Carefully crafted: Local instrument makers host inaugural ‘Harp Twangle’

Jacob Nelson, of Cottage Grove, planes a harp in the workshop of his Oak Park Heights-based business, Musicmakers March 28. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)
Jacob Nelson, of Cottage Grove, planes a harp in the workshop of his Oak Park Heights-based business, Musicmakers March 28. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

The scent of dry wood — cherry, maple and walnut — hangs in the air. Wood shavings curl and fall to the workbench or the floor as Jacob Nelson pushes a planing tool away from him.

This is where harps are born.

Trained as a luthier, or stringed-instrument builder, Nelson has worked at the Oak Park Heights business Musicmakers since 2000. Last year the Cottage Grove resident and his wife, Stephanie Botz, purchased the business from founder Jerry Brown.

Located just north of Joseph’s Family Restaurant, Musicmakers’ workshop produces not only finished harps, but also do-it-yourself harp-building kits and a myriad of stringed folk instruments.

Musicmakers began in 1978 in downtown Stillwater as a hobby store called St. Croix Kits. Its do-it-yourself offerings ranged from clothing to clocks and from cutlery to musical instruments. As time moved on, suppliers closed their doors, and by 1993 Musicmakers began creating its own instrument kits in its current Oak Park Heights workshop. Its products now ship around the globe.

Harps and harp kits are the main focus. Unlike the market for instruments like guitars and violins, the harp market isn’t saturated.

“There’s only a few other builders in Minnesota,” Nelson said. “It’s a niche market.”

Nelson is now learning to play the harp, but it was his love of the guitar that inspired him to learn the trade through a program in Red Wing.

Botz isn’t trained as a luthier, but she joined the business full time after more than a decade in the human services field, working with battered women, homeless youth and others. She found the work rewarding but taxing, and made the career change so she could spend more time with Nelson and their two children.

Husband-and-wife team Jacob Nelson and Stephanie Botz bought Oak Park Heights-based Musicmakers from founder Jerry Brown last year. The business focuses on making harps and do-it-yourself harp kits, as well as various folk instruments. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)
Husband-and-wife team Jacob Nelson and Stephanie Botz bought Oak Park Heights-based Musicmakers from founder Jerry Brown last year. The business focuses on making harps and do-it-yourself harp kits, as well as various folk instruments. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Including Nelson and Botz, Musicmakers has nine employees. The shop’s foreman, Tim Woulfe of Somerset, Wis., has worked there about 25 years. Company founder Jerry Brown still comes in part time.

The shop’s single bestselling instrument is the Reverie harp, designed by Brown 10 years ago in collaboration with Australian music thanatologist Peter Roberts. It’s a simple, 22-stringed instrument that lends itself well to therapeutic uses. Tuned to a pentatonic scale, it sounds soothing however the player plucks or strums.

“Really this instrument saved Jerry’s business during the recession,” Nelson said.

The Reverie harp isn’t the only instrument Musicmakers has designed.

“We try to design at least one new instrument each year,” Nelson said. Often that means reworking a classic design to create something fresh.

The business also tries to make it easy for others to feel the satisfaction that comes from creating their own instrument, and do-it-yourself kits remain a large part of the business.

Some buyers choose a harp kit to save money, and others build an instrument simply for the joy of it.

Kits are available in various difficulty levels and are designed to be built without a lot of special tools.

“We’ve had people without woodworking experience succeed,” Nelson said.

The Psalmodikon, a traditional, one-stringed Scandinavian instrument, is an example of a good kit for beginners, Nelson said.

Cody Clifton of Houlton, Wis., tunes a harp in Musicmakers’ Oak Park Heights showroom March 28. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)
Cody Clifton of Houlton, Wis., tunes a harp in Musicmakers’ Oak Park Heights showroom March 28. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Since taking ownership, Nelson and Botz have begun putting their own stamp on Musicmakers’ business.

“Since Jake and I took over, we’re trying to network with local harpists,” Botz said.

As part of that effort, the business is hosting its first-ever “Harp Twangle” at its workshop Saturday, April 8.

“A twangle means a gathering of harps,” Nelson said. “It’s something we want to try to do at least annually.”

Renowned harpist Kim Robertson and St. Paul harpist Stephanie Claussen will present a day of workshops, culminating in a concert. Workshop topics will include Celtic ornaments, unique textures, passing tones and easy chord substitutions.

The workshops are for harpists, but the concert is open to all. Workshops are $30 each; harp rental is $10; and the concert admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and younger. The concert is 4-5 p.m. Space is limited. Register at 800-432-5487 or harpkit.com/harptwangle.

Musicmakers is at 14525 61st St. Ct. N., Oak Park Heights.

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]