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Bellow maintenance

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I just bought a 1959 extended treble Wheatstone aola.  It’s in great shape but the bellows are very stiff. They’re loosening up as I play it but it leads me to wonder about bellows maintenance. Is there anything besides playing that I should be doing to keep the leather bellows supple and in good condition?
I don’t think this concertina has ever gotten a lot of use. 

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Bellows conditioning seems to be a very controversial subject…

Lanolin and shoe polish is my choice for an old unused bellows that is stiff from hardened leather.


I personally use Connolly Hide Care on the gussets and hinges, etc. inside and out.  I’ll take both ends off and stretch out the bellows and apply it with a small brush or my fingers trying to keep it off the cardboard and paper surfaces as much as possible.  After it has sat for an hour or so, I’ll clean off any excess, put it back together and “play in” the instrument for a week.  If needed, I’ll then do it again.  After all the old leather has softened up, I’ll finish off a solid black or solid green bellows by shoe polishing the outside.  If the bellows has decorative papers, I’ll usually only apply Connolly to the inside to avoid staining.

i’ve never had a glue joint fail or problem in any way in over 6 years conditioning over 10 bellows, everything from 1852 to 1942 Lachenals and Wheatstones and using them for years afterwards.  I’ve later added patches, etc. with no adhesion problems.


On the other hand, I’ve seen the damage that occurs to hinges, top runs and especially gussets if the instrument is played with stiff dry old leather that hasn’t been conditioned after sitting for many years.  It’s amazing what Connolly’s will do!  Leather is amazing if taken care of well.


The other option is just to replace the bellows with a new one but why not rescue the old one if possible and save a lot of time and money.


Lanolin and shoe polish is my choice.

Edited by 4to5to6
No content changed, only typos and clarification.
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3 hours ago, 4to5to6 said:

shoe polishing

I once had a nice Lacenal Crane that originally came with decorative papers. At sometime it its lifetime somebody (I assumed a Salvationist) tried to blacken the papers with shoe polish, the result was not that good, but I suppose he was trying to make God happy. 


It was the devil's (sic) own job to get those heavily waxed papers off to put on some nice new ones from Dave Elliott.


If you must use shoe polish then keep it off the papers.

Edited by Don Taylor
damned auto-correction!
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That’s funny, I’m working on an old Salvationist instrument right now with a black painted bellows.  Perfect ends, zero warping and am starting to think that they may be amboyna but the entire instrument has been painted black.  Pleasing God is important and hopefully that was case.  He did give us sunsets, snow capped rocky mountains, stars at night and amboyna to enjoy so I may just have to strip that paint off :)

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I have seen bellows falling apart from the effects of leather treatments, and I have had major problems repairing bellows where leather treatment had been employed. The treatment is intended to soak into the leather, but it can release glue bonds, you end up with glue failure and component separation. Thereafter it is virtually impossible to get any adhesive to hold with any degree of confidence. 


your bellows, your choice, your risk.

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My experience, such as it is, is that new bellows are stiff and hard to play because they are new.  Old bellows that have been played a lot are pliable and easy to play.


Bellows are made out of many small pieces of leather glued together with hide glue - it is mostly the glue that makes new bellows stiff, but over time the large, stiff patches of glue fracture into tiny fragments that still hold the leather together but that bend easily when playing.  So, either get squeezin' or buy a vintage instrument.


Even the non-leather bellows on low-end instruments like the Rochelle improve over time with playing.  I suspect it is the same reason - the glues need breaking in.

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I have also noticed the same effect with the old hide glues, which makes me wonder if bellows made with some modern 'elastic' adhesives actually yield a stiffer product. 


with respect to Connolly Hide Care, I have emailed the manufacturers to ask about their view of suitability, so far a thunderous silence. If I get an answer I will post it here.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I just thought; seen as leather is a skin, just think of it this way, wouldn't you be stiff after not been moving about for long time? Suppose same with leather recovered bellows!'  If your concertina could speak with a human voice  they may say; "My god I'm stiff today, I will have to do my aerobics!..!  in other words use them more to keep them supple as a ballet dancer!😁

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That’s awesome!  Yes.  Play, play play!  Keep those bellows nice and supple and that reed metal work hardened!


Leather is a bunch of fibres. Connolly is the lube that keeps the stiff fibres soft and from rubbing against each other and breaking down.  That’s how I visualize it.  The first thing I do after getting an old concertina that has not been used for year's is condition the bellows with Connolly Hide Care.  I’ve never had it interfere with later repairs (glue sticking) or card/lesther seperating, etc.  Don’t use a liquid oil.  That would be a disaster.  I can’t believe how 150 year old leather can rejuvenate!  The other best alternative is to build a new bellows but why go to all that  work and expense if you don’t have to.  if too many gussetts and hinges are cracked and the top runs have yo be redone that it may be worth just building a new one.


Disengrated cards can also be repaired using wood stabilizer or petrifier.  It will turn soft cards rock hard again and even fix cards with minor cracks.  I’ll add the exact brand name I’ve successfully used here later on when I get home.

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