The timber used for a harp frame needs to be strong and stiff enough to stand up to the complex, uneven tensions exerted by the strings; and to resist the tendency to split along the grain, especially in the tightly curved ’neck’ of the string arm, where the grain may be very short. For extra strength, the frames of our 34 string harps are generally made from two layers of wood, glued together, with the grain of each piece slightly skewed. We have found that rippled sycamore especially can lack stiffness, so we normally make the frames of these harps from three layers of timber, with a strong core of plain sycamore and a thick layer of rippled (one of the most beautiful of all our native woods) on each face. Only ash, which is exceptionally tough and strong - it was traditionally the favoured wood for spear-handles -
is normally used, on our 34 string harps, as a single piece.
Instrument wood also needs to have a good ‘ring‘, to contribute to the sound. Almost everything about a harp - even the hardness of glue used, for instance - will have some influence on its sound. The size and material of the sound-box and soundboard, and the dimensions, nature and tension of the strings probably have the greatest effect; so there is more difference between any Finlaggan and the brighter, crisper Camlads, than between two Finlaggans, for example, made of different woods. But the wood used for the frame still has a real influence on the special character of an instrument.
Every piece of wood is unique; and even two identical harps, made from the same plank, will neither look nor sound exactly like the other. But these differences are very subtle, and all Camlads made from cherry, for instance, will have a strong family resemblance, and will sound more like each other than any Camlad made from another wood. No wood can be said to give the ‘best’ sound - it is entirely a matter of taste, and depends on the ear of a particular player, and the kind of music they want to play. So I always advise people to try as many harps as they can, if possible, to find the one that suits them best.
It’s hard to describe the variations in sound between different woods without sounding pretentious, and the differences are so slight and subjective that it would be hard to tell them apart in a recording. But, in general, the dense dark woods like walnut tend to give a ‘darker,’ more meditative sound; lighter woods, such as sycamore and especially ash, are brighter, more immediate; while harps made from cherry, both Finlaggans and Camlads, always seem to be mellow and well-balanced. But although, to a professional, the sound is all-important, many people choose a harp initially - like a partner - because of looks; and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the early stages especially, having a real attachment to and pride in an instrument can create an added incentive to play, and to progress; and in my experience hardly any of the musical marriages between instrument and musician that start in that way - though they may lead in time to polygamy - has ended in divorce.