WAXING WITH A MODIFIED SOLDERING IRON
When you need to wax but the job is too small to justify firing up your wax pot, use a modified 15 watt soldering iron. Bigger irons produce too much heat and will cause your wax to smoke, driving off volatile compounds and causing premature aging and embrittlement of the wax. Even a 15 watt iron produces too much heat unless you modify the tip to dissipate it.
Make a heat sink/waxing tip from a piece of copper flashing and rivet it to your soldering tip. Longer soldering tips are better because they allow more secure mounting of the heat sink. The heat sink should be approximately 3/4 inch wide by 1 1/4 inch long.
Remove the insulation from a short piece of solid (not stranded) copper electrical wire and cut it into two short lengths to use as rivets. Before removing the soldering tip from the iron, file one side of the last 3/4 inch of it flat to provide more bearing surface for the heat sink. Then drill two holes in it the same diameter as the wire, with the holes centered on the flat surface and 1/2 inch apart.
Hold the copper heat sink firmly against the flat side of the soldering tip and use the holes in the soldering tip as a template to drill matching holes along the longest centerline of the heat sink. Clean off all burrs, then place the heat sink back on the flat side of the soldering tip, align the holes, and install the rivets.
Trim the rivets so they protrude about one wire diameter beyond the assembled waxing tip on each side. Hold the heat sink and soldering tip firmly together while you set the rivets with a few light taps of a hammer on an anvil. The rivets should flare to about 1.5 times their original diameter. Reinstall the finished tip into the soldering iron, and you are ready to go.
For this kind of waxing you need to have your wax formed into rods about the diameter of a pencil so you can melt the wax against the waxing tip and feed it into the work as it melts. Line a wide, shallow flat bottomed container with waxed paper. Pour hot wax into the container to a depth of about 1/4 inch. After it cools, cut it into strips about 1/4 inch wide and peel them off the waxed paper. Alternatively, you can set your block of reed wax in the sun to warm it to near body temperature, then cut off pieces to roll between your palms until they are the size and shape you want.
You can use this waxing iron to deliver molten wax to precisely where you want it. Just plug in the iron a few minutes ahead of time so it can come to operating temperature before you begin. Place the hot waxing tip into the area requiring wax and feed the end of a wax rod into the tip, just as you would feed solder or welding rod into a soldered or welded joint.
This works very well for sealing air leaks, for waxing pallets to key rods, and for waxing in a few reed plates. You can even wax an entire reed block this way, but the work goes faster with a wax pot and waxing spoon. That operation is described in another article.
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WAXING WITH A WAX POT AND SPOON
In the accordion factories in Castelfidardo, they still wax reeds into the reed blocks with a wax pot and spoon. Prior to visiting there, I found it difficult to wax with a spoon, and preferred to use an eye dropper. However, the eye dropper is not without its problems, most notably the frequency with which it clogs up with wax that cools within it. I was therefore quite happy to observe and learn how to properly use the spoon. Properly used, it is a fast and convenient way to wax reeds into their reed blocks.
Think of the spoon as a fountain pen. The flat sides of the spoon are its reservoir, and the forward point is the pen point. Heat the spoon in the wax pot until it matches the temperature of the wax. This takes only a few seconds. Withdraw the spoon, shake off some of the excess wax with one quick, light shake, and immediately rotate it to the horizontal. In this position the wax adheres to the sides of the spoon. As you rotate the rounded edge up toward the vertical, the molten wax flows toward the straight edge on the bottom. As you tip the point downward, the wax flows along the straight edge toward the pen point. By coordinating this rotation and tipping you can precisely control the rate at which wax runs off the point. Use this "fountain pen" to "write" the wax onto the work. To stop the flow, simultaneously tip the point back up to level and rotate the spoon back to horizontal. When it runs out of wax, dip it into the wax pot again.
The people in the factories wax very quickly by rotating the reed block around in one hand to cause the molten wax to flow along the channels between adjacent reeds. This allows them to use the spoon at near maximum capacity. I have not yet developed this coordination skill, so I hold the reed block level and still, while I move the spoon along the channels, frequently rotating it around to deliver the wax at a slower rate. Even so, this is much faster than using the soldering iron with the modified waxing tip (see the article on waxing with a modified soldering iron).
For a wax pot I use a small (1 quart) electric "crock pot" slow cooker. I use the high heat setting initially to melt the wax, then turn it down to low. If left on high, my pot will overheat the wax, causing it to smoke as the more volatile compounds are driven off by the excess heat. If allowed to continue, this smoking would cause premature aging and embrittlement of the wax. The best temperature for the wax is around 220 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature it is thin enough to flow freely, yet not hot enough to smoke.
It is also hot enough to burn you pretty badly if you spill it on yourself, so be careful. And always keep in mind that wax is flammable. Keep open flames away from your wax pot.
I buy my reed wax already mixed in one pound bricks from Frank Romano of FRM Enterprises in Montreal for about $19 per pound. I think Frank currently has a $300 minimum order, so check his online catalog for other things you might need (he is a good source for high quality reasonably priced shoulder straps, bass straps, felt/leather valve facing material, and just about anything else you might need to repair your accordion). You can also mix your own reed wax. There are various formulas in use, but all are mostly beeswax, with varying percentages of pine resin and a small amount of linseed oil. I have no experience mixing my own, and therefore cannot advise you on the exact proportions to use.
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MAKING AN OVER-SIZE AIR RELEASE VALVE
After playing a Giulietti or a Petosa with their relatively large air release valves which allow closing the bellows quickly and easily with a minimum of whooshing noise, I always felt rather let down to have to go back to a normal accordion with its pathetically small, slow, and noisy air valve. When I push that air release button I want instant results. So I enlarged the air release valves on all my favorite accordions. Now I can close my bellows quickly and quietly.
Open the accordion at the bass side, take out the bass reed blocks and set the bass cabinet bellows-side-down on the work bench. Remove the bass cover and locate your air release valve, button, and linkage. Examine both sides of the bass foundation plate right around the valve port, note any obstacles (reed block mountings, register slide linkages, bass strap adjustment screw, etc., and decide whether there is room to enlarge the valve, how much, and in which directions. Take into account the need for the linkage arm to reach across the center of the new larger pallet, and for the pallet to lift off its port when you push the air release button.
Scavenge a bass pallet from a junk accordion, strip off the old valve facing, wax, and glue, and reface it with new felt/leather laminate. See the article on re-valving for more specific instructions. Remove the old air release valve by twisting it off its linkage arm. Place your new valve over the hole in the position you want it to occupy, re-bend the linkage arm as required to fit, including a vertical jog if the new pallet is taller than the original, and trace the valve perimeter with a pencil. Take out the new valve and its linkage and mark the perimeter of the enlarged hole you want to make, keeping it a minimum of 1/8 inch inside the previous tracing, so your new valve will have at least 1/8inch bearing/sealing surface all around the new hole.
Use a round file such as a chainsaw file to enlarge the old hole out to your latest markings. Clean up all the sawdust, place the new valve into position, centered within its previously traced outline. Reinstall the linkage, check the height of the air release button, and bend the linkage arm as required to set the button at the correct height relative to the bass cover. Use your modified soldering iron to wax the pallet to its linkage arm (see the article on waxing with a modified soldering iron for more details).
Reinstall the bass cover, reinstall the bass reed blocks, reattach the bass cabinet to the rest of the accordion, and test the operation of your new air release valve.
The basics of this procedure can be used to add an air release button to an accordion that does not have one. In this case, you can either scavenge the linkage and button from a junk accordion and modify it to fit, or you can fabricate a new linkage assembly from scratch. If you fabricate from scratch, see the article on replacing bass buttons for tips on how to install the button onto your new linkage.
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Most accordions came from the factory with a dimple on the C button, but many of us also like some tactile identification of the Ab and E buttons. It is fairly easy to add rhinestones to these buttons. It is even easier to just dimple them, but I think it is useful to have a unique tactile cue on the C, so I generally use rhinestones on the other two.
To install a rhinestone you must first dimple the button by drilling a conical hole in the top of it, then glue a conical glass rhinestone into the hole, so if you want dimples, you just omit the rhinestones. Whatever the final goal, the drill tends to push the button down, so if the button is still mounted in the accordion, you need some way to hold the button up while you drill. I use a hemostat that I have modified to have a circular gripping surface to minimize damage to the sides of the button. I put the hemostat loosely in place, forcing some neighboring buttons down flush so the hemostat can lie flat on the bass board and grip the Ab or E button near the bottom. Then I clamp the hemostat in place to keep the gripped button from depressing.
On accordions it is always best to drill by hand. For most drilling I use a drill chuck taken from an old drill motor to grip the drill bit and I turn it by hand. For drilling bass buttons I have a 5/32" drill bit mounted rigidly in a brass knob, with a close fitting rigid plastic tube around the drill bit to act as a stop, allowing the drill to penetrate only to the depth of the conical back of the rhinestone. If you drill too deeply, the rhinestone might not stick up far enough to be noticed. The short piece of thin walled brass tubing fits over both the button and the plastic tube to keep the drill bit centered on the button.
Alternatively, I sometimes drill a small pilot hole in the center of the button, then enlarge the hole with the 5/32" drill bit. In this case the pilot hole keeps the drill centered.
Of course, all this is even easier if you have the piston out of the accordion, and it is not too hard to get them out, if you are so inclined. Just remove the note piston cap strip, as in the photo below, lift the desired piston out of its slot and fish it out through the top of the bass keyboard. It will take a little patience to get it back in and properly engaged with its bell crank lever, but the ease of drilling your button in a bench vise makes it worthwhile.
When I have drilled to the desired depth, I put a small drop of Superglue into the hole and set the rhinestone in place. In just a minute or two it sets and the accordion is ready to play. To minimize the chances of gluing your fingers together, it is a good idea to wear latex gloves when working with Superglue. I handle the rhinestones by sticking a small screwdriver to the top of the rhinestone with a bit of reed wax, leaving the conical bottom clean for best adhesion. I use a wooden toothpick to press the rhinestone down and free it from the screwdriver, then to clean up any excess superglue that oozes out from under the rhinestone before it dries.
I use 4.0-4.1mm Swarovski crystal rhinestones from Fire Mountain Gems. You can order online at firemountaingems.com. Order stock number H20-4835CY for clear, order stock number H20-4843CY for emerald. Other colors are available. They cost a little over a dollar for each package of 12, but the shipping on my last order was $7.65 . Use a standard 5/32” (4mm) drill bit with a stop set to allow you to drill only as deep as the tapered point, which gives the correct angle and depth of hole to fit the conical back of the rhinestones.
Here is a nice clean installation.
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Bellows tape serves to strengthen the bellows folds, protect the cardboard from abrasion, and enhance the appearance of the accordion. Keeping the bellows tape in good shape can prolong the life of the bellows. It is normally stuck to the underlying bellows fabric with a glue that allows it to be peeled off without damaging that fabric, so when your bellows tape becomes tattered and frayed, you can peel it off and replace it without destroying the bellows.
Replacing bellows tape is time consuming and therefore expensive if you have someone else do it, but it is not difficult to do yourself. Bellows tape is available in 19mm wide x 50 meter rolls in a variety of colors from Frank Romano of FRM Enterprises in Montreal, for about $36 per roll. I think FRM requires a minimum order of $300, so you will have to combine your tape order with some other items to make it economical, or find another source.
The first step is to prop the bellows open. Pull all the bellows pins (keeping them in order) and separate the bellows from the treble and bass cabinets, marking it as necessary to allow you to reassemble it in the correct orientation later. Cut two pieces of 1/8 inch plywood or masonite particle board about 3 inches wide x about 1/2 inch less than the outside width of your bellows. These should be made to fit snugly into the interior folds of your bellows, one at each end so they can be used to hold the bellows open while you work. Drill a 1/2 inch diameter hole at the exact center of each piece. Cut a piece of 1x1 wood molding about 14 inches long and make a tapered point on each end, to fit into the holes. Insert the plates into the last fold at each end of the bellows, stretch the bellows open, and insert the pointed rod into both holes. This should hold the bellows open while you work.
The second step is to remove all the old tape and glue. Slip a dull blade under the corners at each end of a tape to allow you to grasp the tape with your fingers and peel it off. Smooth the underlying surface as well as you can without damaging the underlying fabric, because any irregularities or lumps you leave will telegraph through the new tape.
Choose one side of the bellows to do on the first day. If you are not yet good at this, it might be wise to start with the back. Mark all the metal corners with a pen or with a straight row of short pieces of masking tape so you can keep the ends of your tape well aligned and flush with those markings. Cut your new bellows tapes to the right length to fit the folds on the bellows side you have chosen. Fold each tape in half the short way and put a firm crease down the middle of it to help keep it centered along the bellows fold. Lay five or six of the tapes out upside-down on a sheet of masking paper or newspaper and apply the glue to the tapes with a small brush.
Use the special bellows tape glue from FRM Enterprises, which is designed to release, making your bellows repairable in the future. If you use Elmer's or something similar, the next time someone needs to change a metal corner or repair your tape, they will not be able to do it without damaging the bellows fabric and perhaps even the cardboard, and that will be the end of the bellows.
Using the creases as your guide, center the first tape on a bellows fold with both ends aligned with your markings on the metal corners and press it firmly into place, using a damp cloth between your fingers and the tape. The tape will tend to flex back open until the glue begins to set, so you may have to repeat this a few times until it finally holds. When you have the first five or six tapes installed in this manner, run the damp cloth over them all once more to wipe away any excess glue, and repeat the process with five or six more tapes. When you have all the tapes installed and all the excess glue cleaned off, remove your interior props, close the bellows, and place a 30 pound weight on it (another accordion in its hard case works well), and let the glue cure overnight. The next day repeat this process for the next side and so on until you have all four sides done.
You will notice that the end folds are a special case. These folds (like all the rest) were taped before the bellows was glued to the bellows frame, so nearly half the tape is stuck in the glued joint and will have to remain there. You cannot pry this joint apart without destroying the bellows. The best you can do is to cut these tapes a bit narrower and tuck one edge of the tape as far down into the glued joint as you can without damaging the joint. Alternatively, if the tape on these folds is not damaged and if you are re-taping with the same color tape, you might consider leaving the end folds alone.
If you want to put a design into your bellows tape with a contrasting color, install the design first, using short tape segments, then cut your regular tape to length to fit all around it (butting up to it) and install that last. Do not install the design on top of your regular tape, as this double taping will thicken your bellows so your bellows straps will no longer close.
New bellows tape can be applied over old bellows tape, and wider than normal tape (24mm wide) is made for this purpose. However, if you take this shortcut you will have to move your bellows straps and/or snaps, or replace them with longer straps. In that case, you will have some old screw holes to fill, including repair of the celluloid finish. For suggestions on how to do that repair, see the article on repairing stripped out screws.
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REPLACING BASS BUTTONS
It is not unusual to have to replace a bass button or two. Some prior owner may have butchered the button trying to mark it in some way. I have seen them with notches sawn into them apparently with a hacksaw, creases melted into the top apparently with a hot knife, and even with one side melted away where some misguided soul apparently touched it with a hot soldering iron. I have seen oversize jewels glued on top, and huge dimples drilled into the wrong buttons. I have also seen several buttons scratched and scraped, apparently by sliding on concrete or asphalt. Whatever the problem is, it can usually be solved by replacing the button.
If your buttons are black, finding a matching button will be fairly easy. Just make sure you get the correct diameter. The height is not so critical, as the depth of the piston insertion into the button can be varied to make up the difference. If your buttons are red, gold, or some other color, getting an exact match will be difficult. Cerini in Castelfidardo sells new buttons, and so does FRM Enterprises in Montreal, but color choices are limited. Look first to any junk accordion you or your local repairman might have lying around. Junk accordions should never be thrown away, as they are excellent sources of hard to find parts and materials, including bass buttons.
Once you have your replacement buttons in hand, disassemble your bass machine to the extent required to extract the pistons with damaged buttons (see the article on disassembling and reassembling bass machines). Carefully measure the overall length of the piston/button assemblies so you will be able to push the new buttons onto the pistons just far enough to match this overall length for each piston.
To remove the old button, hold the piston with the damaged button in the fingers of one hand and twist and pull the button off with the other hand. If it will not come off, clamp the piston into a bench vise, or into a vise-grip pliers, which in turn is to be clamped into the bench vise (taking care not to bend the piston or to damage any if the pins or dogs pressed or stamped into the side of it), and heat the side of the piston with a soldering iron until the plastic or glue begins to soften just enough to allow you to pull the button off.
Once you have the old button off, measure the diameter of the end of the piston that must go into the new button. Drill or ream the pilot hole in the bottom of the new button to exactly this diameter if you intend to glue it, or to just a few thousandths of an inch smaller if you intend to weld it (that is, if you intend to heat the piston to the melting temperature of the plastic button and force it into the pilot hole in the button, so that as the melted plastic around the pilot hole cools, it will adhere to the piston). In either case, drill or ream your pilot hole to a depth 1/16 inch greater than that theoretically necessary to allow pushing the piston into the button far enough to make the new assembly exactly the same length as your pattern. This allows room for some small amount of plastic or glue that may be pushed to the bottom of the pilot hole by the advancing piston.
Whether you choose to glue or weld, the next step is to install the button onto the piston, taking care to make the overall length exactly match your previous measurement. When the plastic cools, or the glue dries, as the case may be, reassemble your bass machine, taking special care to ensure that every button goes exactly back where it came from and that every pin or dog on each piston properly engages its bell-crank levers. Reinstall the bass reed blocks, the bass cover and the bass strap, and reinstall the assembled bass cabinet onto the bellows. Check the bass machine for proper operation to make sure no buttons are sticking and all chord buttons are playing all the correct notes.
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For various reasons, you may have to remove or disassemble a bass machine. For instance, if one or more bass valves is leaking and you are unable to solve the problem working from the reed block side, then the bass machine will have to be totally removed to gain access to the bass valves. If your bass machine is not removable as a unit, then you will have to disassemble it piece by piece.
Other problems that can require at least partial disassembly of the bass machine include a bass valve hanging open due either to sticking "pipes" (bass valve bellcranks), worn cam levers on the pipes, or worn valve lifters (cam followers) on the valves. You might also encounter a broken actuating lever on one of the pipes, cracked or broken wood mountings for the bass machine, or pistons bent too badly to straighten without removing them first.
Whatever the reason for disassembling your bass machine, you must make sure that you will be able to put it back together correctly, as each of the (usually 120) bass button pistons and each of the (usually 24) pipes is unique, and must go back in its original position.
The easiest way to do this is to make a rack to hold the bass button/pistons in their proper positions relative to one another as you take them out. I drilled seven rows of twenty holes in three pieces of plywood that I then stacked with spacers between, to provide a separate chamber for each button from any accordion up to 140 bass. An easier way, if you have a junk accordion, is to salvage and use the bass keyboard, which already has the 120 holes drilled in it.
After you remove your bass strap and bass plate, your bass machine should look something like this.
Before you begin the disassembly, take a few moments to observe how your bass machine is constructed and how it works. This will help you understand how to keep its various parts in order and how to put it back together. By observing and understanding, you will also learn some things about accordion design and how the bass machine is really a simple mechanical computer that assembles chords on command. After going through this little exercise, whenever you look at a bass machine you will see order and symmetry and an elegant design, rather than the chaos and unfathomable complexity that you may be seeing now.
Take your time.
Get in touch with yourself and your machine. It is a beautiful machine that makes beautiful music, and in a few moments you will understand how it does it.With the bass cover off, push any bass chord button and observe that the button is on the top end of a long piston which has three pegs or tabs along one side of it (some older accordions have four pegs or tabs on their seventh chord pistons). Observe that each peg contacts a lever and forces that lever to move with the piston. Observe that there are four neat rows of levers, all lined up with four neat rows of pegs on the pistons.
Notice that the bottom end of the piston passes through a slot in a wooden guide, and that the bottom of the piston has a sharp 90 degree bend to prevent the piston from coming out of the slot when valve spring pressure forces the piston upward as you release the button.
Rest the tip of a small screwdriver or similar tool against the bottom end of the piston (90 degree bend) and rest your finger on the button at the top end. Rock the piston gently up (toward the button end) and down and notice that there is a small amount of clearance between each peg and the lever it engages, and that you can therefore rock the piston up and down by some slight amount without causing any levers to move.
Notice that each piston has four possible locations for pegs or tabs, that only three of them are used, and that the position not occupied by a peg varies from piston to piston. As you peer down into the bass machine, notice the other tiers of pistons nestled beneath the top tier. Also notice that every second piston (button) in the top tier passes through a hole in the diminished chord row of the bass keyboard, and that the ones in between pass through holes in the seventh chord row. Notice that in the second tier down, every second piston (button) passes through a hole in the minor chord row, and that the ones in between pass through holes in the major chord row. Notice that each piston has a slightly different bend in it in order to accommodate this arrangement.
Looking farther down inside the bass machine, you can see a tier of longer pistons with its own slotted wooden guide, and you will notice that every second piston (button) in this tier passes through a hole in the fundamental bass row and the ones in between pass through holes in the counterbass row.
As you press one of these fundamental bass or counterbass note buttons, you will observe that the single peg (or tab) on the side of its piston engages a single lever and causes it to move with the piston. Notice that the bottom end of that lever is fixed to one of 12 slender steel rods (technically bell cranks, but commonly called pipes) lying under the pistons, and that this pipe rotates when the lever moves. With a bright light illuminating the area directly under these pipes, observe that as the pipe rotates, one of the 12 note pallets lifts, opening a note valve, and as it opens it also lifts an adjacent chord valve pallet.
Find the fundamental bass note button (not the counterbass button) that opens the valve at one end of the pipes (where it is easiest to see) and observe that the pipe has a short cam lever on it that lifts a cam follower on that note pallet arm, opening the note valve as the pipe rotates. Notice that the note pallet arm extends past the end of the pallet and engages the underside of a similar extension on the chord pallet arm, causing the chord valve to open whenever the note valve opens.
Now press the major chord button next to that same fundamental bass button, and watch the chord valve open while the corresponding bass note valve stays closed. Do the same, one at a time, with the minor, seventh, and diminished buttons in that same diagonal row of buttons (chord family). Notice that in each case the first pipe rotates, forcing its cam lever to lift the chord pallet, thereby opening the chord valve, and realize that this chord valve is for the root note of all the chords in this chord family. Understand that this particular pipe and its cam lever, along with two of its levers that engage pegs on these four pistons, cause the bass machine to play the root note whenever you push one of these chord buttons.
As you press each of these chord buttons a second time, use your bright light to observe which other two valves open, along the row of 12 chord valves. Understand that these other two valves are the other two notes that join the root note to make up each of these chords.
Observe that each valve is operated by only one cam lever and pipe, but that each pipe has many levers on it, each extending upward to engage a peg on the side of a chord piston that uses that particular note. Focus on just one of these pipes for a moment. Push one of its levers downward (away from the bass buttons) and observe how many other levers move with it, and which pistons have pegs that engage these levers. Whenever any one of those particular chord buttons/pistons is pushed, one of the pegs on the side of its piston engages one of the levers on this pipe, causing this particular pipe to rotate and the valve it controls to open. The other two pegs on that piston each engage a lever protruding from one of the other two pipes whose notes comprise the chord played by that button.
Notice that there are 12 chord valves and 12 chord pipes, and that there are also 12 note valves and 12 note pipes. The note pipes operate the valves that control the two lowest octaves in your bass reed set, while the chord pipes operate the valves that control the (usually two or three) higher octaves. Each pipe in each set of 12 pipes is dedicated to a single note of the 12 note chromatic scale. Chords are played by rotating three pipes simultaneously, thus opening three separate valves. The bass machine assembles chords for you by opening the three correct note valves whenever you press any single chord button.
Just as the chord valves and note valves are arranged in your bass machine, so are the reeds arranged in your bass reed blocks, because directly behind each valve lie the reeds for that note. Therefore, if your chord valves line up with your note valves (on some Russian accordions they don't), then all the reeds for that note line up across the various reed blocks. In other words, if the first reed in one reed block is Bb, then the first reed in each of the other reed blocks is also Bb, although in another octave.
You can use this knowledge to determine how the bass reeds are organized within each reed block. Some accordions have their bass reeds organized in chromatic scale order, while some have them arranged in accordance with the circle of fifths. You can easily determine which system you have by observing the operation of your bass machine.
Press your C note button and observe which valve opens. Now press the F or the G button. If a valve right next to the C valve opens, your bass reeds are arranged in accordance with the circle of fifths. If you must press a B button a C# button to get this valve to open, then your bass reeds are arranged in chromatic scale order. Either way, by identifying which button operates the valve at each end of your 12-valve array, and therefore which note lies at each end of the row of valves, you can now fill in the names of all the notes in between. With this knowledge, you can see which three notes are being played by each chord button.
This is academic, I know, but if you have gone this far, and used your knowledge of the bass machine to deduce the arrangement of your bass reeds and to determine which notes comprise each chord, then you are to be congratulated for being truly in touch with your machine. You can now safely disassemble your bass machine with confidence that you will be able to get it back together correctly, so let us begin.
In order to get the pistons out, you must first remove the cap strip (usually wood) over the guide slots at the bottom of the pistons. It is usually held in place by four or five small brass wood screws. Removing this cap strip allows the diminished and seventh chord buttons to be lifted out of their slots. Pull the buttons down into their holes as you remove the pistons one by one and place them in your rack. However, the minor and major chord buttons cannot be removed until first removing a thin plastic barrier that rests in a slot in the button side of the slotted wooden guide. Sometimes this plastic separator is held in place by several short narrow strips of plastic glued across the outside of the slot. In other cases it is held in place by tiny nails or by friction alone.
When you get all the chord buttons out, you will have to remove their slotted wooden guide, which is held in by two large wood screws, one at either end. Once this is out, you will have access to the note buttons, which are retained by their own separate cap strip, which also must be removed. In most accordions it is easier to take the note buttons out through the top of the bass keyboard rather than pulling them down into the accordion.
Once all the buttons are safely in your rack, you can remove the pipe retainers, usually including a flat brass or aluminum strap across each end of both sets of pipes (chord set and note set) and two bent wire retainers in between. The straps and wire retainers are anchored by small brass wood screws.
Before removing the pipes or disturbing their order, take note of the logic of their arrangement. You will be removing and storing the pipes in order, but in case they get mixed up you want to be able to get them back into the proper order. There are two common arrangements for the chord pipes, one for accordions with their bass reeds laid out in the reed blocks in accordance with the chromatic scale (by far the most common) and one for those with their bass reeds mounted in accordance with the circle of fifths.
In accordions with their bass reeds arranged in accordance with the chromatic scale, you will see that the chord pipes are arranged in order of the position of their cam lever along the pipe, which puts the pipes in the same order as the reeds. Usually, the pipe that opens the valve for the first reed in the reed block goes in first. It has its cam lever (which actually lifts the valve), at one end of the pipe. The pipe that opens the valve for the second reed in the reed block goes in second. It has its cam lever (which actually lifts the valve), a short distance from the end of the pipe. As you ascend the chromatic scale (and travel along the reed block and the associated row of bass valves), each successive chord pipe cam lever is located just a bit farther from the end of its pipe, because the valve it opens is just a bit farther down the line of valves. The last cam lever opens the last valve in the row. The cam levers line up like stair steps along the row of valves, the first cam lever opening the first valve, the second cam lever opening the second valve, and so on, with the last cam lever at the opposite end of the pipe opening the last valve.
The note pipes might be arranged slightly differently. While still generally in chromatic scale order, part of the order may run up the scale and part of it may run down. For instance, in one I recently had apart (see the photo immediately above), the first five note pipes operated valves 1 through 5, then the sixth pipe jumped to valve 12 and from there the sequence continued backwards down through valve 6.
In accordions with their bass reeds arranged in the reed blocks in accordance with the circle of fifths (i.e., in the same order as the bass buttons) the pipes are arranged differently, in the order required to put the notes back into chromatic scale order. In other words, the first pipe opens the first note of the chromatic scale, and the second pipe opens the second note in the scale, just as before, but the second note in the chromatic scale is not the second valve in the row. It is located farther along the row, and so its cam lever is located farther down the pipe. It is not nearly as easy to visually determine the proper order of the chord pipes in this arrangement, because the cam levers do not line up like stair steps.
The important thing is to recognize and remember the proper order, or at least be sure you can figure it out logically, because there are about 479 million possible ways to put them back (the number of possible 12-permutations of 12 = 12! = approximately 479 million). If you put them back in random order, the odds are about 479 million to 1 against you getting the right order on the first try. If you try 1 permutation every 3 minutes, working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks per year, you will try 40,000 permutations per year and it will take you 9,475 years (over 100 lifetimes) to try all the possible permutations. So before you take the pipes out, make sure you understand how they must go back in.
Here is your disassembled bass machine:
Getting the pipes out of order is not a problem with accordions with removable bass machines, because the entire bass machine, buttons and all, and sometimes even including the bass board, is fastened in with just a few screws or clips, sometimes as few as two. Remove these few screws or clips, lift out the bass machine as an assembly, and you have instant access to the bass valves.
Once you have finished your work on the valves, you will have to reassemble the bass machine. If your work included re-valving, you will have to set up the bass machine as you assemble it. Setting up the bass machine involves setting the bellcrank actuating levers at the proper angle to engage the pegs on the sides of the pistons with a minimum of lash, but not zero. Instructions for setting up the bass machine can be found in the article on re-valving the bass side.
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New bellows are so costly that we rarely replace them unless we have to. But replacing them can help make your old accordion look and feel like new, and you can minimize the cost by doing it yourself. Just cut the old one off and glue the new one on.
However, don't get in a hurry to cut the old bellows off just yet, because it takes two or three months to get a new one made and delivered. Measure the length, width, and depth of folds of your old one precisely in millimeters. Give the bellows maker those measurements along with the number of folds, the metal corner style number, and the colors you want for the leather corners, the bellows fabric, and the bellows tape. I get mine from Fernando Marconi in Castelfidardo.
You have to reuse your old bellows frames because they were custom made to precisely fit your treble and bass cabinets. Once you have the new bellows in hand, use a box cutter to cut the old bellows off your old bellows frames, but not before marking each frame on its front side so you will be sure get them both installed in the proper orientation on the new bellows. Cut the cardboard as close to the wooden bellows frames as possible without damaging the wood.
The hardest part of the job is scraping the remaining cardboard and glue off the bellows frames. You want to get down to the bare wood to ensure a flat mating surface and a strong glue joint between the old bellows frame and the new bellows. You can sometimes speed up this process by applying a bit of heat to the old glue. A heat gun is not advisable because you risk melting the plastic trim around the bellows frame, so I made a copper scraping tip for my 30 watt soldering iron ($5 from Orchard Supply Hardware). It is constructed very similarly to the copper waxing tip I made for my 15 watt soldering iron, except I used a heavier gauge of copper for the scraper.
If heat does not soften your glue, you will have to scrape it off the hard way, with a box cutter and a lot of elbow grease. In that case, expect to spend two to three hours scraping. Once you have them clean, get them both oriented with their previously marked fronts pointing in the same direction, and make sure the bellows is going to be a good fit. Glue the new bellows onto the frames one at a time as follows.
Paint Elmer's white wood glue onto the mating surface of one of the bellows frames with a small brush. Make sure you get a good even coat all over the mating surface, then add a small bead all the way around on top of that without brushing it out. You want just enough glue so that it slightly oozes out all around when you put the bellows on, but not so much that it runs out and makes a mess.
With the bellows frame lying flat on your work table with the glue side up, set the new bellows down on it ensuring that you have it perfectly centered. Press it lightly down and with a damp rag wipe off any excess glue that appears from the joint.
Place a 30 pound weight on top of the bellows (I use my test bellows, which has a heavy box of bolts inside, with an accordion on top of that), and let the glue dry for at least two hours, continuously cleaning off any excess glue, taking care not to wipe it into the bellows folds.
After two hours, remove the weights, carefully turn the bellows over, and repeat the process for the second bellows frame, taking special care to get the marked front sides of both bellows frames pointed in the same direction. This time leave the weights on overnight. In the morning you will be able to install your new bellows and immediately start breaking it in.
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If you determine that your bass valves are leaking, check first to see if some foreign object might be lodged under any of the valves (see the article on finding leaks). Next, check to see if any of the bell crank (bass pipe) levers are resting tightly enough against their piston pegs to keep a valve from firmly closing. Often, these two steps will reveal the problem. However, it is not uncommon to find bass valves leaking due to deterioration of the felt or leather, due to poor alignment at the factory, or due to some kind of structural failure of the mounting of the pallet arms. The following photo, shows a failed glue joint, which allowed spring pressure to arch the hinge bar upward, putting three pallets out of parallel with the foundation plate and causing those three valves to leak.
For leaks caused by valve misalignment or deterioration, you will have to remove the bass machine in order to gain access to the valves. Unless you have a removable bass machine (perhaps 5% of accordions have them), you will have to disassemble the bass machine piece by piece and remove the pipes one at a time. See the article on disassembling the bass machine for instructions and an important warning about keeping the pipes in order.
Once your bass machine is totally out of the way, you can remove the pallets, but first close all the slides you can, and protect the slides and the remaining open ports with a small sheet of paper that you can move along as you twist each of the 24 pallets from its pallet arm. Catch as much of the crumbling wax debris as you can, in order to prevent it from falling into the slides or down into the reed blocks. When you have all the pallets out, set the accordion back upright (resting on the bass section) and shake out whatever debris you missed. At some point you should also remove the bass reed blocks and shake them out because some debris probably got into them.
Strip the old valve facings off the pallets and scrape off the old glue. Measure the thickness of the old valve facings and procure some new valve facing of the same thickness (I get mine from FRM Enterprises in Montreal). Use your roller cutter to cut strips of valve facing one note pallet wide and do the same for the chord pallets. Then cut individual valve pads from the strips, 12 to fit your note pallets and 12 for your chord pallets. Glue the new valve pads/facings onto the pallets and set them aside to dry. Use a thin coat of glue to prevent any of it from soaking into and hardening the felt.
Check all pallet arm hinge points and hardware for security and proper alignment, repairing any loose or misaligned mountings. Make sure all pallet arms rotate freely on their hinge points. Bend all pallet arms as necessary to exactly center them over their ports, taking care not to over-stress the pallet arm hinge points. In other words, support the pallet arm with one bending tool while you bend it with another. The goal here is to center the pallet over the ports, and since the pallet arm rests in the groove along the centerline of the pallet, centering the pallet arm is an essential step.
This is your best chance to resurface the cams and cam followers to ensure smooth operation. Don’t skip this step, because re-valving always results in slight changes in pallet height and thus in the height of the cam follower. This means the cam will strike the cam follower in a slightly different position and from a slightly different angle than it did before. Decades of use have created a unique wear pattern on the mating surfaces of each cam and its cam follower, and changing the pallet height alters the relationship that created this wear pattern so the surfaces no longer mate properly. This results in noisy operation and high friction that can cause valves to stick open. The remedy is to grind these worn mating surfaces smooth with fine emery cloth and polish them with crocus cloth. Check them with a magnifying glass under a bright light to verify that you have both surfaces smoothly polished.
Polishing a cam
Polishing a cam follower
Once you have the cams and cam followers sanded smooth and brightly polished, set all pallets in position, trimming any corners as necessary to ensure clearance between the pallet and the surrounding structure. Use a pair of bending tools to bend the pallet arms as required to make them lie flat in their pallet grooves (avoid putting too much stress on the pallet arm hinges and mounts). Significant bending of these arms will be required if your new valve facings are not exactly the same height as the old. Remove the pallets to verify that all pallet arms are still centered over their ports, and correct any misalignments.
Reinsert the pallets under the pallet arms, place the springs in position over the pallet arms, and verify that none of the note pallet arms are contacting the underside of any of the overlying chord pallet arms. During play, the note pallet arms will lift the chord pallet arms, but you want a small amount of clearance between them to ensure that the chord pallets will rest firmly closed until their corresponding note buttons are pushed. A few thousandths of an inch is all the clearance you need. If you can see the note pallet arm move at all before it contacts the underside of the chord pallet arm, or if you can hear a faint click as the rising note pallet arm contacts the underside of the chord pallet arm, you have enough clearance.
With all adjustments made, it is now time to wax the pallets to their pallet arms. Use the modified soldering iron to apply enough heat to make the wax flow all around and under the pallet arm and down into the groove, but not so much that the wax flows down over the side of the pallet (see the article on waxing with a modified soldering iron). Press down evenly on the pallet to ensure that it lies flat on the foundation plate as the wax solidifies.
When the wax and the pallet arms have cooled, check again to make certain that no note pallet arms are contacting the undersides of their overlying chord pallet arms. Bend the ends of the chord pallet arms up as required to obtain a few thousandths of an inch clearance. Also check for leaks before you reassemble the bass machine. One way to check for leaks is to place the accordion on your workbench accordion stand (see the article on disassembling the accordion for some tips on making a workbench accordion stand) and lift the bass section to expand the bellows. Let the bellows close under the weight of the bass section plus some moderate pressure from your hands and listen closely for leaks as the bellows closes. If you push down very hard, you can cause air pressure in the bellows to force the bass valves open on any accordion, but they should stay closed under a few pounds of pressure, such as in normal playing.
Another way to check for leaks, working from the reed block side, is to remove the reed blocks and check each valve with a paper feeler gauge. If you don't feel significant and uniform friction all around the edges between the leather valve facing and your feeler gauge, the valve is not seating properly.
Check very carefully for leaks, because this is your last chance to correct any problems before assembling the bass machine. Detecting a leaking valve later could cost you half a day's work to disassemble and reassemble the bass machine again in order to gain access to your leak.
Don’t be discouraged if you find some leaks. It is common for the wax to shrink as it cools, lifting one end or the other of the pallet. The remedy is simple. Use your modified soldering iron to melt the wax again, taking greater care this time to keep the pallet lying flat while the wax cools. As a final check before reassembling the bass machine, check for uniform pressure and friction under each end of each pallet with a paper feeler gauge. A strip of paper ¼ inch wide by 4 inches long works well. Do not install any pipes until you are satisfied that all pallets sit flat and evenly firm against the foundation plate, and that there are no leaks.
It is best to let the new valves rest on their seats under spring pressure at least overnight to allow most of the initial compression to occur prior to assembling and setting up the bass machine. Setting up the bass machine means adjusting the clearance between each of the pipe levers and the piston peg that drives it. No matter how carefully you have tried to match your new valve facing material to the original, it is bound to be of at least slightly different thickness. This means that even if the bass machine was perfectly adjusted before, it will be out of adjustment after installing the new valve facings. The initial compression of the felt or foam cushions will also alter the adjustment.
When you are satisfied that the initial valve compression has occurred, that all pallets are lying flat and tight against the foundation plate, and that you have no leaks, reinstall the note pipes in proper order, making sure that the lifting cam on each one fits under the cam follower on the pallet arm. Check each one for smooth operation before installing any pistons.
Install the note button/pistons one at a time, making sure at each piston that none of its pegs contact their bell crank levers when the lifting cam is touching the underside of the cam follower on the pallet arm, as this would eventually cause the corresponding note pallet to leak. Provide some clearance between the peg and the lever as follows.
You can save time and minimize the amount of bending by first bending the lifting cam lever (the single short lever that contacts and lifts the cam follower on the pallet arm) on each pipe to provide minimal lash at the first lever you adjust on that pipe. Bending the lifting cam to put the first lever into proper position relative to the piston peg should put all the other levers on that pipe in pretty close adjustment also. For minor adjustments of subsequent levers on that same pipe, bend the lever rather than the lifting cam. Bending the lifting cam later would put all the previously adjusted levers on that pipe out of adjustment.
You must maintain at least some minimal amount of lash (clearance) between each of the pegs on the side of the piston and the lever it will contact when that button is pushed. However, don't allow too much clearance, as this could cause the button to rest lower than the others and might cause some notes of a chord to sound later than others. Barely perceptible clearance is enough. A 50th of an inch (1/2 mm) is about the most you should allow.
You control this clearance by slightly bending the lever while preventing the pipe from rotating. You can prevent the pipe from rotating by firmly holding two or three other levers on the same pipe. I use 4-inch long pieces of 1/8-inch o.d. steel tubing (automotive brake line) slipped down over the levers as bending tools. Pushing two or three levers in one direction while pushing one lever in the opposite direction should cause the one to bend, but sometimes one of the others bends, too, and if this is one you have already adjusted, it will now be out of adjustment. For this reason, you must check the clearance at each peg and lever a second time, after all levers are initially adjusted.
A further complication stems from the fact that if one lever is too tight against a piston peg, it will hold the bell crank (pipe) in such a position to create clearance at all other levers on that pipe. When you go back and properly adjust the tight one a bit farther from its peg, it allows all the other levers on that pipe to rotate closer to their pegs. If that rotation exceeds the clearance at one of those pegs, that peg will now be too tight. When that one is eased, another may become too tight. You may have to chase these diminishing clearances back and forth along the pipe to make certain none of its levers are tight against their pegs. This is extremely important, because as the new valve facings compress slightly over time under spring pressure and the impact of repeated closings, the clearance in the linkage will be slightly diminished. If there is no clearance to begin with, the compressed valve will not seal, and you will have an external leak.
Once all the note pistons are installed and their levers are adjusted, install the wooden cap strip onto the slotted guide. Warning: if any of the cap strip screw holes have stripped threads down inside the slotted wooden guide, do not force the next larger screw size into the hole, as this will probably crack the wood and bulge it into one of the slots, causing that bass button to stick. The best way to repair a stripped screw hole is to glue in a soft wood plug and tap new threads into that. The softer the wood, the smaller the risk of splitting the slotted guide when you thread the screw into it.
You can help prevent splits by temporarily supporting the segment holding the screw. Wedge thin plastic strips alongside the pistons in the slots on each side of this segment while you drill your pilot hole and tap in the new screw. Or take those pistons out and fill the slots snugly with wood or plastic plugs. But don’t force your plugs in too tightly, or that, too, might crack the slotted guide. Even with this support you must be very careful not to split the wood. If it splits despite your best efforts, you will have to glue and clamp it back together, then use a thin metal file to clean the affected slot as required to allow the piston to move smoothly through it.
Once the note piston cap strip is securely in place, install the slotted wooden guide for the chord pistons and install just the major and minor chord pistons. Naturally, you must adjust the clearance between each of the piston pegs and its lever as you go. Once again, you can save time by bending the lifting cam on the pipe to set the proper clearance at the first lever on that pipe. That should put all subsequent levers on that pipe into pretty close adjustment so relatively little bending will be required on those subsequent levers.
Once all the major and minor chord pistons are in, install the plastic separator strip in the slot in the button side of the slotted guide and secure it with the little plastic tabs glued over the slot (or with screws or nails if that is how it was initially secured). Take special care not to drop any of the plastic tabs, as they will fall down between and under the pistons and will be very difficult to retrieve. You won't want to leave them down there, either, as they could lodge under a valve and cause a leak. When the plastic separator is secured, install the seventh and diminished pistons, adjusting the levers for each as you go, then finally the wooden cap strip.
It is a good idea to check for leaks at every stage; after the pallets are waxed in, after the pipes are installed, after the note pistons are installed, after all the major and minor chord pistons are in, and again at the end. This way, if you detect a leaking valve somewhere along the way, you will know that you caused it during the current assembly stage, making it far easier to find and correct the problem.
With your bass machine reassembly and setup complete, it is time to reinstall the bass cover, making sure to guide the air release button through its hole as you go. Install the bass cover screws, re-secure the bass strap, and play yourself a congratulatory song. By properly setting up your bass machine, you have just completed one of the more challenging accordion repair tasks.
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Whenever we must get access to the bass valves, we really appreciate having a removable bass machine, because it saves us the work of removing 120 bass buttons one at a time, their supporting structures piece by piece, and all 24 bass pipes one at a time, just to get at the valves. Instead, we just remove two to four screws, or sometimes just release two spring clips, and… voila! The bass machine slips right out and we have instant access to the valves.
Here is a photo of one with just two brass clips holding the bass machine and bass plate in place.
Here it is again with the clips released.
Now the bass machine is slid partly out of the accordion.
And it’s that simple. We now have access to the valves.
When finished working on the valves, just slide the bass machine back into position and snap the two clips in place. Now, that’s the way to design an accordion.
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