Harp String Installation Guide

With the exception of gut,  I only use harp strings from Markwood Heavenly Strings, the custom harp string maker who is also my sweet wife Laurie Nielsen ! 🙂

Tying the Harp Knot for Monofilament Nylon or Gut Strings


Learning to Tie the Harp Knot – is something that you must do. If you are new to harps, then consider this an initiation ceremony. It may look complicated, but it’s not. Follow the instructions and practice, practice, practice. Start with a piece of .032 or something light.

Refer to the diagram labeled “monofilament nylon – Tying the knot”. Above in Figure 1, we are taking the end of the string, and making two loops in it. The very end of the string is “Y. The long part of the string is “C”. With thumb and index finger of your left hand, form loop “A”. Use thumb and index finger of each hand to hold their respective loops while you peer back at the instructions here. You lost your place, right?

Now that you found your place again, note that each of the loops goes behind section “E”. This is critical.
Now look at Figures 2 & 3 . Loop “A” is in your left hand. Turn your wrist so that loop “A” is horizontal. Leave loop “B” (in your right hand) vertical.

As shown in Figure 2, move loop “B” below, and the up through, loop “A”. Grasp both loops now with your right thumb and index. Use your left hand to pull on the long length of the strings(“C”). Use your right thumbnail to prevent the loop assembly from being pulled apart. As you pull on string length “C”, loop “A” will tighten around loop “B”, forming a harp know. Make Sure there is sufficient tail (Y), or else the knot will unravel. You now have a normal harp knot.

This works fine if using a leather washer, or if your harp has small grommets.But many makers use larger grommets, which require a toggle to be inserted
through the knot to prevent the knot from being pulled through the soundboard. You can use a short piece of extra  of one of your thicker mono nylon strings as an excellent toggle. A length of about an inch works well.

The best way to install a toggle like this is to make a loop that goes back through itself as shown in Figure 5. Place the toggle midway through this loop, and tighten the loop by lulling on the string while your right thumbnail is lodged against this knot. Finally, hold onto the toggle only with your right hand while you pull the string with your left. This should snug it up nicely, and you have a slip-less harp knot that can’t be pulled through the soundboard. In the thicker string sizes string material is so stiff. In this case, you can stop at Figure 4 and slide a leather washer onto the string. These are available for 10 cents apiece from guess where. No toggle is then required.

                                                          Installing the Monofilament Strings on Your Harp

First of all, you need to understand something. No matter what you have been told, it is not the hole in the tuning pin that holds the string in place on the pin. It is the friction of the string coils on the pin itself. The hole is just a convenient way of getting the string started around the tuning pin. Older instruments, like Harpsichords and such, didn’t even have holes in the tuning pins.

ake the appropriate string, and tie a harp knot in it, as described previously. Place your hand, holding the unknotted end of the string, into the interior of your harp through the access hole that is in the back of the instrument. Feed the string up through the appropriate grommet, and grasp it with your other hand. For the very upper strings it is usually much easier to feed the strings in from the sound board side, feed the string out through the harp back sound holes, tie the knot and then  to pull the string back up snug against the inside of the sound board.

Now pull on the long end of the string, seating the knot a (and possible toggle or washer) against the lower side of the soundboard. NOW: your natural urge at this point is to pull the string tight as you can through the hole in the tuning pin and start cranking to pitch. Don’t do it. This is an excellent way to break the string, because the edges of the tuning pin hole will act like a wire cutter.

We need to make coils around the tuning pin before any stress is placed on the string-to-tuning pin hole connection.
Place the loose end of the string through the tuning pin hole loosely, so there is some slack in the string, between tuning pin and soundboard. If you are holding the tuning key in your right hand, then use your left hand to control the slack and guide the string into making nice, neat coils on the tuning pin. With practice, you will be able to guess how much slack is required to get 3 coils on the pin when the string hits pitch. That is the ideal. Thinner string diameters might need more than 3. The thicker sizes might need just 2. If the excess string that protrudes through the tuning pin hole should get trapped under the coils on the tuning pin, then so much the better.

When looking at the tuning pin from the end that receives the tuning key, then traditional pin rotation is clockwise to tighten. Turn the pin clockwise with the tuning wrench as you take up the slack with the other hand, guiding the string as it winds around the pin. As the string begins to tighten, place it in the groove of the bridge pin.
Another important thing is to try to avoid having the string approach the guide pin at a steep angle. You can manipulate this by winding the string either inward or outward on the pin. Remember that you can cross the string over itself to change directions.

Once the string is satisfactorily installed, you may clip off the excess nylon close to the pin (leave ¼” stub), and tune the string up to its proper pitch (no, it won’t stay in tune yet, but it helps to begin stretching it right away).
As the string becomes taut, guide it into the groove of the bridge pin, and make sure it doesn’t get snagged on the shaping lever (if any).

Once the string is tensioned enough to stay in place on its own (though not necessarily up to pitch), clip off the excess string protruding through the tuning pin hole. If there is a lot of it left, coil if up and put it back in the package. Why be wasteful?

Helpful Hint: Do not accumulate a lot of windings of string around the TUNING PINS, especially with the thick bass (low) strings. They become bulky and cumbersome. If you have that problem, turn the TUNING PIN backwards to unwind the string, then pull more of the string through the hole and tighten again.

 String life will be enhanced if you bring it up to pitch SLOWLY. When you do pitch the string, you can help it stay at pitch by manually stretching it some -just don’t do it too hard. Anew string will not want to stay in tune. So just stretch, tune, stretch, tune, get those knees up! If you say enough Bad Words, the string will eventually stay in tune.

When installing a complete new string set on any harp, I recommend that you first tune the entire harp up to a tuning one note below the final one. For example, all your ‘C’s would be tuned to B`s to start, and the same all through the string note range. This will allow you to go up and down the harp string-band, repeatedly tuning all the strings up to this lower tuning, and thus allowing them to stretch a whole lot before you bring them up the final step. This approach reduces  accidental string breakage, and also allows the harp to adjust to the string tension evenly across the whole structure of the harp. Most harps are under a lot of tension when fully strung, all through their structure, and they need some time to adjust to that tension being applied once more, or for the first time. The string tension will be also distributed all up and down the sound board, with most sound board rising a bit in a belly-up type effect. The gradual approach to tuning up the new harp string set allow all the parts of the harp to spread the tension gradually and to adjust with out trauma.

After a bit of tuning this way for a day or two, the harp will almost “want ” to go the rest of the way up to full tension. And,.. you will have hopefully not broken any strings ! 😉

                                                                                   Installing Wound Nylon Strings

The good news is that you don’t need to tie a knot in the end. It is already there, with leather washer to boot. The bad news is that you can only cut the core of this type of stringy. You cannot cut the wrap. It will ruin the string. This is why we get so buggy about the proper vibrating lengths for wound nylons
when you order.

We have to make them right in the first place, because they can’t be altered later.
But you shouldn’t have to worry about cutting the wrap, because we have made them just the right length and we never, never make a mistake. No, really, come on, it’s true. Really.

First, if you haven’t read the section on installing monofilament strings do so now, because the same principles apply, and installing this type of string is very similar.

Place the core end of the string -the end without the knot and washer- up through the soundboard grommet, and place the end through the tuning pin hole. Leave some slack, so that we end up with 2-3 coils on the pin when the string is pitched. (With heavier sized like .055/.025, 1-2 coils is okay.)

Take up the slack onto the tuning pin, guiding with one hand as you would a monofilament string. When the slack is gone, seat in the bridge pin groove, and bring the string up to pitch slowly, even more so than you did with the monos. When the string is up to pitch, then dip off the excess. Don’t cut right against the pin. Leave about 1/4″.

As you are bringing the string up to pitch, if the end of the wrap hangs on the bridge pin, then help it over the pin. You should know that where the wrap ends is the weakest point of a wound nylon string, and we don’t want to stress this area any more than we have to. You’ll notice that the string may appear too short when you first put it on the harp. This results from our string machine stretching the core so much prior to winding. When removed from the machine, it shrinks somewhat. But once the stringy is installed on the harp and up to pitch, it will stretch to its original length. There should be no problem with it being too short.

There is lots of leeway as to where the wrap should stop on a wound nylon string. Cosmetically, it looks best when the wrap stops exactly halfway between the bridge pin and tuning pin. Strength-wise, it is best when the wrap winds around the tuning pin for about one coil or so -remember that weak point where the wrap ends. But it is no big deal. The wrap could actually stop about an inch before the bridge pin and the string will still sound fine.

                                                                  Installing Bass wound wire or partial wire strings.

                           steel /fiber/bronze, steel/fiber/nylon, bronze/fiber/bronze or bronze /fiber/nylon strings

These are bass strings, with a steel or bronze core. Nylon stretches a lot. Metal doesn’t. So, it is imperative that you have a lot of slack in the string before you start bringing it up to pitch. There should be an absolute minimum of 3 coils on the tuning pin when the string is at pitch.
Thread the core end of the string up through the soundboard., and through the hole in the tuning pin. Leave plenty of slack. Slowly start winding the tuning pin, guiding the slack onto the tuning pin in nice neat coils. If the excess core sticking out the other side of the tuning pin hole gets trapped under the coils, that’s just fine, and will help anchor the string that much better.
                                                                                               Wire String Harps

                                                                                                Making the Loops

Please see the diagram below, down the page, showing how to do this.
If you buy coils of wire from us, then you can save some money over the pre-looped price. Making the loops is really not that difficult. Refer to the “making the loops” diagram.

Before we start, you need to notice the difference between “C” and “D”. In diagram “C”, one piece of wire we’ll call it the “tail” – is wound around the string proper, which remains perfectly straight. Oh, this will not do. You see, this is a slip knot. We want something that will not slip. Look at “D”. Do you see how the “tail’ and the string proper are wound around each other equally? This is called “double helix”, and is a no-slip knot. This is what we want to create. It takes practice, but it really isn’t that hard to do. Practice with small sizes of wire, say .016 or .018 to start. Then, the larger sizes will be much easier.

You need to make a hook, as in “A”. A piece of coat hanger works very well for this. You might find it helpful to make an “L” shape at the end of this that is opposite the hook. This will give you extra leverage for the larger diameter sizes. A small crochet hook does a pretty good job too. The secret to creating a double helix is to be pulling on the “tail”, the string proper, and the hook, all at the same time, while the hook is being spun. It sounds difficult, I know. That’s what the practice is for. I do it by holding the tail between my left thumb and forefinger. The string proper is held between the ball of my thumb of my right finger of the left hand. And my right hand pulls and spins the hook. You’ll get it.

If you get discouraged you can buy pre-looped, ball end string from us.

                                                                                          Installing Wire Strings

Installing wire strings is similar to nylon monofilaments. The bronze is a whole lot more delicate, though. If you need to get a toggle in there, it can be a little difficult at first. I do it like this: stand the harp up, with your right hand put the un-looped end of the string into the harp interior and up through the appropriate grommet. Use your left hand to pull it through some, so the loop is just under the soundboard. Hold the string there with your left hand. Pull your right hand out, and get a toggle. Place the toggle in the loop with you right hand, while your left hand pulls the string up tight, locking the toggle against the underside of the soundboard. Without letting go of the string, you can now run the end of it through the tuning pin hole, and take up the slack with nice neat coils on the tuning pin. the “nice, neat coils” part is crucial for wire string harps. The very last coil on the pin should stand apart from its neighbor just a little bit. This will improve the tone mightily.

 Trouble Shooting Some String Problems

Repeated  String Breakage

If the string breaks continually at the point of contact with the tuning pin, you might have a sharp edge where the string goes through the hole. To compensate for this, you can leave about a 1/2-1inch of slack before tuning up the string. This eases the point where it is sharp and usually takes care of the problem. And you can turn the tuning pin over so the sharp edge is on the other side.
The same might be true for strings that break at the soundboard. The bottom of the grommet may be cutting the string below the soundboard. To help this situation, put a leather washer between your string knot and the soundboard. You will need to put the washer on before you tie the string. You can get leather washers from my wife Laurie at Markwood Heavenly Strings (541) 535-7700.  If the string is breaking right above the soundboard you may need a new grommet, also available from Markwood Heavenly Strings. You will  need to know if your grommet is small, medium, large standard sizes, or an odd size from an older or home-built harp.

                                                                                 If your string pops off the bridge pin

If there are too many winds of the string on the tuning pin, it may cause it to pop off the bridge pin. As the string stretches and tunes up to pitch, you may acquire more windings on the tuning pin then you want. The string is at too steep of an angle to the bridge pin and when you lever that string, it pops off the bridge pin. The solution is to completely unwind the string until it is going straight up out of the hole of the tuning pin. Pull it up through the tuning pin about 1/2 inch, re-wind the string and tune it back up. Cut off the extra 1/2 inch of string. This should take at least 1 wind out of the string and it should stay on the bridge pin.

                                                                                            If your tuning pin slips 

Sometimes a tuning pin will slip due to changes in humidity. Most tuning pins are tapered like violin tuning pins. The pin gets larger in diameter on the side that the tuning key fits into. If you have a tapered tuning pin that keeps slipping, de-tune the string about a half of a turn and then as you turn the pin to tune the string back up, push the pin in. You should provide counter pressure by bracing the neck of the harp with your left hand, while pushing in with the key in your right.

The wood your harp neck is made from can also affect the tightness of the tuning peg in your harp neck. Softer woods like Cherry and Walnut can compress under the tension of the peg pushing on the wood fibers. You can tighten the tuning peg as described above. In other cases, with Rock Maple, the wood is so dense, that the fibers are not able to grip the tuning peg to hold it in position. This dense wood tends to get almost slick against the steel of the peg. You may need to sue a tiny bit of violin rosin powder to add some friction to the metal against the wood. Most music store can supply this. the best is not the liquid, but the actual powered rosin

You can also check the angle of the string to the neck. If the string angles towards the neck from the tuning pin, it could be putting back pressure on the tuning pin and pushing it out of the hole. This is more likely to happen in the low bass wires. The remedy here is to detune the string and stretch out the windings so they run straight up and down instead of at an angle. If there aren’t enough windings, you probably have to put on a new string. Cut your string about 2″ longer than the string length you need to allow for the extra windings.

Thank you for coming to visit my Harp Pages, please let me know how I can bring your Dream Harp to Life !

Follow your Bliss, and live your Life in Joy!

Glenn J. Hill