Previous 30

Oct. 25th, 2014


Holden Concertinas Blog Syndicated on LJ

At watervole's suggestion, you should now be able to read entries from my blog on your LJ friends' page by subscribing to holdenconcas.

Oct. 21st, 2014


Holden Concertinas Blog

In case you didn't see it mentioned on Facebook earlier, I've started a new blog over at to chart my journey toward becoming a full-time concertina maker.

Aug. 26th, 2014

Hijinks Ensue

Loncon 3 Con Report

A couple of weeks ago I attended this year's Worldcon, Loncon 3, at the Excel Centre in London. After a couple of false starts on this report I've ruthlessly cut it down to a list of things that I enjoyed at the convention, in roughly chronological order. Not everything went right and not all the items I went to interested me, but then what large event ever is perfect? On the whole there were far more positive things about Loncon 3 than negatives. Read more...Collapse )

Jul. 8th, 2014

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria and Highland Soldier Marionettes à la Planchette

I was recently commissioned by a Punch and Judy professor to make a pair of marionettes à la planchette depicting an elderly Queen Victoria and a contemporary Black Watch Highland soldier. It proved to be a huge amount of work, but I am very happy with how they turned out.

Marionettes à la planchette are designed to dance to music like jig dolls; the most important difference being that they are operated by a string tied to the performer's leg, which allows the performer to stand up and play a musical instrument (or two) at the same time. Their feet make a tapping sound when they dance, providing an additional percussive element to the performance (with practice it's possible to vary the strength of the taps to emphasise the beat of the music). There are drawings dating back centuries showing street entertainers performing with this type of puppet, often featuring two puppets on one string. Apparently they are commonplace to this day in parts of mainland Europe. See the Pipe and Tabor Compedium for some nice historic illustrations. Also this lovely engraving from 1821. Photos and video behind the cut...Collapse )

I am willing to consider commissions to make more marionettes à la planchette, however you should be aware that many hours of work go into crafting puppets with this level of detail (particularly if they require an intricate costume like Queen Victoria's). I can also make simpler, less realistic puppets and jig dolls. If you are interested, please drop me an email (alex at alexholden dot net).

Jul. 7th, 2014

Hijinks Ensue

Jig Dog

I recently made a simple jig doll (limberjack) dog for my niece's birthday. It's loosely based on my mum's Yorkshire Terrier, Amber. Photos and video behind the cut...Collapse )

I'm willing to take commissions to make custom-designed jig dolls. Email me (alex at alexholden dot net) if interested.

Jun. 18th, 2014

Hijinks Ensue

Photos from Wimborne Minster Folk Festival 2014

Here's a selection of photos I took on Sunday at this year's Wimborne Minster Folk Festival: Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

May. 18th, 2014

Bigger hammer

Punch and Judy Puppets

A couple of years ago a client commissioned me to carve some wooden puppets for a Punch and Judy show. Not the two stars of the show: understandably, as I had no prior experience at puppet making, he had those made by a top Punch and Judy puppet maker with many years of experience, and he let me loose on several of the 'extra' characters. Also I was only to do the wood carving, not the painting or costuming. I found this lack of control rather nerve-wracking, particularly the painting part, because a botched paint job can ruin even the best carving work. Something that made the task much trickier for me was that the pro was making his two puppets in parallel to mine so I didn't get to see them until it was too late to modify mine to match the scale or style of his puppets. Luckily the scale worked out fine, and the style is probably near enough that most people wouldn't notice the difference.

For reasons too boring to go into, I haven't had the opportunity until now to photograph the completed puppets. Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

Mar. 4th, 2014


New Business Model

How to use DRM to annoy and alienate your customers, convert them to piracy and ensure they never give you any more of that boring money stuff. Mini rant below the cut…Collapse )
Tags: ,

Jan. 25th, 2014


Lachenal Cranked Lever Syndrome

The flattened rod and slotted pivot actions in Lachenal concertinas are quite ingenious and mostly work pretty well and reliably, but they do suffer from one potential weakness. Sometimes when a lever is cranked around an outer button to reach an inner button, it is subject to a twisting force every time the button is pressed. After decades of use this can lead to the slot and lever wearing in a way that allows the lever to partially rotate in the slot. This causes the affected button to feel sloppy and 'lumpy' and can cause the pad to not seal properly. Three of the buttons on my concertina were affected by this problem to varying degrees (interestingly there are several other cranked levers in the instrument that don't have the problem). There are various ways to solve the problem, including replacing the affected lever and pivot with new ones to the same design (I believe Steve Dickinson still makes them), or fitting a riveted action salvaged from a different brand of instrument. I decided to repair and improve mine as follows. Details behind the cut…Collapse )

More Experiments with Hide Glue

Hot hide glue, as the name suggests, needs to be heated before you can use it, to melt it from a gel state to a liquid. Overheating it will damage it, so it's typically heated in a double boiler (bain marie). Carpenters of old would use big heavy cast iron or copper double boilers on a stove, and learned from long practice how to maintain it at the right temperature[1] and dilution[2] by judging its consistency. When I started using hide glue, I used a glass jar balanced on some coins or washers in a pan of water on a portable electric hob, using a thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature. This was rather a pain, particularly since the hob doesn't have a thermostat and would happily bring the pan up to a rolling boil if you got distracted and forgot to switch it off. I found myself putting off doing jobs that needed hide glue because of the hassle of keeping the glue at the right temperature for as long as the job took.

The modern (for 1950s definitions of 'modern') solution to the problem is a thermostatically controlled electric glue pot. Unfortunately hot hide glue is a bit of a niche thing mainly of interest to antique restorers and musical instrument makers, so there aren't many of them on the market and they are horribly expensive. Second hand ones seem to be very rare and keep their resale value well.

So I went looking for a cheaper alternative. I've heard of people using electric baby bottle warmers, however I don't know if the temperature controls on them go as high as 60C (Do they? The adverts I looked at all said meaningless things like, "the ideal temperature for your baby."), and while I was Googling around looking at different options, I stumbled across a forum post where somebody mentioned using a mini electric deep fat fryer. A bit more research and I ordered one of these for only fifteen of your British pounds, postage included. And it's ideal for the job. Photo behind the cut…Collapse )

I keep the glue in a small Nutella jar (the type that's like a drinking glass with a plastic lid). I made a Perspex disc that fits snugly inside the cylindrical fryer pan, resting on top of the stainless steel basket. It has a hole in the middle that the glue jar fits tightly in, and a smaller hole for the glass mercury thermometer. This keeps the jar from moving around and minimises evaporation from the water bath. Closing the lid when it's not actively in use will reduce evaporation and heat loss even further. The water (filled to just below the Perspex disc) heats up in a couple of minutes (the glue takes a bit longer to warm through), and the thermostat maintains it at the set temperature to within about +/- 2C. The numbers on the front panel are way out, so you do need to use a proper thermometer to find the right setting in the first place (in my case, 60C seems to be slightly over 90 on the dial).

Best of all, it can also make very nice deep fried chips. Try that with a baby bottle warmer! The only disadvantage really is that it takes up quite a lot of space on the workbench, though not as much as the electric hob and pan did.

Edited to add: My earlier mention of electric glue pots being 'modern' in the 1950s was a wild guess. I just got curious about when they were actually invented and did a bit of poking around. Take a look at this patent filed in 1894!

[1] Various sources on the net recommend glue temperatures of around 60-70C, usually the lower end of the range. I get the impression that it isn't terribly critical. Too low and the open time suffers. Too high and it deteriorates, though time is also a factor. Briefly letting it get up to 90C probably won't weaken it very much but running your pot at 75C all day long might.
[2] Water continually evaporates from the hot glue, so you have to occasionally top it up to keep it from getting too thick.

Dec. 28th, 2013

Christmas tree

Two More Cut Coins

Here are two more cut coin pendants I made as Christmas presents for my other two nieces. They are made from pre-1920 threepences with their first initial in place of the '3' on the tail, like the first one I made. Photos behind the cut…Collapse )

Dec. 27th, 2013

Christmas tree

Another Cut Coin

I made another cut coin pendant for my mum's Christmas present, this time from an 1899 silver sixpence. Photos behind the cut…Collapse )

Dec. 23rd, 2013


Tuning a Melodica

I spent most of today fixing and tuning my old and rather clapped-out Hohner melodica. It's a cheap and cheerful instrument, mouth-blown rather than bellows, with a two octave range, a fully chromatic keyboard and one free-reed per note (so it sounds rather like a concertina). Photos behind the cut…Collapse )

Nov. 20th, 2013

Bigger hammer

Harp Pendant

Here's another item of jewellery I made: a harp pendant for wibble_puppy. Photos after the cut…Collapse )

Nov. 17th, 2013

Bigger hammer

Cut Coin Jewellery

Here is the secret birthday-present metalworking project that I was making cryptic comments about on FaceBook a couple of weeks ago: Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

Nov. 5th, 2013

Bigger hammer

Success with the electric chainsaw sharpener!

A sharp chainsaw cuts like a dream, zipping quickly through the wood and producing a nice stream of big clean wood chips with no effort on the part of the operator. A blunt one slowly burns and polishes its way through the wood, making dust rather than chips. When they are really bad they cut a curved slot and get stuck after a couple of inches. Chains stay sharp for quite a while cutting green wood, but dry wood will wear the edges quicker and accidentally touching the ground with a running saw can trash the blade in an instant. Read more...Collapse )

Nov. 3rd, 2013


Another Kind of Bellows

After being repeatedly frustrated by my camera's inability to take good photos of the tiny things I've been working on lately, I decided to look into putting together a low-end macro photography setup. A 'true' macro lens was well over my budget, so I did some reading about extension tubes and bellows and reversing rings, etc. To cut a long story short, I ended up buying an old set of macro bellows with a 60mm enlarger lens on the front. Annoyingly I found that I also needed to put a short extension tube between the bellows and the body because it wouldn't physically fit without one. Photos after the cut...Collapse )

Oct. 19th, 2013

Bigger hammer

Grounding Tool

I forged a carving chisel today: a small grounding chisel. These chisels made by Ashley Iles were my inspiration, but for the work I'm doing I thought it would be better to have a flat edge with a slight skew. They are used for flattening the bottom of a shallow cavity for relief carving or inlay work. I need a couple of really narrow ones for inlaying the twiddly sheet metal decorations on my new concertina ends. You use a scalpel to make a stop cut around the edge of the cavity, then use the grounding chisel to carve out the waste between the stop cuts. My plan had been to make a 3mm wide one first, then try to do a 1.5mm one.[1] Turns out it is extremely difficult to forge tiny tools.

My first attempt took all morning. The edge turned out about 6mm wide and a less than ideal shape. I must have got something wrong with the heat treatment too[2], because it refused to take a decent edge. After pondering the problem over lunch, I decided to cut off the tip and re-forge it as narrow as I could. About an hour and a half later I had produced a new tip that was about 4mm wide and a better shape. I think I solved the heat treatment problem too. Still not as narrow as hoped, but it is a useful width, so I decided to make a handle for it as it was rather than cutting the tip off again and trying to make it even narrower. Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

Oct. 16th, 2013

Bigger hammer

Thoughts on the New Ends

I've been thinking about all the techniques that will be involved in making the new ends for my concertina. Several of them I have never done before, or not to the level of detail and finish I'm aiming for here. I've decided that it would be a good idea to make a partial end first to practice on, as I would hate to make an elementary mistake and ruin one of the real ends at a late stage in the process. Here's a photo of the kind of end I'm planning to make. I haven't yet decided whether to do the fretwork in the middle circle around the key holes - my concertina probably didn't have it originally (like this one).

Mainly to get my own thoughts in order and make sure I don't forget anything, here's a list of the steps that I think will be needed to make the new ends: Read more...Collapse )

Oct. 12th, 2013

Bigger hammer

Flattening Failure

Following on from yesterday's post, I decided I didn't have anything to lose by having a try at flattening the laminate boards tonight. If it didn't work I could always dismantle them and start again. You can guess where this is going, right? Read more...Collapse )

Oct. 11th, 2013


Wonky Laminates

So, as I wrote some time ago, I decided to make the boards for the new ends I am going to make for my concertina by laminating together six layers of horribly expensive Indian rosewood veneer. I had hoped that by now they would be fully dried and ready for me to start on the fretwork. Unfortunately they warped as they dried out. To cut a very long story short:

  • I have been convinced that they are probably too warped to use as they are. Particularly as they have warped in two planes in opposite directions.
  • They are glued together with hide glue, so in the worst case I should be able to soak them apart and try again.
  • I have a few theories as to what went wrong. My main one is that the wood got very wet and expanded during the gluing process, then the glue set so the layers could no longer move relative to each other, then the layers continued to dry and shrink over the next several weeks at different rates in two different directions (because alternate layers are laid at 90 degrees to each other for strength), setting up internal stresses in the boards that could only be relieved by taking on a curved shape.
  • Before taking the fairly drastic step of dismantling the boards, I want to try de-stressing and flattening them. For this to work I think I will have to re-activate the glue by applying gentle moisture and heat, and then clamp them flat in a press until they are fully dry, without getting the wood so wet in the process that it builds up internal stresses and warps again. I'm still pondering the best way achieve this.

Oct. 10th, 2013


Clean Reeds

The reeds in my concertina were pretty dirty and a few were even slightly rusty. Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

Oct. 9th, 2013


Replacement Valves

Concertinas have two reeds controlled by each key (button)[1]; one that sounds when you are pushing the bellows closed and one that sounds when you are pulling them open[2]. Each reed has a one-way valve associated with it so that air doesn't flow 'backwards' through the reed. The valves are simply flaps of thin leather covering slots in the reed board. If a valve is missing or not sealing properly, at best you waste air and at worst the reed can make some very weird sounds. There are 96 valves in a concertina like mine.

On my concertina, most of the valves were either perished and falling apart (I suspect those were the originals) or they had been clumsily replaced with much thicker leather that wasn't flexible enough (actually, I think it was the same leather that the thumb straps were made from!). Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

Time spent replacing the valves: about 8 hours over several evenings.

[1] The thing that opens and closes to control the flow of air when you press and release a key is called a pad, not a valve.
[2] On English concertinas the two reeds associated with each key produce the same note, so if you hold a button down and continuously push and pull the bellows you get a bagpipe-like drone (with a slight hiccup each time you change direction). Other types of concertina play different notes on push and pull.
[3] Carefully laying them out on a marked sheet of cardboard to make sure they all went back in their original positions.

Oct. 8th, 2013


New Thumb Straps

The thumb straps that were on my concertina when I bought it were non-original and not very well-made. They were thin, unpadded, frayed, an ugly colour, and fit very poorly[1]. Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

Oct. 2nd, 2013


Another loose button

I was practising my squeezeharp in a Youth Hostel kitchen recently, when I noticed one of the keys felt a bit odd. Another of the key caps had fallen off! I searched around and luckily found it on the floor. I hadn't realised when I made the previous replacements that the original caps are simply very thin discs, rather than a turned peg that fits into the hole. I'm not entirely sure why they bothered to make them that way rather than just turning solid keys without the hole and the cap; possibly so that it was possible to fit coloured caps if the customer desired (it would also make them slightly lighter).

On my return I soldered the original cap back on (a fiddly job to get it accurately centred - past experience with soldering surface mount ICs came in handy here). Once I'd cleaned off the excess flux and solder and given it a polish you can't tell that it has been re-attached. It looks better in reality than in the photo (very tricky to get good in-focus photos of such small objects without a macro lens). Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

After putting the repaired key back in, I had a close look at all the others to see if any of the other caps looked like they might be coming loose. It turns out there is at least one more that has been replaced that I hadn't spotted before - I thought it was just very dirty, but it's actually made of rusty chrome-plated steel (plus it's thicker and a slightly different shape). I do wonder why so many of the key caps have fallen off (seven that I know of). If they were dry joints to start with, I would have expected them to come off within a few days of starting to play the instrument at most. If they were good joints, I would expect them to stay on pretty much forever.

Sep. 15th, 2013


Concertina Measurements

Before doing anything to my concertina that might affect the tuning (e.g. replacing the valves), I wanted to make a record of the current state of each reed. Obsessive level of detail behind the cut...Collapse )

Other things done on the concertina since the last update:
* I laminated the rosewood veneers together to make the boards for the new ends. They have been drying in a press for over a week now. I'll probably write a separate post about them later once I think they are fully dry.
* I cleaned and polished the bellows with the Meltonian neutral shoe cream (took about an hour). They came up very nicely and still look to be in fantastic condition for their age.
* I've been continuing to drive myself and everybody else crazy by practicing the Winster Gallop for a few minutes several times a day. I think I've mostly got the hang of it now, though I'm trying to get to a stage where I can consistently play it at a decent speed without making more than the occasional mistake.

Sep. 4th, 2013


Veneer Flattening

My concertina would originally have had solid Indian rosewood ends with a fancy fretwork pattern cut out of them (to let the sound out). At some point they have been lost (they probably split and fell apart - apparently quite a common fault) and somebody has replaced them with aluminium sheets with holes drilled in them. Although functional, they are far from attractive, so I want to make a new pair of wooden ends. The big question was what kind of wood to make them from? A chap who has restored several concertinas, including making new ends, advised me that it's a good idea to use a high-quality hardwood laminate (several thin layers of wood glued together with the grain of alternate layers running at right angles to each other) rather than solid wood, to avoid the problem of them potentially splitting again in the future. I've seen a photo of a very fancy original antique Lachenal concertina that has laminated ends, so it seems the idea has historical precedence too. I suspect they didn't routinely use laminates for the ends because it's a much more labour-intensive and expensive process.

The next big question was what wood to make the laminate from. One option would have been to make all but one layer from something fairly cheap and use something fancy (e.g. a pretty burr) for the visible outer veneer. After much searching and calculating and debating (with myself) I opted to get a long strip of Indian rosewood and use that for every layer. That way the end result should look fairly close to the original, providing you don't peer too closely at the edges. I could in theory veneer the edges too, though the shape might make that rather tricky and it would still be possible to see the laminations on the inner edges of the fretwork piercings. Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

Time spent so far on cutting and flattening the veneers: about 3 hours.

Sep. 2nd, 2013


Shiny Buttons

I've completed the first small step of my concertina restoration. Five of the buttons had either no cap or a rough hand-made brass disc soldered onto the end. The original button caps are made from, I believe, nickel silver. Unfortunately I found that I couldn't easily/cheaply get hold of a tiny bar of the stuff so I cheated and made the replacements from an offcut of stainless steel that cost me 50p instead. Here's what the five faulty buttons looked like before restoration: Photos behind the cut...Collapse )

Time spent so far on the restoration, not including research and ordering parts: about six hours.

I've been practising playing it for a few minutes two or three times a day, apart from when I had it in bits to fix the buttons. Just this morning I managed to play the first tune in my tutor book (Winster Gallop) all the way through in one go, albeit quite badly. It's quite an amazing feeling when you first make that transition from producing a disjointed collection of notes to playing an actual recognisable tune!

Aug. 30th, 2013

Hijinks Ensue

AKICOLJ: Linux VPS providers

I find myself unexpectedly in need of a Linux-based VPS. Any recommendations? Don't need vast amounts of CPU, RAM or bandwidth, but would like it to be reliable, have access to decent tech support, and don't want to pay over the odds for additional disk space. I'm fairly easy about the distro. Budget is £20/month or less.

Aug. 24th, 2013

Bigger hammer

Experiments with Hide Glue

I've been sticking random bits of scrap wood together tonight with hot hide glue (AKA animal glue or pearl glue) because I intend to use it a lot in my concertina restoration and wanted to get a feel for what it's like to work with. This is the really good stuff, made from genuine boiled and distilled bits of dead animal, just like carpenters and instrument-makers used for thousands of years before the invention of modern petrochemical-based synthetic glues.

It's as strong or stronger than modern PVA wood glue and has several important advantages. The two big ones are: 1. It's possible to dismantle a joint without damaging the parts by steaming it until it softens. 2. You can often assemble joints without any clamps because it goes quite tacky in less than a minute as it cools and gels, then gradually pulls the joint tighter over the next few hours as it dries out, shrinks and goes rock-hard. It's also incredibly cheap - I bought enough of it on eBay to make up 3 litres of glue (that's a lot of glue) for less than £10. I'd expect to pay at least three times that for a good quality PVA glue (more if you buy it in small quantities).

Disadvantages are that it's more faff to work with (you need to mix it with the right amount of water in advance and then heat it carefully to liquify the gel), once mixed it has a limited shelf-life (though it can be frozen), it isn't waterproof (no good for garden furniture then), you don't have much time to assemble a large/complicated joint before it goes tacky (heating the wood a bit first helps), and it smells quite "interesting" when in its hot liquid form.

I also wanted to have a try at hammer veneering because I'm thinking of using this technique to make the new ends for the concertina. This involves using hot hide glue and a heavy smooth-faced metal squeegee to stick a very thin sliver of wood (often something exotic and visually attractive) onto the visible surface of another (usually cheaper and stronger) piece of wood. I don't have a purpose-made veneer hammer, but it turns out my largest blacksmith's cross-pein hammer makes an excellent substitute. I don't have any veneer yet either, so I glued a piece of scrap card of about the right thickness onto some scrap plywood instead. It was very easy to do (following instructions I've read on the web) and, as far as I can tell, it worked perfectly the first time.

The next thing to try is inlays, which is where you cut out an area of the veneer and replace it with something visually different of exactly the same shape and thickness (e.g. a veneer cut from a different coloured wood, a piece of mother-of-pearl, or a sheet of brass/silver/gold).

Previous 30