Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. — Aristotle
Dave Woodworth is grinning from behind a worktable as his wife comes into his remarkably tidy wood shop. He introduces her as “the brains of the outfit…and the beauty, too.”
The “outfit” to which he refers is Heartland Harps & Music on the outskirts of Hendersonville, North Carolina. Woodworth is one of a small handful of artisans who design and manufacture custom Celtic harps. These are not the traditional, ornate instruments one might normally expect. Heartland harps are smaller and use the curved sound boxes that have been built in Europe for more than two centuries.
The curved boxes give Heartland harps more volume and a clear, warm, mellow tone. Another innovation, the “pillar-through-the-soundboard” design, allows the bottom of the soundboard to vibrate more fully to enhance the instrument’s bass tones. Woodworth is the only major manufacturer using that unique design in the United States. He makes four different models, which are sold internationally and are widely prized for their rigidity, strength and comfort, as well as for their excellent tonal quality.
He currently builds about 50 harps per year and estimates that he’s produced around 1,400 of the classic instruments since getting interested in instruments back in the mid ’80s. Each harp is handmade by Woodworth, although he does employ an apprentice, Tommy Bennett, who graduated from the Columbus (Ohio) College of Art and Design with a major in sculpture.
But this isn’t really a story about a harp builder. It’s more about a guy who has discovered a way for himself and his family to make a seriously good living doing precisely what they love to do.
Back in the ’80s, Woodworth was designing and building furniture, but that really wasn’t fulfilling his creative urges. “I saw the plans in the back of a book,” he explains, “on how to build a hammered dulcimer. I needed a project, so I built that. Some friends saw it and asked me to build some for them.
“I redesigned the whole thing and took one of the redesigned ones back to the store where I’d originally bought the book.”
The storeowner was sufficiently impressed with Woodworth’s redesigned instrument to ask him to build several in kit form for the store. “Then six months later,” he recalls, “the guy calls me up and says that the guy who makes the harp kits is retiring and would I do harp kits. Basically, I just kept saying ‘yes’ all the way along. I built harp kits for several years, and then sold a finished one to a dealer in upstate New York for $250.”
That same harp, he says, would sell today for about $3,500.
There are roughly 2,000 harps manufactured in the U.S. annually. The more traditional kind, the sort you might see in a large orchestra, is called a “pedal harp” and is more than six feet tall with a lot of ornate trim. Seven pedals located along the bottom to provide tonal differences while the harp is being played. Folk harps (also known as “lever harps”) are smaller and use small flip-up lever instead of pedals. “Pedal harps,” he says, “start at somewhere around $10,000 to $12,000. I’ve worked on one that was $100,000. Mine top out at about $10,000.
The harps are made from walnut, cherry, mahogany, and Baltic birch, with a natural or stained finish, depending upon the customer’s preference.
Heartland’s top-priced model, however, uses kauri wood, an ancient specimen pulled from the bogs of New Zealand. The wood has been carbon dated, Woodworth notes, to 45,000 years (yes, 45 thousand years). It sells for about $100 per board foot.
“I’ve made a total of 18 harps out of kauri. The grain is unlike anything today. It has a tone that I really like. I have a stack of it…for a long time I was the biggest user of kauri in this country. I know I’m the only one who makes harps out of it.”
Apparently, his well-heeled clientele shares his enthusiasm for harps made from kauri wood. “That one over there under the blankets,” he says, “the one with the little vine on it, is going to Portugal early next week. This is the second one I’ve sent there. The woman who ordered it said she was going back to Switzerland and didn’t want to take the harp back with her, so I sent her one there, too…one for her house and one for her boat.”
Harpist Pamela Bruner was impressed with Heartland harps and for several years recommended them to students and fellow harpists. She didn’t actually meet Woodworth until 2000. They married the next year, and now she’s an integral part of the operation.
“My wife is the one who plays. I couldn’t play to save my life. I listen to her play and it’s like, ‘I’m never going to get that good.’ So I just build them and she plays them.”
Heartland has turned into a total family operation, he says. “My wife and I work together on the business. My mother-in-law does a lot of the bookkeeping and my father-in-law keeps the shop looking the way it does.”
Ms. Bruner contributes more than musical expertise and business help. She’s also responsible for the designs painted on the Heartland harps. She customizes the designs — intricate traditional Celtic knot work or floral musings using ivy, leaves, and flowers — according to the individual buyer’s taste. She has also written several teaching books and DVDs for several different levels of harpists.
Heartland is, of course, a successful business largely untouched by the vagaries of national economics and market fluctuations, but Woodworth and Bruner will tell you that it’s much more than a family business. “Harp building is still as much an art as it is a science,” they explain in their sales brochure, “and something we feel very fortunate to be a part of. We’re delighted to be able to bring harps and music into the world, and we want to help people realize their dreams of playing the harp by creating beautiful instruments…built to enjoy for a lifetime.”