Zimmermann Parlor Grand Autoharp

Dolgeville, NY, 1898-99

 

notes on the instrument and its restoration

The Dolgeville company was in operation from 1893 to 1899. This autoharp has the black internal label, which was used for approximately the last two years of the company's existence.

The bridges, tail cover, hand rest, bars, and holders are of mahogany, and the sides are veneered with mahogany as well. (A bird's-eye maple version of the Parlor Grand was also offered.) The top appears to be of Adirondack spruce, rather than the usual western red cedar or redwood, and the back, which is finished black, looks to be of poplar. The top and back are bound with an edge banding of celluloid.

The finish is oil-base varnish, rather than the usual 19th century autoharp finish, shellac. The instrument was apparently finished in a dusty environment, as the surface was quite grainy and unsatisfactory. Cleaning and polishing amounted to the use of traditional violin finishing technique, rubbing with silica (which I prefer over pumice), followed by rottenstone. As expected, the finish responded well.

Tuning pins, bridge pins, hitch pins, and wire bridge saddles were removed, carefully kept in order, and cleaned with a soft wire wheel in a bench grinder. Judging it better to not remove the driven-in fasteners that hold them to the bars, the shifters were cleaned in situ with fine steel wool and lubricated at the contact points with a modicum of graphite powder, administered by a thinned-down wooden toothpick.

The bracing of this autoharp is unusual in that there are two large braces running lengthwise, one just to the left of the sound hole, attached to the back, another just to the right of the sound hole, attached to the top. Also, there is a circular brace around the sound hole, about 3/8" wide, the inner circumference of which is cut flush with the sound hole opening, giving the initial appearance that the top is about 1/2" in thickness.

The Parlor Grand's open string length is a bit longer than that of a regular full-size autoharp. (As a reference, the speaking length of the F bass string is 20 7/8".) After some experimentation, I backed down from the usual string gauges by .002" for the plain wire and by .004" for the middle-gauge wound strings. The original copper-wound bass strings were restored and retained. Their core and winding wire gauges were measured and recorded, and replacements were custom wound in copper, to be kept at the ready for when the originals eventually break.

The instrument was in excellent structural condition when acquired. It was likewise in a fine state of cosmetic preservation, owing to the fact that it had spent its life in its original leather-clad case, which except for some deterioration of its leather covering was itself in good condition and still serving well as a protective enclosure.

However, the autoharp suffered functional problems. The string bed was high in the center, and it was thus afflicted at both the head and tail bridges. As the bars of this autoharp are 14" in length, any distance out of flat is too much. In answering to reversibility issues, I elected to take the additive approach, rather than the subtractive. Mahogany shims were made to fit under the wire saddles. These were convex on one side and concave on the other, matching the diameter of the saddle wire (.078"), and tapered from 3/32" to zero over the course of the length (the longest measuring approximately 7"). The one at the treble end of the head bridge also required a bit of a lateral curve. The shaping was accomplished by means of simple steel scrapers I made for the purpose. These were sharpened and burnished to a hook edge in the same manner as any steel scraper used for wood-working. There was evidence that the instrument had suffered this ailment to some degree when it left the hands of its makers; there were old shims under the saddles, everywhere there needed to be new ones.

Furthermore, the bars were quite sloppy, lengthwise, in the holders. Pushed to the extreme left of their range of travel, with their ends tight against the inner wall of the bass side bar holder, all sorts of unwanted strings sounded. The solution was simply to tightly fit approximately 1/8" thick pieces of wood into each slot of the bass side holder, flush with the top of the holder and stopping just at the top of each spring.

Given these two functional problems, it is difficult to imagine that this particular autoharp was ever very playable (and that Dolge managed to sell it, with its leather-covered case, for $170 in the 1890s). Perhaps this accounts for its virtually unplayed condition.

The autoharp has the same range as the early Model 73 instruments of the same period (F to D), but with the addition of an A and B bass string, for a total of 39 strings. It produces a total of 27 chords. The shifter bars produce the major, minor, 7th, and minor 7th forms of the chords A, B, D, E, and G, as well as C7, F, Bb, and F#7. The three narrow bars at the top of the row are said in Dolgeville promo literature to be used in combination with other bars to make a other chords but in truth they are used alone and make the three diminished chords.

images

Here are a few photos of the completed restoration. (Click on thumbnail images to view large versions of them.)

 

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