Warning: if you’re an old relic and antique buff, this post may be upsetting. This warning is especially so for those who feel ancient things should be preserved in the condition they were found. You have been warned.
If you weren’t aware of it already, I recently picked up on learning how to play the autoharp (i.e. the chorded zither). Not wanting to do things by halves, I decided I was going to do more than sit and strum my well-tuned instrument. I have decided I also want to be able to repair them a little bit – hopefully a lot in the future – with particular interest in the old Zimmerman autoharps as my heart bleeds for those poor little buggers. They’re a seriously damaged lot. The Wednesday children of the autoharp world.
It’s been a rather colorful journey so far. I’ve been yelled at, snubbed (There are honestly people who think that playing the autoharp is easy.), and have finally come into contact with fellow folk and autoharp lovers who know my pain. I’ve been practicing almost daily, really as much as I can, and throughout all of this I’ve also managed to get my hands on two late 1800’s Zimmerman autoharps cheap. Two.
The first arrived when I started on this venture. She came complete with her original case, her song book, and lots of holes and dings. While exploring her surface I found myself naming her, and thus “Fancy” has been Christened the princess of our autoharp household. For weeks, even months, she’s been sitting in her banged up old case waiting for the time I could divert some attention to her. Yesterday that time finally came.
Knowing nothing about what I’m doing, though, I decided I would first repair her case. It had a broken hinge, the outside had dings and holes in it, and the brass handle was so corroded you’d wonder if it was brass. The original wallpaper and cloth that had lined the inside was so rotted, it was crumbling. My poor 1895 baby’s bed needed a makeover.
Here is where my warning applies. At first, I admit it, I was going to try to restore the case to be as much as close to original condition as possible. As time went by I realized this isn’t what I wanted to do. My interest in repairing the Zimmerman’s isn’t so they can be on display in some museum as an example of their time. I want them to serve the purpose they were originally intended for. I want them to be playable again.
The case, too. I want it to be usable again. This meant adding some things, and… well. If I was going to do that, I was going to go all out. Before I knew it, I had decided this old case was going to have a new velvet lining inside. It was going to have brass corner protectors, too, as well as a new outside finish. I (and my husband) got to work.
Step #1, then, was to remove as many of the original fixings as I could. This turned out to be very difficult. I got the hinges off only after a fight. The eye hooks in the front? Both of the loops broke coming out, embedding their little tips deep in the wood never to be moved again by me. The handle, I soon realized, I dare not remove without damaging it. Well, I thought as I worked, I’d remove as much as I could and keep plugging along.
Step #2 was a matter of glue. Parts of the case were coming completely apart because the old glue had given up the ghost. You’d think a person could just grab a bottle of wood glue and put things back together without a hitch. Normally, I guess you could. However with Victorian era pieces, before you do that (especially with musical instruments) you gotta strip as much of the old glue away as possible first. The type of glue they used back then you won’t find anymore, and apparently mixing Victorian glue with modern glue is bad somehow. I’m not sure how.
While cleaning the base, it became apparent that someone had tried to fix this case before. Or rather, they’d given it quick fixes to hold up over the years. I should have known. Fancy herself shows signs of this sort of well-meaning treatment. I understand.
The thing is… it also meant there were a couple of repairs I couldn’t do. Those reglued parts were holding fast. They also, to my dismay, were a little askew. I was going to have to put up with that. Okay fine. I at least was going to have the original fixings as shiny as possible. The other half looked up a neat trick on the internets, and everything went into a jar to get covered in ketchup for 15 minutes.
That’s right. Ketchup. In they went, and I went back to the box.
So there I am after cleaning things up and getting them ready, gluing bits back together. Suddenly I realized I was missing a very crucial element to my plan.
Step #3 is all about clamps. Yep. I didn’t have any clamps, no way to hold things down, no way to make sure my efforts were not in vain. Husband immediately was messaging a friend to see if they had clamps we could borrow (and they do), but by the time we got the clamps the glue would have dried. I had to be creative and I had to be creative fast.
Good thing I’m creative. My solution was to grab my painter’s tape and use what was left of my entire roll to tape the box together. With the blue tape down, I watched a moment and it looked like my evil plan was going to work. Husband found some heavy books to sit on the box parts, and now we had to wait. And if you think about it I had a box with drying glue that was, well, clamped down with tape. I wonder if I had added bubble gum would it have worked any better. Not that it matters because it worked like a charm.
While that was going on, we checked our ketchupy bits. The ketchup did indeed work.. .a little bit. I was expecting them to come out of the goop shiny but they were only a little shiny. We stuck them back in some ketchup to sit overnight.
Step #4 was when the real fun began. It was time to sand the box and prepare it for whatever it was going to be. Before I could do that, though, I had to fill in some holes and even out the mess a little bit. I had already done part of that when “clamping” the box together. Now it was time to do more. Then I had to wait for it all to dry… omg the waiting.. and finally it was time to sand away.
All I can say at this point is thank goodness I have a mouse sander. It was the first time I got to use my new little tool, and it sure made short work of the black paint covering the box. We had tried stripper on that old Victorian stuff and it wouldn’t budge. I was very thankful for the sander.
A nifty thing began to happen while we were sanding. At first it was simply seeing what the original wood looked like – we think it might be pine. Then I noticed there was a faint seal under the paint. It didn’t show over the paint, but as layers were being stripped away we could sort of see it. We could make it out said “original” but we didn’t know original what… original chicken… original recipe… probably Zimmerman original… I took a photo to preserve it’s memory and carried on.
After a while through our elbow grease, we had a sanded box waiting to be stained and put back together. Our only disappointment at this stage was our little sander had damaged the handle a little bit. But other than that, so far so good.
Step #5 in living color. At first we were going to go back to black with the box, especially when it looked like we couldn’t get rid of the black paint. With beautiful, clean wood to play with we decided to go with something a bit more brown. And we would have, too, if our Walmart weren’t so huge with so very little selection. The color that we ended up going with is called “gunstock”.
Maybe because the wood was so old, the stain went in without a fuss and got very dark with very little effort. The can’s instructions said to wipe away after fifteen minutes. I was wiping away immediately, trying to bring back the color, with little luck. This box was determined to be red. And red it became.
Fine fine fine, I muttered to myself and kept going. I painted a decorative sun and moon on the front, waited for things to dry, and then it was time for the box’s protective polycrylic coating. And then… more waiting.
Step #6 was a choice. I could choose to go ahead and put the box back together, or I could put in the velvet lining. I decided to go ahead with the velvet lining, reasoning that having the two half apart would make it a little easier.
The makers of velvet cloth, by the way, are sadistic bastards. They probably sit in their little velvet-lined office cubicles chuckling to themselves at the thought of hapless folks like me trying to line boxes with their product. They most definitely have board meetings in which they discuss how to make their cloth even more difficult to work with. And they make fun of you and me. They make fun of us a lot.
I’d size up a piece. I’d cut it. I’d glue it down. And I swear to you. I SWEAR. The damn piece would shrink. Or it would wrinkle after the glue was dry I kid you not. After a long day of working on this box inbetween working on other things, I was tired and I was cranky. And at one point I even stomped my foot like a little kid, pissed at the velvet, and the husband forced me to leave my project and get some sleep.
Which of course meant I was up first thing in the morning, back at arguing with the velvet again. I had to rip some parts up and start over… and after a while I had to accept that I was going to have to move forward with wrinkles and all.
Step #7 had cometh. At last I was to the part I’d been waiting for. Woo hoo! The little bits went on. It was interesting that the ketchup had turned the bits a little rosy looking, like rose gold. That didn’t last, though, once polishing began.
The box got as many of it’s original parts back as possible – after the other half had shined them up. I have to say, when looking at that old Victorian brass it just looks so much more elegant than today’s sharp, glaring modern brass. Victorian brass for me any day if you please.
Because the original lock mechanism for the case couldn’t be trusted anymore, I put them back only because they belonged. I already had to replace the hinges, so I got a matching clasp for the front.
And with that the box was done. Fancy could now go back into her home and wait in luxury for the day that I could start on her.
I know there are people out there that are going to want to tell me how I’d ruined the box’s value. In some respects I did… but not to me, the owner of the box. I’ve increased its value as far as I’m concerned because I now have this wonderful antique box that looks better, works better, and holds my precious antique instrument a lot more securely. That’s more important to me.
Working on Fancy is going to be a bigger challenge. I know that. I thought at first that I was going to give her the same makeover treatment, but the more research I do on her model the less inclined I am to do so. She has a decorative decal that I can’t find any information about. I suspect this not only dates her, but she might be one of the few with it.
Her model is “The Favorite” which was a model that was produced for many years. The examples I find of Fancy’s siblings on the internet are all alike in that they have this other decal. Not Fancy’s decal. So Fancy will be repaired with that in mind.
However, she’s missing some parts. A lot of people just get other harps with the intention of raping them for their parts. I can’t bring myself to do that. I mean, I could if the harp were shattered I guess. So far I haven’t had the misfortune of witnessing that. Fortunately the parts that are missing I can fabricate. She won’t be factory exact, but she’s still going to be lovely as far as I’m concerned.
Fancy’s repair work is going to be a big challenge. I had one luthier tell me to throw her away and buy a new harp. But I can’t. So long as she’s there, and I have glue and clamps, there’s hope for her. And isn’t she adorable sitting there in her velvety cushioning?
Bask in her glory dammit. Bask!