Stone loves to build harps
Editor’s note: This story is part of the Republican Eagle’s 2019 Progress Edition. This year we take readers “Behind the Scenes” of the sometimes hidden work of organizations around the area. Find the rest of the stories at Behind the Scenes.
Gary Stone doesn't play a harp, but he loves to engineer, design, and construct them. In fact, he has built 8,700 harps and shipped them to happy customers all over the world.
Gary and his wife, Eve, own Stoney End Harps and Hobgoblin Music on Highway 19, about a mile south of Highway 61 in Red Wing.
"I've done woodworking since I was a kid," Gary said. "I did carpentry work in college and would hang out at this little West Bank dulcimer shop. That was back in the hippie days with people running around barefoot with beads. They were making mountain dulcimers for people to play at all the music festivals."
After the University of Minnesota, Gary built cabinets and furniture for 15 years. When the owner of the dulcimer shop retired, Gary bought his plans and materials and made dulcimers.
He also designed and built a few harps.
"People bought them," he said. "Then I made a few more and people bought them. Eventually, I quit my day job and started making harps full time. That was 35 years ago."
Gary grew up in Red Wing and wanted to live here. He started Stoney End Harps and eventually decided that if he was making folk music instruments, he wanted a barn to house the business. He looked around for two years.
"He came home one day and said, 'I found a barn. It's wonderful. I think it comes with a house. I haven't seen the house, but the barn is great,'" Eve explained. "He made his dream come true."
Gary's workshop and the shipping room are on the ground floor. The second floor houses Hobgoblin Music and displays not only the harps and dulcimers Gary builds, but a variety of drums, guitars, mandolins, bagpipes, and other instruments sold through Hobgoblin Music, a British company. The third floor is a theater which they rent out for political meetings, church services, weddings, musical performances, and other events.
Standing in the store on the second floor, Eve pointed to the uneven planks. "This is the original flooring for the haymow," she said. "The ceiling is original, too, but we added on the outside roof and put on solar panels."
Gary said the 34-by-100-foot barn was built in the early 1920s. "All over the Midwest we are losing hundreds of barns every year, falling down to decay," he said. "They just don't fit into modern agricultural needs, so it is hard to justify all the expense of maintaining a barn if you haven't got an adaptive reuse, which is what we have been able to do."
Over the years, Gary has designed several models of harps. The models have names like Eve for his wife, Brittany and Bronwen for his daughters, Marion for a friend, and Lorraine for family member. Customers can order these standard models, or they can talk with Gary and customize a harp for their needs.
They can also select from walnut, cherry, or maple wood that is sourced from mills throughout the Midwest, according to Gary, and the "faceboard is high-grade laminated birch that comes from Finland."
The physics of music make many decisions for him. "You have to follow what those vibrating strings will give you," Gary said, "which, of course, has been explored for hundreds of years. After that, you can design harps that have an attractive appearance."
Gary does the construction work, but he said that "Eve is a singer, and she is much more involved in the music. She does the selling and the meetings with the customers. She sees what they want, what their goals are, and tries to match the customer with the right harp."
Customers also have an option to add custom artwork. Heidi Bacon often adds acrylic paintings to the soundboard of a harp, and Kathy Goodman will add unique woodburning designs.
"These are two different styles of artwork, and both of them work really well with the harps as folk instruments," Bacon said. "Sometimes people want things that are symbolic for them. It's all personal."
She recounted one harp she painted which had a black background and "I did rosemaling, the Scandinavian art that you see on plates. It was pinks and blues, and it was really beautiful."
Another design looked like ivy that was growing up and wrapping around the body of the harp.
Gary, who has five people working in the shop with him, said, "We are constantly cutting parts for inventory and then putting the harps together. We sand, put on the finish, and let that cure. Then we add the strings and do the tuning. We try to average making one a day."
After Gary began shipping harps around the world, he realized that he wanted to keep track of where the harps were going. He got a log book and wrote down each sale. He also inlaid a numbered gold medallion into the pin block of each harp.
"People will buy a used harp and call us up for strings or something," Gary said, "and we will update our records for where that harp is living now."
"We have made 8,700 harps. We didn't keep track of the first 300. We didn't know we would be doing this for 35 years," said Gary, who added, "I have no intention of quitting anytime soon."