Knutsen Double Vision

thumb404Double your courses, double your inventory, double your fun!

I can safely say that growing up I would have never predicted I would one day lay claim to the title of “owner of half of the world’s supply of Knutsen harp-taropatches.”  (“Harp-Taropatchi”?)

And yet that is the strange and unlikely status I have recently achieved – albeit temporarily.

I say “temporarily” as I’ll be selling one of them (I tried to get the last fellow to consign but he would only sell for cash, so here I am…).

Knutsen harp ukuleles are pretty darn rare but plentiful enough for most of us – there are another half dozen or so to add to my count in the Knutsen Archives, so let’s call it three dozen surviving.

The double strung taropatch version, however, is exceptionally rare – and when you stop to consider how truly esoteric and odd a stringed instrument it is, it’s astounding that Chris Knutsen thought to even make one at all!  But then, that’s the special charm of my favorite eccentric stringed instrument builder.

Currently there are four surviving harp-taros known: two of each of Knutsen’s distinct sizes (a fifth was built for Knutsen’s niece Margaret, archived as #HT2).  The two larger ones are huge – roughly baritone size bodies with tenor scales.  KA Inventory #HT3 is sitting in the back room museum shelves of the Claremont Folk Music Center (now under Ben Harper’s ownership) and HT1 is in Japan (last seen in the Tony Ku Collection book, it may have changed hands again by now).

The smaller ones have bodies 8” wide with scales of 14-3/8”.  Both have been in the Archives for a several years (KA Inventory numbers HT4 and HT5), with poor photos and scant information.  The harp taropatch was the last elusive Knutsen instrument I had been dying to obtain for almost twenty years now…by dumb luck, two owners eventually approached me with their decisions to sell (HT5 in 2012, HT4 just now).

Below I’ve shown them together with the standard harp ukulele for scale.  These two could almost be twins – except for the headstock shape and soundhole rope going CW in one and CCW in the other they’re as close as any two Knutsen instruments could be.  Or were, when built.

Both have top, back and sides made from red gum – the “imitation koa” we see so often on Knutsen instruments.  The single-piece neck-fingerboard-head is solid koa.

The top of HT5 on the right displays the original color of the red gum, as I had to refinish it.  It had already been poorly stripped and the back and sides had been done with some paint-like finish – we (my restorer and I) discovered it was to hide a large rectangular wood patch in the side.  We thus chose to leave the back and sides with a darker stain than it originally had.  Now that I have HT4 in hand I can see what HT5 must have originally looked like.

HT4 above has its original finish – Knutsen’s shellac, which tints the wood and also ages darker a hundred years later.

It also has its original label – the smaller “Patent Applied For” mystery label, a mystery no longer.  Found on both steel guitars and harp ukuleles, in 2011 we learned what this curious third, never-granted Knutsen patent was to cover: his convertible neck system.

(See Patent Applied For: Knutsen’s Adjustable Neck)

First seen on the back of his earliest 6-string steel guitars – for adjusting between first position fretted chords and higher action slide guitar – Knutsen soon realized that all of his hollow armed harp-instruments were even better suited for this option.  They’d always had a simple butt joint for the neck and a simple L-bracket to secure the headstock to the arm; now all he had to do was slot that bracket – a good half inch or more – clamp it with a handy wingnut (or screw, in this case), and the neck of every instrument he built instantly had a “neck action adjustment” feature.  He’d add an additional tiny L-bracket “hinge” at the neck heel for good measure.  Loosen the screw/wingnut, apply some pressure, and voila!  Crude but effective.

Both of these instruments sound wonderful – one strung in Nylgut, one in nylon.  I think it’s partly from the doubled courses, the rest being Knutsen’s light construction – or is red gum some magical tonewood?

I’m giving this heads up to my blog readers – serious uke collectors, feel free to make an offer before I list (I’ll likely keep the HT5 that I had first restored and sell the original finish HT4).

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