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Concertina Repair & Maintenance


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Table of contents:


Don't do it. Okay? There, I can now say that I gave you the best advice and told you NOT to mess with your concertina and to leave it to the professionals. Concertinas are complicated beasts with lots of small, expensive and difficult-to-replace parts which you could seriously damage if you open up your concertina and poke around inside without knowing what you're doing.

So why am I writing this page? Because you're probably curious like me and will probably open up your instrument at some point. Why? Because I would be very suprised if you never had a reed stop sounding (or never stop sounding). I've opened up my Lachenal several times to pick out bits of hair or lint jammed in a reed. There's no reason you should have to risk shipping your precious box across a continent and pay someone to do something simple like this. So read on, but DON'T call me if (when?) you're lying in a pool of tears and reeds!


General Care and Handling

While they may be more rugged than I think they are, I'm very careful with my concertina. There's a lot of organic material in there -- woods, leather, etc., and these parts obviously won't take kindly to changes in temperature, or excessive heat or humidity (or any environmental extremes for that matter). I always store my concertina in its hard IBM case. I never leave it in the sun (even in the box) or in a hot trunk or car. When I bring it places, I put it on a seat and cover it with an old towel so the black box doesn't absorb too much heat when in the sun. I never let it get wet or damp. When it's been in the cold or hot car, I don't play it until it has warmed up or cooled off slowly inside its case (I don't want the steel reeds to rust).

Does this mean that your concertina is fragile? Not especially. Tim Jennings told me of a time when his precious Wheatstone Aeola was knocked off a school stage and bounced onto the hard floor below. A few reed carriers were knocked out of their slots requiring a simple re-setting, but other than that it was fine. Still, he never left it out of it's box after that! I'm paranoid about leaving my concertina out of it's case too -- I never just put it down on a table or chair or something, although I have a very good reason for this, and that reason is five years old and likes to dance and jump around.

Bob Tedrow at Homewood Musical Instruments has posted several photo essays of repair techniques on his Web site. Wendy Morrison of the House of Musical Traditions maintains a nice general free reed care page, and be sure to check out the repair techniques section of Chris Timson's Concertina FAQ too!


Hints & Tips from Dave Elliott

Here are some nuggets of info (quotes actually) courtesy of some e-mail exchanges I had with Dave Elliott, the author of the Concertina Maintenance Manual (see below). Dave has also very kindly offered to answer questions and offer advice for concertina repairs, so either send me questions for Dave so I can post the questions and answers here, or e-mail him directly, but PLEASE send me the questions and answers too so I can share them with the rest of the community through these pages!

  • Leaky Bellows
    To spot a leak where one is suspected: a 'blob' of good old human spit, look for the bubble on gentle pressurisation, then wipe off immediately before the glue is softened!
    Leaks originate from five sources:
    1. Pads not seating over the hole, or not held in place firmly/consistently. This is often acompanied by a perminent soft 'drone' note.
    2. Leather splitting: check on outer corners of the top skive -- through wear on trousers etc, check the lower corners first, check also on the insides of gussets on the internal intersections, or along inner corners between folds.
    3. Glue failure, check the top skive where it goes round an external corner and the leather creases up as it passes over the gusset at the corner, or on the inside of the fold where the gusset is glued to the ends of the inner hinges.
    4. The joint betwen the pad board and the bellows frame; check that the pad board is not warped, that the gusset is not too compressed, ie is still fluffy, and that the end bolts are evenly, firmly but no too tightly fastened up.
    5. Cracks in the pad board or holes, (pivot peg, screw, wood worm etc) through the pad board.

  • Silent Reeds
    The best way to remove fluff, hair, dead insects from a reed is to slip a piece of stiffish paper between the reed tongue and it carrier, press the tongue onto the paper (firm but gently) and draw the paper out, repeat several times. The black on the paper is the accumulation of air bourne dust, tobacco smoke tar etc. worth doing to all reads as a de-coke on a two or three yearly basis. Subject to the degree of usage.

    Some people wipe down their reeds with methylated spirit, or some form of industrial alcohol, to degrease them and remove tar deposits. Whilst I would not disagree with this, I might feel that there is a risk of snagging cloth, leaving lint behind and of removing a natural film of protection which makes a steel reed vulnerable to corrosion.

    If you are pullling your reed pan: do take the opportunity to roughen the gasket (chmoise leather) round where the reed pan fits into the bellows frame, and where the pad board clamps onto the bellows frame end. Use a screw driver, expect some dust, & blow it off. You can significantly improve the air efficiency of the machine.

Hint from Geo Salley

Geo Salley sent us the following from an early issue of Concertina and Squeezebox magazine about using paper to clean silent reeds:

In order to clean reeds, many have recommended pulling a strip of paper between the reed and the plate to clear out the dust. However, many types of sufficiently thin paper may tear and leave bits behind, or do not have a hard enough finish and will shred and generate their own lint during the cleaning process. The U.S. Printing Office, though, does use the very best quality paper in our currency, so I find that a crisp, new $1 note is the most effective. It has the additional advantage of being infinitely recyclable with no cost and no waste.


An Easier Way to Replace Pads

By Bill Keaveney (Computer1@sosinet.net)

When I started my restoration project on a 1859 Wheatstone English concertina, the first thing needed was complete new set of pads. The old ones had "rotted" out completely, so there was no choice but to replace the entire 48-button set!

Problem was, since the pads had deteriorated completely, the buttons were higher than normal, so they were popping out of their respective sockets, falling off their action levers, and generally making it extremely difficult to work on pads.

I reasoned that if I could keep the buttons vertical, they would be more likely to stay on their levers, even if they still were too high to rest in their sockets, as normal.

Using the end plates as a guide, I traced the button patterns (left & right on to paper. I only provided enough border to encompass all the buttons plus 1/2 inch.

I taped the individual tracings to a sheet of 1/16" composition board, and drilled out all the holes for the 24 keys, allowing just a nice loose fit for each key.

After all the holes were drilled, I cut out the two "keepers" from the stock, and fashioned them into oval shapes, after removing the papers.

I now install these "keepers" over all the keys with the end plates removed. This keeps the keys nicely vertical and orderly, while allowing plenty of room along the circumference to work on (remove & replace) all the pads!

Bill Keaveney (Computer1@sosinet.net)


Books & Reference

Concertina Maintenance Manual Cover

Concertina Maintenance Manual, by Dave Elliott, Second Edition, published by Dave Mallinson Publications, 2003

The second edition is now available (what a great cover!). Here is the description supplied by Dave Elliott:
The second edition of the 'Concertina Maintenance Manual' contains comprehensive and step-by-step instructions for the service and repair of Anglo, English and Duet concertinas of traditional construction. The manual has new and expanded sections illustrated by not only line diagrams but also photographs. The book is both simply written and aims to cover a wide range of topics from fault-finding charts, basic examination and purchase advice through the common service and repair jobs and techniques to some of the more sensitive reed work.

The manual has been considerably expanded from the first edition in both the breadth of material covered as well as the depth of the coverage in each case. Whilst always intended to meet the needs of players of all of the concertina systems, this edition goes out of its way to be as versatile as possible without sacrificing detail and usefulness. Whether intending to carry out running repairs, to service, to restore or just to know more about the innards of that strange and fascinating instrument, this book will be an essential addition to the concertina player's toolkit.

Dave Elliott notes that you can "order [the book] from me direct in the UK/ Europe. States side etc. via mally.com (the publisher). I think that the Button Box might now be stocking it, also Paul Groff." Bob Tedrow at Homewood Musical Instruments carried the first edition, so you might also check with him.

Here is a review of the Second Edition by Wes Williams:

While a selection of tutor manuals are reasonably widely available for the main fingering systems, there is very little else published in book format about the concertina. The Concertina Maintenance Manual is the only one in its field, and the introduction to the second edition gives us a clue why:

'When I first published the edition one, I came in for a lot of criticism. I was accused of making the task seem too easy, of encouraging people to tamper with their valuable instruments and of leading the unwary into and along dangerous paths.'

So is Dave Elliott brave, or foolish, to try again? I'd have to say brave, and worthy of congratulation. The first edition of this book has sold many copies, and I have seen quite a few recommendations of it from players. A book like this will always attract criticism, because no two people do things the same. But is one wrong and the other right? Very rarely - usually they are both right, but just different in approach.

And although this appears to be a book for maintaining and repairing your concertina, its much, much more.

The forum at Concertina.net gets quite a few enquiries from beginners, and even about-to-beginners, asking for information on many of the things covered by this book. What's a Lachenal action, and what's a Wheatstone action? - See the photos on page 5. What do I need to look for when I find a concertina in the back of an antique shop? - See pages 10 to 12. What's a valve do? - See page 16. The list of questions is extensive, but many of the answers will be found in this book, and in more detail than it is possible to give on the forum. So for the beginner, or someone unwilling to attack their instrument with a screwdriver, a few hours studying this book would provide a very good guide to what's inside, and help you to understand what some of the more esoteric questions on the forum are actually about. And having seen what is inside, and how it works, you will not be opening a Pandora's box of springs, levers and reeds that you will stare at, wondering what they all do!

Even if you have attempted repairs before and formed your own methods of doing things, you can always learn more by examining how someone else does something. My personal horror was getting button through-bushes into place, and thanks to Dave's cocktail recipe I now have a much easier and less frustrating way of doing it.

Another advantage of this book is that you can decide how far you go with anything. You may be quite happy to attempt a simple thing like freeing a jammed valve, but not to do any reed work. But if you can determine the cause of a problem, you can save yourself money and time. Removing a broken reed in its shoe, and posting it to a repairer will be cheaper, and produce a quicker response, than posting the whole instrument.

Dave Elliott does not tell you how to do everything. Although he covers most of the repairs you are likely to encounter, he sensibly tells you to stop, and find a skilled repairer, when the job is likely to be beyond the capability of most people. Criticisms of the first edition this book for encouraging people into repair need to be taken in the light of much sensible advice given as to limits of ability.

So what's new over the old edition? In size alone, Edition 1 was 36 pages, Edition 2 is 52. Dave has attempted to add some new sections that unify information that was scattered through the first edition, and extended these sections at the same time, so there is now a complete section on Basic Care and Maintenance, and also Running repairs and Fault Finding. There are also new sections on Structural Repairs, Replacing Springs, Wrist Straps, Fingering Charts, 'Mines Not Like That' (showing construction variations in photographs), and a wonderfully drafted exploded diagram of a concertina. Most of the other sections have been extended with new information, and new diagrams have been added, with updates to many of the old ones.

I have a few minor criticisms of this book, but nothing that is fundamentally wrong. I would have liked to see certain things covered in more depth. For instance, when writing about dismantling, Dave says 'Take care to support and secure the concertina...' but doesn't say how. Its areas like this where I feel that beginners could be given a little bit more guidance, especially if they have little or no experience in doing similar things. But don't let my minor criticisms put you off!

I have no hesitation in recommending 'The Concertina Maintenance Manual' as an essential for all with a interest in the concertina, and for the beginner or those considering buying a concertina I would say that this should be the first book to buy, above all others! And if you ever have a problem - Dave is often on the Concertina.net Forum and willing to discuss anything he writes, or how your particular instrument differs from most of the rest.

Wes Williams July 2003

The following comments are for the first edition; go to Dave Elliott's web site if you have questions, to see the table of contents, or for current ordering information.

[This is Paul Schwartz again:] I've had some e-mail exchanges with the author who'd like to make it clear that he makes no money off the book -- all proceeds go towards tuition and support of young musicians. Dave plays the english concertina so naturally the book is geared more towards this type of concertina, although he mentioned that he's collecting more information for a second edition and hopes to include more anglo-specific details next time 'round, so if you have anything to offer, you might e-mail him.

Bill D'Ambrogio had this to say:

"Six of the thirty six content pages cover making an English thumb strap and recovering a finger slide, but the other material is applicable to the Anglo.

The diagrams are good, and it provides detailed steps on items like reed tuning and adjustment, replacing pads and valves, and bellows care. I think that some of this work requires experience (or experimentation), to go along with the procedures (not the fault of the manual). I would like to observe someone doing the work (e.g., filing reeds), either first hand or on a video, before I tried it myself.

I think its worth buying, but I'll keep it in my reference library until I need to do some work, or I pickup a cheap clunker (unlikely) to experiment with."

Phil Ibbotson also liked the book:

"I must say, it looks really good -- comprehensive and very clear. Whether (you) would want to start servicing your own Lachenal or Wheatstone is up to the reader and his or her own dexterity, tool & craft skills etc., but as another guide to the internal workings of a squeezebox, I think it's very good."

Concertina Repair & Restoration Services

At some point you're probably going to need to get your concertina tuned or repaired by someone who really knows what he's doing. I can't vouch personally for any of these people, so I am not responsible if one of them really mucks up your precious Jeffries! Still, it is very important that you try to stick to someone who has experience with concertinas and not just accordions. They're very different instruments and require a similar although unique set of tools, knowledge and experience. You really don't want someone tinkering with the likes of a set of 100 year-old reeds which would be very difficult and expensive to replace should they accidentally grind away too much metal. Chris Timson maintains a very comprehensive list of repairers in his Concertina FAQ, so I won't reproduce another list here, with the exception of the one I've been alerted to who isn't on the list:

Archie Duncan, Glasgow, Scotland

Castro Vicente of Galicia, Spain, had this to say about some work Archie did on his Lachenal anglo:
"Finally we contacted a accordion-repairer (mainly, and seller) that had some experience with concertinas, called Archie Duncan, (43 Deveron Road, Bear's Den, Glasgow G61 1LN, tel. 0141 9423305) a very kind man of near sixty years old, who repaired our concertina and made also the changes of tuning we wanted (he tuned the 1st button of the accidentals row of the right side in order to play the sensible note in the two directions -- the C# speaking in D tuning, the D in our concertina for playing in E flat -- and it makes it much more easier for Félix to play in E flat and B flat; he also put two reeds in the 16th button of the left hand)."

Concertina Parts Suppliers

Most of the repairers listed in the Concertina FAQ will also supply parts. Dave Elliott alerted us to another supplier, David J. Leese. His Web page has great pictures of the parts and you can order them on line, should you wish to try repairs yourself.

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