From furniture to harps: A natural progression for woodworker
WEST STOCKBRIDGE — It isn't too difficult to find somebody who builds guitars in Berkshire County, but where do you go if you're in need of a harp?
For the past five years, Michael Costerisan has been making and repairing the ancient instrument on the West Stockbridge property he shares with his wife, artist Karen Andrews. After decades of cabinet work at area homes and businesses, Costerisan now specializes in crafting 34-string folk harps, also known as Celtic harps or lever harps. He keeps them in a showroom below the workshop he built, along with his house, in the early 1980s. For the 71-year-old Costerisan, October Mountain Folk Harps is a natural application of his craftsmanship.
"It is a woodworking project, ultimately. It's all made of wood, and I've got all the equipment you would need," Costerisan said on a recent Tuesday afternoon at his shop.
Costerisan had just finished his latest creation, a 34-string mahogany harp, in advance of the Somerset Folk Harp Festival that is running this weekend in Parsippany, N.J. October Mountain Folk Harps is the region's only exhibitor at a gathering that draws harp makers and enthusiasts from around the world. Unlike many folk harp makers, Costerisan uses a round back instead of a square back. Since harpists essentially hug their instruments, comfort and quality are of the utmost importance when considering how to build a harp's body.
"It's very intimate," Costerisan said.
The Janesville, Wisc., native began making harps about five years ago after encountering some musicians in Gloucester. The harpist asked if Costerisan could perform a simple repair on her instrument. He said he could, but the job was eventually scrapped due to travel concerns. Still, the experience got Costerisan thinking about harp-making.
"I was immediately attracted to that," he said.
By that point, he had been a woodworker for more than 40 years. He was one of the original members of the Berkshire Woodworkers Guild, and he played a vital role in restoring Ventfort Hall in Lenox. Furniture-making has been a focus for Costerisan since he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and began his career in Appalachia.
"There isn't any kind of furniture I have not made, or any style," he said.
As his career progressed, he started doing more cabinet work, especially in kitchens, because it was more lucrative. But cabinets became increasingly difficult for Costerisan physically.
"Cabinet work involves a lot of heavy materials, specifically plywood, and lots of it," he said. "To build a kitchen, you're going to need 15 or 20 sheets of plywood and stacks of lumber and boxes of hardwood — just a lot of heavy material. I was interested in getting into something smaller, you know, workable."
Harp-making fit that description, so he began searching for plans online. The craft dates back thousands of years. Shaped like hunter's bows, harps' predecessors emerged during ancient times; Egyptian drawings from roughly 3000 BC depict harp-like instruments. Modern folk harps' roots can be traced back to medieval Europe. They feature a triangular shape that includes strings stretching from the soundboard to an upper "neck" piece. A wooden pillar connects those two rustic parts, and sharping levers can change strings' keys. Today, a variety of different types of harps exist, including large pedal harps played with both hands and feet at concerts.
"I think, historically, they are like the oldest stringed instrument, and I think logically they are, too," Costerisan said of harps, "because, really, you put a string from point A to point B and pluck it, and it makes a sound. There's no fret board. There are no tuning keys. It's just, 'Boing.'"
Actually learning how to play isn't so straightforward. A longtime electric guitar player, Costerisan is still working on his harp skills.
"I have taken lessons, but it's not easy," he said.
Building harps has been easier for Costerisan. To construct his first two harps, he used instructions from a harp maker he found online. On Tuesday, seven harps surrounded him, their shiny, angled exteriors consisting of sapele, walnut, maple and cherry wood. Costerisan estimated that it takes him between 40 and 50 hours to build a harp. He starts by creating the instrument's body, bending layers of wood over a form and putting them in a vacuum press for half a day or so to generate the round back. Once that's done, he fashions the soundboard out of red cedar.
"It's tapered from the top to the bottom in thickness as well as in the width. The obvious taper is just the width, but it's thinner up here than it is down there," he said, noting that he places a veneer over the red cedar.
Framing, bracing and gluing come next; eventually, the soundboard gets connected to the pillar and the neck, which are "pretty much basic woodworking," Costerisan said.
Once string ribs and other finer parts of the body are finished, Costerisan adds tuning and bridge pins as well as strings sourced from North Shore Strings. Most of the strings are nylon; some are metal. Tuning the instrument requires about a week.
"It takes quite a while for a harp to get in tune and stay in tune because there's a lot of pressure. There's probably a little over 1,000 pounds of pressure on the strings pulling on the soundboard," he said.
Finally, Costerisan adds the sharping levers. The finished harps sell for $4,000; most buyers purchase a $275 case as well. Costerisan often sells to students and teachers. Unlike furniture and cabinet-making, which is almost entirely commissioned work, harp-making requires keeping a robust inventory. And in-person consultations are pretty standard.
"Unless you're really, really established and well-known, it's unlikely I would sell a harp off of my website sight unseen," Costerisan said. "Somebody wants to touch it, play it and hear it."
Much of Costerisan's business comes from those who already own the instrument. He's met people that have 10 or 12 harps at home.
"Just like guitars or any other instrument," he said, "nobody has just one."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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