Adventures in Retrofitting

by Jaye

          When I decided to retrofit my two 5/7 cross-strung harps to 6/6 configuration, I naturally turned to my favorite harpmaker, Glenn Hill, in Phoenix, Oregon, for the task. My little Argent Fox Brother Benjamine harp needed a new soundboard at the same time, so I loaded it and my larger Geering cross strung into my Honda Civic and headed north, complete with camping equipment, since Glenn was near Crater Lake.

(The two graphics are, on the left, a 5/7 scale layout and, on the right, a 6-6 scale.)

          The miles melted behind me and by sundown I was in Oregon, sitting in the huge park in Ashland, watching summer stock ballet with Glenn and his wife, Laurie.

          The next day, Glenn and I got into his shop to begin the task of turning two 5/7 harps into 6/6’s.

          First, we had to take the old strings off. I did much of that, in order to save time and cost. I can truthfully say I detest mucking about with strings, but it beats paying a harpmaker’s fee to do it when one is on a fixed income. In an hour or so, we were ready to begin removing the Argent Fox’s soundboard.

          For some reason, it had not occurred to me that in order to replace the soundboard, the old one would have to be removed – and that that removal would be, for want of a better word… traumatic… to watch. Glenn started with a hammer. He ripped off the old soundboard. A part of me deep inside screamed, “Don’t! Stop!” as he splintered it and pried it out of the box.

          Once it was mostly out, we discovered why there was very little resonance to the harp –the old soundboard had been assembled with a mortise and tenen joint! I am assured that Dan Speer no longer uses this technique, but rather a solid joining.

          For those not familiar with it, a mortise and tenen joint is a slot with the soundboard wedged into it. There is very little actual structural contact between soundboard and soundbox to make the box vibrate when the strings vibrate.

          Glenn and I looked at the joint, and I said, “Can you do a direct glue joint instead of that for the new soundboard?”


          “All right!” I left him to work, after taking a bunch of photos, and went into Ashland to window shop.

          For those unfamiliar with Ashland, it’s the home of the Shakespeare Festival. It is very tourist-oriented, home of many wonderful shops including a spinning-weaving boutique, a Native American trading post, the Shakespeare store, and a folk music store. I had been there years before, but had forgotten the wide range of wares available in the town.

          I had made a fool’s motley several months before, most of which I was happy with, but I did not particularly like the belled hat I had made. I knew someday I would replace it with a nice jester’s hat. The motley was close to my heart, since April Fools is my birthday. When I wandered into the Shakespeare store, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of motley, but of course, it was not far from my mind. On the store’s hat rack they had velvet crowns, bishop’s miters, nun’s wimples, Juliet coifs – and a gorgeous fool’s cap! It was at the upper limit of what I could spend, so I grabbed it, and wore it when I left.

          A while later, I moseyed into the folk music store. A Dusty Strings 36-string stood there, begging to be played. I pulled up the stool and sat down at it, tuned it, and played a few songs. I pictured the proprietor telling his wife, “And this Fool came in and played the Dusty. I’m not kidding you. A Fool came in and played the harp.”

          I came back to Glenn’s to find the Brother Ben sitting in the driveway with the new soundboard on it, and the Geering on the workbench with Glenn working on it. “Wow! You really got a lot done!”

          “I have to put another coat or two of finish on it, but yeah, it’s almost ready to go. It’ll be ready late tomorrow or the next day.”

          The next day, early, I loaded up and headed to Crater Lake. My parents and their friends had stopped there on the way to the Seattle World’s Fair when I had been a child. We walked to the lookout by the visitors’ center. “I want to climb down to the water,” I announced. “No. We’re leaving. We have to get to our next campground tonight.” “But we just got here.” “I said we’re leaving.” I knew better than to argue, but something in me was left hanging all those years. Finally I was back, and had a chance to complete that longing to dip my toes in that blue, blue water. At the entrance to the park, I got a wilderness camping permit.

          Now I drove to the north side of the lake and bought a ticket for a lake cruise the next day. Then I drove the rest of the way around the lake, bought a T-shirt for myself and a mug for my honey at the visitor’s center, and drove on around to the Pacific Crest trail at the northwest edge of the rim. I packed my camping hammock, sleeping bag, and food into my backpack, locked the car, and started out up the trail. I went a mile or two – far enough to satisfy the demand of the wilderness camping permit that I must camp at least a mile from any road – and found two beautiful, strong Ponderosa pine trees off the trail to hang my hammock. It pitched like a dream, and I climbed into it and spent the most comfortable backcountry night I have ever had. It rained toward sunrise, but that didn’t bother me any. It just smelled wonderful. I didn’t really sleep, but I can’t blame it on the hammock – it was only that I was so excited to be there in the wilderness all by myself.

          At sunrise – maybe 4:30 – I hiked back to the car, drove to the trail head for the cruise, picked up my ticket, and started down the trail. It was just over a mile, and over 700’ descent. I wore my new Camelback hydration backpack with the 1.5 liter water bladder and hose, with ample snacks for three in the pack part. I had slathered on sunscreen-insect repellent, and felt ready for anything. At each step, I blessed myself for having jogged daily and then walked around the block carrying my backpack filled with 10 lb. of weight. I was having no trouble at all with the descent, even with the elevation.

          At the bottom, the other people were buying water and snacks – at exorbitant prices – while I was sipping what I had brought with me. I blessed my foresightedness. The boat pulled up and we took the tour – a wonderful naturalist explanation of the geology, biology, archaeology, politics, and meteorology of the lake and the park, and the whole time, I had a voice in the back of my head going, “Neener, neener, neener, Daddy. So there. See what you get for saying we have to leave!”

          I had remembered Wizard Island, but I had forgotten that there was a second, smaller island in the lake – the Phantom Ship.

          We circled it while the guide talked about the unusual plants and animals that live on it.

          Back at the dock, the tour over, I started the climb back up the trail. The naturalist had told us, “It’s a mile down, and ten miles back.” I knew intellectually what he would mean, but kept telling myself that I would have to take it really, really easy to make it back up the grade. I paced myself, and only stopped to breathe a couple of times. When I came around the last switchback and the road loomed in front of me instead of another one, I dropped to my knees and kissed the dirt in a spontaneous, whimsical gesture of gratitude for the end of huffing and blowing.

          After sponging off at the visitor’s center and buying a snack, I drove back to Glenn’s. The harps were finished. I hugged Glenn in gratitude for doing the harps and Laurie in gratitude for doing the string sets.

          I brought the harps, camera, camping gear, fool’s cap, and myself home the next day.

          I had taken over 300 pictures – thank heaven for digital camera!

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