By Carl Swanson
(This article originally appeared in the winter 1993 issue of the Journal of the American harp Society,
vol. 14, no. 2

    It never ceases to amaze me how little most harpists know about the action of a harp. This ignorance is unfortunate, since the action is the most complicated and most expensive part of the instrument to build, and also the most prone to malfunction.

    I am not going to deal with a description of its workings here. You can get that from other publications (Sam Pratt’s Affairs of the Harp as well as my own A Guide for Harpists are two that come to mind). What I want to address now is action maintenance: things you should do, and things you definitely should not do, to the action.

    The biggest concern to most harpists is how the front action plate and hardware look. The action plates, discs, and adjustable and stationary nuts are made of brass. In the manufacturing process, the plates are polished and lacquered, and the hardware is polished and either gold plated or lacquered. As the action ages, several things happen. Even though the brass is now coated with lacquer, it still darkens, although at a slower rate. The lacquer itself also darkens with age. Mostly though, the action gets dirty, collecting dust and lint which, being acidic, will over time eat into the lacquer as well as the plating on the discs, etc.

    The best you can hope to do as far as cleaning the action is concerned is to dust and vacuum it occasionally. Reaching in between the strings and behind the discs can be difficult. Try using a dry paint brush to wipe over and around things as you vacuum away what is knocked loose. Cotton swabs can also be used to clean difficult-to-reach areas. You can also try putting the vacuum hose on the blower end of the vacuum and blowing the lint and dust away.

    Do not use liquid of any type, and above all do not use brass polish! If you really must have a bright, shiny action again, take your harp to a professional. He will remove the action from the instrument, disassemble it completely, strip the old lacquer off, re-polish the plates, carefully and meticulously remove all traces of polish, re-lacquer the plates, reassemble the action, and reinstall it on your harp. If he knows what he is doing, it will be worth whatever he charges. If you attempt to polish it yourself, you will get a spotty and uneven shine, with abrasion lines running in every direction, which will quickly turn unevenly dark again. The brass polish will corrode the screws and spindles that it contacts, since they are steel. Brass polish will get into moving parts, wearing them much faster. And in the end, the whole thing will look worse, much worse, than before you started.

    A harp action is a machine and, like any machine, needs lubrication to work properly. Both grease and oil are used, and it is very important, when re-lubricating, not to mix the two. The spindle holes in the front plate (behind each disc), in which each spindle head rotates, are lubricated with grease, and can be re-lubricated only when the action has been disassembled for cleaning. Do not oil these holes! You will only dilute and wash away the grease, and run the risk of creating an irritating squeaking noise.

    The riveting which holds the linkage in place needs oil to function well, but not too much and not too often! If you can touch your finger tip to an action arm (that’s what each link is riveted to)and it comes off wet with oil, then it doesn’t need re-oiling. If your finger comes off dry(dirty, but dry, or almost dry) then you should oil. Oiling should be necessary no more than once every four or five years.

    The best way to oil the action is to turn the harp upside down and lean it against a wall, with the front action plate facing the wall. You will need a small but strong light that you can move around easily, as well as a syringe with the longest- and largest-bore needle you can get (try a veterinary supply house). The oil can be any kind of motor oil, but not sewing machine oil, which is too thin.

    Carefully put one drop of oil on each rivet (where the link and action arm join) on both the sharp and the natural chains. Do not overdo it. Too much oil will simply drip onto the soundboard. You should remove the action block (the wooden block between the action plates at the column) and oil as much as you can reach of the main action too.
A little effort on your part, made in a responsible way, coupled with an occasional regulation by a qualified technician, will keep your harp action “lookin good” and functioning smoothly for many years..