Knutsen Harp Steel Guitar, c.1925
Some kids have monsters under their beds…
…and some have Knutsens.
The owner of this Knutsen harp steel told me that it has laid under his childhood bed untouched (in its original case) for all of his 62 years. It was put there by his grandmother, who apparently bought it used and never played it.
So is it a Time Capsule guitar? Well, for the last 62 years, yes…but no, not quite.
But before telling that story, here’s another: When the owner sent me some photos of this for possible consignment, I was delighted to discover that this instrument was one I had been hoping to see for over 15 years now, in fact 3 years before I even created The Knutsen Archives. Just a simple entry and tiny photo has been in the Archives from its inception. Check out Inventory #HHW10 (that means it was the tenth “Weissenborn-shape” harp steel I had then encountered): The owner had sent me that tantalizing photo in 1999 after finding my Knutsen page on my minermusic.com site. At the time, this was one of the fanciest specimens anyone had ever seen, and you can sense how anxious I was at the time to get better images of it! Well, almost 15 years later, I actually have it hand – and it’s still a very fancy specimen, if no longer quite the most outrageous. Tasteful, this one.
The spruce top is punctuated with various patterns of mahogany; some of these literally glow. The back, sides and fingerboard appear to be koa. Rope binding festoons the top, fingerboard and soundhole (which also incorporates wide mahogany rings, something unusual for Knutsen). The inlays include both tan celluloid dots and fancier pearl decorations inlaid into black mastic. The head and relatively long neck (5-frets worth) are solid fir (Knutsen’s standard). All in all, this is a prize. It even includes an original Knutsen case – or at least that’s my conclusion, since I’ve now seen too many of these burgundy colored trapezoidal cases with the dark plaid fabric lining to believe in coincidence!
Now to condition:
As it was still strung up under low/medium tension (for 62+ years), I was surprised that it was in such great condition (other than a couple loose back braces revealed by tap test). The top has noticeable (but for Knutsens, normal) deformation (bellied behind the bridge, dipping in front). The top could stand to be flattened just a bit more and the underside of the bridge then profiled to match (see photo).
Curious about its innards, interestingly, the inspection mirror revealed a previous repair job, and probably not by Knutsen (though I can’t yet rule that out). This repair then, must have been done sometime between when it was built (probably in the mid-to-late ‘twenties) and before the owner’s family acquired it (by about 1950, though it could have been much earlier; in fact, it's not impossible that someone in the family bought it new).
Regardless, at some point, the back was taken off (reattached in very good, but slightly imperfect, alignment with the sides) and is separated for a few inches on the lower bout (see photo)…which is good, as the future owner will want to remove it again for a bit of work. The bridge plate looks like it was replaced with a new piece of spruce. A curious choice is the large, 1” thick chunk of wood placed against the brace above the soundhole under the fingerboard extension. It doesn’t seem to hurt the tone, but seems way overkill! Two nail ends are poking out of it, which must have been installed from the top, under the fingerboard. The fingerboard was thus removed, and we can see some gaps and glue beading here and there (again, this should be easy to get off again, if desired). All the braces that I could see look untouched.
The tuners are fancier than normal for Knutsen, so may have been replaced during the restoration. The off-white celluloid bridge pins all look like Knutsen’s, the 6 with abalone inserts are likely replacements. The finish looks original, though I cannot be certain.
Since this ancient stabilization repair took place, the only new issues are a couple loose braces and small cracks in the bridge from the two sub-basses (the screws are original, a Knutsen trademark).
After photographing it, I changed a couple of the neck strings to try to get a sense of what it sounds like (or will sound like). Not bad! I won't promise it'll sound "fantastic," but fully expect it to sound very good to great when properly restored.
BOTTOM LINE: A nice, fancy Knutsen, with everything going for it. Repairing the things discussed above should be easy and affordable enough that it’s a no-brainer to plan on removing the back and fingerboard again, take care of the insides and bridge, and put it back together even better than the first time. You’ll then have a fully functional, clean and original Knutsen harp steel with all the bells and whistles. Take that, Weissenborn!
- – Gregg "Sir Gregory" Miner
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