In our home workshop in Corvallis, Oregon, Thormahlen Harps consistently
produces some of the world's finest lever harps. As a craftsman, I appreciate
a pleasant work environment. My assistant, Tommy Nunn, and I work in
a well equipped woodworking shop. There are lots of windows for natural
light, a wood floor for those busy feet and a centralized dust collector
to keep the air breathable. We have 2 other rooms, one, we call our
"studio" which is also our showroom. This is where we string and lever
the harps, and store most of our lumber. The other room is called the
"harp room" where we keep the harps safe and sound and pack the harps
up for shipping. We would dearly love to have you come and visit us,
get a tour of the shop and play some harps. It is best to make an appointment
so we know you're coming and we are sure to be home. We'll also have
the harps tuned up and ready for a workout. Hope to see you!
- Dave Thormahlen
On June 1, 2006 Oregon Public Broadcasting aired a 10 minute
interview and tour of our shop on Oregon Art Beat. We were very happy
with what they could show in 10 minutes after 4 hours of filming.We
will hopefully have those available on DVD and maybe a downloadable
version that you can get right here. Keep checking back for availability.
See the Art Beat crew filming our segment
The Thormahlen Harps Workshop: The Making of a Harp Video
Oregon Art Beat, from the Oregon Public
Broadcasting Television Station, came to our home and shop in
October of 2005. They filmed 4 hours of what happens here at
Thormahlen Harps and condensed it into a 8 minute video clip
that aired June 1, 2006. We hope you enjoy learning about our
harps from this video. Time: 7:48
The tunes played in this video are as follows:
22: Confluence (from Gossamer Gate book)
2:31 Song for a Whale (A Rose
6:33 Sunstream (Gossamer Gate)
Watching a harp coming to
life - by Sharon Thormahlen
Watching a harp come to life is a pretty impressive process. I have
been in awe of it ever since I watched Dave make his first harp in 1984.
Let me tell you what it’s like. He starts with this “big
ole” hunk of wood. Usually a board about 8 to 12 feet long, 6
to 12 inches wide and as thick as 3 inches. It has saw blade marks on
it and jagged edges, it has just come out of the mill. He lays out his
plywood templates much the way some of us would lay pattern pieces on
a piece of cloth to make an item of clothing. He attempts to get the
prettiest parts of the wood in just the right places and at the same
time getting the most out of each board. Using some big and loud machinery,that
the cat would run away from, he begins to shape it into harp parts.
Then he takes each piece and fillets them, opening them up like a book
to get perfectly matched pieces to use for the back, sides, and neck.
They call this re sawing.
The next process is thickness sanding. Tommy, Dave’s helper, will
stand at the thickness sander for hours, sometimes days sending all
the parts through many times, gradually thinning them to just the right
thickness. He will set some old issues of the Folk Harp Journal, Frets
Magazine or The Guild of American Luthier’s Publication on top
of the thickness sander and read away as he passes the wood through
the machine. Good use of time!
Dave and Tommy take about 2 weeks
to make these “sets” which they will be using for the next
3 months for upcoming orders. When we have visitors in the shop, they
almost always comment on the smells from the wood. Dave and Tommy are
so used to it, they hardly notice the sweet smells of cherry and mahogany
or the pungent aroma of redwood and cedar. Tommy’s wife, Tina,
often can tell when they have been working with walnut, because Tommy
comes home smelling like a barnyard and usually takes a lot of dark
colored dust home with him. I try not to complain about the dust and
glue that Dave tracks into the house. There’s usually a little
pile of wood chips under his chair after he’s come in for lunch.
With each step the harp comes
more and more to life. This next step is when it really takes shape.
Dave places the 5 staves on a mold and sets a piece of contrasting trim
between each piece. (see photos below). This makes the sound box. You
really get a feel for the way the harp is going to look when this step
is completed. He then braces the joints on the inside, cleaning up the
glue so it looks as neat and tidy on the inside as it does on the outside.
Tommy, in the meantime, is putting together necks, pre-sanding the neck
and pillar and drilling all the holes in the neck that will later hold
the tuning pins.
Another step in the process is making the sound boards.
Boy what a job that is. Starting with a piece of wood that you could
just as well throw into a fireplace, Dave slices it thinly like a hunk
of cheese. He then edge glues these trapezoidal pieces of wood that
are anywhere from 8-16 inches wide, 4-8 inches tall and 1/2 inch thick
together to make the soundboard. After the glue dries, he puts them
onto a rack in the drying box to get the moisture down to 7-8%. This
helps the instrument survive in lower humidity climates (however we
must never forget that wood continues to dry out, and we must keep those
humidifiers going and our harps away from heaters, air conditioners
and sunny windows).
The soundboard then gets glued onto the box and the rest of the trim
work goes on the harp. This subtly sets off the contrast in the colors
of the wood combinations and you really see the beauty of this new instrument
taking hold. (see photos below)
After the box is assembled Dave glues the neck and pillar together and
adds the T-Brace on the pillar. This helps increase the strength of
the neck and pillar which is forever being pulled by the tension of
When all this is done, Tommy
takes these 5 harps worth of parts home for a week, sanding 1 a day
for 5 hours or more each. When they come back, Dave goes over them with
a fine toothed comb (or should I say a piece of fine sandpaper) and
does his quality control thing. This has a direct relationship to the
finish quality of the harp.
Oh boy, spray day! Have
you ever taken a rock from the river that you think is so beautiful,
put it in your pocket only to wonder what you saw in it after it has
dried? Well, this is the opposite effect. When Dave sprays the wood
with lacquer (at which time he is wearing a huge space-like helmet and
suit) the harp's wood grain becomes something to behold. Every variation
in color that the tree produced in its wood comes to life. The quilted
clouds of the maple, the straight lines in the mahogany, the rich, bold
color of the bubinga and rosewood, the dark walnut and the swirly cherry
makes you think of the best dessert tray you’ve ever seen. What
Orchestrating all these steps
is like a complicated dance. Dave is always trying to stay one step
ahead of Tommy. In order to keep him busy, Dave has to get certain things
done before Tommy can do what he needs to do. Dave has been known to
get out of bed at 9pm (yes, we are in bed reading by then, if not sleeping)
to do one more glue up so that in the morning things are ready to go.
Stringing Day! One of our favorites.
This is where I get to start helping with more than the office work,
ordering and phone calls. Dave rubs out the finish with steel wool of
all things. I wouldn’t want to get very close to my harp with
steel wool but believe it or not, that’s what woodworkers use
when they are rubbing out the finish. Tommy sets in all the pins and
pegs and just after lunch the harps are ready for me to start putting
the strings on. It takes all day to string up 5 harps and about 2 weeks
to get them to hold a pitch long enough to get to play them. Tuning,
of course, is my job. Once or twice a day I give them all a tuning.
One of the most fun parts of tuning is when they do finally hold
their pitch, I can play a little song on each one as I go through them.
Sometimes this is the most practice I get in a day. I have even written
a couple of tunes as I was “working” the harps. I wrote
“A Mossy Glade” on Ziggy’s new harp, and “The
Last Goodbye” I wrote on Varyanna’s new harp. It’s
so great to see how each harp sings to us. I feel lucky to get to my
hands on so many different harps every month.
After tuning for 2 weeks, it’s time for Dave to start levering.
By this time, the strings have stretched and somewhat stabilized enough
to regulate the harp's levers. He’s got this down to a science.
He spends about an hour on each harp with Loveland levers and about
2 hours on Truitt levers. After the levers are put on, I go through
each harp making sure the levers are set just right.
At what point do we feel that the harp
is actually a harp? When is it’s birthday anyway? For me,
the stringing day is probably the most significant step. However, it’s
not really complete until the levers are on. Then it’s ready to
ship out. By this time Tommy’s probably just bringing back the
next batch of 5 harps that he’s sanded and Dave will be once again
suiting up for spraying those harps and seeing the wood grain emerge.
The process just keeps circling around, and it’s wonderful every
"Watching a Harp Come to Life"
Printed in Folk Harp Journal June 2001
by Sharon Thormahlen
out the Thormahlen Harp family. Read about Dave
or go directly on to the Lever options page.