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Kensington Concertinas?


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a mention of "kensington" concertinas has come up in a few discussions here, but searching google doesn't reveal any more information about them. the only information i can find is that they are made with traditional english-style reeds by an american named dana johnson. perhaps this maker is deliberately keeping a low profile, but i'm pretty sure i'm not the only one who is curious. so does anyone have any more information for all of us here?

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Kensington Concertinas are concertinas that are hand made by Dana Johnson in Kensington Maryland (just outside DC.. and hence the name Kensington). I will endevour to write a full review of mine in the next day or two, but until then, they can be characterized by a few characteristics..

 

1. Dana makes his own reeds.

2. Dana uses a number of innovative techniques in his concertinas.. in particular he uses a special pressed wood laminate that is impregnated with resin (I think). This is designed to alleviate the effects of the environment on the concertina. The result is something that looks far better than it sounds from my description. It is extremely durable and has a naturally polished finish.

3. Dana's concertinas are heavy. I know that some of who have tried them have found this to be an issue, however having played button accordions for a few years before getting my kensington, I can say that the weight doesn't bother me nore does it make the instrument less responsive than some of my lighter concertinas.

4. Dana does not use the standard flat palm rest but rather has designed one that fits the countours of the hands better and I think makes it a bit easier to pivot the hand a bit to reach the ends of the rows.

5. Dana does not, to my knowledge, offer custom accidental rows. He uses a modified Jefferies Accidental row where the C# is available in both the Wheatstone position and the Jefferies (i.e. 3 C#s on two buttons). It actually makes it a great bridge instrument. If I learn a tune on my Wheatstone layout Marcus, I can play it straight on the Kennsington and the same is true with my Jeffereies layout Edgley. Otherwise if I try to switch directly between the Marcus and the Edgley I invariably will hit the wrong button for the C# once or twice when I am starting a tune off.

 

In general I am extremely pleased with my instrument... though not perfect, it is extremely well made, very fast and it sounds great (very much like other concertinas made using traditional reeds). The only complaint I have with the instrument is that the high notes are a bit louder compared to the lower notes..... at least compared to my Marcus and my Edgley. Its not a major problem and indeed I am nicely learning to modulate how I play the notes so it soon shouldn't be a problem at all.

 

Anyway, I would be happy to answer any questions that anyone has.

 

--

Bill

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I visited Dana last week. I went with his family to a fine session in Bethesda on Sunday and then spent part of Monday in his shop with him. I'm having the handles on my Kensington altered, as I need much higher support at the little finger side of my hand. My Kensington (number 8) is rather heavy (a la a metal ended Jeffries) but in spite of wrist problems I had long before the Kensington I enjoy playing it. With the new hand rest it should be easier for me. Dana said he used thicker reed shoe stock in numbers 4 to 8 but they were loud enough already so he went to lighter stock after that, and I should tell anyone who asks that they are about 3 ounces lighter than mine now. That would still come in around 1350-1400 grams. Those Jeffries you lust after are not much different in weight if they have more than 30 keys. The resin/wood used for the end frames goes by the trademark of Dymond wood.

 

Don't laugh, but I divide my playing time at home about evenly between my Dipper, my Kensington, and my Morse Ceili! First two have great dynamic range; last is light and I can play for hours (and I worry less about it in a pub/airport).

 

Dana has been building for years, has immense knowledge of variables in concertina construction, made the prototypes for Morse, and did and still does some parts for them. He has all sorts of computerized manufacturing machinery in his shop. He set out to make something similar to a Jeffries. Some like it, some don't (compare the world of guitars, you get the same variety of opinions). I think he doesn't bother to advertise because he gets plenty of referrals and doesn't see any advantage in a four-year waiting list (a bit like Hamish Bayne of Scotland, perhaps). Dana told me last week that a well-known maker (no names please) said to him, "It takes eight years just to get to know what you are doing and how it all works together" or something to that effect. Given that I saw him with a prototype anglo in 1997, he has been at it considerably longer than that.

 

Last Monday we tried playing all together, Dana, me, and his wife Becky. A loud, but in-tune, din! A bit like a pipe band. I asked when was the last time three Kensingtons had been played together, and he said for him at least this was the first time. Then he went and got his fiddle!

 

Ken

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I visited Dana last week. I went with his family to a fine session in Bethesda on Sunday and then spent part of Monday in his shop with him. I'm having the handles on my Kensington altered, as

 

So next time you come down to the DC area, give me a shout and we'll get some playing action going down here in the Virginia 'burbs!

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The only complaint I have with the instrument is that the high notes are a bit louder compared to the lower notes..... at least compared to my Marcus and my Edgley. Its not a major problem and indeed I am nicely learning to modulate how I play the notes so it soon shouldn't be a problem at all.

 

Thanks for the review, good to hear you like your Kensington, but it is ironic to see the best part of your review expressed in negative terms. While you have clearly indicated your comment on the volume of the higher notes is made relative to other concertinas and your comfort in playing them, this feature of the Kensington should be held up for acclaim. It is a triumph to have the higher notes playing loudly, particularly if it has been done without restricting the volume of the bass. I dream of this...

 

To explain further, in my limited experience the measure of an "almost there" concertina is while it plays quite nicely overall, when you reach the higher notes in the G row you find it takes extra effort to play the notes. This extra effort is because in order to match the volume levels of the lower notes you have to push and pull in a more robust fashion. And with the extra arm effort and speed needed, in particular for bellows reversals, it becomes difficult to play precisely with the fingers. The only Dipper I have played exhibited this symptom only on the very highest note, which I have not played in a tune ever. The Suttner with which I am most familiar does not run into it until about the C2 (two octaves above middle C).

 

If Dana's instruments are delivering volume on higher notes my hat is off to him...

 

best wishes

 

Chris

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I visited Dana last week. I went with his family to a fine session in Bethesda on Sunday and then spent part of Monday in his shop with him. I'm having the handles on my Kensington altered, as I need much higher support at the little finger side of my hand. My Kensington (number 8) is rather heavy (a la a metal ended Jeffries) but in spite of wrist problems I had long before the Kensington I enjoy playing it. With the new hand rest it should be easier for me. Dana said he used thicker reed shoe stock in numbers 4 to 8 but they were loud enough already so he went to lighter stock after that, and I should tell anyone who asks that they are about 3 ounces lighter than mine now. That would still come in around 1350-1400 grams. Those Jeffries you lust after are not much different in weight if they have more than 30 keys. The resin/wood used for the end frames goes by the trademark of Dymond wood.

 

Ken, its a shame I didn't know you were in town, we could have gotten together for a tune or two.

 

Don't laugh, but I divide my playing time at home about evenly between my Dipper, my Kensington, and my Morse Ceili! First two have great dynamic range; last is light and I can play for hours (and I worry less about it in a pub/airport).

 

Dana has been building for years, has immense knowledge of variables in concertina construction, made the prototypes for Morse, and did and still does some parts for them. He has all sorts of computerized manufacturing machinery in his shop. He set out to make something similar to a Jeffries. Some like it, some don't (compare the world of guitars, you get the same variety of opinions). I think he doesn't bother to advertise because he gets plenty of referrals and doesn't see any advantage in a four-year waiting list (a bit like Hamish Bayne of Scotland, perhaps). Dana told me last week that a well-known maker (no names please) said to him, "It takes eight years just to get to know what you are doing and how it all works together" or something to that effect. Given that I saw him with a prototype anglo in 1997, he has been at it considerably longer than that.

 

Mmm.. after this thread it is possible that the waiting list might be getting longer :). His concertinas are becoming relatively well known around the Baltimore/Washington Area and not including myself or Dana and his wife, I can think of at least 3 other people I have met in Maryland who have bought his concertinas. Considering mine is #12 and he makes them in batches of 5... I presume he is still working on the 15-20 batch. So add Ken to the list and I know close to half of the people in the world who own Kensingtons :).

 

Last Monday we tried playing all together, Dana, me, and his wife Becky. A loud, but in-tune, din! A bit like a pipe band. I asked when was the last time three Kensingtons had been played together, and he said for him at least this was the first time. Then he went and got his fiddle!

 

Ken

 

Well two of his concertinas at a time is starting to become quite common up at J. Patrick's in Baltimore. One guy who has that and I believe a Connors plays his Kensington almost exclusively (I believe he likes the greater volume of the Kensington) and I often bring mine.. though I tend to split my time between it and the Edgley.

The day before I got the Kensington another guy came into J. Patrick's with his.. which he had just picked up that day. He was use to playinging a Stagi and hadn't yet learned to modulate his volume... It was a bit painful sitting next to him with my Edgley.. and a bit pointless.. I doubt anyone could have heard me even if I was playing a completely different tune :).

 

--

Bill

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I have known Dana since I think 1996 and during that time he was heavily involved in the development of the Morse Ceili. As that was becoming finalized, he branched off to focus on his own, traditional concertina reed, models which have become the Kensington he now sells. I can confirm that he has devoted a lot of time and effort to building an instrument that sounds great and will operate flawlessly for decades. Through his experimentation with traditional reeds, he's developed an instrument with great tone.

 

Admittedly the Dymondwood material may add a bit more to the weight, but this material provides stability that will allow these concertinas to easily last into the next century. And it is quite appealling to look at. As has been pointed out above, Dana also uses a unique palmrest for comfort in playing and easier access to the keys rather than forcing the player to distort his/her fingers to get around the keyboard.

 

As to the loudness discussed above, I think that is merely part of the dynamic capabilities of the instrument. It will play loud if you honk on the bellows or softly if you wish to play an air. I also second the comments about the benefits of having high note reeds that can be heard above the strong bass -- not a lot of instruments can offer that capability. I heartily recommend his instruments as a very attractive alternative to the much higher prices and terminally longer waits for concertinas from the more famous makers across the pond.

 

Ross Schlabach

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Hi All,

Might as well hear some of this from the horse's mouth to avoid confusion or misinformation. So far the descriptions of my concertinas have been pretty accurate. I make a 30 button C/G since my interest is primarily Irish music. I optimised it for the way I like to play, (pretty heavily influenced by Noel Hill) and do little if any customization. Having big hands myself, I offer a small or large handrest, having suffered for years with one too small for my comfort on my Jeffries, and not wanting to stick those with smaller mits with the opposite problem.

From the start I attempted to make a concertina that was less influenced by the dramatic humidity variations in many parts of this country. My choice of materials partly reflects this, but the inner construction shows it more. While the reeds are steel in (now phosphor bronze shoes) and they have the particular back relief in the windows that is a characteristic difference from accordion reeds, they are not mounted by the tapered dovetail method that is used in the "traditional" construction, but are held by the ends rather than the sides to avoid the pinch or slop of the reed shoe by the pan as it shrinks or expands with the weather. There are other minor differences in construction from the traditional that I (of course) consider advantages, but other makers might not choose for themselves. I'm not sure it was clear in the earlier post, but only the end frames are Dymond Wood. It is heavy ( about like Ebony or Blackwood ) but very durable, and needs no finish.

Chris Ghent kindly mentioned the holy grail of getting the high end reeds to be able to hold their own against the large naturally loud low reeds, and I've been searching for how to do this for years, only getting it recently. When playing a concertina, it is important to have the effort of playing all the notes be about the same, and it is also important that when playing chords or low counter notes ( Noel Hill style ) that the high melody notes don't dissapear in the sound of the low ones.

The other thing I have been trying for is a wide dynamic range. I was always astounded by the incredible range ( all of it used ) of Noel's Linota's, and love a good air that requires the full range of emotion. I personally don't care for concertinas that are pretty much off / on for sound, though for some kinds of playing they are undoubtably excellent. Not my style though. I endeavor to make a concertina that can be played with quiet delicacy or hold it's own in a session. Essentially, I make what I like to play.

The concertinas timbre shades a little towards the direction of the horn family or the more mellow of the woodwinds. Very much a concertina, though not quite the same as any other. I quit trying to duplicate the sound of the others when I decided that I really liked the sound of my own, and would rather put my effort into refining it.

I'd include a picture here for reference since someone requested it. This isn't an advertising forum, so I'll stop here and leave it for others to discuss their own experiences with the instruments. I'll be happy to reply to questions via e-mail, and stay out of the rest of the discussions.

Dana Johnson

 

post-235-1130949656_thumb.jpg

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I As has been pointed out above, Dana also uses a unique palmrest for comfort in playing and easier access to the keys rather than forcing the player to distort his/her fingers to get around the keyboard.

 

If I understand the description correctly then my Jeffries (/Crabb) has similar palm rests, though whether original or a more recent addition I don't know. I have not seen them on any other concertina of any make. I certainly find them very comfortable and am amazed that they are not the norm - after all the palm of your hand is not flat.

 

Clive

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One small correction,

While I have been friends with Rich Morse and the great crew at the Button Box since I discovered concertinas, and have done all I could to support the development of their manufacturing side including work on prototype concertinas with concertina reeds, I can't take credit for the design of the Ceili. I helped with tooling and parts, but the hard work that went into the design, and the excellent results were theirs alone. I would't mind taking credit for designing an instrument that sounds as good and plays as well as it does at a price that is still within a beginner's reach. My hat's off to them. I'll have to stand on my own work.

Dana

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If I understand the description correctly then my Jeffries (/Crabb) has similar palm rests, though whether original or a more recent addition I don't know. I have not seen them on any other concertina of any make.

Clive

 

Hi Clive,

 

I think that you may have special custom-made "after-market" palmrests since both Jeffries and Crabb vintage 30 button instruments had small (non-contoured) wooden palmrests similar to those used on Wheatstone and Lachenal anglos. Some high-button count Jeffries and Crabbs had metal palmrests but none had anything like the ergonomic palmrests designed by Dana, Dipper or other modern makers. But if you are happy with your palmrest, consider yourself fortunate and enjoy!

 

Ross Schlabach

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Jim, Bill

 

I was in D.C. very briefly for a telescope observing project (which got completely rained out by whichever hurricane we were having that week, Wilma I think). I had barely 24 hours for a visit, not to mention I was hauling a hundred lbs. of astro equipment and two concertinas, so I wasn't traveling light and had to keep my eyes on all that stuff. Some other time I'm sure, thanks.

 

Ken

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none had anything like the ergonomic palmrests designed by Dana, Dipper or other modern makers.

 

Ross,

 

You may have answered the question there: I know that my concertina had had a complete rebuild by the Dippers before I saw it and bought it from the dealer (about 20 years ago now), so its a good chance that the palm rests were fitted at that time.

 

Clive

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The only complaint I have with the instrument is that the high notes are a bit louder compared to the lower notes..... at least compared to my Marcus and my Edgley. Its not a major problem and indeed I am nicely learning to modulate how I play the notes so it soon shouldn't be a problem at all.

 

Thanks for the review, good to hear you like your Kensington, but it is ironic to see the best part of your review expressed in negative terms. While you have clearly indicated your comment on the volume of the higher notes is made relative to other concertinas and your comfort in playing them, this feature of the Kensington should be held up for acclaim. It is a triumph to have the higher notes playing loudly, particularly if it has been done without restricting the volume of the bass. I dream of this...

 

Well mind you I am only talking from my own experience. It is quite possible that I had subconcsiously been pressing harder on the high notes on my other instruments and then when I got the Kensington, I was doing the same. Like I said, I am learning to modulate it quite nicely now.

 

Oh, and one other thing.. I don't really believe the perfect instrument (of any sort) has ever been built yet. As a result, I am always looking for things in the instruments I have and review that could still be improved. Hand me a Dipper or a Suttner and I would also find issues with them :). In any case, I do want to stress that I think the Kensington is a excellent instrument that is will suited to playing Irish Music. While the Edgley and the Marcus are also both good instruments (The Edgley is very good.. excellent even; I am quite fond of my Edgley... as it is very fast, easy to play and sounds great) the tonal qualities of the Marcus are just fantastic and there are a few tunes (particularly Jim Ward's Favorite and Lady Anne Montgomery) that I greatly prefer to play on the Kensington to any other instrument.

 

--

Bill

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