional harpists. New wire strings give the harp a much fuller and bigger sound. It also brings clarity and better general intonation.
Change 1st and 2nd octave strings: every six months for professionals and every year or so for amateurs. Your harp is only as good as its strings. Strings stretch over time thus making the string thinner. The disk then does not grab as tightly, causing the string to sound flatter or to buzz. We especially notice intonation problems in the top two octaves. Regular changing of 1st and 2nd octave strings will help to keep a better intonation and the strings will have a more solid sound.
Always tune with the pedals in the flat position.
This will make for the best tuning since the string will stretch evenly over its length, and it will avoid excess wear on the string where it meets the disk. If you tune with the harp in the natural (or sharp) position, the string is dragged over the disk, causing it to wear and stretch unevenly.
Be sure to push in on tuning pins as you tune.
If the pins have become especially loose (often while replacing a string), an effective method to tighten them is to screw them in. Do this by turning the pitch down, turn the pin approximately 1/4 revolution, then turn the pitch back up while screwing it inward. Sometimes it is also necessary to grind the tuning pin back and forth in towards the neck several times as you turn, to be sure it is tightly set in the neck. This will insure that the pin holds firmly in place and there is no slipping.
Regular Regulations to keep mechanism in order.
Yearly for the professional and every two to three years for the non-professional. New pedal felts, new wires and 1st & 2nd octave strings will insure the best possible regulation and that everything works smoothly, free of buzzes and with good intonation.
Below are several recommended websites. The Bow Brand website offers one of the better videos on how to change harp strings: both wires and guts. The others share excellent information about maintenance, tuning, tying string ends, troubleshooting, detailed reasons for string breakage, etc.
How to Change a String: video:
Courtesy of Peter Wiley, Master Harp Technician (& my Guru), you will find answers to frequently asked questions about regulations & maintenance. See his 'FAQs & Tips'.
Courtesy of Steve Moss, Harp Technician, this website and video clips offers some very good instruction on maintenance, regulations, replacing strings, tuning & moving your harp.
For more information on String Breakage:
For more info on the Guild see: www.harptechguild.com.
I wish to thank Keri Armendariz of Lyon & Healy Harps and Carolyn Clarke of Bow Brand Strings for their assistance in editing and fact checking. Additional thanks to my husband David Klein for his support and help in writing this article. Although not a musician, he found the Bow Brand factory tour most interesting and enjoyable.
PHOTOS from the Visit to Bow Brand String Factory
Rosina Russel explaining the
parts of the intestine that arrive
packed in large blue barrels.
Peter Wiley inspecting the
viscera from the intestines as
the factory worker checks for
Washing of strings
The drying room of the
Bow Brand Factory.
David Arduino, head of the
regulation department at Salvi
Harps, Italy, and Ed Galchick, USA,
check out the polishing machine as
strings are threaded through to be
The red C strings get their color
applied with natural sea sponges.
Karen Gottlieb (author) straddling the Greenwich
Zero Meridian Line at the RoyalObservatory,