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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Brun Part 8: Conclusion

It has been a long and at times bumpy journey with a successful arrival at the end. I have produced a good quality, attractive, playable instrument, where I made every part myself except the reed clamp screws and end bolts. I have learned or improved many skills along the way: CNC, toolmaking, metalwork, woodwork, leatherwork, French polishing, tuning, and so on. Where I made mistakes along the way, I have learned from them, and I am certain #2 is going to be even better. The instrument is currently away being evaluated by an expert and I have already heard some encouraging feedback. Hopefully at some point I will be able to post links to reviews and videos of it being played.

What’s next? I am in the early stages of designing and tooling up to make a pair of new instruments, both of them fairly traditional 6 ¼” hexagonal Anglos, one with wooden ends and one with metal ends. A bit further down the road I have plans for a larger and more ambitious Hayden duet. I am also taking on more repair work: having made a complete instrument from scratch, I am now well-equipped to take on any aspect of fixing a traditional vintage instrument.

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