Harpmaker Turns Hobby into Woodworking Career
Making experimental musical instruments is often seen as a niche hobby. It requires patience, meticulous care, and rigor to make it into a successful career. Jamie Newsom has been creating Celtic harps in Bragg Creek for almost a decade and a half out of his garage. He grew up in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba before beginning a career as a mechanical engineer after graduating from the University of New Brunswick. After working in the alternative fuel sector for several years, Newsom traded hydrogen gas for harps.
Celtic harps are much smaller than regular harps with wire and nylon strings. The instrument was used for folk music in Scotland and Ireland in 1880. It’s considered one of the most rewarding instruments one can play as it’s quite easy to learn and incredibly enjoyable to play. The Celtic harp is acclaimed for being one of the key attributes in the revival of early folk music.
A Love for Jazz and Folk Music
In his late teens, Newsom developed a love for jazz and folk music and learned how to play the bass and guitar. His love of both genres transitioned into a yearning to build an instrument that beautifully created the music he cherished. He made his first Celtic harp in the early 2000s for his daughter who wanted to learn to play the instrument. Instead of renting out a harp for her, he worked with Joanne Meis, the late Vanouver-based harp maker, to help him build his first. After that day, Newsom’s harp-making hobby sprouted into a respectable profession. The artisan has worked with several Canadian harpists to improve his design and has consistent clients throughout Western Canada and even some in Israel.
“The main part of the clientele would be more middle-aged gals. They’ve got kids out of the house and the husband has a new Harley and they think, ‘I need something,’” explained Newsom. “They are like kids, so enthusiastic and they take them away and they love them and that makes me feel good.”
As a former harp hobbyist that took to each project with enthusiasm, Newsom could appreciate their excitement and anticipation to learn more about the instrument. Harps are made from raw wood materials, often maple, cedar, or walnut. Depending on the type of harp, the builder will use hardwoods or tone woods. “You start with a piece of wood and it will become a soundboard and it’s hard to imagine how to get an instrument out of it, but you log the hours in the shop making sawdust and you get there,” Newsom said.
Building the harp takes a considerable amount of time, normally a month for one. However, Newsom focuses on making two harps at a time. “I make two at a time and I call them twins. They are made out of the same boards. You expect it to be similar but they are like children — they don’t come out the same,” Newsom noted. “Everything is the same look, I made it identical but they don’t act the same at all.” This could be due to the different radiation patterns of sound in the harp and its intensity.
Newsom primarily builds 36-stringed harps that he sells for $7,000 each to his clients. Whether the Celtic harp is being used as an afternoon pastime, to create music to share with the world, or even as a charming addition to the home, the opportunities it welcomes are endless.
Ellie King is the Editor of Wood Industry / Le monde du bois magazine and weekly E-digest. She has years of experience in B2B writing and editing and is empowered by the opportunity to share the marvels, pitfalls and weekly news of Canada’s secondary wood industry with our readers.