We report here the development of a tunable vacuum ultraviolet light source, providing subpicosecond pulses over the wavelength range from 114 (similar to 11 eV) to 32 nm (similar to 39 eV), designed for surface science experiments. The source is based on high order harmonic generation. The experimental setup is described in detail and the harmonic yield as a function of the gas type (xenon or argon) is compared with theoretical descriptions. We address in particular the tunability of the source, desirable for surface science applications. Absolute characterization of the harmonic yield has also been performed and validated with time-resolved fluorescence measurements. The results are extremely promising, with intensities of similar to 10(10) photons/s, with regard to the use of this coherent source for surface science and spectroscopy. (C) 2001 American Institute of Physics.