This is a new addition to my site, where I will try and give some brief details of any accordion restoration projects I care to undertake. Now that I have finally retired from working for a living, I will hopefully be spending more time in my workshop tinkering on different accordions. The following restoration has been going on for some time now and I started to record the slow progress in the ‘Chatter box’ section of this site. However, all of the details have now been transferred across here where I will continue to update as and when things progress.
Note: Click on the individual photographs to see a larger and clearer rendition.
I am about to start the restoration of a very battered Scandalli Polyphonic accordion and I hope to report here as I proceed through the restoration work.
Some years ago, I was fortunate to meet the acquaintance of a great accordionist Dr Denis Smith. Denis, besides being a historian and lecturer at Imperial College, was the musician for the Westminster Morris Men and also played in various ensembles such as The Country Players along side the late Pat Shaw and Nan Fleming-Williams, the Smith Square with his son Matthew and daughter Jenny, and he also had a long standing partnership with fiddle player Jim Coleman, which is to name but a few of his musical guises.
Denis with a dance band background had a very distinctive style of playing using block chords on his left hand, he played a Scandalli Polyphonic accordion which, with it’s grill mutes and hand-made reeds also gave a very distinct mellow sound, which meant whether you heard his music on a recording or whether he was playing live for a concert or dancing display, what you heard would be unmistakably pure Denis Smith.
From around 1960, Denis played the Scandalli accordion and his original instrument (seen in the above photo), was replaced by an identical instrument after the wear and tear of playing for many performances and weekends of Morris took its toll. It was quite common to see running repairs being carried out in-between performances, and on one occasion the poor thing suffered from a literal melt down, when some unthinking person stood it in front of an open fire and some of the piano keys and couplers were damaged but Denis continued to play it complete with curly keys!
After many years of playing for Westminster, Denis retired from the team (Circa 2005) and the old ‘Morris box’ was put to rest in his garage in a very poorly condition. However, one evening while my wife and I was having dinner with Denis and his wife, knowing that I was delving into accordion repair and tuning, he decided to hand over what was left of the original Scandalli to me for ‘Learning purposes’. I stripped the box down but sadly the casing and keyboards were so damaged the whole thing was abandoned as way beyond economical repair, even if in the unlikely event that I could actually lay my hands on any of the parts that were needed for this long since out of production instrument, so it has lived under a bench in my workshop ever since.
Well I must be a glutton for punishment or something, as after much searching my friend Emilio from Allodi Accordions, has made available a pair of suitable donor instruments and with Denis’s subsequent passing, I have a renewed passion for the project to be completed. So to that end I have now started the long process of restoring this poor old box to its former glory, and my hope is that I will have sufficient parts to build a second instrument from which any proceeds from its sale will help to finance the whole project.
One thing to note is that because I have been working simultaneously on the restoration of two instruments, the descriptions and illustrations described in these pages will have be taken from working on either instrument. Therefore, if you see some minor differences in the pictures that don’t make sense (like the number of couplers for instance), that’s the reason why.
Strip Down (First published August 2016)
So, the big restoration has started! The first thing I notice and thing that is going to be a major issue for me to repair, is the general condition of the celluloid covering on the main casings. With some 50 years worth of wear and tear, there is significant damage to the celluloid. So the first job is to strip everything down to the bare cases so I can attempt to clean up and repair as much as I can so the restored instrument at least looks presentable.
With this in mind, The first thing was to completely disassemble the accordion including the treble keyboard, the removal of the aluminium rack that forms the main support for the piano keys and the bass mechanism, which will be stripped down at a later date. It’s clear there’s a lot of work needed on the casings and the bellows will need some attention too, so a lot of work ahead.
It’s amazing the amount of crud that accumulates over the years. A good clean out with a vacuum cleaner, and a disinfectant wash to remove 50 years worth of dust and spilt beer from the underside of the key rack and from the rack itself. some of the keys are scrap as are some of the coupler switches due to the previously mentioned fire incident, but hopefully the donor box will be able to provide any damaged parts required.
The photograph to the left shows the casing with the aluminum key rack removed, along with the master coupler and the coupler linkages all removed.
Next step, start working on the casing celluloid.
Evaluation (First published June 2017)
Following on from my previous post, the work continues on the Scandalli and as mentioned before, the celluloid covering on the accordion’s casing has been badly damaged over the instruments long life, and while after a lot of elbow grease I have managed to bring the treble end of the accordion up to an acceptable standard, the Bass casing is significantly worse and so I have had to strip the celluloid off the wood, repair the various cracks and dents to the wood and rub the casings down with a fine glass paper in preparation for a new celluloid covering.
However, to get to this stage, the entire bass mechanism has to be stripped. The bass button machine is relatively easy to remove and comes out as a complete assembly, I will still need to strip the machine assembly at a later date as I need to replace any damaged buttons and associated rods and the rubber retainers that Scandalli use have all perished and will also need replacing, but that’s another big job for later. So for now, once the bass machine had been removed, I was able to dismantle the bass coupler mechanism, the air button assembly and remove the old bass strap.
Once the celluloid had been removed, the full extent of the damage to the wood became more apparent showing not only deep bruising, but various cracks in the wood. I managed to recover the worst of the deeper bruises using a hot iron and water to draw the wood out, after which the smaller dents could be filled with a wood filler then rubbed down using a very fine glass paper. This needed several repeat operations until all the blemishes were rectified and eventually the finished casing was clean and smooth.
The next operation is most complicated part of this repair, and that is actually applying new celluloid to the wood. It’s not something I have done before and those that have are understandably very protective of their methods, so It’s going to take some experimentation on my part and no doubt several attempts before I get it right. The process involves soaking the new celluloid in a water and acetone mix until the celluloid become soft and pliable to allow wrapping of the casing, so wish me luck and I will report back with my results.
Celluloid disaster (first published December 23 2017)
You will recall in the previous update that I was going to attempt replacing the celluloid covering on the bass casing of the Scandalli, well attempt is the correct description as all did not go strictly to plan. Having spent a lot of time preparing the case ensuring everything was nice and clean I sourced the acetone and some celluloid sheets and bravely made my first ever attempt at applying celluloid. The outlining problem was that I was unable to source celluloid in sufficiently large enough sheets, which meant I had to apply the celluloid in sections but sadly it just didn’t work. I spent quite a bit of time preparing the mix of Acetone and the celluloid was successfully transformed into an almost rubber-like condition allowing me to apply it to the casings and mould it around the contours and I was falsely confident that all was going well. However, as the celluloid returned to it’s natural state so the shrinkage started and the celluloid pulled out of the nicely formed contours and shrinkage gaps appeared between the individual celluloid sheets – so an unmitigated disaster but another big lesson learnt.
Because of the need to use Acetone and the fact that it is highly inflammable, the use of Celluloid has become restricted and it is very difficult to source celluloid sheet in large enough quantities. When the celluloid is applied at the factory, it is applied in one piece therefore removing the shrinkage issues.
Having failed so miserably, the next stop was remove the celluloid once again, clean any adhesives from the casing and to contact one of the Italian factories to see if they would be prepared to apply the new celluloid for me. Fortunately, I was able to achieve this with the kind assistance of Emelio Allodi who negotiated with one of the factories in Italy, and while it took several weeks and added cost to the project I was very happy with the final outcome.
Due to the Celluloid work required it meant there was going to be quite a wait while the parts were transported to Italy and back, so there were quite a few jobs I could get on with while I waited including the stripping and restoration of the Bass mechanism for both instruments and the huge task of making good the reed blocks. All of the instruments both donors and original had been sitting around for sometime which means a monumental task cleaning rust, replacing tired leathers and removing old wax. So that means restoring in the region of 600 reeds per instrument.
41 treble keys x 4 reed sets (Piccolo, Bassoon, Mid and Musette tuned Mid) x 2 for open and close of bellows.
12 Bass notes x 5 reed sets x 2 for open & close of bellows
So, first thing was to strip each reed block removing all the old wax and cleaning and repairing the wooden blocks where required in readiness for the individual reed plates. I removed the leathers from each read and then cleaned all the old wax. I don’t recycle reed wax, I always use new and looking at the blocks before stripping, there were plenty of signs that they had endured some poor repairs in the past but I suppose with both instruments being a 50 years old, it’s not too surprising.
When removing the old glues etc., I could see quite a bit of dirt accumulated on and around the reed tongues, and the reeds biggest enemy, rust. Fortunately, most of the rust was very light surface rust and as I had a second donor instrument, I was lucky to have a complete set of spares.
The first picture shows the initial stripping the reeds from the block. The old wax to be removed and the condition of the leather valves to be evaluated to see if their replacement will be required.
The close up shows the rust present on selected reeds. If the won’t clean up or reed tongue is pitted, the the reed will need to be replaced.
One of the Bass blocks with cleaned reads fitted with new wax and waiting for new external leather valves and springs.
The Bass Machines
So having prepared the reed blocks, the next task is the restoration of the bass machines. On the Scandalli, the bass mechanism is a very clever and easily removable assembly being held in position with just two clips. All three machines I have are all in a poor state of repair, some with missing buttons, broken rods and linkages and all full of 50 years worth of dirt and grime, so each mechanism needs to be stripped completely, cleaned and evaluated for repair or replacement.
The picture to the left shows one of the complete machine assemblies having been removed from the bass casing with some of the damage being clearly visible
The next two pictures show a closer view of the removed machine
The next operation is to remove the bass board so the entire assembly can be stripped. Careful attention needs to be paid to keep everything organised to prevent assembling things in the wrong order and inventing some new chords in the process – definitely not a job you want to have to do twice.
To the right the buttons laid out for safe storage.
The next stage required all the rods and linkages to be removed, followed by a time consuming operation of cleaning each individual component and repairing where necessary. I had to replace a few of the button rods that had been bent beyond help, and some of the linkages had been snapped and so had to be replaced. Once all the preparation work had been done, it was time for reassembly which requires quite a bit of patience and involves lots of double checking to ensure the buttons were engaging with the right levers so as to play the correct notes for each button press.
The slow process of reassembly
Finally, the picture on the right shows the completed mechanism ready and waiting for the bass casing to return from Italy.
NOTE: New information will be added as the project progresses