HarpTech

THE HARP COLUMN July/August 2000
- By Mike Lewis

Tuning Pins: What to do when they don't work like they're supposed to.

I love writing "What's Da Buzz?" for "Da Harp Column." The folks here told me no one who reads this magazine turns to my column first. However, they said you are all happy that it is offered. (Well, almost everyone anyway.) Having trouble sleeping? Read on!
Our topic du jour is tuning pins. "Great," you say, "I've been waiting years to read about turning pins!" Well, your wait is over. Nothing can beat reading about tuning pins, short of reading about main action geometry for pedal harps. (Sorry man, the main action will have to wait!)
Provided you are not a harpist who considers tuning to be optional, you probably deal with your tuning pins at least once a day, or at least before any performance. (I'll share my harp CD collection with you if you'd like to hear an example of some harpists who believe harps are tuned at the factory and that's enough.) To be fair, there are times when tuning pins make tuning a royal pain. Royalty in this case can be a lack of as well as an abundance of revolution. You'll see what I mean.
On all pedal harps, and on many lever harps, the tuning pins are a tapered fit. "Tapered what?" you ask. Tuning pins, you will notice, are fatter on the tuning key side than on the string side (see figure 1). This thick-to-thin design is called a taper, and because the hole in the neck of your harp matches this taper, voila; you have a "tapered fit" tuning pin.

A tuning pin is constantly being pulled down and in by the tension of the string. The degree to which this occurs is directly related to the angle of the string between the string nut and the end of the tuning pin. As always, too much or too little of a good thing - in this case, angle - is bad (see figure 2).
WHAT'S YOUR ANGLE? I've seen harpists jam up, lock, and break off their tuning pins because they didn't bother to take out the string slack that had built up on their pins (see figure 2C). When the string is wrapped around the pin all the way to the neck of your harp, the tuning pin can become jammed. Once this happens, it will take very little force to snap off the end of the tuning pin. There are several ways to fix the tuning pin once you have done the deed. You can use vise grip pliers on the end of the broken tuning pin to unwind the string. Cutting the string and unwinding it will also do the job. In either case, make sure you are wearing safety glasses.
You can also have too much angle due to a design or manufacturing error, but this problem generally does not manifest itself as acutely or quickly in the form of too many string wraps. Your technician will be able to determine if design or manufacturing error is the culprit of your harp's problems, and help you find workable solutions if this is the case.
For years you've dreamed of an auto-tuning harp, and now it's here! The only problem is that it is inaccurate. If a string is not pulling its tuning pin down and in, it it pushing it back out the tapered hole in the neck (see figure 2B). The minute the string has a chance to kick the tuning pin back out of its snug tapered fit, it will not hold pitch accurately. Voila, an auto-tuning harp! This situation can happen for two reasons: either the string does not have enough wraps around the pin, or the hole for the tuning pin is too big. The first reason can be a manifestation of the second. The simple fix for not enough string wraps is to leave more slack when you put on a new string, especially with bass wires.
The solution for a tuning pin hole that is too big comes in two varieties. The simple and cheap solution is to de-tune the string and remove the tuning pin from the hole. Get some 400-grit emery cloth, and place the rough side of the cloth toward the wood in the tuning pin hole. Then replace the tuning pin in the hole with the emery cloth. Hopefully, your tuning pin will now have a better fit. By the way, a little emery cloth will go a long way in this operation.
The second method calls for getting what is known in the industry as an "over-sized tuning pin." The problem is that the hole may be too small for an oversized tuning pin, but too big for a regular pin. In this case, your tuning pin holes may need to be drilled larger. Consult your favorite harp technician at this point and ask him/her for help. The tapered reamers (in other words, fancy drill bits) needed for this operation are not that expensive, but I don't recommend trying this yourself. The first solution will work until you can see a pro. Besides, if you screw up you'll have to resort to the first solution anyway. (Not that I would know.)
Let's say your angle looks good, yet you're still having problems with your tuning pins. Perhaps your harp is suffering from one of these tuning pin diseases: 1.
Is your tuning pin really hard to turn for no apparent reason? If you don't believe your harp is magical, now is the time to start. I'd say your harp is suffering from what we technicians call "voodoomatrix." Chant what you think is appropriate and then de-tune the string with one hand, while pushing the tuning pin back out of the taper with the thumb of your other hand. Be careful with the bass wires while doing this because the end of the string may poke into your thumb. (This causes a remarkable increase in the rate of chanting.) When you can feel the tuning pin slip back out of the taper, re-tune the string. This should reset a pin that has become a little too snug in its hole. If this doesn't make it better, you need to pretend that it is problem no. 2 and continue reading.
2.
Is your tuning pin auto-tuning for no apparent reason? This has nothing to do with metaphysics. The tuning pin is probably too smooth. De-tune the string, remove the string from the tuning pin, and remove the tuning pin from the neck by working it back and forth and pushing on the string side with your thumb. Use the edge of a metal file to scrape the tuning pin lengthwise in the area of the serration. You will either remove harp crust, or you will add new serrations. Either way your tuning pin will now have some teeth to hang onto the wood. Warning: a little will go a long way! Next, clean out the tuning pin hole. In extreme cases use a reamer. Use a bottle cleaner, test tube cleaner, compressed air, or anything that works. If your harp has newer style sandblasted tuning pins, it doesn't hurt to push them in a little as you tune. Pushing in is not recommended for older-style serrated tuning pins. To find out whether it is safe to push your pins in, take out your 0-octave G or F pin and examine it (see figure 3). Because of their design, older pins tend to eat their way through your harp's neck. Pushing in will only increase the rate of wear.
3.
Hop, skip, pop, jump, and squeal! Is the latest Kali dance fad sweeping the country? No - harps and harpists all over the world have been doing the dance for years while keeping both feet on the ground. There are several potential causes for these tuning pin problems that never seem to go way. Skipping is caused by a tuning pin hole which evolves from a perfect circular shape to an oval shape. The top and bottom of the hole wear unevenly due to the angle at which the string is pulling the tuning pin. As you tune, the tuning pin skips up and down over the uneven surface. There are several ways to alleviate this situation. You can use your 400-grit emery cloth and "shim" the top of the tuning-key side and the bottom of the string-side of the tuning pin hole. Or, get an oversized tuning pin and ream out the hole for the larger tuning pin. If you are lucky, one of these methods will work. Does your harp squeak when you tune it? The first thing to do is to make sure there is no buildup on the tuning pin. If there is excess buildup, use the same fix as for problem no. 2. If this doesn't work, I'm sorry to tell you that "you just have to live with it." You can always try coating the pin with baby powder, powdered graphite, or rosin. You can also get a new neck for your harp; the new neck is the only option that works 100 percent of the time.
4.
"My tuning key no longer turns my tuning pins! What's up?" For your conspiracy theorists, it is simple: the multi-national harpmakers association, owned by a Caribbean holding company, have lately deemed it wise for tuning keys to be made of softer metal. Planned obsolescence as it were. The action of shortening tuning key life really should not amaze you. I look at this in two ways: as a pawn of the empire I must tell you that the new keys cause less wear on your tuning pins because the metal is softer than the metal in your tuning pins. As a rebel I must tell you that after your new tuning key wears out the key will increase wear on your tuning pins by rounding the corners until they no longer work and must be replaced (see figure 4).
(Not in original article: As your tuning key becomes worn, the metal along the sides become "work hardened." It is this work harded surface that will wear at your tuning pins.

5. You need to do as your teacher says and clean your tuning pins regularly. You need to find a new teacher! Well, maybe not, but there is a lot of misinformation being passed along these days. I have not seen any advantage in a tuning pin cleaning ritual, but I'm open to argument. It's true, there may be some crust that builds up on your tuning pin. But if it is not causing any of the above problems, why bother? My saying is, "If it ain't broke, why be messin'?" THE HARP COLUMN July/August 2000