Build a Small Harp in a Weekend


Construct your own folk harp in a weekend with British-trained harp maker, Alice Margerum.



Date: August 9 – 11, 2024

Friday: 4pm – 7 pm; Saturday: 9 am – 4 pm; Sunday : 9 am – 5:00 pm or until completed. 

Skill Level: Beginner – but some woodworking experience helpful.  This is an activity that would be suitable for a child working with a parent or grandparent.  Students aged 7 – 12 welcome, but only if working with an accompanying adult.

Class Registration Fee: By July 22, 2024: $225.00

After July 22, 2024: $250.00

During this weekend workshop, students will construct a simple 15-string lap harp. This model of harp was designed by the instructor, Alice Margerum, based on the Aldbar stone, a ninth or tenth-century Pictish stone carving from the north-east of Scotland. The harp is a typical size and shape for an early medieval harp and is useful for playing many types of melodies. The compact size and shape also makes it convenient for travel.

The harp is designed to be tuned diatonically, giving it a two-octave range with lowest note being middle c’ (so the range will be c4-c6). That is about the same range as a tenor recorder.  Students will construct their harps from parts prepared for them by the instructor prior to the class. All of the woods used are North American hardwoods. Some choice of woods (maple, cherry, walnut) will be available and can be arranged with the instructor before the class.

Friday evening will be an introduction and preparation session. The students will get the chance to familiarize themselves with the parts of their harps, preview the steps involved in building their harps and learn a little bit about harp history. This will also be an opportunity to learn the basics of playing a small historical harp.

On Saturday, students will shape and fit the parts of the harp, sand the wooden parts in preparation for finishing, and paint or stain the instrument if they wish. By the end of the first day all the parts should have received at least one coat of shellac or other finish, so that the finish can dry overnight.

Sunday will be devoted to completing any surface decorations, fitting the tuning pins and staples, affixing the back, and stringing the harp. Instruction will also be given about how to care for and maintain your instrument.

The tools used will primarily be hand tools, which will be provided. Instruction in the use of these will be given as necessary.

Why make a harp rather than just buying one?  This is an opportunity to construct a custom harp that is uniquely your own, under the guidance of a professional harpmaker.  If you are a woodcarver, bring your tools, and Alice can instruct you which parts of the harp are safe to carve (and which are not).

Although Pictish harps were probably strung with gut or horsehair, the strings used for this class will be nylon.  Gut strings can be made available, if requested in advance (at an extra cost).

Materials fee: (To be collected directly from students by instructor in class):  $190

Students should bring:  their own pencils and paper for taking notes.  Some woodworking safety equipment will be provided, but students should bring their own work gloves, dust masks, and eye protection.

Alice Margerum has been researching and making reconstructions of medieval instruments for more than 20 years.  Some of her work can be seen on her website:  She is mostly known for making a variety of historical harps including early wire-strung, gut-strung, and bray harps.  She has also made an array of other historical stringed instruments.  Her work ranges from unadorned to elaborately carved.  Alice has also provided custom carving and painting for noted British luthiers.  Alice has degrees in Musical Instrument technology (BSc Hons) and Historical Musicology (PhD) from London Metropolitan University.  Although trained in the UK, Alice now lives in Hancock, Michigan.

Recently, she has been researching and making the traditional Finnish folk instrument called the jouhikko. The photo, above, shows Alice with the first jouhikko she made while on a research trip to Finland in 2016.

From 2015-18, Alice led musical instrument construction workshops and woodcraft classes, for both adults and children, at the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. Her students there constructed Appalachian dulcimers, harps, simple whistles, Native American-style flutes, jouhikkos, Scandinavian wood-shaving Christmas ornaments, simple board games, and learned the basics of chip carving. She has also taught short classes at the Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock and the Fordyce Joiner’s Workshop Museum in Scotland. 1993 – 96, Alice worked with harpmaker Tim Hobrough on a series of “Build a Small Harp in a Day” workshops in Scotland, at which the students made 12-stringed harps. Tim’s workshops inspired this class.

What does this harp sound like?

Below is a photo of one of the 12-string Pictish-style harps (based on the Lethendy stone) that Alice decorated as an inspiration to students of those earlier workshops.