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.
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.
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.
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.