A Tale of Two Jeffries
How Paul went from one
Lachenal to two Jeffries in under a month
Jan. 30, 1999
A woman from Alberta contacted me via e-mail on Dec. 2, 1998, with a 30-key
Jeffries which she'd held, unused, for around 30 years. After a few exchanges,
she agreed to sell it to me. Prices for Jeffries are now well-known on the
Internet, so although she knew basically nothing about concertinas, she
still got a very fair price from me. I'm sure you're wondering, so no, this
was most definitely not one of those "I bought a Jeffries for $50
in a garage sale" stories!
She thought it was a C/G although some pads had clearly fallen off and
so it was not playable and so it was basically impossible to determine
the pitch since many reeds were sounding when the bellows were pressed.
From the scans she sent me (the old "concertina plopped on the scanner"
trick), I could tell that it was an early one with only "C. Jeffries Maker"
indicated on the end. The usual date associated with these "C. Jeffries
Maker" units is around 1890, although I suspect this could be off by a
good 10 years or more in either direction. From what I've heard, these
early ones were generally better (or could be better) than the later "Praed
street" (spelling?) models, so I wasn't worried about the age.
described it as being in good condition. So with the description and the
photos (mostly of the metal ends), we sealed the deal and less than a
week after our initial contact, the concertina was on its way across Canada.
In case you're wondering, we did the deal by COD. Not the ideal way (using
a trusted middleman/escrow would have been the safest for both), but she
was pretty sure I wanted it, and I was pretty sure I'd keep it (it WAS
a Jeffries after all!) Since a pretty large sum of money was involved,
I arranged to have a couple of days after delivery to inspect the concertina
and return it for a full refund (minus postage) should I find it really
damaged and worthless. This was needed, as I had no way of knowing if
it had been properly stored all these years or if the reeds were rusted
It finally arrived on December 11 (Canada Post isn't the world's finest).
What an exciting day! I opened it up and sure enough, it was a real Jeffries
with original bellows with beautiful gold tooling and bellows paper with
greenish ink. As I suspected though, the pads were all falling off and
it was not playable. She also described the bellows as not leaky, but
they were really completely shot with the leather all old and cracked
and leaky as hell, especially around every edge (see photo below). Still,
I had a few days to check it out and return it, so I glued all the pads
back together (the sandwiches were coming apart) and back in place (with
a tiny drop of white glue) and got it playable. Luckily, the pads were
all still there floating around inside the action.
what a sound! Many reeds were not sounding, and there was a lot of leakage
between notes (so pressing a key resulted in several reeds sounding),
but I was able to play a number of tunes and it didn't take long for me
to fall in love with it. The action was light and consistent. The reeds
spoke quickly and with authority. I could play quietly or blast away at
full volume, and all at speeds and with ornamentation where my Lachenal
would have started to drop notes and sound a bit muddy and clickety-clackety
(due to the different action and reeds). The tone was definitely brighter
and brasher than the Lachenal, but beautiful in its own way. Still, to
the untrained ear (and I'm sure to many trained ears!), the warm, round
and mellow tone of the Lachenal would probably sound better. I later realized
that this partly because I was of course playing the Jeffries like I played
my Lachenal, but nonetheless, the Jeffries is still brighter and brasher.
Another thing I noticed immediately: this thing was much heavier
than my Lachenal! Now, it isn't a real tank or anything, but I made an
immediate mental note to retract my comment I made in my NHICS '98 report
about the Suttner Jeffries copy I tried being a little heavy. So consider
this a public retraction: as far as I can remember, the Suttner Jeffries
copy I tried was not any heavier than either of my old Jeffries! Compared
to the Jeffries, my Lachenal was a veritable featherweight. I don't have
a scale, but with one concertina in each hand, the Jeffries was clearly
much heavier. I'm now a little more used to the weight, but it takes time
to make something heavier feel like a part of your body when you play
once you're used to a certain heft.
fooling around with it for a while (and gluing yet more pads back in place),
I remembered to check the tuning with my new little digital Korg CA-10
tuner (a steal at under $20 by the way!). Turns out it's a Bb/F. Just
to make sure it really was a Bb/F and not just seriously out of tune (I'd
heard stories of people making tuning mistakes this way), I opened it
up that evening and checked the notes stamped on the reed carriers (this
is standard practice on just about every concertina I think). Yep, it
had always been a Bb/F. Still, the tuner registered most notes at about
25 cents sharp.
I then opened it up and gave the insides including all the reeds a really
good inspection. The woodwork and action looked remarkably good and clean,
with no cracks or apparent damage. Then I took a look at the reed pans.
Ouch! First, a little concertina anatomy: A concertina reed pan is basically
a thick piece of maple which pressure fits into the wooden reed frame.
What keeps it from flopping against the inside of the bellows? Normally,
there are small triangular wooden blocks glued to the inside of the bellows
frame. These blocks support each of the six corners of the reed pan and
so keep the reed pan at the proper height and keep it neatly sandwiched
against the inside of the action board (the board with all the holes in
it that are opened and closed by the raising and lowering of the pads
when you press a key). So what happens when one or more of these supporting
blocks falls off? You got it. The corner of the reed pan with no support
is pushed inwards and warps and/or cracks. Luckily there were no cracks,
but one block was missing from the right-side bellows frame, and two adjacent
blocks were missing from the lower left side (where the low notes are
on the left side). Both reed pans were warped inward (towards the bellows).
Holding a straightedge across the reed pan and measuring the lowest point
of the "dip" or bow, the right side warp measured 1/16", and the left
warp measured 1/8". This might not sound like much without actually seeing
it, but trust me, on an instrument only 6" across, 1/8" looks huge, especially
when your bank account is now nearly empty after buying this piece of
warped wood. So the warps were clearly the cause of the leakage between
notes, since the tops of the reed chambers were now not firmly sealed
against the ends of the action boards.
discovered the warps in the reed pans at about 10:00 PM. What a nightmare.
I was terribly worried and disappointed. I'm such a worry wart that I
didn't even sleep well that night. So the next day I called Doug at The
Button Box (where I bought my beautiful old Lachenal about 2-1/2 years
earlier). Doug immediately put my mind at ease and suggested that the
warp could be repaired and/or worked around. Phew! We also spoke for a
while about the other problems including the dead bellows and the need
for new pads and valve flaps, although these last two were still in remarkably
good shape and for the most part workable.
I suspected, getting it back into tip-top shape would probably run around
$1000 US or so (that's over $1500 Canadian -- I live in Canada), including
new bellows from one of the makers in the UK. Not a terrible price considering
that a good chunk of that was just for the bellows, but I was broke. So
what to do? Originally, I had no plans to sell my Lachenal. I really did
like it and I was thinking that it would be nice to keep the Lachenal
for the warmer and mellower sound. Still, it didn't take me long to realize
that with a Jeffries and a Lachenal side by side, I would never pick up
the Lachenal. The action on the Jeffries really was that much better,
regardless of the tone I was in a mood for. So I was then thinking of
selling the Lachenal to pay for a complete overhaul of the Jeffries, but
then I found out that it was a Bb/F. The lower tone of the Bb/F was simply
lovely and since I found out that the warped reed pans didn't spell disaster,
I had decided to keep the Jeffries, but if I sold the Lachenal, I'd then
be without a session instrument. Not that I ever play in sessions, but
the possibility gets greater all the time the better I get and the more
tunes I learn. What to do? Read on...
Just a few days after I closed the deal on the Bb/F, someone else emailed
me from the Pacific Northwest of the United States and told me that he had
a 30-key C/G Jeffries for sale for a reasonable price (by Jeffries standards).
It had apparently been overhauled by Colin Dipper about ten years ago, but
the guy didn't play it any more and he just moved into an apartment (a Jeffries
can be loud!). I was wary since I really didn't want to end up with two
unplayable instruments, so this time I used a trusted middleman to act as
escrow and inspector. Before having the guy send it to the middleman, I
lined up a buyer for my Lachenal to pay for the Jeffries.
The price he was asking for a restored C/G Jeffries sounded too good
to be true. It was. When it arrived at the middleman, I was told that
it was in pretty bad shape, but I was also told that it was still well
worth the asking price and everyone said I would be crazy to let it go.
So I bought it. My decision was also made easier by the fact that I had
a feeling I could get this one at least playable by myself. Sure, it would
need some professional work (tuning and such), but I was now desperate
for a playable instrument.
I was waiting for the C/G to arrive, I did what I could with the Bb/F
to get it playable. This wasn't much actually, because there really weren't
many small things to do. It needed big stuff (bellows, reed chamber sealing/adjusting
to accommodate the warping, tuning, etc.) that only a professional could
do (at least in my opinion). Still, I got it so it was mostly working,
but then disaster! One of the action arms actually popped off! Now, this
is not supposed to be able to happen with an instrument with riveted
action! The lever arm is supposed to be riveted to the supporting post
which is firmly seated into the action board. So what had happened? Well,
this instrument had clearly seen a LOT of use. Someone had enjoyed it
for many years. The wear on the wooden palm rests showed this. As a result
of probably millions of button pushes, the friction of the lever pivoting
on the rivet and the spring pushing up on the arm had actually caused
the rivet hole in the arm to wear right through the underside. The arm
was now obviously worthless. I don't know much about metal or metalwork,
but I knew there was no way it could be repaired. In a panic I contacted
a few people to find out what could be done only to be told that this
was perfectly normal in old unrestored instruments and that the post/arm/rivet
assemblies could be replaced with spares or newly made parts. What a relief!
To see an original part from such an old instrument clearly worthless
was very discouraging, not in the least because it would mean an additional
arm which wore through was obviously the most used: the top middle key
on the left side (what would be the A/G key on a C/G instrument). I realized
that the same key on the right also gets a lot of use. A quick check confirmed
my fear. There was a lot of vertical play in that and several other often-used
assemblies. Obviously, there should be no vertical play in a riveted assembly.
So here I was with one absolutely unplayable concertina (the arm just
popped off if I tried to play at all), my Lachenal sold, and another concertina
of questionable quality and condition on its way. More than once I lay
awake at night wondering what I had gotten myself into and whether or
not I had let my own greed and hardware-envy ruin my love of the instrument.
I was getting very nervous and depressed because I was also now not able
to play at all and playing my concertina had become a true source of joy
for me. Rarely in the 2-1/2 years since I had purchased my Lachenal had
more than a day or two gone by where I didn't play the concertina.
I got the C/G Jeffries a few weeks later. The cheque took forever to
get out West -- this time it was the United States post office that messed
up! It was barely playable. There was lots of corrosion (but only a little
on the inside of the reeds thank God!) covering just about everything,
and the Dipper bellows from 1985 were extremely stiff and dry and barely
usable. It's hard to believe, but all in all, it was far worse (sounding
and playing) than my Lachenal. Many reeds were squeaky and out of tune,
some didn't sound, and there was leakage between notes in a few areas
due to a missing bellows frame reed-pan supporting block which once again
led to some warpage (just a little though). The action mechanism was also
so corroded and just plain dirty that the action was quite mushy and unresponsive
over a number of keys. Still, it was a Jeffries, with Jeffries reeds and
mostly original action, and so I thought that it at least must have some
the next few weeks I completely took the instrument apart. Taking apart
a Jeffries is actually easier than a Lachenal. Just loosen the end bolts,
take off the action box and the pull out the reed pan. Don't forget to
keep the end bolts organized so you're sure to put them back into their
original holes (I used an inverted foam cup with holes punched in the
end). Fewer screws and easier to reassemble than a Lachenal if you ask
me. Of course by now I had taken apart these two a number of times and
so was getting very bored with screwing and unscrewing those end bolts
a million times!
One thing I discovered was the the C/G was originally a Bb/F. It was
indeed restored by Colin Dipper in 1985. There is a note from him, written
in pencil, on one of the reed pans saying that it was "re-reeded with
Jeffries reeds to C/G in November 1985". I'm not sure whether this means
that he put Jeffries C/G reeds into the Bb/F reed carriers or that he
re-tuned the Bb/F to C/G, but either way, the reed carriers are the originals,
as the Bb/F pitch stamps are still visible under the newer C/G stamps.
Either way, everyone was indicating that this could also account for the
somewhat thin and squeaky sound of the instrument. It was made to be a
Bb/F over a hundred years ago. Mind you, it's easy to get all judgmental
now, but even just 14 years ago Jeffries weren't worth much and so changing
the pitch to something which could be used in a local session wasn't as
sacrilegious as it would be today. The original keys were also gone and
in their place were Colin's keys with the delrin (plastic) bases and metal
caps (similar in construction to Wheatstone keys). They're fine keys,
but the throw is very short compared to the Bb/F. This results in a very
low pad lift, which is also probably muting the sound somewhat. I'm getting
used to it, but I think a higher pad lift would really help it sing. One
of these years I'll probably see if Colin can do something about this.
I have a feeling that he can. Just taking a big off the base of each key
would do the trick. Anyone good with a lathe?!?
During this time, I also cleaned all the reeds using the standard "stiff paper under the reed tongue and then pull" technique to clean off the corrosion under each reed. A few swipes on each reed removed an amazing amount of corrosion and assorted junk. I also cleaned out the black dust and goop covering everything (gently and lightly with a soft paintbrush and toothbrush), and took out and re-seated all the reeds carriers (many were jammed in their slots from years of neglect and high humidity). The metal ends and action are still pretty black and/or corroded to some extent, but I thought it best not to go for looks at this point, since I know that over the years some patina on metal is normal and helps protect it from further corrosion. I just wanted to get the excess out to let the parts move freely again. Cleaning and reseating all the reeds helped open up and tone down the sound immensely. It was now starting to sound and feel less like a Stagi and more like a Jeffries. It wasn't squeaking much and it was starting to sound a little louder and take on a more honky and growly sound. Yeah! Next it was time to figure out if those bellows could be saved.
some discussion with various people, I tried applying a small amount of
neatsfoot oil (which I purchased at a cobbler shop in a local mall) to
the leather on the inside of each bellows fold. I know some people recommend
not using anything except shoe polish on bellows, but the neatsfoot oil
recommendation came from several excellent sources, and besides, these
bellows were way beyond a simple polish job and were really in need of
serious rejuvenation. It was either that or the trash. I dabbed a thin
layer into each fold with an old paintbrush and wiped off any excess with
a rag. I then worked the bellows back and forth for twenty minutes of
so while watching TV to really work in the oil. Wow, what a difference!
They immediately began to loosen up. I then left it to sit overnight just
to let the oil penetrate. The next day I was so convinced that the bellows
just needed a good oiling that I oiled the hell out of them (still careful
not to let any soak into the inside and saturate the cardboard) and worked
oil into every dry, exposed, or moving piece of leather (that just about
covered the whole bellows actually). Of course this was easier also because
these are plain bellows with no gold tooling or papers so I didn't have
to worry about messing up the finish (which was already faded). Another
day of working in the oil and working the bellows resulted in a much more
playable instrument. I was starting to think that the bellows would actually
The result is now a pretty nice instrument! It plays and sounds quite
nice now. Everyone I spoke to also just recommended playing it to help
it out. Now you're probably thinking that I'm some kind of concertina
nut and went crazy calling and bugging everyone I knew. Well, I was actually
in contact with some of these people for other reasons too, but you're
not far from the truth. So I guess this would be as good a time as any
to publicly thank Richard Morse and Doug Creighton of The Button Box,
Paul Groff, Colin Dipper, John Connor and Noel Hill. They were all very
reassuring and helpful when I called in various stages of panic as I discovered
the condition of the piles of unplayable metal and wood I had just paid
ridiculous sums of money for. Yes, they weren't "cheap" by any standard.
Still, they were less than the $5000 figure you see bantered about these
days for fully-restored top-notch Jeffries, that's for sure.
Interestingly, the action assemblies of the most often-used keys on the C/G are also showing signs of wear with considerable vertical play. None of the arms have worn through yet and so it is still playable, but the writing is on the wall. It needs help too.
Anyway, with the C/G now playable, I finally decided to hold onto it
for now and send off the Bb/F to be restored since everyone says it's
a potentially much more valuable and "better" instrument, being all original.
I asked everyone to not give me any presents or anything for my birthday,
Hanukkah, etc. and just give me money to put towards restoration of the
Jeffries. As per Noel's and Paul's suggestion, I've decided to keep the
Bb/F in completely original tuning since it sounds so beautiful as it
is and since finding one in original tuning is apparently so rare now.
I sent it off in the middle of January, 1999, to Colin and Rosalie Dipper
in England. They're going to make new bellows, fix the worn action assemblies,
as well as do a whole laundry list of small fixes, but I asked them to
maintain the original philharmonic and unequal temper tuning. I called
a few weeks after sending it to make sure they got it (they did -- Canada
Post actually came through!) As always Colin sounded positive, but did
indicate that the reed pans really were "severely" warped, so
that's still a source of worry for me. Still, I can't wait to get it back
-- it's going to be a real beauty and I think an excellent instrument.
As always, speaking with Colin was a real pleasure. He's such a very nice
guy and was very reassuring and laid back which really helped calm me
down when I was all worried about the various problems with both instruments.
If you're looking to order a concertina, don't hesitate to give him a
call -- he has never once made me feel as ignorant as I really am!
first I really wasn't crazy about the sound or action of the C/G and wasn't
even sure if I was going to keep it once I got the Bb/F back. Still, it
was all I had and I was desperate to get playing again, so I just went
at it. Again, everyone said that simply playing the poor instrument would
help it out, and once again, they were right. The more I played it, the
better it got. The squeaky reeds either worked out their "issues" on their
own, or I pulled them out and forced them to submit to my will (no concertina
is going to bully me around!) Either way, the whole instrument began to
behave much better. The bellows were loosening up, the action was getting
smoother, and the tone was getting richer and louder.
Was it only the instrument that was improving? No. I was also learning
how to control such a beast. It's not exactly obvious, but I now know
that a great instrument is not necessarily the easiest to play. I was
speaking to Noel Hill about this, and he mentioned that people will sometimes
pick up one of his Jeffries which is set up the way he likes it and they
will find it very difficult to play. I didn't understand this at first,
but now I understand that an instrument with the potential for great dynamic
and tonal ranges takes a lot of effort and practice to control. My Lachenal
sounded sweet and warm and pleasant pretty much no matter how I played
it. Not so with the Jeffries. At first I was playing like I played my
Lachenal. It just didn't work, and it sounded terrible. Once I got to
know it better, I started to control the air flow and to adjust my playing
style to better meet the needs of the reeds and action. It makes a huge
difference. The heavier weight also was difficult to adjust to, but I
hardly notice it now. It did make my shoulder quite sore for a few weeks
though, and it made me adjust my posture and style. I could be sloppier
with the lightweight and more forgiving Lachenal. Poor posture and a tense
upper body with the Jeffries led to aches and pains and sore muscles.
This was also the case because I found myself having to be a bit more
aggressive on the bellows due to their stiffness and I think in part due
to the low pad lift which required me to play a bit "harder" (louder)
to get a tone that I was pleased with. After many hours of play, the reeds
now respond much better, but the tone is still kind of thin and tinny
when played softly.
Still, it's shaping up to be a fine instrument, so I now have no plans
to part with it. Not at least until someone drops a find old Wheatstone
in my lap! (I'm kidding!! ... Kind of...)
Would I recommend that you do as I did if you're ever offered an unrestored
Jeffries or Wheatstone? Yes and no. I'd recommend it only if you don't
mind taking risks, have money to spare, are patient, and don't have to
sell your current instrument. I didn't meet any of those requirements
and I still made out okay (well, at least I think I'll feel more like
I did when I get the Bb/F back), but it has been a very stressful few
months, both emotionally and financially. I would definitely not recommend
delaying an order of a new Suttner, Dipper, Wheatstone or Connor (apologies
if I'm forgetting anyone!) just on the hopes that you'll find an unrestored
Jeffries or Wheatstone -- despite my good luck, this is becoming quite
rare and difficult. Besides, it turns out that the final cost of even
one of my Jeffries (after restoration including new bellows which are
almost always required) is going to be more than a brand new Jeffries
or Wheatstone copy would cost you (and maybe not much less than a restored
Jeffries), and you would have none of the issues I've detailed above to
deal with. With that said, should an unrestored Jeffries materialize,
you'd probably be crazy to pass it up if it's under $2000 US and at least
restorable. Music and instruments are emotional and sometimes mystical
things while money -- as my father once told me when I was worrying about
it recently -- is just paper. And this web page is just digital paper,
so get back to enjoying your music and instruments already!