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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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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