The personal view from a harpmaker living and working on the Isle of Skye, Scotland.
The Isle of Skye is not famous for her hard wood trees. There are a few that get brought down during the frequent storms but these are mainly found in the large estates such as Clan Donald/McLeod. The odd large willow tree does present itself sometimes but usually in a location where salvage is just not possible. I have found myself in recent years travelling far and wide for the right tree. I have even gone to the trouble of importing a large willow trunk from Ireland, at great cost, of course!
I should say that I am open to experimenting with all working materials that make themselves available to me, and I am extremely concerned about the availability of environmentally sourced wood to keep working on a commercial basis. What follows is a snippet of my personal and, up until now, private thoughts on some of the sound box materials I have used.
To date I have been quite conservative with my working materials and have found the quality of the chosen species more important than the species itself.
I have been working with a great deal of willow recently due to having a good supply and another tree to remove on Skye. Every piece of willow I find I believe to be my last so I must be careful with it. The traditional use of willow in harp making, and the many different willows and their characteristics, might be better served by an authority on the matter. I personally find willow a difficult wood to work with due to the very fibrous nature by which it is famed for. Creating an acceptable finish on willow can require much more burnishing and patience than with other species. This can, however, make the finished result a very satisfying affair. A warm, creamy tone which I find very beautiful, but if I am truly honest I am not sure how much my view of willow has been coloured by its use traditionally?
A personal favourite of mine for some time but becoming increasingly more and more difficult to find in suitable sizes to work with. I quite often use lime as a willow substitute if a similar tonal quality is desired and willow is not available. An extremely easy wood to work that finishes very well. There was a period in the past where I often had the same model harp built at the same time, one willow soundbox and one lime. I found the tonal characteristics to be very similar. To date, I have never had any problems with the apparent weakness of this species and would whole heartily recommend using it if available.
I have built quite a few harps using sycamore now and will continue doing so. The availability for me is generally good but I am not asked for it as often as other species such as willow. Sycamore is a pleasure to work with and stains well but can be a prone to splitting when hollowed out to near the ¼ inch depth. I find Scottish sycamore gives a bright tone and does not require much time to settle before sounding her best. Sycamore can sometimes sound a little hard to my ear.
I do not have much experience in working with ash or beech apart from a few early test harps. Ash and Beech are very common on Skye, so I am always a little disappointed when I see a large beech tree that has come down and there is nothing I can do with it. Both species as soundbox material are just too hard, the sound boxes had to be taken down to an unacceptable depth to be healthy structurally to produce a reasonable tone. Terribly hard on my tools too…