A 47 Button Hayden Duet and Leather Case

Introduction

My latest instrument is a very special custom 47 button Hayden duet. I also made a bespoke hard case to store and transport it.

Specification
  • 47 buttons (+ air lever), based on the standard 46 button Hayden layout with a few small customisations.
  • Six sides, 6 1/4″ wide.
  • Seven fold black goatskin bellows with 1 1/8″ deep cards and custom bellows papers.
  • Traditional concertina reeds in aluminium frames for weight saving, normal scale on the left hand and long scale on the right (the same distribution I previously used successfully on Holden No. 4).
  • 1/5th comma meantone tuning, with A as the root note.
  • Laminated maple radial-chamber tapered reed pans with two inner chambers on each side.
  • Solid purpleheart action box sides with decorative stripes.
  • Quilted maple laminated raised end plates with decorative striped border.
  • Peacock Oil wood finish.
  • 6mm diameter glass buttons.
  • Green button bushings.
  • Custom boxwood hand rests and thumb pads with custom hand and thumb straps.
  • The first instrument to feature my new etched brass maker’s plate.
  • 2mm button travel (giving 4mm pad lift at a 2:1 action lever ratio).
  • Weight: 1440g.
  • Leather covered hexagonal clamshell case with suede covered padded interior and decorative shoulder strap.

Continue reading “A 47 Button Hayden Duet and Leather Case”

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A 38 Button G/D Anglo

My latest instrument is a 38 button G/D anglo, with raised metal ends.

Here is its full specification:

  • 38 button + air Jeffries layout Anglo in the keys of G/D.
  • Six sides, 6 1/4″ wide.
  • Six fold black goatskin bellows with 1 1/8″ deep cards and Pictish key pattern bellows papers.
  • Traditional long scale steel reeds in brass frames.
  • Laminated maple parallel-chamber reed pans.
  • Black walnut burr veneer sides with Rocklite Ebano borders and decorative stripes.
  • Solid English walnut curved-top handrails (plus a spare set with straight tops).
  • Brass riveted action levers.
  • Sycamore pad/action boards.
  • Raised inset nickel silver end plates with hidden fixing screws.
  • 3/16″ nickel silver capped buttons with acetal cores.
  • 3mm button travel (giving 6mm pad lift at a 2:1 action lever ratio).
  • Black wool bushings.
  • Nickel plating on all external metalwork apart from stainless steel bushing board screws.
  • Weight: 1484g.
  • Italian hard case with custom fitted corner blocks.

This chart (click to enlarge) shows the button layout. It is based on a fairly “standard” Jeffries C/G arrangement, transposed down to G/D:

Here is a video of Harry Scurfield kindly playing some tunes on the instrument for me. The occasional slight stumble was because some of the buttons on the accidental row weren’t in the places he is used to on his own instruments.

A significant improvement I made on this instrument was in one of the smallest parts: the action lever pivots. Previously I used these mass-produced brass rivets. The biggest problem with them was that the amount of side play varied depending on how you hammered the rivet, and occasionally a rivet moved a little causing the pivot to go loose or, worse, tighten up and prevent the pad closing.

From this instrument on, I plan to turn my own rivets from brass rod. The key difference is the precisely machined step, which sets a fixed amount of side play. You can rivet it firmly in place and there’s no risk of it later moving in the post and misbehaving. Other advantages are that it has significantly more bearing surface area, and it is thinner so it doesn’t take up as much space in the action box.

Both of the thumb buttons cross under one or two other levers to reach a pad in the middle of the action board. Something I did a little differently this time is that I made special extra-low pivot posts for those two levers.

While not the densest actions I have designed, they do have a few fiddly areas. I managed to avoid any very short or heavily cranked levers, and I was able to fit in a large round air pad on the right.

Because this concertina is destined for an area of America that is subject to significant seasonal humidity swings, I opted to use laminated reed pan boards for stability. Rather than use commercial plywood, I made my own boards from five plies of 1.5mm thick Canadian hard maple, glued with West System epoxy in a heated veneer press. The advantage of doing it this way is that the resulting boards are very hard and dense, and I know for sure that there are no hidden flaws on the inner layers of the boards. I also made the bushing boards the same way, but with three plies instead of five.

You can see the multiple plies when you look at the edge of one of the reed pans.

Due to space constraints I had to place one chamber in the middle of the reed pan on the left hand side, connected to the thumb button. It has a slightly different tone from the other chambers. I wouldn’t say that it is any quieter or slower to respond, it just has a slightly different sound.

My most recent tool investment was an old Fortuna leather skiving machine. It needed some refurbishment and new parts to get it working properly, but after spending a while getting the hang of adjusting and using it I think it’s going to save me quite a bit of time and frustration when I’m skiving bellows leather.

I used my Pictish key pattern bellows papers, printed with silver foil on black paper to match the end plates. Something unexpected happened though: from some angles the printing looks bright silver but from others it has an aquamarine tint. The effect is that the colour of the bellows changes as you open and close them and move them around in the light (you can see the effect more clearly in the video above). I think the tinting effect was probably caused by the varnish that I painted onto the papers to protect them.

I hand pierced the end plates in nickel silver. It is my own fretwork design, though heavily inspired by vintage Crabb/Jeffries designs.

This was my first try at making raised metal ends. I routed two pairs of moulds from plywood with locating dowels through button holes:

Then, one at a time, I placed an end plate in its mould and squeezed it in a heavy duty steel press (the same one I used for laminating the reed pan boards).

After raising the keyboard areas, I hammered down the edges. In hindsight this was not the best method; it worked but I will probably do it a bit differently next time.

The plates are held onto the action box sides by tiny stainless steel screws hidden underneath. They were a fiddly job to install!

I had originally planned to have the metalwork professionally nickel plated, but the nickel plater let me down, so I bought a couple of DIY electroplating kits and figured out how to do it myself.

Step 1, wet sand up to a high grit because any visible scratches will show through in the final finish. It doesn’t have to be very highly polished because the nickel bath has brightening additives that produce a mirror finish as long as the surface starts out smooth.

Step 2, a strong degreasing bath.

Step 3, an acid pickle to remove any remaining oxides.

Step 4, copper electroplating.

The copper layer doesn’t need to be very thick; its main purpose is as an undercoat to help the nickel adhere better.

Step 5, nickel electroplating. This is where I had the most problems, mainly caused by dust falling into the bath (my workshop is not exactly a cleanroom environment!) and causing bumps in the finish. In the future I think I need a pumped filtration system to keep the chemicals clean.

Step 6, a light final buff.

I also plated all the button caps, the tops of the end bolts, and the strap fixing hardware. The advantage of nickel plating instead of leaving it as bare nickel silver or brass is that it doesn’t tarnish quickly, so it will stay bright for a long time with just an occasional buffing. It is also fairly hard and less easily scratched.

The edges and corners of the action boxes are smoothly curved for playing comfort:

At the client’s request I made both curved handrails and straight ones.

After listening to feedback from previous clients about how I did the corner blocks in my cases, I did this one a bit differently. The blocks are much smaller, don’t compress the bellows as tightly, and I tailored the velvet covers so they fit the blocks more tidily.

A family resemblance: No. 5 came back in for a service while I was finishing off No. 6 so I got a photo of the two together.

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Blackbird Version II

I have recently completed my second Blackbird Anglo concertina. It was a complete re-design with some fairly significant improvements over the prototype model.

Here is a quick demo of it being played by its new owner. Apologies for the intermittent crackling on one microphone channel, I didn’t realise it was acting up until it was too late to re-record.

These are the specifications of the instrument:

  • Standard Jeffries 30 button C/G layout with the addition of an E4/F#4 button in the sixth column of the left hand middle row and a D3/D3 drone lever on the left thumb.
  • Six sides, six inches (152.4mm) wide across the flats. This is ¼” narrower than the first Blackbird, which makes a surprisingly significant difference to how ‘nimble’ it feels.
  • Weight: 1177g. 1
  • Six fold black goatskin bellows with custom papers. Slightly heavier-duty construction to increase stability for fast Anglo playing.
  • Sycamore end plates with black-dyed tulipwood veneer. Hand pierced fretwork in a traditional-style foliate design.
  • English yew border inlay.
  • Simple round-over border shape.
  • Sycamore action box walls with black tulipwood veneer (more labour than using solid Ebano, but slightly lighter-weight).
  • Yew handrails with Ebano capping. Leather thumb pads, integral brass strap fixings.
  • French polished finish.
  • Brass reed frames.
  • High quality hand-filed long scale steel reeds.
  • Sycamore reed pans with parallel Jeffries-style chambers, not tapered.
  • Sycamore action boards.
  • Brass sheet riveted action levers.
  • 5.7mm diameter boxwood buttons, slightly domed.
  • Slotted brass end bolts.

This diagram shows the full button layout. The buttons were positioned to closely match that of the client’s existing 30 button Jeffries, with a custom extra button tacked onto the end of the left hand middle row.

The end plates have a sycamore core veneered with black-dyed tulipwood, giving an ebony-like appearance but with the strength benefits of a laminate construction.

As on all my previous instruments, I hand pierced the fretwork with a fret saw. The fretwork pattern is a new design I came up with in the traditional foliate style; I like it much better than the one I used on the first Blackbird.

The borders are made from English yew wood, giving a striking contrast to the flat black of the end plate.

I used a different border moulding shape, a simple round-over rather than the fancier ogee style. It has a more gentle radius, which means it feels more comfortable on the hand.

The handrails are made from the same yew as the border, with an Ebano capping strip.

It has a drone note controlled by a lever actuated by the left thumb. The routing for this lever proved to be slightly convoluted!

Above the end plate it connects to a simple little forged brass lever positioned out of the way so it doesn’t get pressed accidentally, but not too hard to reach when you want to use it.

The buttons are made from boxwood like on my previous instrument, though this time I simply turned them from solid wood.

For various reasons I started again from scratch with the reed pan and action board layouts. I think the new version works better in several ways, as well as making room for the extra button on the left without resorting to any inner chambers. I have also improved the way I design action levers so that the longer ones are stiffer and less prone to bouncing when playing very hard, without adding a great deal of extra weight.

After building two instruments with aluminium reed frames I returned to brass reed frames for this instrument. Brass certainly adds significantly to the weight, though this instrument still feels reasonably light in the hands. I can’t really say anything definitive about the sound difference, if any, between the two reed frame materials because I haven’t built two instruments that are otherwise identical. My suspicion at this point is that because brass frames are stiffer and have more mass to counterbalance the reed tongue, they may be capable of a very slightly louder and brighter sound, though I reserve the right to change my opinion on that in the future. There certainly isn’t a huge difference between them. The other advantage of brass frames in my experience is that they are a bit less prone to misbehaving due to distortion caused by uneven pressure from the reed pan slot.

There isn’t really a significant cost difference either way, and I currently charge the same for either material. The brass raw metal is a bit more expensive, but I find there is more labour time involved in making aluminium frames. Of course I am talking about comparing reed frames that are equally well-made from two different materials; it is a different story when you compare e.g. top quality 1920s brass framed reeds to gappy mass-produced 1960s aluminium framed reeds.

The left hand pan is fairly densely packed, significantly more so than on the first Blackbird. The pans are flat, i.e. all the chambers on the left side are one depth and all the chambers on the right side are another (slightly shallower) depth. This is how nearly all vintage Anglo concertinas were made, and it contributes to the traditional ‘punchy’ Anglo concertina sound, as compared to the arguably more balanced sound produced by a good quality English or duet concertina with tapered pans.

The small holes in the redundant chambers are just there to reduce the weight a little. I don’t think they make any difference to the sound.

A recent new acquisition for the workshop was an English-made professional quality hot foil printing press, that I bought for the purpose of printing my own bellows papers. I am able to engrave my own printing plates using my CNC milling machine.

My client and I collaborated on the design for the papers used on this instrument; we went with a falling sycamore leaf and seed theme.

I’m really pleased with how nice these look, particularly the way they glitter as the bellows open and close.

Before we settled on the sycamore design I experimented with a few other designs, which are also available for future orders.

A really simple star pattern:

Wave pattern inspired by the traditional Japanese Seigaha design:

The previous printing plate didn’t quite work the way I intended (the thin lines weren’t supposed to have gaps in them), so I tried re-cutting it a bit differently, leading to a second, denser, version of the wave pattern:

Pictish key pattern, inspired by a portion of the carving on the Aberlemno 2 stone cross:

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A Second Müller Conversion

I recently completed a side project I have been working on for quite a while; another conversion of a Wheatstone English to the Müller system.

This one features engraved nickel-silver end plates with a pretzel design by the professional illustrator and concertina player Nina Dietrich.

I have done a small amount of hand engraving in the past, but this design was far more complex than my previous attempts. I built a simple air powered graver to help with the task, and a rotary table to help me follow the smooth curves.

Another new feature of this instrument was 5.7mm diameter boxwood buttons and matching handrails/thumb pads. I really like how these look and feel, particularly in contrast to the metal plates and the black hand straps.

I came up with a simpler strap thumbscrew design for this instrument. The captive nut stands proud of the wall slightly, and the screw intentionally bottoms out before it has clamped the strap tight; this free play allows the strap end to rotate without loosening the screw.

Henrik Müller provided the straps for the instrument to his own design.

Another difference with this conversion was that we moved the buttons away from the hand rails, closer to the top of the instrument. It includes a couple of extra accidental buttons too. What made this possible without ridiculously short levers was that the donor instrument originally had 56 buttons, but we didn’t need to include any of the top notes, which were located around the top ends of the reed pans.

I did need to swap around a few pairs of chambers to enable an action that doesn’t have any levers crossing over other levers.

The oddly placed extra button at the bottom of the right hand is an air button linked to a pair of now-empty chambers at the top of the reed pan. It is quite easy to reach, though you have to retrain your muscle memory to use it because the lowest G# button is confusingly close to where the thumb air button is usually located.

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A 44 Button Crane Duet

My latest instrument is another Crane duet, this time a traditional-looking 44 button (+ air) with 6 1/4″ hexagonal ends.

Here is its full specification:

  • 44+1 button Crane layout with Butterworth curve and slightly narrowed column spacing.
  • Six sides.
  • Weight: 1170g.
  • Seven fold plain black goatskin bellows.
  • Black walnut burr veneer with black Rocklite Ebano border inlay.
  • Ebonized beech handrails with integral strap fixings.
  • French polished finish.
  • 6082-T6 aluminium reed frames with steel reed tongues.
  • Standard scale reeds on the left hand, long scale on the right hand.
  • Sycamore radial tapered reed pans.
  • Sycamore action boards.
  • Brass sheet riveted action levers.
  • 3/16″ nickel silver capped buttons with acetal cores.
  • 2mm button travel (giving 4mm pad lift at 2:1 action lever ratio).
  • Black wool bushings.
  • Tuning: 1/5 comma meantone with root note A=440Hz.
  • Includes some modifications to standard Crane layout, such as the addition of left hand A2, Bb2, and B2 notes, and right hand B3.

The following button chart shows the modifications from a standard Crane (click to enlarge). Note that the D#/Eb button is not a mistake:

I was lucky to have the pleasure of recording a set of tunes played by the instrument’s new owner, John Thornton from Hampshire. I am really happy with how rich and well balanced it sounds (even more so in person than recorded on a built in phone mic).

I put a lovely black walnut burr veneer on both the end plates and action box sides:

 

I designed a new vintage-inspired fretwork pattern for the instrument (hand-pierced, naturally):

I came up with another variation on the strap clamping method. It’s similar to what I did on No. 1, but with a leather pad on top rather than a brass plate.

I hand turn the knurled thumb screws, so each set has a unique shape:

The moulded border inlay is made from Rocklite Ebano.

As on the previous instrument, the left hand (with 19 buttons) has a fairly simple action, but the right hand (26 buttons) was a lot trickier to build, with some rather awkward spring placement. It works nicely though, and the short button travel and light action makes it feels very responsive. I’m now using four different sizes of pad: 13, 14, 15 and 16mm diameter, and this instrument uses all four for different pitches. The air button has a 16mm pad, which isn’t huge but it’s adequate for a duet with a few anglo-style bisonoric buttons.

This is the first time I resorted to crossing two levers, and it worked fine, though the perpendicular spring on the air button was a bit awkward to get working reliably (I added the extra staple to stop it twisting and hitting the lever next to it).

The reed pans are both quite densely packed, with one inner chamber on the right hand. I again used aluminium reed frames to keep the weight of the instrument down, though I redesigned them to make them a little stiffer than the last set.

Incidentally any difference in sound quality or response from the reeds in the inner chamber is barely detectable. I think it’s important to keep the chamber as small as possible, put the pad hole over the clamp end of the reeds, and mount the reeds securely. On this one I realised I could just tap holes in the inner chamber reed frames and put bolts through from the other side of the pan, which eliminates any fiddling around with tiny nuts.

I made a new reed slot dovetail cutter, inspired by the reed pans in a very densely packed 56 button Wheatstone English. The step in the profile allows it to cut a significant distance under the side wall next to the tip of the reed without removing enough of the wall to weaken it.

The seven fold bellows hold plenty of air even for heavy chordal style playing.

The finishing touch is a sturdy Italian hard case with custom fitted corner blocks covered with padded velvet, so the instrument is held securely with the bellows evenly compressed.

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A 45 Button Crane Duet

My latest concertina is a 45 button (+ air) Crane duet in a 6 ¼” (159mm) wide eight-sided frame, with rippled maple veneered end plates and sides, applewood border inlay, and Ebano handrails.

The knotwork-inspired fretwork was designed by the talented illustrator Nina Dietrich.

This chart shows the keyboard layout (click to zoom in):

French polishing really brings out the figure in the rippled maple veneer. Unfortunately a static photo can never fully do it justice. It shows off a beautiful three dimensional effect as you move it around in the light.

I used pyrography (wood burning) with a very fine tip to mark the lines on the wood that give the design its 3D knotwork effect. The trickiest part was transferring the design onto the ends in pencil first, while making sure I didn’t weave under when I was supposed to weave over or vice versa!

In order to reduce the weight of the instrument I made the reed frames from 6082-T6 aluminium instead of brass, and also reduced the thickness of some of the wooden parts and further optimised the shape of the action levers. The total weight came to 1135 grammes; less than Holden No. 3, which had 28 fewer reeds. This did cause some manufacturing challenges; I had a lot of difficulty machining the reed frame blanks without breaking end mills before I found a set of parameters that worked reliably. In my opinion good quality aluminium-framed reeds are no easier or quicker to make than brass and can sound just as good. It may be possible to get slightly greater maximum volume from brass frames (both of equally high quality) due to their extra stiffness and mass, but I don’t think there is a big difference and you are unlikely to notice it when playing at low to moderate volume. I certainly wouldn’t call the use of aluminium frames an ‘economy’ or lower quality option, and if you want a lighter weight instrument it is an option worth considering.

It was quite a challenge to fit all the necessary reed chambers into the reed pans. Not only did I include three more buttons (+ air) than vintage Crane duets of this width normally had (42 buttons without an air button was standard for a 6 ¼” wide hexagonal instrument I believe), but going up from six to eight sides paradoxically reduces the available internal space by a not inconsiderable amount. I had to use a radial arrangement, put two chambers and the air passage in the middle of the pan on the right hand side, and really pack them close together. I also used a shorter scale than I did on No. 2 and made the frames skinnier and the dividing walls thinner.

The left hand action wasn’t too tricky, but the right hand was very challenging and required some creative spring-making.

The surface of the middle button on the right hand side was subtly textured to make it easier to locate your position on the keyboard by touch.

I continue to get better at bellows making with each set I make, and this was probably my best set yet. They feel supple yet firm (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron), and I am happy with their cosmetic appearance. A novel aspect is that the client provided me with custom-designed papers based on a photograph of one of the end plate veneers.

An unusual feature of the instrument is that both handrails can be adjusted south from their standard location by about ½”. This necessitated some changes to the way the handrails were mounted and a new strap clamping method. It looks a bit unorthodox but it works well and felt comfortable and secure to me. I have also located a source of more supple (but non-stretchy) strap leather.

Incidentally, if you look closely on this picture, it nicely shows off the mirror finish on the French polished Ebano handrails.

I custom-dyed some wool cloth a deep forest green for the button end bushes. It almost looks black unless the light catches it the right way.

Here is a quick video clip of my client testing out his new instrument before taking it home:

I have switched to a better quality hard case, made in Italy. I also fitted four custom-sized internal corner blocks padded with felt and upholstered with silk velvet to hold the instrument very snugly, keeping the bellows compressed evenly and preventing the instrument from rattling around in transit.

This was my most complicated and difficult build so far, particularly due to the density of the right hand side, and the build had quite a few ups and downs and new learning opportunities. I am very pleased with how it turned out in the end. My next instrument will also be a Crane duet, but with six sides, more traditional appearance, and a slightly different button selection.

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A Müller Conversion

My latest project was to make a pair of new replacement action boxes for a Wheatstone model 21 English concertina, to give it a keyboard and handrails/straps to the specification developed by Henrik Müller. The conversion was done in a manner that allows the instrument to be easily returned to its original form if desired. As I write this post, Henrik is working on an article for the Concertina Journal that should answer the question of why one might wish to mess with improve upon Charles Wheatstone’s nearly two-hundred-year-old design.

My client wanted the new instrument to have wooden ends, both for cosmetic reasons and in the hope that they would mellow the tone slightly. I designed a new fretwork pattern around the modified keyboard arrangement and handrails, and cut the end plates from a hardwood laminate with American walnut face veneer. This is my most intricate pattern yet.

I made the walls from solid rippled English walnut.

I filled the pores in the walnut with crushed charcoal to give it darker flecks.

I routed the action boards from quartersawn sycamore. The new keyboard has fewer buttons than the donor instrument, so some of the reed pan chambers are redundant (we opted to leave the reeds in them to avoid the risk of them getting misplaced).

I stained the inside of the fretwork piercings dark brown with Van Dyck crystals, and I glued my maker’s label to a thin board that allows me to place it about 1mm below the surface, rather than at the bottom of a deep, dark hole that makes the text difficult to read.

I made the decorative borders from applewood, copying the profile of the edge moulding from the original Wheatstone ends.

I also made the curved handrails and thumb pads from the same piece of applewood.

Henrik convinced me the conventional strap screw in the above picture wouldn’t stay fastened for long with this style of strap, so I came up with something a bit more complicated instead. The new fasteners hold the strap slightly away from the wood and allow the strap to pivot without loosening the nut.

I made a few more small refinements to my action design, mainly to further reduce the weight.

I have made a new tool to draw 3/16″ diameter metal caps for standard English-style buttons. Note that these buttons are unusually short because it is a feature of the Müller system that the buttons should go all the way down flush with the end plate.

French polishing takes a lot of time but the results speak for themselves.

The last step is bushing the button holes – if you do it earlier it’s impossible to avoid contaminating them with polish.

Here’s a comparison between the original Wheatstone action boxes and the Müller replacements:

And here is a quick clip of my client trying out his new instrument:

I’m very pleased with how this project turned out, and if I was building a new instrument for my own use I would strongly consider a variation on this system. One possibility I have considered is to shift the keyboards upwards and add a few extra notes at the bottom end, so the lowest note is C3, similar to a conventional Tenor English concertina.

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Introducing the Holden Blackbird

A few weeks ago I completed my second new concertina. For pragmatic reasons I chose to build an example of what is probably the most popular type of concertina sold today: the 30 button 1 C/G Anglo in a 6 ¼” hexagonal frame. I decided to name this model (and variations on it) the Holden Blackbird in honour of the small family of blackbirds that sing and dance on the roof of my workshop while I am building instruments (no photos of the birds, unfortunately: they are very camera-shy).

Here is the specification of Holden No. 2, the first of my Blackbirds:

  • 31 buttons + air (Wheatstone layout with a middle C drone on the left thumb button).
  • 6 ¼” (159mm) wide hexagonal frames.
  • Weight: 1290g.
  • All parts other than various screws made by myself in England from high quality materials, either by hand or on my little CNC milling machine (everything visible on the outside of the instrument is hand made).
  • Traditional long-scale concertina reeds, with hand-filed spring steel tongues closely fitted under a microscope into brass frames. They are loud and responsive with good dynamic range and pitch stability. I don’t like trying to describe tone in words because it is so subjective, but I’d say it has a strong sound without being overly harsh. One player called it, “sort of Jeffries-ish.” I recommend hearing it in person if you can – the iPhone recordings don’t really do it justice.
  • Seven fold black goatskin bellows with black leather-effect papers. They are supple and don’t have a tendency to spring open, due to building them freehand without a mould.
  • Black Ebano (a sustainable alternative to ebony) action box walls.
  • Laminated hardwood end boards (for strength and stability) with American walnut face veneer and a moulded English walnut border. I used different shades of shellac for the central part and the border.
  • Hand pierced fretwork to my own traditional-style design inspired by Victorian patterns.
  • Sycamore reed pans (rotated parallel-chamber arrangement with variable chamber depths).
  • Sycamore action boards.
  • Spruce bellows frames with splined corners (for lightness and strength).
  • Curved rippled English walnut and Ebano hand rails with leather-cushioned thumb pad.
  • The strap clamp screws go into threaded brass inserts (rather than directly into wood as on many vintage instruments).
  • Heavy duty black leather hand straps with rounded edges and skived back.
  • All exterior woodwork painstakingly French-polished by hand.
  • Comfortable 5.7mm diameter buttons with nickel-silver caps over acetal cores. Thumb buttons are slightly taller than the finger buttons for ergonomic reasons.
  • Light (about 65g), fast, riveted brass action with phosphor bronze springs.
  • Traditional slotted brass end bolts with heads mostly recessed into the frame so they don’t dig into your hands or catch on the lining of the case.
  • 21mm diameter air button hole for fast breathing.
  • Black mesh fabric behind the fretwork to help keep the interior clean.

I have had the opportunity to show off the instrument to several Anglo players so far and have received very positive feedback. Here are a couple of video clips of it being played (recorded on an iPhone, so not the best sound quality):

Unfortunately I didn’t get a recording at this session, but I think the player’s expression speaks for itself.

Members of the American Travelling Morrice giving the instrument a test drive. Photo by Will Quale.

Here are some pictures of the completed Blackbird (click to enlarge):

Curved hand rails with heavy duty straps and padded thumb rests.
My own unique fretwork pattern.
Individually machined and hand finished brass action levers.
Left action box.
Left reed pan (top).
Left reed pan (bottom). The lowest reed is set as far in as possible to improve response.
Right action box.
Right reed pan (top). The lower hole is the passage for the air pad.
Right reed pan (bottom).

It took me much longer than I had initially anticipated to develop the Blackbird, because after finishing my first instrument I took a fresh look at every part of the design and aspect of the build process and made improvements to virtually every component, re-made many of the special tools and jigs, developed my skills further, experimented with new materials and techniques, and as a result I believe I have succeeded in building a very nice instrument.

If you are interested in seeing many more pictures and video clips of the construction process, I urge you to dig back through the posts on my Instagram page.

At the time of writing I still have this instrument here in Burnley if you would like to contact me to arrange a visit to try it out. Better be quick though, because I have already had a few offers for it and need to sell it soon for cashflow reasons. Although this is a wooden-ended C/G, I could easily make one like it with nickel-silver ends or a different wood veneer, or in different keys (e.g. G/D), or with a Jeffries keyboard layout, or different numbers of bellows folds, or different button diameters, or with aluminium reed frames to reduce weight. The drone button is optional, or I could put other notes on it that you would find more useful. I’m happy to discuss the possibility of more significant variations like different numbers of sides, smaller frames, extra buttons, etc. I am also willing to consider building other types of concertina: the next two new instruments in my order book are both Crane duets. At this time I am focused on making bespoke high-quality English-construction instruments with my own traditional reeds.

Something important to bear in mind if you are in the market for an instrument is that as a new maker without an established reputation I am currently charging below market rate for an instrument of this quality, in order to build up experience and get my name out there. Right now my waiting list is roughly five months, but once the order book starts filling up I will reevaluate my prices.

As with the development of any prototype product, I encountered quite a few ‘unplanned learning opportunities’ along the way: My first two attempts at laminating the end boards warped badly before I managed to make a pair that stayed flat. The French polishing process went wrong several times and I had to repeatedly sand it back and try again before I was finally happy with it. Related to that, the black wool button-hole bushes look dusty as a result of repolishing the ends one final time after I had glued the bushes in. My first attempt at machining an action board went so wrong that I scrapped it and started again. I made a full set of action levers before realising I’d made a mistake in the design and they were all the wrong length. Some of the action springs were really tricky to install because I hadn’t allowed enough space for them. I somehow tuned a reed two semitones higher than the pitch engraved on the frame. I initially made one of the highest reeds an octave lower than it should have been. A mistake with the design of the hand strap clamps means you need a screwdriver to adjust the strap length. The bellows have a few minor cosmetic issues that don’t affect the playability of the instrument (in particular I experimented with a different sort of leather that has a coarse plasticky artificial grain – it works fine but I don’t like how it looks). The very highest three or four ‘dog whistle’ notes have a narrower dynamic range than the rest of the instrument (though none of the test players noticed until I pointed it out – I’ve been told most players very rarely use those notes). Probably several other things I’m forgetting right now. All stuff I learned from on this build and will be able to avoid the next time.

I am grateful to several other concertina makers who offered useful advice and ideas as I was working on this project, including and especially Chris Ghent, Geoff Crabb, Bob Tedrow, Dana Johnson, Jake Middleton-Metcalfe, and Wim Wakker. I also ‘borrowed’ a lot of ideas from studying older instruments made by Crabb, Lachenal, Jeffries, Wheatstone, and Dipper (mostly from online photograph searches, though I’ve learned a great deal from the vintage instruments I have restored).

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Another Restoration

Apologies for not posting more frequently to the blog. I am currently working on No. 2 and hope to complete it in the next month, but to tide you over here are some pictures from another complete restoration I did at the start of this year. If you would like more timely and frequent updates on my progress, feel free to follow me on Instagram.

This instrument is an unbranded 26 button Anglo. From comparison to other similar instruments, my client and I believe it was probably made by the Crabb company, and it looks almost identical to some early Jeffries branded instruments (except for the missing Jeffries stamp on the frames).

The original end plates were solid rosewood with a fairly simple fretwork pattern. Unfortunately they had cracked badly and large pieces were missing. My client had seen the earlier blog post about the new metal ends I made for the 40 button Lachenal, and asked me to do a similar job on his instrument, albeit with a Jeffries-style pattern.

The reeds were quite well made, though they had suffered a little from rust and previous inexpert attempts at tuning. The chamois gaskets were doing a very poor job of preventing leaks, mainly due to various parts of the casework having warped.

The action box sides had thick brazilian rosewood veneers, several of which had come unglued, one of which was missing.

The instrument had a moth infestation, which had eaten any of the wool parts (particularly the pads), and seemed to have had a go at the bellows too. It was still active too: I found a live larvae hiding at the bottom of one of the button peg holes!

One of the action platforms had warped so badly that it had mostly come unglued from the pad board, which had a couple of big cracks in it. It was so bad that I decided to remake the platform.

The two extra bits of wood in the bottom half of the picture are there to reinforce the cracks in the action board (I glued it back together but wanted to add a bit of extra strength).

I replaced the missing bit of veneer with a piece of Indian rosewood. Not quite the same colour as the original, but it didn’t stand out too badly after I had refinished the instrument with garnet shellac. I had to use two layers because modern commercial veneer is unfortunately much thinner than the stuff used by Victorian makers.

I made a scratch stock to replicate the decorative groove:

Action boxes cleaned up, all traces of the moths removed, loose joints reglued, and the original worn button peg holes plugged for later redrilling.

The nut plates in the bellows frames were really crudely installed, mostly very wonky and sitting proud of the surface. This later caused me a bunch of problems with getting the gaskets to seal properly.

Replacing the reed pan corner support blocks.

I used card shims under the bellows frame gaskets to get a reasonably even fit.

The bellows were pretty worn out and only five folds, so I made a new set of  six-fold bellows with Jeffries papers and gold tooling. I’m not going to go into detail about these here because I spent a lot of time working on the gold tooling process and haven’t yet managed to get totally consistent results. I plan to work more on this and come back to it in the future.

I cut the end plates by hand in the traditional way. The pattern is based on a Jeffries design, but I had to redraw and modify it a bit to shift the keyboards further up and fill in the space left by removing a couple of buttons on each side.

A little method I thought up (probably not original) to put a valve restraint pin in a chamber that doesn’t have a side wall next to the valve.

Unfortunately several of the reeds had suffered a bit of damage from earlier tuning attempts – here are three of the worst examples. The moral is, don’t use a scratch tool or a coarse file for fine tuning (I recommend a 600 grit flat diamond needle file), make sure you use a steel shim under the tongue to support it and protect the brass frame from the file, and be very careful with the delicate thin tips of the higher reeds.

I refinished the casework with garnet shellac. I was pretty happy with the shine I got from the French Polishing process – I’m getting better at it with each instrument I do.

Rebuilt actions with new pads, springs, etc. I also replaced the bone buttons with solid stainless steel ones (not made by me).

The finished instrument after final polishing, etc. It sounded pretty good too!

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Making Metal-Capped Buttons

A few weeks ago, a fellow concertina restorer contacted me to ask if I might be interested in manufacturing reproduction Wheatstone-style nickel-silver-capped buttons. As it happened, I had already been planning to develop the tooling to make this style of button for use on my own instruments.

I used solid acetal (Delrin) buttons on my own first instrument. They work fine and I expect them to last a long time if not abused, but I can’t deny that they have a ‘cheaper’ feel than metal, that isn’t really in keeping with the materials used for the rest of the instrument. As the maker, I know each button was lovingly hand-turned and polished, but a layperson could assume they were squirted out of a machine by the million like toothpaste tube caps.

Historically, cheaper instruments had bone buttons, whereas high-end instruments usually had nickel-silver (German silver) buttons. Solid nickel-silver buttons are surprisingly heavy, so manufacturers typically either drilled a hole in them and soldered a thin cap over the hole, or pressed a cap from thin sheet metal and used it to cover a lightweight core made from wood. Wheatstone later switched to making the cores from plastic because it is less prone to splitting.

My collaborator sent me a sample vintage Wheatstone button, and I started reading about press tool design. It was the first time I’ve made this sort of tool and possibly my most ambitious toolmaking challenge to date, so it took me a little while and I made a few mistakes along the way.

I did nearly all of the toolmaking on my little Taig micro lathe; it’s a surprisingly capable machine if you keep your tools sharp and stick to very light cuts.

I made the blanking punch from an 18mm silver steel bar, and the die from an O1 steel plate with a 1″ thick mild steel guide block bolted over it.

Boring out the guide block on the Taig lathe; this was a bit scary swinging such a heavy lump of steel at the lowest speed the lathe can manage:

Then I unbolted the guide block without moving the bottom plate from the chuck, and bored the hole in the die slightly larger to give the appropriate clearance between the punch and die.

Brass spacers guide the nickel silver strip through the tool.

Shearing off a strip of 0.5mm nickel silver to feed into the blanking punch.

The blanking punch produces 18mm discs. I drive it with a sharp whack with a lump hammer rather than using the press, both because it’s quicker and because a sudden shock will tend to shear the metal cleaner with less distortion than slowly pressing the punch through it.

The next tool was the cupping die, so-called because it turns the flat discs into cups. The bottom die has a recess bored into it to hold the disc perfectly centred over the hole.

After putting the disc into the die, I clamp the guide plate over it (light finger pressure is sufficient), then drive a polished silver steel punch with rounded corners down through the die with my arbor press.

This produces shallow, large-diameter cups. They are already starting to look a little bit like buttons if you squint.

Next I need to take the cups through a series of redrawing stages; each one reduces the diameter of the cup by around 20% while also increasing its depth. If you tried to go straight from a flat disc to a finished button cap in one stage, the walls would wrinkle and jam in the tool because there’s a limit to how much you can alter the shape of the part in each pass. The square parts in this photo are a mild steel tool holder, then there’s the silver steel punch, die, and guide, with an acetal spacer between the two. I later figured out that this stage works more reliably if I clamp it together very lightly with spring washers, so it’s possible for the guide to lift slightly if it has to.

The first redrawing die is a reverse die; this means you place the cup over it and the punch turns it inside out. In hindsight this probably wasn’t the best idea, but it does work. I did it because it looked easier to make, and I wasn’t aware of the drawbacks involved in reverse redrawing.

The cup comes out of the bottom of the die stuck on the end of the punch. Sometimes they can be very tight and difficult to remove. An industrial drawing press has something called a ‘stripper’ that holds onto the part while the press yanks the punch back up through the die with a lot of force, but with my low-tech tools I have to resort to manually knocking them off using a bar with a hole in it.

The rest of the redrawing dies are direct dies; i.e. you place the cup into a large section at the top of the die, then the punch forces the cup through a narrower neck with a rounded corner at the top.

Pushing the punch through the die with my Jones & Shipman arbor press. I was a little concerned before starting the project that it might not prove strong enough for the task, but in fact it is quite capable of bursting open the top of the cup if it gets stuck in the die.

A successful second redrawing.

The two diameters inside the top of the die need reaming with a purpose-made D-bit. By making a single tool that reams both diameters at once, it was also able to form the rounded transition at the top of the neck (this is a very important feature of the die because the metal won’t flow smoothly around a sharp corner).

The inside of the final redrawing die, after reaming with the above tool. Of course I also had to polish it smooth after hardening it to keep the friction as low as possible. You can’t see it in this picture, but the neck is quite short, with a slightly larger diameter section below it.

I found it wasn’t necessary to clamp the guide block down on the last redrawing tool:

Here’s the full sequence of parts produced by the above stages. The blank disc is 18mm diameter, and the final cap is about 5.8mm diameter by 15mm deep:

I encountered quite a few problems along the way; in particular I found that the parts often jammed in the die and burst because the bottom edge of the cup had become thickened. In theory you can work around that by increasing the clearance between the punch and the die, but I found that caused other problems, so before the second and third redrawings I instead manually grind a little bit of thickness off the lip of the cup, just enough to allow it to go smoothly through the die.

I found that I got better results if I annealed the cups between stages. It probably isn’t strictly necessary to anneal every time, but it did seem to help them draw more smoothly with less force. In my initial experiments I annealed them with a blowtorch, which works OK but takes a while and uses a lot of gas if you’re making lots of them.

I next tried putting them in my electric heat treatment oven.

This did a nice consistent job of annealing them, but because they were exposed to the oxygen in the oven for a long time, they built up quite a lot of scale that caused so much extra friction inside the die that I had to spend ages polishing it off before they would redraw smoothly.

Next I tried putting them in the electric oven inside a tin with a little hole in the lid.

The buttons were coated with grease used to lubricate the drawing process; as this burnt off, it displaced the oxygen inside the tin and generated a little flame at the vent hole:

Much better. They came out of the tin a little sooty and discoloured, but nice and soft with no significant scale buildup. I cooked them at 450°C for an hour, which is probably overkill but didn’t do any harm. I will experiment with reducing the time when I do the next batch.

After the final redrawing stage, the caps were approximately the right diameter but a bit lumpy and too long. To cure this, first I mounted each cap on a tapered wooden mandrel on the lathe and used a wide flat fine file to smooth them out:

A quick polish brought out a nice shine:

I made a special soft collet to hold the buttons bottom-out in the lathe while I parted them to length. Incidentally, those random frilly edges are very typical of drawn sheet metal parts and are called ‘ears’.

There is a depth stop inside the collet, so I was able to lock the lathe carriage in place and quickly part off all the caps to the same length.

With the metal caps finished, I now needed to make the acetal cores. They are almost identical to the solid acetal buttons I made for the first instrument, apart from not bothering to give them a nicely-domed head or polish them.

1. Extend an appropriate length of ¼” black acetal from a collet.

2. Face off (only necessary on the first button from a new piece of stock).

3. Turn down to the right diameter to fit inside a cap. This is trickier than you might think because the acetal is very bendy and wants to deflect away from the cutting tool, particularly at the end furthest from the collet. It helps to use a razor sharp tool and cut to the final diameter in a single pass at quite a slow feed rate. Even so I had to experiment quite a bit before I was reliably producing cores that fit nicely.

4. Roughly round over the corner with a file. This doesn’t need to be pretty because it won’t be seen, but it is needed to allow the core to go all the way into the cap, because the inside of the cap is slightly rounded.

5. Part off to roughly the right length.

6. Put the core in another specially-made collet with a depth stop in it, with the bottom end facing out.

7. Face to exact length. Note that I have the carriage stop set to allow me to repeatably turn up to the transition between the pin and the main body of the core, so for this stage I clamp a spacer between the stop and the carriage that is the same thickness as the length of the pin.

8. Turn the pin to diameter in one pass. If you look closely you will see I ground a flat on the corner of the lathe tool in order to form a fillet at the root of the pin; this greatly reduces the likelihood of the pin breaking off if the button gets knocked hard.

9. Chamfer the point of the pin with a file.

Next we have to drill the cross hole and countersink both sides. The original Wheatstone core had a 2.5mm hole, but I find that 3mm holes work better with modern 0.85mm bushing cloth. To avoid needing to spot each hole with a centre drill, I instead got a 3mm twist drill and ground it as short as possible to make it very rigid so it doesn’t deflect and drill the hole off-centre.

This is the same fixture I used to hold the buttons I made for my first instrument, but I have modified it a bit and I’m now doing both the drilling and countersinking on my CNC milling machine instead of the manual drill press. Firstly because the mill is more rigid and accurate, secondly because it has a quick change toolholder that lets me swap between tools and know the tip of the tool will be the same distance from the spindle nose each time, and thirdly because I was able to write three very simple macros that repeatably perform exactly the same operations each time without relying on manual depth stops.

The pins in the mounting board correspond with the holes in the fixture and allow me to turn the button 180° to countersink the opposite side of the hole. The fixture is actually inaccurate by about 0.3mm, but because the error is the same every time I was able to program the machine to compensate for it and get the second countersink to line up pretty much perfectly (this wasn’t the case with the manual drill press, leading to the countersinks all turning out a tiny bit misaligned; probably not enough to significantly effect the operation of the action but enough to annoy the perfectionist in me!).

The countersinking bit. It has a 10mm shank and all my quick change toolholders are imperial sizes, so I had to turn a special adapter sleeve to avoid having to hold it in the drill chuck, which would have caused problems with the tool Z offset changing every time I swapped back and forth between the drill and the countersink.

A finished button core. With a little polishing, this would be perfectly acceptable as a solid acetal button.

I made a special tool to crimp the caps onto the cores. The Wheatstone sample had a single small dot, presumably made by something like a centre punch, but in my experiments I found that if I instead made a punch with a slightly blunt chisel-shaped tip, it takes several times the amount of force to pry the caps off.

A quick final polish on the buffing wheel:

Followed by buffing with a soft cloth to remove the polish residue:

Here is one of my buttons next to the Wheatstone sample. The main difference is the increase in the diameter of the cross hole:

And here is my full first batch of buttons (I would have made more but I ran out of materials):

Here is the full lineup of tooling I made for this process:

This has proved to be quite a challenging project at times, and as always there are things I would make slightly differently if I knew then what I know now, but I am very pleased with the high quality of the resulting buttons and I’m looking forward to building an instrument that includes them.

Some future experiments:

  • Materials. I’m pretty sure this tooling would work with other non-ferrous metals. I have read that a fairly high percentage of the population is sensitive to nickel and might not be able to comfortably use an instrument with nickel-silver buttons. Alternatives include copper, various alloys of brass/bronze (some of which are more tarnish-resistant than others),  or a silver alloy like sterling silver or Argentium. Aluminium could work but may be a bit soft and prone to oxidation. Titanium would be interesting but I’ve not yet worked with it and don’t know much about how easy it is to press. I’m not sure how well the tooling would cope with stainless steel, as it’s much harder.
  • Diameter. English-made concertina buttons have been made in a variety of sizes between about 4.5mm and 6.5mm (German-made ones were sometimes even larger). Preferred diameter comes down to each player’s fingers and playing style, though there are practical limitations too (e.g. there may not be room in a very dense action for large-diameter buttons). The most common size for English-system instruments seems to have been 3/16″, or about 4.75mm. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the cores of the buttons I’ve just made are also approximately 3/16″, which gives a cap diameter of about 5.7mm. It would be interesting in the future to try making another final redrawing tool that produces 3/16″ caps, and possibly yet another one to produce 1/4″ (6.35mm) caps.
  • Tip shape. Another aspect of button design is the shape of the tip. From discussing this with players, it seems that some prefer very flat-topped buttons, others very rounded, and yet others are happy with a compromise somewhere in-between, with a very slightly convex top and more rounded corners, as in the caps I have just made. I think it would be fairly easy to make the caps more rounded by making a new final punch with the same diameter but a hemispherical tip. Making caps with a flatter top would be slightly trickier, because if the punch is too flat it causes a concentration of force at the corner which tends to burst the cap in the die. The answer might be to make the caps slightly rounded as above, then use a different tool that compresses the cap between a flat punch and a flat anvil (or perhaps the punch might even need to be slightly concave). More experimentation required.
  • Length. Not exactly an experiment, but just to point out that because I’m turning the cores manually and the caps come out of the press several mm longer than necessary, it would be trivial for me to make buttons that are up to about 4mm longer or shorter for different depths of action box/thickness of end plate, or for a player who prefers buttons that are extra long or extra short. I can also alter parameters like the length and diameter of the pin and the location of the cross hole if necessary.
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