Saturday 8 January 2011

Chapter 11: The wood

As I'm not a wood expert I still don't know what exactly my bassoon is made of but I have learnt few things.

Firstly I know that according to Horniman museum their specimen is made of cocuswood. Secondly from the Hawkes & Son catalog I know that in 1912 they used rosewood or red fox to make their bassoons, rosewood, violet wood and black african wood for oboes and black african or cocuswood for clarinets and fluts. (I couldn't find any samples or description of the 'red fox' so I have no idea what it is so if somebody out there could share some light, please contact me.) Thirdly from professor Arnold Myers the chairman of Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments I know that two of the specimens they have are made of palisander and the third one is made of rosewood. Finally I know that another Hawkes & Son bassoon which is in the Museum of Birmingham Conservatoire is made 'possibly of rosewood'.

Despite I have red many descriptions of all three (i.e. cocuswood, rosewood and palisander) and have seen many pictures of all of them, due to many similarities I cannot tell for sure which one it is. Because cocuswood appears there only once in reference to a bassoon and I am sure that at least in 1912 the company used only rosewood or sometimes fox red for the bassoons my guess would be that my bassoon is made of rosewood. But that is just a guess.

What ever the wood is it was once covered with a coat of lacquer which now has mostly worn off or chipped away.  I decided to strip the wood clean with use of alcohol and some fine sandpaper. Here you can clearly see the difference between processed and not processed parts.

Then I treated the small cracks and applied some wood oils.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Chapter 10: Horniman high hopes

When I've learnt that the entire archive of Boosley & Hawkes along with their collection of instruments has been passed to Horniman Museum in London my hopes were high. It meant that not only the documents were in a know place but they were reasonably close accessible. So I thought...

I have sent few emails and soon I got a response from Gavin Dixon working there. It read
"Given the research you have already done on the instrument, I don’t think there is going to be much in our archives that will be of help. [...] records of instrument production at Hawkes & Son are very poorly represented in the B&H Archive. When the two companies merged in 1930, Boosey & Co was by far the more dominant force. It was Boosey serial number sequences that were continued and Boosey archives that were retained." 
And he has attached a detailed hand-list of the archive which now is also available online. Unfortunately it proves his point very well. Out of all the documents there are only two that could be of interest to me. First one is a journal [(E82.36) A227/138] with woodwind production by serial number with numbers from 7664 to 15631 produced between 5 March 1921 and 17 February 1931. The second one is a plating book [(E82.38) A227/141] listing instruments sent for electroplating between June 1928 and December 1931.

Later he added 
"I have heard though from many sources that by the 1920s, Hawkes instruments, and woodwind instruments in particular, were clearly superior to those being made by Boosey. [...] I don’t think the 13 on your instrument is a serial number. It is more likely to be a model number. I would imagine that your bassoon is probably of cocuswood. It is probably also in high pitch (ie a=452.5 hz)"
and also in another email 
"In terms of the serial numbering, it may be the case that they had a number sequence for instruments they made themselves, while other instruments (such as yours perhaps) were made by another company and sold by Hawkes. I think that Morton made oboes for Hawkes in the last years of the 19th century that were sold under the Hawkes name. Just a thought."
On their website I have found the first picture of a bassoon looking somehow alike mine but the information to complement it was very sapre. 'Bassoon. Cocuswood body. German silver mounts. 15 German silver keys. French system. Rollered F/G-sharp key, three keys on wing joint for left hand thumb. Key guard embossed with an H. Crook with vent hole.' I have studied the hand-list just to find out that there is nothing really helpful. Theoretically the Journal could be but it looks like Hawks & Son kept their serial numbers in strict order so it is very unlikely I will find anything about number 13 between 7664 and 15631. Or even worse if Gavin is right and the 13 isn't the serial number at all then there is no reference point at all.

I have also found A GUIDE TO DATING BOOSEY & Co./BOOSEY & HAWKES INSTRUMENTS BASED ON SERIAL NUMBER on the Horniman website but again it is mostly about Boosey not Hawkes and there is no trace of two digit serial numbers there either.

To be honest I hoped to find there something more specific about the construction of the instruments and the techniques used that could help establish something. The hopes were high but now it looks like I'm back to square one. No questions have been answered.

Thursday 30 September 2010

Chapter 9: Slowing down but not giving up

The things have slowed but I'm not giving up. I know nothing has been posted here for over a week now but I had to catch up with some of my other projects (those generating money) and quite naturally everything is slowing down. At the beginning everything was new and it was very easy to find out new things. But now the more I know about it all the harder it is to find any extra bit.

But things are happening all the time. I've been looking for extra tools and materials I will need. I have been testing various methods of cleaning both the wood and the mechanism. I have already bought a wood adhesive to deal with the small cracks. I have sent few emails out to good people out there and even got a replay or two already.

Soon out of those small things new posts will come up.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Chapter 8. Brute Force

Thanks to the Basson Français group members and gentle application of brute force the mystery has been finally solved.

I presented the pictures and the 3d model on the group's forum asking for help and soon I got some ideas as to what the mysterious thing may be but nobody sure about it. General conclusion was that most likely it is not part of the bassoon but rather something that got there accidentally.

On few occasions already I tried to remove it but it wouldn't move. Due to its location it was really hard to grasp but this time I managed to pull a thread few times through both holes which gave me a sort of a handle. I pulled gently but firmly until it finally popped out.

Ladies and gentlemen: a clarinet mouthpiece.

Wednesday 15 September 2010


As I mentioned in the introduction, one of the reasons to buy the bassoon was to give myself some real job. Nothing virtual like this blog-writing but a real, tangible hobby to be a counterweight to my daily routine.

The old bassoon is my very first restoration project and as such it is a kind of twofold experiment. Firstly I wanted to see if I can do it; secondly if I will enjoy it. So far everything went smoothly and I have been enjoying every bit of it. I know, I know. It has been only few days I have just made a first tiny step but it looks like my star has already aligned and I will be fixing old things 'till the end of time.

Yesterday just after 10pm I heard loud knocking on the front door. You see, we don't get that many night visitors so it was quite unusual. Last time somebody knocked at the door so late was to let me know that my motorbike was being stolen. The time before that it was to tell me know my motorbike had been stolen. Thinking not again' and 'how many times can one vehicle be stolen?' I quickly went downstairs to open the door.

'Hello,' said my neighbour, 'do you have five?'
'Well...' I hesitated 'I do'
'C'mon then, have a look'

I came closer, looked into the darkness, saw my bike. So what did he want?

'C'mon, put your shoes on and come!' he said rather impatiently.

So I did and he led me to his house without a word. There he showed me an old telescope in pieces explaining that somebody was just about to throw it away and asking me to have a look to see if I can put it all together and make it work again.

So it looks like my stars has already aligned. I will check it when I'm done with the telescope :)

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Chapter 7. The mysterious whistle

Already on the first day I was surprised to see a wooden pipe sticking out of the butt's bass bore. In modern German instruments it's the tenor bore that has lining but that is usually much more subtle. Only when I opened the bottom seal I realised that the bass bore is actually blocked. I mean the air can get through but the view is obstructed (left on the picture). I don't know if it has been glued but it sits firmly in its place and I couldn't take it out to take a closer look.

Because of it's position there was no way I could take a decent picture of it with my camera but playing with lights (and few other things) I managed to see enough to sketch a 3d model. The closest association I have is one with a whistle but I don't know what it actually is.

Whatever it is it might be broken. The circular collar seems to be broken. Here you can see that there are two slots. Or is this a designed feature?

I will have to find out what it is. If you know, let me know.

Monday 13 September 2010

Chapter 6. Stripping the butt

Over last few days I have been successively removing parts from the butt.

First of all I wanted to know exactly the condition of the both ends so I took off the metal rims. The top one looked all right but after cleansing two cracks became apparent. They both go vertically from the top down but do not extend beyond the joint and the rim. On the picture one is quite obvious as you can see the light getting through. The other one is on the other side and first runs along the visible vertical furrow and then diverts left (top on the picture) as a really thin scratch. Few drops of a glue will take care of that.

The bottom end I was more worried about. On the first day I took the bottom plate off and it didn't look particularly good. The feel wasn't good either. I didn't feel any tension on either screw, it felt damp and there was some grey mold on the cork seal. Under the rim it looked even worse. I was really nicely surprised to see  it look like that after I get rid of the dirt.

But that was outside and I was yet to take the cork out to see the inside. To do so I used a long stick to push it out from the outside. I don't know why but somehow I was expecting the seal to be a kind of a flat pad just laying on the bottom of the bore. What has popped out was far more complex. It was tall like a bottle cork and had multiple concavities and convexities. And, if that wasn't hard enough to reproduce, at the top it had a cap sewn of a very fine leather. Somehow I will have to replicate it.

The good news was that the wood was all healthy, dry and solid. In fact it was in much better condition that the rusty screws on which I will blame the lack of resistance but there are also two small cracks, one by each screw hole which doesn't help but it shouldn't be a big problem either.

Next step was to take all the external metal bits off the wood so that it can all be cleaned accordingly. To make sure I will be able to put it back together I drew a map and with my wife's help labelled them all. I also took all the pads out as they will need to be replaced.

It was very interesting to notice all small irregularities. When you look at a modern instrument it is all perfectly done with machines. Here you can see that it must have been manually carved with a knife. And here it looks like the axle pipe is just a degree or two from the perfect right angle but it is not bent. I guess it was soldered manually too. Although it is not perfect it must have required great craftsmanship to get it that right.

The last thing I noticed was a lettered capital I under the F# key (top of the picture).  I hope that I will be able to find its meaning in the Horniman museum.