Brun Part 6: Reeds

The sixth instalment in the story of how I built my first concertina is about the reeds. I’m not going to cover every step of the process because it was very similar to my previous posts on the subject, apart from a few minor improvements and the fact that I had to make sixty of them in twenty four different pitches.

Something unusual I did (it might even be the first time it’s been done by a concertina maker) is I made a different size of frame for every pitch instead of making do with a limited number of frame sizes, each one being used for two, three or even four pitches. I started by measuring the vent dimensions of the reeds in a Lachenal English I own and plotting them on a graph. They were pretty lumpy but they followed a general trend. I then fitted curves to the graph and used them to derive a formula for the reed scaling. I plugged those formulas into a spreadsheet, which calculated the vent dimensions for all the pitches I needed. The outer frames were all the same angle and tip radius, with a constant distance between the tip of the frame and the tip of the vent. A slight drawback with the way I did it is that the longer reeds ended up with thinner edges than the shorter ones; when I design the next set I may try to come up with a way to reduce that effect.

I have since learned that the reeds I based my scale on were probably what is known as “short scale”. A fellow maker sent me a set of measurements of reeds from a higher quality vintage instrument, which appears to have both longer low reeds and shorter high ones, i.e. the range of pitches is stretched out over a wider range of lengths. I understand short scale reeds were typically used when the maker needed to fit a lot of reeds into a given space, which actually makes a lot of sense for this particular instrument because the reed pans are very tightly packed. I don’t think I could have fit long scale reeds in it if I had tried. My next concertina will have the same number of buttons in a larger instrument, so I plan to use longer scale reeds in it. I have been told that longer scale reeds have better pitch stability and responsiveness, particularly on the low end.

As before, I cut the frames and clamps from 2mm brass sheet on my CNC milling machine. This time I left them at the full 2mm thickness.

When I did the prototype reeds, each frame took a very long time to mill. Before I made the first full set I spent a while experimenting with feed rates and depth of cut (wasted some material and broke a couple of end mills in the process), and came up with a reliable rate that is significantly faster than what I was using before. I also dropped what was by far the slowest part of the process: bevelling the edges of the frames with lots of tiny steps. They now come out of the milling stage with straight sides.

The full set of sixty frames and clamps, before cutting them free of the stock.

After cutting them free, I tapped all 120 clamp holes and screwed them together. The clamp is a different size for each pitch too, so it’s important not to mix them up!

I filed off the flashing and the remains of the tabs with a hand file. In hindsight it would have been quicker to use my die filer to clean up the frames, though the clamps are probably too small to do that way.

A little improvised fixture to hold each reed frame while I square up the vent corners with a needle file. It’s crucial to get the tip corners as perfect as possible otherwise you can’t get the tongue to fit really closely without clipping the frame.

The vent relief angles on my Lachenal reeds were very inconsistent and often rounded; I suspect they were quickly filed by eye without a guide. I set my guide to an angle that was roughly the average of the angles on the Lachenal reeds and used it for all of my reeds.

I used my die filing machine with the table tilted over to 7.5° to bevel the frame edges, filing up to a line engraved by the CNC mill. I deliberately left them a bit on the tight side, then later on after I’d made the reed pans, I hand fitted each frame to its slot with a hand file.

I shortened the clamp screws by first clamping the reed tongue blank in the frame, then grinding the screws almost all the way on a slow grinding wheel, followed by lapping them flat on a piece of fine emery paper glued to a sheet of glass.

All the tongues roughly sheared to size.

Draw filing the edges of the tongues to clean them up, then fitting them precisely to their frame with the aid of my microscope. This is probably the most difficult and painstaking part of the process to get right.

All the tongues initially fitted to their frames; many hours of work have gone into them at this point.

My file was feeling pretty dull so I had a look at it under the microscope. All the teeth had their edges fractured off. No wonder it wasn’t cutting so well any more!

I probably should have bought a new file at this point but I kept going and did much of the profiling with it (I also used a three square file for some of the work). I can’t remember if I’ve written about the fixture in this picture before. It has an adjustable-height step that you place the tongue against. The clamp is a pair of locking pliers that have been modified to have a sharper nose.

The full set of reeds, profiled and rough-tuned. They start out very high initially and go lower as you profile them. I stopped filing when they reached somewhere between +5 and +20 cents sharp on the tuning bench, knowing that they were likely to go a bit flatter once in the instrument. The way they are arranged in this photo shows the unisonoric reed pairs for the left hand on top and the right hand on the bottom, with a few notes of overlap in the middle. If it was an English or Anglo concertina the distribution would look very different.

It’s been said by other makers that, of the many time-consuming stages involved in making an English-style concertina from scratch, the reeds are the greatest. I think I can definitely agree with that statement. I probably spent at least a couple of hours on every reed, maybe more when I include time later spent troubleshooting and fine-tuning.

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Brun Part 5: Bellows

The fifth instalment in the story of building my first concertina is about the bellows. First I had to make a new, rectangular mould to assemble them on. The stock for the forms was constructed from strips of softwood glued across a plywood base, which I then ripped into four pieces.

I again milled the forms to shape on the CNC mill. One thing I did differently this time was to rough them out in staircase form with an ordinary ¼” end mill first before cleaning them up with the large V bit.

When I made the forms for the hexagonal mould, I cut straight into the material with the V bit using lots of shallow passes, which caused lots of noise and vibration, resulting in a poor surface finish. Removing most of the material with an end mill first gave much better results.

The wide forms stretched the machine to the absolute limit of its Y axis capacity.

The bandsaw I had at the time wasn’t capable of ripping the angles off the undersides of the forms, and I don’t own a table saw, so I did them with a hand rip saw instead.

The rectangular core was relatively simple to make compared to the previous hexagonal one.

I split both of the long sides to make the mould easy to remove from the finished bellows.

Cutting the cards by hand with a craft knife. I hate this part; it makes my knife hand ache for days afterwards. Also, because this set of bellows was meant to be relatively heavy-duty for a ‘travel’ instrument, I chose to use thicker 1.5mm card rather than the standard 1mm stuff I used on the tuning bellows (in hindsight this may not have been a good idea because it made the bellows a bit bulkier). I have since bought a special card cutting guillotine that in the future will make this operation much quicker and easier.

Rounding the corners of the cards with a gouge. I started off pressing down onto the bench, but I found it was easier to put a cutting board in the vice and lean against the gouge handle with my hip.

I rounded the tops of the cards on a linisher (bench mounted belt sander) with an 80 grit belt. In hindsight I should have done this outdoors because everything in the garage including my car wound up covered in a thick coating of fine grey dust!

The rounded top of a card. This gives a nice shape to the peaks of the bellows folds, though in hindsight it would have looked better still if I had rounded the pointy corners a bit more.

I decided to try hinging the cards together with a self adhesive linen hinge tape made for bookbinding and other card related crafts. The roll was quite wide so I cut it in half. This picture shows the result of a strength test: the surface of the card ripped off before the glue or the linen failed (and it took quite an excessive amount of force to do so).

I started by hinging the cards together on the inside. The peak hinges can be taped with the cards laying flat, but it’s better to do the valley hinges with each pair of cards in the closed position (or flat but with spacers holding a slight gap between them), otherwise they will later resist closing.

I folded them up and clamped them tightly like this for a couple of days to help the tape glue to really bond well to the cards. Note that the end cards are slightly taller because the end boxes are about ¼” bigger than the bellows. This is partly cosmetic and partly to avoid the bellow peaks touching the table when you put the concertina down.

Next I tied the sets of cards to the mould with plastic coated gardening wire. Elastic bands would probably have been easier but I didn’t have any long enough. Note that the bellows frames aren’t attached to the mould. This wasn’t possible with this instrument because the frames have a divider across them due to the split reed pan design.

I ran the self adhesive linen tape all the way around each peak. This gives a stronger bellows than if you just put small pieces on each corner.

Afterwards I took the full set of cards off the mould and again pressed it tightly for a day or two to help the top hinges stick as well as possible. You can see in this picture what I meant about how it would have looked neater if I had rounded the corners of the cards a bit more.

I needed wider hinge strips on the end cards to attach the bellows to the frames, so I cut those from the ‘Fraynot’ hinge linen from Shepherds bookbinders’ suppliers that I used for all the hinges on my tuning bellows. I cut it on the bias to make it less likely to fray or rip.

Then I glued them on. From this point on, I used hot rabbit-skin glue for everything except the decorative papers.

A brief digression about my experience with the self adhesive hinge linen. In future I’m going to go back to using the Fraynot linen cloth for everything. Although the self adhesive tape worked fine and I don’t think it’s likely to come apart, I found that I much prefer working with the Fraynot and a liquid paste/glue, because if it goes on wonky you can peel it straight off and reposition it, whereas the self adhesive tape sticks instantly and you have to tear the surface of the card to get it off again, then throw away that strip of tape. The tape is surprisingly expensive too, though that’s not my primary consideration. It also had quite a lot of wrinkles in it where the cloth had stuck to itself during manufacturing and the glue is so strong it’s not possible to pull the wrinkle out; sometimes I had to waste a section of it to avoid putting a wrinkled piece on the bellows where it would be visible through the leather. Most importantly, I believe the hinges I get with strips of cloth are noticeably thinner and more supple than with the tape. The difference is fairly subtle when looking at a single hinge, but an entire bellows set with hinges on both sides of the peaks feels relatively stiff and bulky when assembled with the self adhesive tape. Although it’s possible the tape is made from a heavier cloth, I suspect the main difference is in the properties of the glue. I have found that traditional wheat paste doesn’t noticeably stiffen the hinge at all, whereas rabbit glue does stiffen it a little initially but after working it for a while it ‘breaks in’ and becomes supple again. Whatever is on the self-adhesive tape has a rubbery feel to it, and seems to add a bit to the thickness of the hinge too.

I covered the bellows with a nice brown goatskin leather from Hewit, cutting it into strips with an Olfa rotary cutter, which really cuts very nicely, much easier to use than a craft knife.Using my Scharffix 2000 to pare the leather down.

Thanks to a thread on the concertina.net forum, I learned that Israeli-made Personna safety razor blades fit the Scharffix and cut really well, better even than the thicker OEM blades that came with the machine. It’s crucial with this machine to use ultra-sharp blades, otherwise it behaves terribly, stretching and ripping holes in the thin leather.

Checking the thickness of the valley strips.

And gluing them on:

 

Cutting out the gussets with a template and craft knife. This is rather a tedious job; a die tool would make it much quicker.

I use the Sharffix to do as much of the skiving as possible, but the gussets always need a bit of manual cleaning up afterwards with a skiving knife.

Gussets glued on. It proved rather a pain to get the bottom corners to fully stick to the valleys without leaving a little gap. I wound up waiting for them to initially dry, then adding a bit more glue to each gap with a tooth pick and pressing it down with a bone folder until it stayed in position. This is less of a problem with bellows that have more than four sides because you don’t have to stretch the gussets around such a tight angle.

I roughed up the tops of each gusset slightly with sandpaper before gluing the top runs over them.

Cutting more long strips of leather for the top and end runs. It’s a pain when the Scharffix goes wrong in the middle of one of these strips because you need the whole run to be good to avoid having more than one joint.

Top runs glued on.

Next I needed to take the bellows off the mould and attach them to the frames, starting with the hinge linen.

Now the end gussets. This was way more difficult to do neatly without the aid of a mould. It helped to use a stick clamped to the frames to hold them a fixed distance apart.

Finally the end runs. As I mentioned in part three, here’s where I realised I’d made a mistake in not making the bellows frames a tiny bit smaller than the action boxes, in order to hide the edge of the end run. I skived the edge down as close to nothing as I could and tried to get that skived edge flush with the edge of the frame, but it was impossible to get it absolutely perfect, so when I subsequently trimmed the extra off, the edge wasn’t infinitely thin any more so it is possible in places to see a tiny bit of unfinished leather. I recognise I am quite possibly being over-critical of my own work here!

Looking pretty good!

For the decorative papers, I took a sample of the leather down to my local craft shop and looked for a patterned decoupage paper that went well with it. This is what I found. I avoided cutting papers from the area near the bottom that looks dirty (the design is actually printed that way).

I spent a pleasant evening cutting out papers and pasting them on while watching TV programmes in the background.

The finished bellows. I think the papers really go quite well with the leather. Although they were still quite stiff and springy at this stage with a preference for remaining open, I subsequently spent quite a while pressing them and exercising them, and they gradually broke in and became easier to play.

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Brun Part 4: Actions

Part four of the story of how I made my first instrument is about the actions (i.e. the mechanisms that uncover holes and let air through a reed when you press a button).

I made the action boards from birch plywood on the CNC milling machine, which seemed to work pretty well. Although I’m sure high-quality plywood is a good choice for strength and stability, on the next instrument I may try making the action boards from solid wood instead to see if it has a beneficial effect on the tone.

Another thing I will probably do differently next time is to not drill the button peg holes at this stage using CNC. They need to be very accurately aligned with the button holes in the end plates for the buttons to work smoothly, and by doing it this way it took me a lot of fiddling about to get the two boards to line up well enough to avoid the buttons sticking. I think a more accurate way would be to bolt the action boxes together with the action boards inside, then use the pillar drill and spot through the end plate using a drill bit glued into a mandrel that is the same diameter as a button (not my idea: I recently heard about this technique via another maker).

The action boards sit in a rebate in the bottom half of the action boxes. The problems I had with the walls not gluing up perfectly square meant I had to make careful adjustments to the edges of the action boards to get them to fit snugly in the rebates while also accurately aligned with the button holes.

I turned a couple of cylindrical brass dies that mark a circle around each pad hole to help glue the pad in the right place.

Lots of pads.

I made a couple of button guide boards to hold them in the right place while gluing the pads on.

Fitting the cross hole bushes in the buttons (see my earlier article about how I made them) using Bob Tedrow’s method of pulling a strip of cloth through them all, then snipping them apart with scissors:

I cut the lever posts from 1.5mm brass on the CNC mill:

And the levers themselves from 1mm brass:

It took quite a lot of fettling with needle files and emery paper to clean them up. I put the pivot points at the half way points for reasons that made sense on the drawing board, however I have since learned that it is better to put them closer to the button if you can find the space to do so (this causes the pad to lift up by more than the distance the button travels down). In hindsight this may have helped with some of the issues I later had with ciphers because I could have reduced the button height by 0.5mm without compromising the amount of pad opening.


I already wrote about the die I made to thread the grommet ends of the levers, but I have since learned that I get a cleaner, more consistent result from it if I squeeze the tool in a vice instead of hitting it with a hammer.

Before and after forming the threads:

Riveting went fairly smoothly. I only had to redo a couple of them because the pivots tightened up.

The reason for the odd shape of the lever posts is so I could knock them in or pull them back out using a tool with a matching notch cut in it (not my original idea).

The tool has a flaw: because the socket is on an edge of the tool but you hit it in the centre, the force is transmitted to the post off-axis, which tends to cause it to go in at a slight angle. I had to straighten up each post with needle nose pliers after knocking it in. I will probably modify or remake the tool before the next instrument to prevent this happening.

All the levers and buttons installed. Unfortunately I discovered a significant problem at this point. The button ends of the levers were too fat, making them very stiff, especially on the shortest ones.

I didn’t want to pull them all out again, so I instead used a rotary burr and needle files to slim them down in situ, which solved the problem.

Some of the springs.

An action board with all the springs and pads installed. Some of the spring locations proved problematic due to lack of space around the middle row of pads, and I wound up spending quite a bit of time working on getting the button pressure consistent across the instrument while also eliminating ciphers (notes that don’t stop playing when you let go of the button). Most of the ciphers were caused by the end of a lever or part of a spring hitting the underside of the end plate; there was really almost no wasted height inside the boxes.

Adjusting the heights of the buttons to get them consistent is done by bending part of the lever it’s attached to. To make this easier I made a pair of special tools from old screwdrivers to grip the levers in situ.

Overall, I’ve learned that there’s nothing tremendously difficult about building a concertina action, but there are lots of little parts to make and it takes a great deal of patience to assemble and adjust it until it works smoothly, consistently and reliably.

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Brun Part 3: End Boxes

Part 3 of the story of how I built my first instrument is going to cover the main wooden frames of the instrument ends; the bellows frames and the walls of the action boxes. I came up with what seemed like a clever plan on paper, but quite a few things went wrong along the way leading to a lot of fiddly corrective work and a couple of slight cosmetic issues in the finished instrument. The next instrument is definitely going to involve some significant changes in the way I build the end boxes.

I had read that good quality vintage instruments were commonly built from sycamore, typically with decorative veneers like ebony or rosewood on the outside, though for this instrument I decided to go with plain solid sycamore and try to use nicely figured pieces of it for the most visible parts of the walls. I struggled to find a timber supplier that stocked quarter sawn sycamore, though after much searching I found a place thirty miles from me that had a stack of roughly 2 ¾” thick slabs that had been plain sawn and kiln dried. I went and searched through them and picked out one taken from the middle of the tree, so it had two quarter-sawn (ish) sections either side of the pith.

I used my circular saw to cut off a section and remove the pith (the centre of the trunk, where the growth rings become very small). If you click on the next picture to zoom in and look at the growth rings, you should be able to see what I mean. The areas where the rings meet the surface at a right angle are known as quarter sawn, and on sycamore they will show pretty figuring after planing it smooth.

I next used my wimpy hobby-grade 9″ bandsaw to further break the chunks down into a set of thin boards approximately 3″ wide. It just barely succeeded, cutting very slowly with a great deal of groaning and stalling. I have since bought a much more powerful 12″ bandsaw that will make this sort of operation a breeze on future instruments.

I cut more of them than I needed so that I had a selection from which to work around knots and pick the prettiest faces to be visible on the outside of the instrument. After ripping them on the bandsaw I stacked them with air gaps around them and let them acclimatise for a couple of weeks; this proved to be a good idea because they definitely warped a little in the first few days.

After drying I picked out the nicest ones and planed the best face flat, revealing the medullary ray flecks and occasional ripples:

I mitred the ends, using the planed face as my reference:

Then I cleaned up the mitres and trimmed them to exact length using a special 45° shooting board I made for the purpose:

Trial assembly gave me my first real feel for how big this instrument was going to be relative to my hands:

Here’s where my clever plan begins. I had the idea to cut various rebates and steps and sound holes and things, and even the tapered area of the bellows frame using the CNC mill, before gluing the boxes together. This part actually went fairly well, apart from me messing up the first one due to a programming error. The main problem was that it took quite a lot of work to do the CAD and CAM to program the machine (there were actually six different programs due to the differences between the sides: left left, left right, right left, right right, tops, and bottoms). You might also have noticed that I used sycamore for both the action boxes and the bellows frames: I’ve since learned that it is common to use a lighter, cheaper wood for the bellows frames; if I’d done that I could have still used the same technique by gluing a strip of sycamore and a strip of whatever secondary wood together before machining them as if it was a single piece.

Trial assembly of all the sides before gluing:

Gluing. Here’s where things started to go wrong. The sides seemed to warp slightly when I put the glue on, making it extremely difficult to get them to line up perfectly. My first attempt was clearly a mess so I broke them apart before the glue had dried, washed the glue off, and tried again.

Second attempt didn’t look too bad at first:

But on closer examination, most of the joints were slightly squiffy, some more than others. It may not look like a lot, but it caused me all sorts of headaches further down the line.

Unusually, the instrument has two reed pans per side. This meant I had to make a pair of dividing walls for the bellows frames:

Next I cut the boxes apart into their three sections: the bellows frame and the two halves of the action box. I was a little nervous about this step but it went smoothly. Those slots routed in the walls are there specifically to make it easier to cut the boxes apart.

Incidentally, I didn’t know at this stage how deep the reed pans were going to be so I made the bellows frames fairly deep to be on the safe side. They probably could have been 5mm shallower in hindsight. This caused me a bit of a headache later on because I ended up having to accurately shim the bottom of the reed pan recesses on both sides because they were both deeper than the reed pans I actually made.

Next I had to inlay the captive nut plates in the bellows frames, and drill the bolt holes in the action boxes. All sorts of things went wrong during these operations, some of them because the frames weren’t perfectly square, some because my milling machine wasn’t big enough to get to all of the walls without turning the boxes 180 degrees. I’ll definitely be working on coming up with an easier and more reliable way to do this operation for the next instrument. The worst thing that went wrong was one of the bellows frames came loose from the (inadequate) clamps and the router bit tore a chunk out of the inside of the wall.

I had my finger on the emergency stop button and managed to hit it before it had done too much damage:

I repaired it by cutting a section out, gluing in a new piece, and planing it flush:

The repair is hidden on the inside of the instrument, underneath the chamois leather gasket.

With the nuts installed, I was able to bolt the boxes together and lightly plane the outsides to get the walls to match up nicely (zoom in to see the nice figuring):

I slightly rounded all the corners so it feels comfortable to hold:

The outside of the bellows frame needed planing to taper it down slightly and round the corners where it meets the bellows, which are deliberately slightly smaller than the boxes and have rounded corners.

I then lightly French-polished the action boxes, leaving the bellows frames bare because I needed to glue the linen and leather to them. After all the difficulties I had polishing the end plates, I was starting to get the hang of the technique by this point and did a much more satisfactory job of polishing the action box sides. If you zoom in you can see how it really brought out the figure of the wood. The dye in the meths still made the finish look a little bit purple, though!

I made a rookie mistake at this stage: as you can see in the previous photo, the bellows frame walls perfectly meet the action box walls with no step. What I should have done was to plane the action boxes a tiny bit smaller, so that when I glued the leather on, the leather would have been able to come right up to the underside of the action box without the edge being visible. I tried to work around the problem by skiving the leather down to virtually nothing where the frame ends, but it didn’t work perfectly and the join between the two looks slightly crude. It probably also would have helped if I’d made the end run a couple of mm wider and wrapped the skived edge of the leather around the corner a little, so the edge of the leather end run was clamped inside the joint between the boxes, underneath the chamois gasket.

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