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P L A N N I N G  &  B U D G E T I N G

For Service on American-made Handbells

Two of the questions I am most frequently asked are, “How often should we plan to have our bells serviced?” and “How much should our organization budget for the work?” Both are great questions and happily, the answers are quite simple.

Unfortunately, many bell owners believed when they originally bought their bells that they were “maintenance free instruments”. While handbells need far less attention than most musical instruments, it is wishful thinking to believe that any instrument is totally maintenance free. The finest grand piano ever made needs regular tuning and service. Million dollar pipe organs need adjustments, regulation and periodic tuning. A Rolls Royce needs an oil change every now and then, and yes, believe it or not, even handbells require occasional routine servicing. Having followed the activities of hundreds of bell choirs for more than fifteen years and servicing their bells on a repeat basis many times, I have developed the following recommendations.

Most sets of bells, regardless of make, need Basic Servicing at least every third year or every 200 hours of use. Suppose each bell rings about 100 times per rehearsal. If a choir rehearses one hour a week and performs about once a month, that is an average use of about 5 to 6 hours per month. Multiply that times 12 months for three years and you’ll see that’s approximately 200 hours of use or about 20,000 rings per bell! Organizations with two or three choirs using the same set of bells can double or triple these usage estimates. Therefore, I recommend organizations with one bell choir plan to schedule their Basic Servicing every third year. Groups with two choirs should have their Basic Servicing every second year. And any entity with three or more choirs using the same bells, or any organization that uses their bells in an institutional or school setting where the bells are used daily, should plan to have their Basic Servicing performed annually.

 

Handbells are cast of raw bell bronze. They have no protective plating or lacquer finish on them like most other musical instruments. Consequently, just as any other naked metal exposed to the atmosphere, they are subject to natural oxidation, and eventually, visible corrosion. Fortunately, bronze doesn’t get rusty and crusted like steel or iron. Oxidation first begins to show itself as an amber haze that gradually darkens the entire casting. Temperature, humidity, storage facilities and your daily handling regimen are all contributing factors in the rate at which your bells oxidize and/or corrode. As this normal oxidation advances to corrosion (usually visible on the inside of the casting first,) tiny green spots appear on the surface of the metal. Ideally, the castings should be professionally Machine Cleaned as soon as the tiny green spots begin to appear as in the image to the right.

Before Polishing
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Left unchecked for too long as in the image below, each of these green spots will result in a pit in the metal. The amount of bronze contained in each bell is an important part of the formula your manufacturer used to tune the bell. Pitted or etched castings have lost some of their original bell bronze. That is why it is recommended that all corrosion and oxidation haze be removed from your bells early, before the integrity of the bell bronze is compromised by excessive pitting. Only the bell casting itself is made of bell bronze. Polishing of other metal components on American-made handbells is neither necessary nor recommended. Machine Cleaning is best accomplished as part of a Combined Servicing and typically should be performed along with every third or fourth Basic Servicing.

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Handbell service is very affordable, especially as compared to the cost of service work on other popular musical instruments. A “make play” servicing for a trumpet, clarinet, flute or trombone is about $65 to $95 per instrument at your local music store. The same servicing for a bassoon, French horn or a bass clarinet is considerably more. A “make play” servicing is the simplest service you can buy for these instruments and usually doesn’t include chemical cleaning, parts replacement, valve or key replacements, or adjustments in tone, timbre or intonation. As the name implies, it is simply the most minimal service that can be performed to make the instrument play. This rather expensive servicing is often required annually and usually benefits only one player.

 

 

Basic Servicing of handbells when performed on complete octave sets, is less than half the cost of a “make play” per instrument and includes parts replacement labor, playing action adjustments, and voicing for even-blended timbre from note to note. When you consider the required frequency of service is about a third that of other instruments and also that not one, but many musicians benefit from the same servicing, the cost of handbell service pales in comparison to the upkeep and maintenance costs of other instruments.

Machine Cleaning of handbells requires special custom-made equipment and is a very time-consuming operation. Even so, it costs only about the same as a Basic Servicing. When you consider Machine Cleaning is only required about once a decade, it also constitutes a real bargain.

Bell CaseI generally recommend that organizations budget annually $150 per octave, times the number of choirs that use the bells regularly. This should be set up in an account that carries over from year to year if not spent. Although they may not actually spend the money every year, when the second or third year rolls around, there will be more than enough money available for appropriate servicing of the bells, including the once-a-decade Combined Servicing..

Following these easy guidelines for service scheduling and budgeting will prolong the bells’ functional life indefinitely, and ensure they are always in top playing condition. Its so easy and so affordable, there is really no excuse for anyone to be playing on broken, maladjusted, or poorly voiced handbells. Any organization that has bought handbells remembers the initial sticker shock over the price of new bells. The purchase investment is substantial and easily justifies the minimal cost of routine maintenance and upkeep required to maintain the instruments in “like new” condition perpetually.

 

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