A few years back, after spending most of a year with an Elise duet concertina in Afghanistan, I posted a thread here pondering about a durable concertina for travel in tough climates. In some other threads here we've discussed the "campaign concertinas" made for India service and the like, which in some cases had metal-reinforced corners, special (or treated?) woods, and special reed finishes to resist corrosion. At the time the general consensus of the board was that concertinas are pretty reasonably hardy as-is, but the idea of a travel-inclined concertina stuck with me.
For a number of years after Afghanistan it didn't matter since I was working desk jobs in Washington DC, but within months of buying a nice Morse Beaumont duet concertina, I joined a buddy's startup consulting firm, moved to Colombia, bounced around Europe, and now working in West Africa. The climate here in Monrovia has very little temperature change (between 70-85F throughout the year) but has a torrential rainy season and baking dry season, plus most of the population lives near the sea; my house is only 200 yards from the ocean. So this climate is tough on a lot of gear: we're constantly dealing with corrosion and gunk on our car, and our leather belts and shoes will literally grow an even coat of fuzzy grey mold if left alone on the shelf a few weeks. And in another few months it'll be dry season, precipitation will drop to near-nil and everything that's been soggy and swollen for months will desiccate and contract, and indoor climate control is largely absent here.
I'm having a used $75 plastic-body Stagi Anglo off eBay sent out here to tide me over for the moment, but we're about to start coming into decent cash as this startup finally gains ground, so I'm in conversations with Cnet member Alex Holden, proprietor of the nascent Holden Concertinas, to build me a concertina with all feasible features and tweaks to survive climate extremes and rough handling. Alex has a strong grounding in traditional handicrafts but is also open to working with innovative materials, so we thought we'd put our heads together, and also see if the Cnet community has any input.
Here are some of our initial ideas:
- The base inspiration is the Wheatstone "Duett", an early duet concertina made in rectangular form with 12 buttons per side, about 6" long by 4.5" wide. The square shape should simplify most stages of production and perhaps make it a little more durable. The Duett was in a proto-Maccann system (one chromatic octave per side) but since I do folk music and am used to very limited chromaticity, I'm inclined to use my 12 buttons per side for an octave and three notes, plus one chromatic per side, something like that. I've been simulating this by playing on the Duettina smartphone app and using only C-scale notes and the F#, and I'm getting by fine with that.
- The ends are a fragile point due to being a large single piece of wood, and of course the fretting. We looked at a few different options and the one we're leaning to right now is anodized aluminum ends as being corrosion resistant, slim, light, and breakage resistant. For fretwork we've considered some Deco-influenced rays kind of like the old Bastari metal-ended, since those leave few weak points of thin metal, and also provide an interesting contrast to the more common/anachronistic Victorian motifs still used. Alternately, we could go fretless or do side-fretting, as Bob Tedrow has done on some instruments, in which case we could have some pattern or line image etched into the aluminum ends prior to anodizing.
- For the frame, I could use some advice about materials. To one degree plywood is more resistant to climate, but still subject to rot and in some cases perhaps delamination? I know some hardwoods are brittle or risk swelling, but if we choose a hardwood with good climate resistance would that cancel out disadvantages? I have a particular fondness for mesquite since I've lived in Texas, and it's a sustainable wood (practically a weed) and very stable, to the point that smallpipe makers in the US use it for instruments. But since Alex is in the UK we're also open to any UK woods that resist climate well, and/or any composites like bamboo ply, etc.
- For reedblocks, Van Wyck has already set a precedent with making perspex/plexiglass reedblocks for his concertinas in South Africa, so that's one option; other ideas? You can see in the above pic that a Duett reedpan (all equal-size chambers?) is very simply constructed, so we could just epoxy together some cuts of sheet, or since Alex has access to a CNC mill could mill it out of a solid block easily.
- Soundboard: I understand some North American makers use plywood due to the US having a harsher climate, but would it be too crazy to take it a step further and use carbon fiber? It's already got some popularity for the soundboards of guitars and the like, though I realize "soundboard" has somewhat different meanings in these cases. But it is appealing to diminish risks of cracking by replacing that large piece of wood.
- Bellows: this is a sticky one, is there anything at all practical to use that's more durable than leather and card? I'm not a rigid stickler so if using different materials would necessitate a more accordion-influenced bellow I'm fine with that, so long as it functions and is durable, or is leather simply unavoidable here?
- Reeds: anything to be done to make them more corrosion-resistant, or would modern reeds be of sturdier metals than traditional reeds were anyway?
These are some of our initial thoughts. Anyone have any red flags to raise, points of note, or clever ideas we should consider? Is anyone else in the market for a "near-bulletproof" travel concertina (in any fingering system) so that we can make the design versatile enough to be applied to several different builds?
Right now I'm getting by with a PVC tinwhistle, synthetic Irish flute, polymer Swedish bagpipes, and a micro-MIDI keyboard, and those have all been outstanding packable and durable travel instruments, so I'm looking forward to adding a concertina to that vagabond collection so I can keep up my concertina skills wherever I go.