Written by 10:59 am Creative Musical Instrument

Restoring Old Mandolin Lap Harps

Restoring Old Mandolin Lap Harps

The first time I laid eyes on an old mandolin lap harp, it was nestled in the corner of a dusty attic, its strings slack and its wood faded. My grandfather, a lover of all things musical, had tucked it away, hoping one day someone would breathe life back into it. That someone turned out to be me. Restoring this beautiful instrument became a labor of love, and through trial and error, I learned the art and craft of bringing vintage mandolin lap harps back to their former glory. This guide is for anyone who wants to take on a similar journey, whether you’re a seasoned restorer or just starting.

Understanding Mandolin Lap Harps

*What is a Mandolin Lap Harp?*

Mandolin lap harps, sometimes called zither harps, are stringed instruments that sit on your lap as you play. They combine elements of both mandolins and harps, creating a unique sound that’s both melodic and haunting. These instruments have a rich history, dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they were popular in parlors and music halls.

*History and Evolution*

Mandolin lap harps originated in Europe and made their way to America, where they became a staple in many homes. Their simple yet elegant design made them accessible to amateur musicians, and their portability meant they could be enjoyed anywhere.

*Unique Features*

One of the most distinctive features of mandolin lap harps is their tuning. Unlike other stringed instruments, they often have multiple tuning options, allowing for a range of musical styles. The body is typically made of wood, with metal strings stretched across a soundboard.

Preparing for Restoration

*Assessing the Condition*

Before diving into restoration, take a close look at the instrument. Check for cracks, splits, and any missing pieces. Pay attention to the state of the strings and hardware, as these can significantly impact the restoration process.

*Identifying Wear and Tear*

Common issues with old mandolin lap harps include:

– Cracked or split wood
– Rusty or missing hardware
– Loose or broken strings
– Faded or damaged finish

*Gathering Your Tools and Materials*

You’ll need a variety of tools and materials for a successful restoration. Here’s a list to get you started:

– Wood glue
– Clamps
– Sandpaper (various grits)
– Stain and sealant
– Replacement strings
– Metal polish
– Cleaning solutions

Disassembling the Instrument

*Removing Strings and Hardware*

Start by carefully removing the strings. Use a string winder to loosen them, then gently unwind them from the tuning pegs. Store the strings if they are in good condition; otherwise, discard them.

*Handling Hardware with Care*

Next, remove any hardware, such as tuning pegs and tailpieces. Keep these parts organized and clean them thoroughly to remove any rust or grime.

*Cleaning the Components*

*Cleaning Techniques for Wood and Metal*

For the wood, use a soft cloth and a gentle cleaning solution to wipe away dirt and dust. For metal parts, use a metal polish to restore their shine. Avoid harsh chemicals that could damage the instrument.

Repairing Structural Damage

*Fixing Cracks and Splits*

If you find any cracks or splits in the wood, use wood glue to repair them. Apply the glue carefully, then use clamps to hold the pieces together while the glue dries.

*Clamping and Drying*

Ensure the clamps are tight enough to hold the pieces in place but not so tight that they cause further damage. Allow the glue to dry completely before moving on to the next step.

*Reinforcing Weak Spots*

For areas that need extra support, add bracing or use epoxy to strengthen the wood. This will help prevent future damage and ensure the instrument is sturdy.

Refinishing the Wood

*Sanding and Smoothing*

Use sandpaper to smooth out any rough spots on the wood. Start with a coarse grit and gradually move to a finer grit for a smooth finish.

*Choosing the Right Sandpaper*

The type of sandpaper you use can make a big difference. For initial sanding, use 80-120 grit sandpaper. For a smoother finish, use 220-320 grit sandpaper.

*Staining and Sealing*

Once the wood is smooth, apply a stain to enhance its natural beauty. Choose a color that complements the instrument’s original finish. After staining, apply a sealant to protect the wood from moisture and wear.

Restoring the Hardware

*Polishing Metal Parts*

Use a metal polish to restore the shine to any metal parts. Apply the polish with a soft cloth, then buff the parts until they gleam.

*Preventing Rust and Corrosion*

To prevent future rust and corrosion, consider applying a protective coating to the metal parts. This will help keep them looking new for years to come.

*Replacing Missing Pieces*

If any hardware is missing, you can often find replacement parts online or at specialty music stores. If you can’t find the exact part you need, consider having a custom piece made.

Reassembling the Harp

*Reattaching Hardware*

Once all the parts are cleaned and repaired, it’s time to reassemble the instrument. Start by reattaching the hardware, making sure everything is securely fastened.

*Aligning Components Correctly*

Ensure all components are properly aligned before tightening screws and bolts. This will help the instrument stay in tune and play correctly.

*Stringing the Harp*

Choose the right strings for your mandolin lap harp. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations or consult with a music store for advice.

*Proper Stringing Techniques*

When stringing the harp, start with the lowest string and work your way up. Use a string winder to tighten the strings, but be careful not to overtighten them.

Tuning and Testing

*Tuning the Strings*

Tune each string to the correct pitch using a tuner. This may take some time, especially if the instrument hasn’t been played in a while.

*Step-by-Step Tuning Guide*

1. Start with the lowest string.
2. Pluck the string and use the tuner to find the correct pitch.
3. Adjust the tuning peg until the string is in tune.
4. Repeat for each string.

*Testing Sound Quality*

After tuning, play a few notes to check the sound quality. Listen for any buzzing or dead notes and make adjustments as needed.

*Making Adjustments*

If you notice any issues with the sound, check the alignment of the strings and hardware. Make any necessary adjustments to improve the sound quality.

Final Touches

*Adding Decorative Elements*

Restoring a mandolin lap harp isn’t just about making it playable; it’s also about making it beautiful. Consider adding decorative elements, such as inlays or custom designs, to enhance the instrument’s appearance.

*Restoring Original Inlays*

If the instrument has original inlays, take care to restore them without damaging the surrounding wood. Use fine tools and gentle techniques to bring out their beauty.

*Adding Personal Touches*

Personalize your mandolin lap harp with unique touches, such as custom carvings or painted designs. This will make the instrument truly one-of-a-kind.

*Protecting Your Work*

To protect your restored instrument, apply a final coat of sealant. This will help preserve the wood and keep it looking new.

*Regular Maintenance Tips*

To keep your mandolin lap harp in top condition, follow these maintenance tips:

– Keep it in a cool, dry place.
– Clean it regularly with a soft cloth.
– Check the strings and hardware periodically for signs of wear.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

*Over-tightening Strings*

One of the most common mistakes is over-tightening the strings. This can cause the wood to crack and the strings to break. Always tune the strings gradually and check the tension regularly.

*Using Harsh Chemicals*

Avoid using harsh chemicals to clean the instrument. These can damage the wood and metal parts. Stick to gentle cleaning solutions and soft cloths.

Tips and Tricks from Experienced Restorers

*Patience and Precision*

Restoring a mandolin lap harp requires patience and precision. Take your time with each step and pay attention to the details. This will ensure a successful restoration.

*Learning from Mistakes*

Don’t be discouraged by mistakes. Each one is an opportunity to learn and improve your skills. Keep a positive attitude and enjoy the process.

Variations in Restoration Techniques

*Different Approaches for Different Eras*

Mandolin lap harps from different eras may require different restoration techniques. Research the specific history of your instrument to determine the best approach.

*Modern vs. Traditional Methods*

While traditional methods can be effective, modern techniques and materials can also be useful. Find a balance that works for your instrument and your skill level.

Resources and References

*Where to Find Parts and Tools*

Finding the right parts and tools is essential for a successful restoration. Here are some recommended suppliers:

– [StewMac](https://www.stewmac.com/)
– [Luthiers Mercantile International](https://www.lmii.com/)
– [Elderly Instruments](https://www.elderly.com/)

*Further Reading and Learning*

To deepen your knowledge of mandolin lap harp restoration, consider these books and online resources:

– “The Art of Violin Making” by Chris Johnson and Roy Courtnall
– [The Musical Instrument Makers Forum](https://www.mimf.com/)
– [Frets.com](http://www.frets.com/)


*1. How long does it take to restore a mandolin lap harp?*

Restoration time can vary depending on the condition of the instrument and your skill level. It can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

*2. Can I restore a mandolin lap harp if I’ve never done it before?*

Yes, beginners can restore a mandolin lap harp with patience and careful attention to detail. This guide provides step-by-step instructions to help you get started.

*3. Where can I find replacement strings for my mandolin lap harp?*

Replacement strings can be found at most music stores or online. Check with specialty suppliers for the best options.

*4. Is it worth restoring an old mandolin lap harp?*

Restoring an old mandolin lap harp can be very rewarding. It not only brings the instrument back to life but also preserves a piece of musical history.

*5. What should I do if I can’t find a specific part for my mandolin lap harp?*

If you can’t find a specific part, consider having a custom piece made or consulting with a professional restorer for advice.


Restoring an old mandolin lap harp is a journey filled with discovery, patience, and creativity. By following this guide, you’ll not only bring a beautiful instrument back to life but also gain a deeper appreciation for the craftsmanship and history behind it. Whether it’s for personal enjoyment or to preserve a family heirloom, the effort you put into restoration will be well worth it.

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