Karen Loomis discovered the presence of mercury in the red pigment on the Queen Mary harp, when she did X-ray fluorescence analysis in 2010. This pretty much confirms that the pigment is vermilion, a mercury sulphide compound.
Karen reported that only the pigment on the curved body of the fish on the forepillar indicated mercury; the pigment on the flat panels of the forepillar contained no mercury. A rendering of the CT-scan data printed in her Galpin Society Journal article (vol LXV, 2012, p.166) shows high-density spots in the crevaces between the interlace of the fish shoulders, and also around the fish eye.
In Karen Loomis’s PhD thesis (volume 3, p.379-380) she prints two photographs of a shim from tuning pin hole no.23 on the Queen Mary harp. One shows the shim extracted; it is made from a split section of a feather quill.
On my replica, pins 29 and 30 have needed shimming for some years now. I had originally tried paper, and subsequently sheet brass, but I was inspired by this discovery, to pull the pins and try quill shims.
When I commissioned the harp from Davy Patton in 2006-7, the thing we were most lacking was info about the inside – the shapes of the joints, and the profile and thickness of the soundbox. Basically, we had to make a lot of educated guesses.
Since then, we have the CT-scans and other technical studies of the Queen Mary harp that Karen has been working on, and many of our guesses have turned out to be pleasingly correct, such as our choice of timber – willow for the soundbox, and a bent limb for the pillar – but we were quite wrong in our decisions on how to shape the soundbox interior.
Luckily, we had erred very much on the side of leaving the wood too thick, so last week I took the harp to Natalie Surina, of Ériú Harps in Oughterard, Connemara, for her to cut a lot of wood from inside the soundbox.
Last night one of my gold strings popped. It was the f below na comhluighe, one of the original strings I put on the harp when it was brand new in 2007, half-hard 18 carat gold from Blundells in London.
Seeing as one of the higher gold strings had gone, I have taken the chance to redo the stringing and tuning. I took off the two gold strings above the one that went, and replaced all three with silver (the upper na comhluighe with one of my own dust-strings). And I tuned the harp to a new pitch standard of approximately A495/370.
I have been making silver harp strings for five years. I buy in stock silver wire and draw it down to the size required, which makes it hard as well as thin.
Today I managed to take wire-making to a whole new level. I took 5 years worth of filings and silver dust, and melted them down into a little ingot which I forged into a rod, and drew down into wire. Starting with a pile of dust I finished with a piece of 0.48mm silver wire, about 32cm long.
Unfortunately there was a flaw in the wire exactly half way along, and of course it snapped there almost as soon as I started threading it into the harp.
Using a thin metal toggle I had just enough to put one half onto the highest string of my Queen Mary harp replica. It came right up to pitch and sounds great. Here it is, wound round one of the new iron split tuning pins:
I stopped annealing it at about 2mm diameter so I rekon on this being about 75% reduction – or “extra hard”. It was pretty brittle trying to wind the toggle, which I presume is from the minute flaws and inclusions from my casting, compared to the very pure metal that is produced by the big industrial producers we usually source wire from.
Now I need to repeat the process with more scrap, trying to produce a longer and thicker finished wire…
When I was commissioning my replica of the Queen Mary harp in 2006, I paid attention to the 30th tuning pin, which is obviously a later addition, shorter, made of iron, split end, different drive, and off the main row. This pin is now missing but I made a copy of it based on descriptions and old photos. I made the 29 brass pins with their scores on their shafts copying the museum photo of the 21 pins now in the harp, and for the 8 missing pins I made the same design of brass pins without scores.
If I had been more on the ball back then I would have noticed that those same old photos and descriptions I used for the 30th pins, also show the missing 8 from the main row, and those missing 8 are plain iron not decorated brass, and 5 of them have split ends.
So today’s project was to make 8 handmade iron pins, and install them in the harp. The contrast of the iron and brass pins is subtle but interesting in appearance, reminding me of my initial reaction to the handmade decorated pins: “like medieval clockwork”.
I broke the lowest gold B string taking it off but there was enough spare to rewind the toggle and reuse it. The string had thinned where it went over the pin – presumably a gradual process over seven years since I fitted it in 2007.
I lost my tuning key in Edinburgh last weekend. At first I was rather irritated; the replica Queen Mary clarsach has handmade tuning key drives, copying the original, which are rectangular rather than the usual square. So the key is also custom-made with a rectangular socket, and also has a second socket in the end of the handle to fit the square drive of the 30th pin. Basically it is useless to anyone else! I did have a rather ill-fitting spare with me
However after a while I realised this was a great opportunity. I made this key not too long after the harp was new, and while it was comfortable to use with its roundwood quince handle from the garden here, the rectangular socket was always a bit oversized and was loose on all the pins. Also it was rather “rustic” in appearance.
So today I made a new key for the Queen Mary harp. This one builds on my experience making the first. The design is the same – a T shaped pin, with a brass socket made from a rod soldered inside a tube, the end of the rod slit with saw and files to fit the drives. The second socket, from a large clock key, fits in the end of the handle. Both sockets are fixed in with little brass pins running through the wood, and secured with glue to stop them shifting.
For the handle of this key I used a piece of ancient Irish bog oak which Davy Patton gave me years ago. I had thought of carving medieval West Highland designs into it, and even gilding the designs, but as the handle took shape it became very spare and elegant. The bog oak does not carve very cleanly anyway. So in the end the only decoration was a pair of parallel incised bands at each end of the handle and each end of the main socket shaft, echoing the pairs of incised bands on the Queen Mary harp tuning pins.
I have to make another soon as my student who has the Student Downhill harp has lost the key for it. It ought to have a brass socketed key anyway as the commercial steel-socketed key it used to have was starting to chew up the decorated brass pins I have started fitting to it. Which reminds me, I need to finish the set of brass pins for that harp. So many jobs lining up…