Introduction: How to Make a Talharpa (Viking Instrument)

About: Student in love with creativity, science, languages, music, reading and cultures!

Would you usually be sitting comfortably in your couch, when some savage Viking vibes hit you? Well, it happened to me. After some research about their music, I found out about a thing called 'Talharpa', sometimes also called Taglharpa, Stråkharpa, or Jouhikko (even though the Jouhikko might not be the same instrument, depends on whom you ask), and I LOVED it. It makes an old, natural, powerful sound that immediately attracted me. BUT (yes, there's always a but) there were no much resources about how to make one. Of course, the instrument isn't too common, so I went ahead and started planning its making from anything I could find. And now here I am, teaching you in this Instructable how to make a nice sounding and really good-looking Talharpa so that you don't struggle trying to find detailed instructions on how to make one! And hey, if you want to write a comment on this project or ask me questions about it, I'd be pleased! You can also check my video on youtube (up there) if you want to hear a little demo!


I mainly used materials that I found around the house, so don't worry much about them if you have a decent set of woodworking tools (more details about those in a minute). For this project, you'll need:

  • For the body: 2 wooden planks, at least 20cm wide, 85 cm long and 3cm thick (I used pine);
  • For the strings: nylon strings, most preferably 0.5mm thick fishing line. If you want to go fancier, you can use horsehair;
  • For the bow: Any curved wooden stick that you like (you can check mine in the photos later on), as well as horsehair (I extracted mine from an old violin bow, but you can still order some on amazon or AliExpress, it won't cost you a fortune). These should be around 60cm. Here's a link. You'll also need some Rosin, Here's a link for it, as it is necessary for the bow to make sound;
  • For the bridge, the tuning pegs and the tailpiece: the hardest wood you can find. These should be really solid. I used maple wood;
  • Fine tuners. Those are surprisingly cheap. Here's a link. ;
  • A fine (yet strong) rope.
  • For the paint (don't be surprised about those): White Vinegar, Paint (gouache or acrylic), and steel wool;
  • For the finishing: Dark wood renovation oil, and boiled linseed oil;
  • Wood glue;
  • And wood filler.

As for the tools:

  • A jigsaw;
  • An angle grinder;
  • A router, with some wide bits;
  • A lot of clamps;
  • A drill. I used a small battery-powered one, along with some fine drill bits and some wide ones;
  • Sanding paper, ranging from rough (60) to smooth (180);
  • A bench vise (might come in handy);
  • A knife (for the tuning pegs);
  • A small hammer;
  • And a small saw.

If you don't have all of these, or if you don't quite get what some of them will be used for, don't worry! You'll learn more later on in the steps. Oh, and here are the plans in case you'd like to download them:

Step 1: Plan Out Your Main Design

Go on the internet, look at my photos, summon your imagination... Here, you want to create a Talharpa that you'll love, so design one that looks good to you! I advise you to take inspiration from the diagram I drew concerning the dimensions and the main shape.

Step 2: Sand Your Wood, Cut Out Your Wood

Here, you want to cut TWO wooden planks that correspond to the shape you drew using your jigsaw. Make sure to sand them well before you start (my original plank was looking quite bad). My wood was 3 cm thick. Don't worry about the hollow body for the moment, just cut! In order to cut the outer edges straight, you can use another piece of (straight) scrap wood that you'd clamp to the one you're cutting. In order to cut the inner piece in which your fingers are going to press the strings to play the notes, drill a hole, and cut the inner edges with your jigsaw.

Step 3: Hollow Your Wood to Create a Sound Box

A large sound box means loud sound. You want to leave around 2cm from the edges of each wooden plank of yours around 10cm from the bottom edge, and empty it all using your router.make sure the drill bit doesn't go from side to side: you should keep an 8mm layer in each plank untouched, they will be the front and the backside of the instrument. So secure the bit well in the router, and drill straight. You might also want to use a ruler-wooden-plank for that. Be careful! There were some small inconsistencies in my sound box, so I sanded them a bit (they wouldn't have been too bad anyways).

Step 4: Cut Out a Shape

It could be anything, but the sound needs to go out of the sandbox after vibrating in it. It should be too large, nor should it be too small. I chose an equal-sided cross: I first drilled the centre and a couple of small drills within the shape, then ground it using my basic tools. This is a delicate step, so be precise and patient!

Step 5: Cut the Head of the Back Piece Slimmer

For this step, I took the back piece to the carpenter's and told him not to cut too much into the wooden piece. I left about 1/3rd of the original thickness. I then sanded it down to a good and harmonious shape.

Step 6: Sand the Edges of Your Talharpa

You want your instrument to look as smooth and beautiful as possible, so sand it down carefully until you get a nice curve (not too small, not too large, moderation is always the key!). You can use your hand tools for that: rough first, then progressively smoother paper.

Step 7: Make the Paint

Here's a little recipe for the paint you'll be painting your instrument with as a first layer: it's homemade and cheap! The other layers we'll be doing later on will give the wood its whole beauty and vibrance, but this one will serve as a foundation layer: Add a good amount of brown and black paint (you can try out different paint tones before mixing them), then white vinegar (add a nice amount, it's cheap!) and finally steel wool. Let it rest for a week or so. If you feel like it, you can make the paint before even starting to cut the wood, so that you could find it ready when the next step comes!

Step 8: Paint the Interior of Your Talharpa

The interior of the instrument will be visible through the cross hole we made, so it has to be painted. Use the paint you did for that, and you can do several layers as well, according to your preference. I like the interior to be quite dark, so I did several layers. Keep in mind that when this paint dries, it turns darker.

Step 9: Glue Your Two Pieces Together!

This one is a satisfying one! But make sure to add a lot of glue, and align both pieces well on each other. Clamp them well (use small scrap wood as supports between the instrument and the clamps), and let dry for a day or two. Then, of course, unclamp it.

Step 10: Sand Down the Non-aligned Edges

After glueing, some edges might not be perfectly aligned, as shown in the photo above. So sand the edges down to the same level and the separation line of the planks.

Step 11: Apply Wood Filler, Let It Dry, and Sand It

I then applied wood filler to smoothen the separation line between the two wooden planks, as displayed in the photos. I let it dry overnight, then sanded it extremely well. Make sure that it only fills the eventual tiny gap between the planks, nothing else. You don't want it to be visible when you paint your instrument. If your wood was well-aligned and sanded, you might not even need this step, but I chose to do it anyways to make the separation line as smooth as possible.

Step 12: Paint, Let Dry, SAND!

Now is the time to paint your Talharpa. Don't put too much paint here: in order to achieve an old rustic look, you should definitely let it dry (it doesn't take more than a couple of hours) and sand it really well! Let some good-looking sand-paper scratched appear on the surface! Let it be a light and interesting paint that values the texture of your wood. If you think it's too thick and hides the texture, don't worry, you can always sand it down. The finishing we'll apply later on will give it even more value!

Step 13: Apply the Finishing

Now is the turn of the renovation oil and the drying oil to play. Add generous amounts of dark wood renovation oil and boiled linseed oil, let dry, repeat... until you get the vibrant texture you're looking for!

Step 14: Make the Wooden Pegs and Paint Them

Now you want to make 4 tuning pegs and 2 other 'square' ones (you'll be needing these two later to tie your tailpiece - you'll know what I'm talking about later in the steps). In the picture, all of them are shown to be equal in size (about 10cm) but I advise you to cut the 'square' pegs shorter, about 4 cm (I did this later actually, as you'll see in the next steps). You'll want to draw a circle (1.2cm in diameter) at the top of a wooden piece and cut it all the way down using a knife. You might want to make it gradually thicker so that it firmly fits its place later on. Treat your pegs with delicacy, you don't want to end up ruining their shape due to a hasty work! When you shape them, paint them with the paint you made and the oils we used for the finishing of the body of the Talharpa. Finally, remember that you should cut a slim slot at the top of your tuning pegs to fit the strings later on.

Step 15: Fix the Tailpiece Supports and Drill Holes for the Tuning Pegs

At the bottom of your instrument, drill two diagonal holes to fit the 'square' pegs you made with wood glue. At the top, drill four evenly-spaced holes of the size of your tuning pegs. Remember that they should fit firmly without wobbling!

Step 16: Cut Out the Bridge and the Tailpiece From Maple Wood, and Paint Them

You want these to be strong! Let the bridge be 4cm high, about 4mm thick in average, straight (unlike a violin one which would be curved), and finer at the top than at the bottom and the tailpiece should be just a bit more than 5mm thick. Paint them with your DIY paint, then finish them with the oils we've been using.

Step 17: Apply the Fine Tuners to the Tailpiece and Drill Holes for the Rope

here, you should put the fine tuners in place. It might seem complicated at first, but it's actually not. The first time I applied some, I hadn't seen any tutorial video, so I figured it out pretty easily: look well at the pictures above: the tailpiece is sitting between the bottom part of the fine tuner and the large screw. The small screw (the one that actually tunes) is fixed at the end. At the bottom of the tailpiece, drill 4 holes in the shape of a square to tie it with the 'square pegs' we've fixed a couple of steps ago.

Step 18: Make the Strings

Now is time to make the strings that'll give life to your instrument! Don't worry, it's an easy one: Take an 80cm long (you'll need less, but just in case) wooden piece (anyone that you could find will do), put two tails at each edge, and roll some strands of nylon fishing line (the one in the picture is 0.22mm thick, but the 0.5mm might be better and easier to play). If you're using a 0.5 line, roll about 6, 8 or 10 strands (you want your wires to sound different from one another). When you're done, cut one edge and tie it.

Step 19: Assemble All Parts

First of all, attach the tailpiece to its supports using a rope. Let it be around 50 cm away from the holes we drilled for the tuning pegs. Insert the tied end of the strings in them, place the tuning pegs, and tie the other end of the strings to them. Tune your strings the way you like. One way to tune them is AEAE or DADA. All you have to do is adjust their tensions with the tuning pegs and the fins tuners, and experiment with different string gauges (I'd like to address a special thanks to Hun Talharpist on youtube who gave me advice about string gauges and tuning possibilities!).

Step 20: Make the Bow

The bow is quite a simple one: Find a curved and good-looking stick, paint it the usual way, drill 2 holes in it (they should be around 40 cm away from one another), bring your horsehair (I took those of an old non-functional violin bow) and tie it through one hole then the other, and cover both ends with tape. Yes, your bow is done. Note that you must put some rosin on it (the small resin that usually comes with a violin bow) for it to make music on the strings (mine is completely destroyed, but it doesn't really matter, haha). Rosin isn't expensive at all, you can get some of it at any music store!

Step 21: Enjoy Your Instrument!

Now that everything's ready, it'd be safe to say that you deserve a moment with your instrument! You can get inspiration from some youtubers who share Talharpa music and techniques, or just experiment tunings and small pieces of music by yourself! And don't forget that if you'd like to comment on this project or ask me any question about it, I'd be pleased!

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