Oregon Magazine  Live at the coast:: Little Whale Cove
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Making wood sing

By Jake Wilhelm

    Harps have a magic all their own.
    As fingers glide across the strings, the notes seem to materialize in mid air and hum for ages.
    Before the right set of hands make these harps sing, John Westling creates the graceful instruments at Sandpiper Instruments. Here, in his shop off Glen Aiken Creek Road, Westling creates harps for clients around the world.  Cyclades Island marble figure circa 2500 BC

Angle harp, Egypt, 700 B.C.

    "I've never had a chance to learn how to play -- I'm too busy," Westling grinned as he pointed out several harps under construction.
    "I generally have three or four harps going at a time, I'm just switching horses all day," he said. "I enjoy this because I'm breathing life into something -- these aren't static pieces like chairs and tables that just sit there." 
    Westling has been creating custom harps since 1982. Before moving to Coquille last year, he created harps in San Diego, Astoria, Bellingham and North Bend. His harps have been seen in the hands of performers and teachers across America, and places like Canada, Singapore, Germany and Australia.

 Thebes bow harp

    He fills a niche in the harp market. As a custom harp builder, he tackles projects commercial harp producers don't have time to produce. This means he gets to meet challenges. Like creating an angel that drapes over the front of the harp, or inking intricate patterns across the sound box. Or shrinking a current design to fit both the petite harpist and the inside of a Volkswagen Beetle.
    Westling creates folk harps. Traditional pedal harps are ninety pounds of wood and string using pedals to manipulate discs and prongs that shorten or lengthen the string for the right sound. Folk harps use levers that can be flipped to change keys. As a result, the heaviest folk harp weigh about 50 pounds,  though they generally weigh half that. And, while the pedal harp has 40-48  strings, Westling's folk harps carry between 18 and 38.

9th Century Scotland

    The sound is all in the neck, Westling says. The graceful curved neck of every harp has the job of producing the sweetest note possible. That harmonic curve between the neck and the base has to be just right. If the distance is too long, tightening the string to the right pitch would break it. Too short of a distance, and good luck tuning that string.
    The goal is to get the right note to fit the right shape -- and when your customer wants a certain shape or size of a harp that fits their body or their hand, each design is different than the last.

    When Westling started creating harps, determining the distance took a portable calculator, lots of guesswork and even more patience. Nowadays, he uses a string-set software program. Software does some of the work for him -- the rest comes after he cuts a pattern of the neck and plays with the design. He might go through several patterns before everything -- the neck, the pattern of the base and soundbox -- are up to snuff.

15th Century wood

    "As I go along, I just keep adjusting. If the string spacing is not just right, I tweak it. I might even modify it and create a new neck," Westling said. "Most of the process is worrying about string spacing."
    The sound box is also crucial. Facing the audience, the hollow sound box traps the sound made by the string and strategically placed sound holes dole the sound out to listeners.

    Beauty makes the piece. One of Westling's current projects is cut from black walnut and destined for a customer in Hawaii. Other pieces have an aircraft plywood base covered in shimmering veneers of exotic woods and burls. Westling has also capped off designs with carvings, wood burned designs, ink drawings, decals and even metal work.
    Metal that's a material Westling has known all his life. In fact, if you had asked Westling 20 years ago if he'd be interested in making wood sing, he would've laughed. Back then, he was an electronics engineer -- while managing electronics projects, his experience ran more along creating prototypes and shuffling paperwork. He says he was too busy, too caught up in the corporate world to think about anything else.
    "I never even liked wood. I was used to working in machine shops. Metal is predictable, you know what it's going to do. Wood warps or cracks, it does whatever it wants," he said.

    In the early 1980s, he started taking guitar lessons from a Paraguayan harpist. When Westling's wife grew interested in harps, Westling decided to build her a Paraguayan harp. Lightly strung, a 36- to 38-string Paraguayan harp has a beautiful deep bass sound and weighs 11 pounds. They are built from local material -- maybe an apple wood crate from a near-by shipyard. The problem is the West Coast's moister climate makes the native harps come apart.
    The challenge was to replicate the harp from higher quality material -- yet come near the 11-pound weight. Even though the native wood may crack with age, and the hide glue may whither away until the bottom of the sound-box blows out -- everything the Paraguayans use makes the instrument light and sound the way it does.
    Making the perfect Paraguayan harp took 12 years. Mentored by legendary Paraguayan harpist and teacher Alfredo Ortiz, Westling was able to create a marketable harp. He would build a harp, then Ortiz and his students would play it and share their feedback with Westling.

    He began with Paraguayan harps, but Westling now produces many types of harps. Their size ranges from the concert grand, which also like a concert pedal harp but has folk characteristics; to the pint-sized Traveler that musicians can carry everywhere, even camping. The svelte Cithara Nova uses synthetic fiber strings as opposed to the normal nylon harp strings -- while nylon has to be wound tight for sharp notes, synthetic strings require less tension while giving the same crystal clear notes as a pedal harps. 

For those who love a challenge, Westling produces double-strung, cross strung and even triple-strung harps. Double harps have sets of treble and bass strings on both sides; they can be played at the same time or delayed to give an echo effect. Double harps may be somewhat easy, but triple harps throw a layer of sharp strings in the middle; adept harpists reach inside and pluck the note and make it look easy in one fluid motion. Cross strung doubles are more like a piano: one set of strings is like the white keys, the other is like a set of black keys.   Even more unusual is his harp guitar, his variation on a challenging instrument that has been around for centuries. Musicians move their fingers along a normal guitar fretboard flanked on either side by tenor and bass strings. 

    Throughout the 1980s, Westling built harps part-time while holding down his electronics job. Retiring in 1989, he operated a bed and breakfast in Astoria through the 1990s, still building harps part-time. All along, he felt something was telling him to build full-time.
    "I'm not sure where my drive comes from, I don¹t understand it, I can't control it," Westling said. "At first I thought it was an escape from the corporate world, I was able to go into my shop after work and work with wood. Then I thought it was an escape from my divorce. But after those problems were gone, I found out the drive was even worse. I decided I should really listen to what was going on inside me."

    Six years ago, Westling swung over to the harp business. He spends 40-50 hours a week in the shop and while he figures each harp takes 50-60 hours to make, that time comes after the design and patterns have been settled. Sometimes it will take a year before he and the customer agree on a design. It's hard work, but Westling is happy.
    "This is my way to bring happiness to one person at a time. Harps are a medium for them to get the music that's inside them out for others to enjoy. I'm here to provide the medium," he said.

Originally published in the Coquille Valley Sentinel     (C) 2001 Jake Wilhelm

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