Buying A Used Harp

Buying A Used Harp

Collected and edited by Joyce Rice


What to Look For When Buying a Used Harp

When I had grown up and was ready to buy a larger pedal harp than my parents had been able to afford, I called the only harp company I knew, Lyon & Healy, and asked “Do you have any used harps?”  They replied, “We have one, a Wurlitzer Starke Model Orchestral Grand.”  “How much?”  “$2,500.”  “I’ll take it.”

 This was in 1965. It’s still my only pedal harp today.

 Fourteen years later, when I decided to start teaching, I knew I needed some student harps. Where to find them? I opened the yellow pages and started calling music stores.  Long story short, after following leads to stores and harpists, I found eight Troubadour lever harps in one weekend (in 1979 most of the other now famous small harp makers hadn’t even started yet).  All were in various conditions, but playable, so I took what I could find.

 I wouldn’t advise you to buy your personal harp the way I did, and probably today you wouldn’t feel that you had to take poorly maintained ones to begin teaching, as there are so many harps around now. After reading this article you won’t have to just trust to luck. 

I’ve contacted harpmakers and repairers and harpists to get their input on what you should look for when you’re thinking of buying someone else’s harp.  Those who responded are: harp restorer and builder Howard Bryan; harp tech and regulator Karen Rokos; harp builder and repairer Carl Swanson; master harp technician Peter Wiley; and harpist colleagues/Harp Spectrum committee members John Carrington, Patricia Jaeger and Patti Warden.

Basic Guidelines

 If you don’t care to read this whole article, here are some basic guidelines.

 Lever Harp:  you would like a reasonably straight column, a fairly flat soundboard, and no visible cracks inside (use a flashlight) or outside.  You want the levers to make accidentals without sounding out of tune (use an electronic tuner to check).

  • Levers: Check the functioning of the levers for tone – is the quality of sound about the same when the levers are engaged and disengaged? Accuracy – check with an electronic tuner to see if the strings stay in tune from natural to flat or natural to sharp. The latter can be readily adjusted, however.

  •  You may want to replace the strings, which can run you a couple of hundred dollars depending on what kind and how many you buy. You will want to play the harp and hear it played by someone else to see if you like its sound.

Parts of the Lever Harp; used with permission of the
Sylvia Woods Harp Center


 Pedal Harp:  as with the lever harp, you would like a reasonably straight column, a fairly flat soundboard, and no visible cracks inside (use a flashlight) or outside. Be sure the discs engage the low strings by putting the pedals in the lowest notch and checking that the strings are not “falling off” the pins of the discs.  If they are, the neck needs to be replaced.

  • Pedals: You want all the pedals to work and to move smoothly with no clicking, and you want them to make the accidentals in tune – check all the octaves with an electronic tuner, in flat, natural and sharp.  If the pedals are working quietly and smoothly, the tuning can be fixed by getting the harp regulated by a harp technician.  You don’t want to hear buzzes in the harp, though these, too, may be fixed.

  • You will want to play the harp and hear it played by someone else to see if you like its sound. You may want to replace the strings, which can run you up to four hundred dollars depending on what kind and how many you buy.

 If you want to investigate the harp in much more detail, please continue reading.


Anatomy of the Harp, from A Guide for Harpists
by Carl Swanson

Thoughts Before Starting the Search

(This is primarily about pedal harps, but some information could apply equally to lever harps.)

 Karen Rokos: “Finding a good used pedal harp can be tricky and time-consuming. Many people looking for a pedal harp see the prices of the new harps and assume that buying a used one will save them several thousands of dollars. It seldom turns out this way in the long run. You can find a good used harp, but you need to know the facts about pedal harps, what to look for and what to ask the seller.

“Before you start looking for a used pedal harp, you should think about what you need the harp to do for you.  Do you only need the harp for a couple of years? What's most important, the sound or the appearance of the harp? Do you just need a decent practice instrument or will this harp need to perform at high professional standards? Having your goals in mind can help you make a better decision about what harp to buy and stay focused on your needs.

 “Don’t even consider buying a pedal harp [unless you have money for repairs] if: 

  • There are two small holes in the front of the soundboard just behind where the column meets the soundboard.
  • You see a large jagged crack in the veneer on the neck. 
  • There is a large gap (you could stick a pencil into it) between the back of the baseboard (the platform the column sits on), the bottom edge of the body and the top edge of the base. The gap will be worse on the side near the D pedal.
  • Any of the pedals or action parts do not work. 
  • Several of the sharping discs in the lower row of discs  are touching the string at the very end of the disc pins or not touching at all. 
  • There is any evidence or an admission from the seller that the harp has been dropped. 
  • You jiggle the pedal near the middle notch and the action makes loud clicking noises.
  • There is a crack in the soundboard running parallel to the strings that is visible on the back (inside the harp) of the board. 
  • The harp has many strings missing and it seems as if they have been missing for a number of years. [The added tension of new strings might cause cracks.]
  • There are lots of deep cracks on the back of the soundboard and lots of places on the body where seams are separating badly.”

Cautions About The Older Pedal Harp

Karen Rokos: “Probably the most important thing to know about pedal harps is that unlike other string instruments, pedal harps do not last 300 years. Due to the stress of 2,000 lbs. of pressure placed on the frame of the harp by the strings, pedal harps usually have structural problems by the time they are 40 years old. If the harp has been played and moved a great deal, this could happen even sooner. Also, the action is riveted together and these [rivets] wear out, leaving the harp sounding like an old manual typewriter when the pedals are moved. Pedal harps can be rebuilt, but this is quite expensive (about $6,000 - $12,000) and even the best rebuilding work may only buy you another 15 years of service from the harp.

“In my work as a professional Harp Technician I've had many calls from new owners who tell me how they just got a "great deal" on an old pedal harp. They fell in love with it because it was "so pretty and sounded great" but now one of the pedals is not working right. I often end up giving them the news that there is little I can do for the harp, it needs to be rebuilt. Now they can add $8,000 for the rebuilding work to the $11,000 they paid for the harp, and they may get only fifteen years out of the harp for their $19,000 investment.”


Examining The Harp

If you are new to the harp, it’s a good idea to have your teacher or someone else familiar with harps evaluate and play your prospective purchase.

  • General Appearance:  finish crackled? Gilding (gold-leaf) original, re-gilded or painted over? de-lamination (veneer separating from wood underneath)?

  • Size: Can you move it a few feet, or is it just too heavy?

  • Age:  Using the serial number, determine its age with the harp builder.  Older isn’t necessarily better with harps.

  • Finish: Any large cracks in veneer?

  • Column: Fairly straight? Actually, a newer harp’s column may lean slightly to the left as you’re standing in front of it.

  • Neck: Is the neck warped or bowed?  Are the low strings close to the end of the discs? Howard Bryan suggests: Examine the neck from behind the harp.  If there is significant warping it is easy to see as one sights down the neck to the straight column. If there is obvious warping, put the C pedal in sharp and see how the 5th octave C# engages the string.  There should be a minimum, of 1/8 inch between the string and the end of the disk pins.  Less engagement will lead to regulation problems.

  • Soundboard: Is it bowed? Some bowing is normal in older harps, but eventually the belly will increase until the soundboard reaches its elastic limit and will break. Are there cracks visible inside the harp parallel to the strings? Look for them with a flashlight. Is there a separation at the base between the pedestal and the soundboard (a gap where the board meets the top of the base)?  More than 1/8 inch means there will be some base frame repair in the future. Are there lots of seams separating?  Look for signs of delamination of the soundbox shell.

  • Base/Feet:  Check for finish and wood damage, glue failure or de-lamination, and that feet are firmly attached.

  • Noises:  Any squeaks, rattles or buzzes?  If so, first try moving the harp to a different room to be sure the noise isn’t coming from something other than the harp. Any noises need to be repaired.

  • Strings:  Are there many missing?  Then you might have trouble when they’re replaced and tuned up, as the pressure has been less on the board. Are there tiny cracks in the soundboard at the place where the last gut and first wire strings meet on the soundboard?  As the tension at that point differs greatly, an old board might have been injured when strung with new wires.

  • Regulation: Professional harp technician Peter Wiley says:Regulation is the control of the harp's operation and maintenance of that operation. The three primary purposes of regulation are to see that the pitch control is correct, to eliminate buzzes, and to maintain the overall health of the harp. It is similar to tuning a piano, but entails more mechanical work. This is because a pedal harp has over seventy feet of moving parts that change the pitch of the strings.”

Ask about the harp’s frequency of regulation as harps, like cars, last longer when well maintained. Check it by playing in various keys.  If more than two years have passed since the last regulation, get it done before buying, and see if the tech approves of the harp.  Good pedal felts probably indicate a recent regulation.

  • Sound: Not brittle or thin.  Play it yourself, then have another harpist play it and you listen.

Howard Bryan says: “Play something loudly, then softly, and note the effort required and the perceived dynamic range.  The greater the dynamic range and the less effort required to get a true fortissimo the better, as long as the instrument is not flabby and muddy sounding when played loudly.”

  • Pedals/Mechanism:  Check for noises in the mechanism. There should be no clicking- check when holding each pedal near the middle notch, and move the pedals from flat to sharp and back to flat.  How do the pedals feel - stiff?  loose? They should move smoothly.  Are the pedal felts in good shape, not worn through levels of felt?  This is an indication of recent care.

  • Warranty/Guarantee: Get one in case a problem isn’t found until you get the harp home.  Howard Bryan:  “One should insist on the right to return the instrument for a full refund if any structural or mechanical problem occurs within a reasonable time.  A week should be enough time to get to know the harp and discover anything important that may have been missed during the initial inspection.  Most dealers in pedal harps are honest, and most harpists selling a used instrument are also, but these are complex instruments and it is easy for even a technically competent person to miss something.”

  • Repairs/Rebuilding:  Was it done where the harp was made or purchased?  If not, you might take several digital photos and e-mail them to the maker, who might be able to tell if everything looks OK. 

Karen Rokos says:  “[If you have a Lyon & Healy harp and the rebuild was not done there,] the column block (the asymmetrical piece at the bottom of the column that offsets the column) may not have been reset.  If you can’t confirm that this critical part of the rebuilding work was done, don’t buy the harp.”

She continues:  “The term “rebuilding” in harp repair may have the same number of definitions as the number of people whom you ask, but I’ve always understood it to mean the following:

Full rebuild: New neck, rebuilt baseframe (should include resetting the column block ) action re-riveted and possibly the soundboard replaced.

Partial rebuild: may include just one of the above frame parts being replaced and the action re-riveted.

Resetting the column block: very few harpists know about this and they won’t be able to make a fully informed choice about where to get their harps rebuilt, buy a used harp or even a new one without this critical information. If you stand facing a well-built new harp, you will notice a very slight lean to the left in the vertical orientation of the column. Now, if you look at the last “ring” or platform that this column is sitting on, you will notice that it is asymmetrical, built a little higher on the right and lower on the left. All of this is done to help the frame resist warping from the string tension over time.

“(Personally, I would not even consider buying a new harp whose column is absolutely vertical when it is new!)

“When a harp is rebuilt properly, the column block is reset to give the harp the advantage of the offset column to help the rebuilding work last longer.

 “It is CRITICAL for a person shopping for a rebuild that includes rebuilding the baseframe to know that the quote must include the cost of resetting the column block. This is a high-skill, labor-intensive job that usually adds about $1,000.00 to the repair bill. If this step is not done, the harp’s frame will likely warp in a very short time. When I worked at the Lyon & Healy factory for my technician training, I spent some time with the people who do this work. They told me that they frequently see harps sent to them for a second rebuild only three or five years after the first one was done because whoever did it left out the column block reset just to make it look like their quote for the rebuild was lower. They ended up wasting thousands of dollars having much of the same work done a second time!

“It is entirely possible that there are service providers out there who don’t even know how to do this part of the repair properly. I don’t know how one would find out if they did or not. I am having my 23 rebuilt right now. I did not even consider sending it to anyone except Lyon & Healy.

“The bottom line is that there are good used harps out there that have been properly rebuilt. That’s why I suggested to people that if they can’t confirm that the column block was reset, just keep moving.”

Peter Wiley adds the following:

 “The main reason for setting the column to lean slightly to the player's right is to have the strings at a right angle to the soundboard - the strings will be pulling the soundboard straight upwards. You see, the strings are wound on one side of the neck. When a column is straight that puts the center of the neck over the center of the soundboard. When the neck is centered over the soundboard the strings (at the neck) are not. Thus the strings are pulling not only upward but also off to the player's left. This angular, uneven pressure can cause the soundboard to crack. Nearly all of the soundboards that I have seen that have had a final, failing crack have failed parallel with the center strip, on the player's right side and in the fifth octave.

 “Note the “right side” in that statement. Since the strings are on the left, as the harp ages the column will naturally warp to the left. When repairing or rebuilding it is important to consider resetting the column block to cause the top of the column to be in a position that has the strings pulling it straight upwards.”



 Howard Bryan has permitted us to use his checklist that might be helpful to take along when you’re evaluating a used harp.

Harp Mfgr/Style: Owner:
Serial Number: Address:
Date: Phone:


Overall Appearance:


  • Column


  • Soundboard

  •  Cover?

  • Base

  • Finish

  • Gold




Base Frame

  • Amt. Warp at 5th C

  • Frame/soundbox joints

  • De-lamination?

  • Reinforcement?

  • Knee block

  • Pedal spring stud holes?





  • Noise during pedal movement?

  • De-lamination

  • Looseness of linkage?

  • Other damage?

  • Teflon**

  • Appearance, action plates, hardware

  • Other complaints





  • Cracks?

  • De-lamination?

  • Belly

  • Glue joint failure?

  • Attachment to rails/glue-line

  • Wings

  • Failure?

  • Back joints

  • Veneer (blisters  de-lamination)

Top and bottom blocks




Finish:  crazing, stains, etc.?


** This refers to Teflon bushings that were used in Lyon & Healy harp mechanisms from 1961-1986, or roughly from Serial Number 5120 through 10124. The reason for using the plastic bushings was to reduce friction in the mechanism and get a smoother action, which they have  done, but when the plastic has eventually worn out they are difficult to replace, and Lyon & Healy has removed and replaced the linkages.


How much should you pay?

Any of the negative conditions detailed in this article might give you reason to counter-offer a lower price for the instrument you’re thinking of buying, as repairs could be in your future if you buy it. One place to get an idea of today’s price range is in the Harp Column online classifieds, where you can get an idea of the range of prices for your type/age harp. 

Patricia Jaeger suggests that if you want to dig deeper, you could try to find the year it was built by calling the company and quoting the serial number.  The company might know its original selling price or some people have price lists from over the years (Pat has years of Lyon & Healy and Salvi, dating from the 60s.) “With as much data as possible, and allowing that moneys have changed value, one could have a perspective on whether to make a counter-offer. Perhaps the seller would take a bit off if there is an obvious flaw, or if the age of the harp means a limited use before major repairs would be needed.”

Pat continues, “I’ve bought several harps from other states unseen, using escrow.  The seller authorizes (sometimes for a nominal fee) a bank officer to receive a check from a buyer.  The check arrives at the bank.  The seller then ships the harp.  The buyer receives the harp and if it seems as advertised, lets the bank release the check to the seller.  Both parties are protected.  If the harp does not please the buyer he ships the harp back to the owner and gets the check back.”



 If you are new to the harp, don’t buy a used one without having someone look at it – a harp technician or even a teacher.  If you locate a harp some distance away and don’t know whom to call, email Harp Spectrum and we’ll look in our harp directories for a teacher or player in that locale.


For more information

Salvi Harps has published a brief, informative owners manual covering a range of basic harp care topics including cleaning, moving, stringing, and maintenance schedules. Much of the information contained is applicable to other harps as well. You can find it here.


 Good luck!

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