|Oregon Magazine||Live at the coast:: Little Whale Cove|
Making wood sing
By Jake Wilhelm
Harps have a magic all
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.
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.
9th Century Scotland
The sound is all in the neck, Westling says. The
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally published in the Coquille Valley Sentinel (C) 2001 Jake Wilhelm
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