Reed Prototypes Part 2: Tongue

The way a free reed works is that a tongue made from a springy material (usually spring steel or brass) is made to oscillate through a close-fitting window in a metal frame by the flow of air through the reed. Each time the tongue passes through the tight part of the frame it briefly interrupts the air flow. This regular chopping-up of the air flow produces a tone with a significant harmonic content (it’s a long way from being a pure sine wave).

I’m using hardened spring steel for my reeds (IIRC it was 0.8mm thick on this size of reed), which I found practically impossible to cut with hand shears, so I bought an old bench shear on eBay. I got it cheap because it was seized up with rust and the blades were blunt and dented, but it is a nice heavy-duty machine:

handy_shear_before

After restoration, it works really well (though it would be nice to have an extension tube on the handle):

handy_shear_after

I need to come up with a better way of cutting the strips consistently to the right width. To complicate matters, they are slightly tapered. Initially I scribed them and lined them up under the blade by eye, which worked better than I expected but was rather fiddly and time-consuming.

marking_reed_tongue

sheared_reed_tongue

The shearing action bent the tongue slightly so I straightened it before doing any more work on it:

straightening_reed_tongue

Next I cleaned up the edges by draw-filing while it was held in a toolmakers vice:

filing_tongue_edges

It’s important to make the tongue a very close fit in the frame, but not so tight that it’s prone to catching if the reed pan expands and presses on the sides of the frame:

fitting_reed_tongue_1

A low-power back-lit stereo microscope is a big help with fitting the tongue to the frame. Although the gap looks off-centre in this picture, that’s because you’re only seeing the view from the right eyepiece.

fitting_reed_tongue_2

In a concertina, the tongues are usually not a consistent thickness along their length: they are profiled so as to bring the pitch up or down and to balance the volume of the reeds across the range of the instrument. Because I don’t fully understand all the parameters yet, I decided to start out by copying the profiles of the reeds in an antique instrument. I took the tongue I was copying out of its frame and measured it in several places with a point micrometer (I found it wasn’t difficult to put it back in the same place, and it still produced the same pitch afterwards).

measuring_reed_profile

I did the profiling by hand using a triangular Bahco saw file and an Eclipse hand vice, on top of an oak block with a shallow step cut into it. You can tell roughly what pitch you are at by ‘pinging’ it. I found, at least with this size of reed, that it is very easy to take a hair too much thickness off the belly area and the pitch suddenly drops by a couple of semitones. You can bring it back up by taking a lot of thickness off the tip, but then you have a weak reed that sounds slightly odd.

After clamping the profiled reed into the frame, you have an extra bit of tongue sticking out of the back of the reed that needs to be removed (you deliberately shear the tongue too long so you have something to grip while profiling and fitting it). Because it is hardened steel, the extra bit is very easy to break off, and the fact that the clamp doesn’t quite reach the end of the frame means that the sharp stub doesn’t stick out significantly past the end of the reed:

Here I am doing the initial rough-tuning of the reed before trying it in the instrument. Note that removing some metal from the belly (using a 600 grit diamond needle file) caused the set of the tongue to alter, i.e. the tip bent down slightly. This caused the reed to choke the second time I tried to sound it. There needs to be a slight gap between the tongue and frame when it’s at rest or no air will flow through it and it won’t start oscillating by itself.

From left to right, we have the original antique Lachenal reed I was copying, my first working reed (using the best of the aluminium frames), and my first brass-framed reed:

three_reeds

My first brass reed in the instrument:

reed_in_pan

The profiling of this first reed isn’t a perfect copy of the original: rather than being a smooth curve from the belly up to the tip, the profile curves up too sharply and then plateaus before the tip. The effect of this is that although the pitch is right and the dynamic range seems OK, the tone has less upper harmonics. When I compare it in the instrument to the original reed next to it, it sounds ‘softer’ with less of the piercing ringing overtones of the original. I suspect this is because most of the bending action is happening near the clamp rather than spread out along the full length of the tongue. Something to work on improving in my next prototype!

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Reed Prototypes Part 1: Frame and Clamp

Recently I made my first prototype concertina reeds. There’s a lot to write about so I’m going to divide it into two articles, this one will cover the frames and clamps, and the next one will cover the tongues.

My plan was to make a drop-in replacement for one of the low ‘B’ reeds in my vintage Lachenal English. I think this instrument was probably one of Lachenal’s higher-end ‘broad scale’ models, because I also have another steel-reeded Lachenal that in many cases has narrower reed tongues in the same pitch. I’m not totally sure why the narrow scale models existed or were originally cheaper than the broad scale equivalent (the extra metal and labour is fairly trivial). They were probably quieter at the top end of the dynamic range, which might make them better for a student instrument.

I understand Wheatstone’s earliest reeds were made totally by hand, piercing them with a jewellers’ saw and cleaning them up with files. This must have been very labour-intensive, highly-skilled work, and prone to inconsistency. At some point fairly early on, perhaps when Louis Lachenal was hired to mechanise production(?), they changed to using fly-presses and dies to punch out the reed frames. This was much faster, worked well, and the presses could be operated by relatively unskilled workers, but the disadvantage is that precision dies are very expensive to make. To save on tooling costs, instead of making a different set of dies for every pitch of reed, they made do with a handful of sizes and made up for the gaps between them through careful tongue profiling. Until relatively recently, the need to invest in a set of press tooling was a significant barrier to entry for new reedmakers.

Enter CNC machining. I understand other makers have successfully used laser cutting or possibly wire EDM, but I have my own small CNC milling machine so that is the process I am going to use. It is fairly slow (certainly compared to a a press tool), but it works pretty well and I hope to get to the stage where I can load in enough brass for half an instrument worth of reed frames, and set it going with minimal supervision while I work on another task. As well as cutting out the shapes of the frames and clamps, it can also cut the vent slots (albeit with filleted corners), drill the clamp holes, engrave the note labels and a logo, counterbore the clamp screw holes, and even chamfer the top edges of the frame so they fit nicely into the dovetailed slots of the reed pan. Initially I’m planning to copy all the dimensions of my prototype reeds from the Lachenal instrument, but in future when I understand the design parameters better I will be able to make frames that are the optimal size for each pitch.

My first attempts at milling frames were using scrap aluminium. It took me quite a few failed attempts before I got one that seemed pretty good (the antique Lachenal frame I was copying is on the right):

aluminium_reed_attempts

Next I moved onto brass prototypes, immediately running into problems with it cutting very badly and breaking 1/16″ end mills:

failed_brass_reed_shoe

A microscope view of an end mill with clogged flutes, from a run that I aborted before it snapped:

clogged_end_mill

I think the reason for my problem was that the chips weren’t clearing from the slots properly so on subsequent passes they were getting re-cut and generating a lot of heat. I experimented with a lot of parameters, but basically what worked was making the depth of cut shallower, increasing the spindle speed to 10K RPM (the maximum my machine’s spindle can handle), significantly increasing the feed rate (to make bigger chips), and adding a compressed air blast to blow the chips away. I also changed from two flute HSS bits to three flute cobalt bits, though I’m not certain that helped with the chip clearance (it did allow me to increase the feed rate a bit more). It also proved necessary to make some proper mechanical clamps to hold the plate to the spoil board, because double-sided tape wasn’t holding it securely enough:

sheet_metal_mill_clamps

Here is a (21 minute long) video of the process of milling a single reed shoe prototype. Don’t bother watching the whole thing unless you’re really fascinated! This isn’t quite the final program: I subsequently altered the bevelling operation slightly so that the frame wedges more securely into the reed pan.

The CNC program includes small tabs that prevent the parts coming loose during machining. Afterwards these need to be manually cut. I found that it was possible to break them out with a small chisel but it left rough stubs that I then had to clean up with a file, so I changed to cutting them with a jeweller’s saw:

cutting_reed_frame_tabs

Because I cut the vents using a 1/16″ end mill, this leaves 1/32″ radius fillets in the corners, which should ideally be dead sharp. I’ve been manually cleaning these up using a fine square needle file with one edge ground smooth. I put the reed frame over the small square hole in my bench peg (see previous photo), hold the safe face of the file flat against the end of the vent, and carefully file sideways into the corner until it’s as sharp as possible without leaving a nick:

reed_vent_squaring

The clamp screws I’m using are a bit smaller than the originals; they are M1.6, stainless steel, with 2.5mm diameter allen heads:

clamp_screw_comparison

In my testing they are strong enough for the purpose and take up less space than the originals, and the finer pitch and allen heads make them easier to tighten and loosen without damaging them.

When tapping the clamp screw holes in the frame, it’s very important to keep the tap perpendicular to the hole. After researching tapping machines and complicated guides, I came up with this simple method that works surprisingly well (though I still managed to break a tap the first time I tried to tap one of the brass shoes!):

I added counterbores to the holes in the clamps because it was easy to do and significantly reduces the height of the reed without weakening the clamping ability. It also improves the accuracy of the location slightly. Because I was already using an engraving operation for the note labels, I added a simple brand to the clamp (HC=Holden Concertinas):

reed_clamp

Because the screws start out a couple of mm too long, I put them in the frame and grind them almost flush with the bottom of the frame, then finish them off with emery paper on a sheet of glass:

grinding_clamp_screws

One of the defining characteristics of traditional concertina reed shoes is that the underside of the vent is relieved (i.e. the bottom of the slot is slightly wider than the top). My current understanding is that this allows the reed to work properly even at very low bellows pressures, i.e. it enables you to play quietly if you want to. It also has an effect on the tone. I’m not doing this on the milling machine because there are good reasons to cut them out from the top and it would be a bit tricky to turn them over and accurately register them for an extra operation. Instead, I made a special jig that allows me to file the vent to a consistent angle using a flat needle file with two safe narrow edges.

The clamp part of the filing jig started out as an old war-surplus hand vice with damaged jaws:

vent_filing_jig_1

vent_filing_jig_2

I trued up the jaws and modified the profile of the front jaw so that there is room for the file to tilt down below the level of the back jaw:

vent_filing_jig_3

Next I added an adjustable brass frame and a PTFE roller to guide the file, as shown in the following video. I align the top edge of the vent with the top of the back jaw, paint the inside of the vent with a black marker pen, and file until I’ve almost but not quite removed all the ink.

Here we have my first brass reed frame in my Lachenal reed pan. You can see how much lower-profile the new screw heads are: I think this might help with air flow inside the reed chambers. It took several prototypes before I was totally happy with the tightness of the fit in the dovetailed slot. There is a small area around the clamp that isn’t fully bevelled, giving a nice friction fit without compressing the sides of the frame adjacent to the vent.

reed_frame_finished

finished_brass_reed_frame

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Tuning Bellows

Recently I’ve been working on making myself a new set of tuning bellows. The first tool I made towards this goal was a new craft knife for cutting leather and card. I ground it from a piece of HSS machine hacksaw blade, because I had read that the steel is more wear-resistant than a simple carbon steel, and I wanted to test the theory.

craftknife

I’m not convinced it holds an edge better than a well-tempered O1 blade, however it does work pretty well. Unfortunately the spalted beech scales (glued on with epoxy resin) popped off after a couple of days. It would have been better to have riveted them on, however drilling holes in hardened HSS is easier said than done. For the time being I have just bound them on with a length of thick elastic.

On a roll with the knife-making, I next made myself a leather skiving/paring knife from the same materials as the craft knife:

skivingknife

This video shows how I use it:

I do of course also have a Schärf-Fix 2000 skiving machine, which I wrote about previously:

The Schärf-Fix is good for long strips, whereas the knife is better for skiving small pieces (particularly gussets) and odd bits here and there. Both tools are tricky to use, and I wasted a frustrating amount of leather while getting to grips with them. The Schärf-Fix has a tendency while edge-skiving a long strip to suddenly dig in and cut a chunk out of the strip. The key is that the blades have to be absurdly sharp, because the thin leather tends to stretch badly if you have to use any significant force to pull it through the machine. I need to spend some more time figuring out a way to resharpen the disposable blades (stropping didn’t help much), or I’ll end up going through at least a couple of them per concertina.

I used my Käfer Dial Thickness Gauge to make sure I was paring it consistently:

I needed to make end frames for my bellows, so I first needed a way to accurately make the corner reinforcing blocks. Here’s the jig I came up with. There’s a bit of a knack to using it, but the results aren’t bad:

cornerblockjig

And here’s one of my new corner blocks next to an antique Lachenal one:

cornerblock

I cut the sides of my bellows frames from 9mm plywood using my Nobex Proman 110 mitre saw, and glued them together with hot hide glue:

nobexproman

After a bit of shaping, I checked that they fit in the scrap Jeffries bellows I was copying my dimensions from:

bellowsframes

Next came the bellows mould. This proved quite a large sub-project in its own right. It has six forms (one of which is split in two to make it possible to remove the forms), screwed to a hexagonal core, suspended from a stand. Making the forms was the hardest part. I started by gluing blocks of pine to strips of plywood, with the grain running across the form, being careful to avoid including any large knots:

bellowsmould1

Then I used the bandsaw with the table tilted over at 45 degrees to relieve the under-sides of the forms:

bellowsmould2

Then I used the CNC milling machine to cut the valleys into the top sides of the forms (video sped way up: it actually took about an hour to machine each form):

After I had spent days making all six forms, I laid them out next to each other and realised I had made a silly mistake: five of them were spaced wrong, and in fact all of them were pitched slightly too tight to fit comfortably inside the Jeffries bellows:

bellowsmould3

I could have tried to unglue the blocks and glue them onto new plywood strips with the correct spacing, but I decided it was easier just to start again and remake them all. By the end, I was getting really tired of the noise the milling machine made as it cut the valleys, not to mention the dust everywhere!

I made the core of the bellows mould by mitring the edges of six pine boards on the bandsaw and gluing them together. I deliberately made it slightly oversize, then hand planed it to final shape/size (a good idea as it turned out slightly wonky, plus I wasn’t certain exactly how big it needed to be until I tried assembling it inside the Jeffries bellows):

bellowsmould4

The stand is a simple affair with the vertical ends roughly dovetailed to the base. A nice feature of this style of core is that if you turn the central bar one way up, it presents the sides uppermost, and if you turn it the other way up, it presents the corners instead. This picture also demonstrates that the scrap Jeffries bellows fit on the mould:

bellowsmould5

Finally time to start making the bellows! I cut the 108 individual cards out by hand, using a template I cut from a piece of scrap aluminium to match the shape of a card taken from the Jeffries bellows:

bellowsmaking1

I hinged pairs of them together using strips of fine-woven linen cut on the bias and bookbinders’ maize paste (very similar to wheat starch paste but supplied pre-cooked and with some anti-fungal stuff mixed in):

bellowsmaking2

Then I hinged the pairs together into six strips. Note that the hinges are both on what will become the inside of the bellows, and the valley hinges have to be pasted on with the hinge partly closed or they will tend to tear themselves apart when they close. There may be a less fiddly way to do this but it seemed to work well enough.

bellowsmaking3

After the paste had initially dried, I noticed that the cards had all warped a bit, so I pressed them all tightly in a big wooden clamp for a couple of days (forgot to take a photo), which helped to flatten them out again.

I tied the strips of cards onto the mould with string, then hinged the corners together with more bias-cut linen, though at this point I switched to using hot rabbit-skin glue. It’s messier and more difficult to work with than paste, but in my tests it was the strongest of all the glues I tried (slightly stronger even than PVA wood glue, and significantly more flexible when dry).

bellowsmaking4

I made a simple press to clamp the bellows shut, and whenever I had to let the glue dry before the next stage, I took the bellows off the mould and transferred them to the press. If I hadn’t, they would have dried in the fully-open position and possibly torn apart when I tried to force them closed. It’s also necessary to periodically take the bellows out of the press and exercise them to avoid them drying fully shut.

bellowsmaking5

Next I glued on the valley leather strips. I used goatskin for all the leather on the bellows. I pared the valleys down to about 0.65mm and skived the edges for cosmetic reasons. They are simple rectangles rather than butterflies because that’s how they were on the Jeffries bellows I was copying:

bellowsmaking6

Next the gussets:

bellowsmaking7

Here’s a video of me gluing a couple of gussets on:

The top and end runs. In hindsight the end runs would have worked better if they were both narrower and thinner, and perhaps I need to work on my technique for gluing them on, because I was unable to get them to go round the corners without creasing, which caused the end sets of gussets to be stiffer than the rest. It probably didn’t help that I made the cards all the same size (the end ones probably should have been slightly taller because of the inset):

bellowsmaking8

Pressing it all together:

bellowsmaking9

To make them look a bit prettier, I made bellows papers from decoupage paper:

bellowsmaking10

I screwed a plain piece of plywood onto the bottom end, with a sheet of black “funky foam” (closed cell EVA foam sold in thin sheets for craft purposes) as a gasket, and a couple of pieces of scrap lead to pull the bellows open with a consistent amount of force:

bellowsmaking11

The top board has a reed holder next to one edge. It’s a simple design that doesn’t require any adjustment for different sizes of reed, though you do have to hold the reed in place with your thumb while sounding it. The top plate is slightly thinner than a reed frame so that it’s possible to file the reed in situ, and it has a slight undercut so as to hold the dovetailed reed frame more securely. It took some careful measurements and fiddling about to get the wind slot just right so that it works for the full range of sizes of reed I had available. It might require further adjustment if I ever want to use it with even bigger reeds from a bass instrument. The separate brass screw is used in conjunction with a specially shaped thin spring-steel shim (not pictured) to hold the reed tongue up above the frame while filing.

bellowsmaking12

Here’s the finished tuning bellows clamped to my bench. The flap of leather is a relief valve to let the air out when you raise the bellows. Not clearly visible in the picture, there are a pair of straps tacked to the sides of the frames that prevent the bellows opening too far.

bellowsmaking13

Finally, here is a quick video of me showing them in action. The reeds are the highest and lowest reeds from my antique Lachenal 48-button English, plus the A4, which is at 444Hz because it is tuned in old pitch, meantone temperament.

I want to thank Geoffrey Crabb for all his advice on the construction of the bellows moulds and the tuning rig, and also Bob Tedrow for his bellows-making essay (although my technique is quite different, I picked up several good ideas from it).

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