Author Topic: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch  (Read 1725 times)

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Fr. Mark

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Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« on: November 13, 2020, 06:01:42 PM »
Are there plans out there for making a chromatic harmonica from a pile of metal and or plastic pieces pieces?

My wife asked me last night if I wouldn't almost prefer to make instruments more than play them.  She may be right.

Thing is this is more a job for a milling machine than the lathe in the garage, though harmonicas are small enough the tiny milling attachment might do the trick for the combs...

Offline Keith

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #1 on: November 14, 2020, 07:35:28 AM »
Probably cheaper to buy a valveless chrom, & then add Brendan's valve gaskets, if you want a 'do it yourself' chrom......  ;D

Offline SlideMeister

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #2 on: November 14, 2020, 11:22:52 AM »
Yeah, and I'll bet after you add Brendan's valves, it'll sound twice as good. 8)

Offline smojoe

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #3 on: November 14, 2020, 12:13:45 PM »
Reed plates are drop punched. And that's where most of the problems were back in the old days. If you didn't change the dies now and then, the slots would go off spec. Then your plus or minus 1000th would wander. THEN to make things worse, the reeds were ALSO plus or minus 1000.

Milling the slots would necessitate a mill that is very very good, and an operator who is very very good. Nope, I don't have eyes for it.
sj

Offline Danny G

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #4 on: November 14, 2020, 12:38:26 PM »
Quote
Probably cheaper to buy a valveless chrom, & then add Brendan's valve gaskets, if you want a 'do it yourself' chrom......  ;D

Probably be cheaper to hire Stevie Wonder to play harmonica for you.

Quote
THEN to make things worse, the reeds were ALSO plus or minus 1000.

I'll give you some shell casings if you want to make reeds for him.

Online Laina

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #5 on: November 14, 2020, 01:14:46 PM »
You may like John Cook's fascinating videos - John's a harmonica specialist in the UK who's started making his own products - no mean feat  ;)

Offline robertpcoble

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #6 on: November 14, 2020, 01:20:37 PM »
Making the comb is the (relatively) easy part, keeping in mind SmokeyJoe's tolerance value (1/1000th inch). Several good craftsmen make combs from a variety of materials. Covers are also (relatively) easy to do, but harder than combs, PROVIDED you know how to shape the curvature. Reedplates are harder to do, (tighter tolerance) and reeds are plain out HARD to do. (Smokey Joe is THE EXPERT on making reeds from a variety of other things.) The mensurs (length, width and especially the varying thickness from reed pad [base] to the tip of the reed) vary considerably with each individual reed.

I had the pleasure of helping (in a very minor way with some program code) Vern Smith on a reed making machine he designed. It proved (eventually) unworkable. Everything went fine until the final few passes across the reed surface to mill in the mensurs. The problem: the blade would "grab" the very thin metal and cause it to bend or break. AFAIK, Vern never got that bug worked out.

An alternative is to get the reedplates made by a machinist and then use commercially avalable reeds, focusing your homebrew efforts on the comb and covers. Seydel offers all of their stainless steel reeds for their harmonicas. The Seydel Harp Configurator allows you to pick the reed pitch (within a certain range, usually about 10 half tones) for a given hole and breath direction. (Actually, the breath direction is irrelevant; the same range of pitches is available for both blow and draw reeds.)

I can tell you for a fact (personal experience): it ain't nearly as cheap nor as precise as a commercially produced harmonica. Getting all the little details correct is not an easy process.

I have a design for a slideless valveless 4.5 octave chromatic. The drawings spread over 42 pages, with lots of fine details. I had Will Wu, a Chinese harmonica machinist working as Will's Make, make everything except the reeds. Will has very reasonable prices for his work, and I can tell you, he's a superb craftsman.

So far, I've spent $1600 on it - and it's not functional yet. (That's MY problem, nothing to do with Will.) Will did outstanding machine work, and also made several suggestions for making the machining process easier, suggestions which I readily accepted. The reedplates were lazer-cut in one of the big Chinese harmonica factories. Will made the comb (silver-plated brass) and the covers (machined ABS plastic).

If you have an unlimited amount of time AND the machine tools AND the skills (or the desire to learn the skills), then count the cost and go for it!

Whatever floats your boat and fits your budget - some people are satisfied to build a rowboat; some people have to have their own homebuilt yacht.

Crazy (there's a good reason for THAT nickname!) Bob
« Last Edit: November 14, 2020, 01:41:15 PM by robertpcoble »

Fr. Mark

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #7 on: November 16, 2020, 12:39:28 PM »
I'm looking forward to looking at that video when I'm not at work. 

Most projects look simpler until you sit down to make drawings of exact dimensions etc.

For good tone and playability musical instruments have pretty tight tolerances.

Perhaps for making reeds the final shaping would be better done with a grinder and a vacuum hold-down of the whole reed?  Or hand polishing?

I think I will see if I can revive the marine band---first step will be replacing the reed.  If I can get it off w/o destroying the whole thing.  Then flattening the reed plates then comb then covers.

That'll probably be enough.  I've got too many irons in the fire right now, I've been trying to finish some projects rather than create insoluble new ones.

If I had to buy the parts that are hard to make, like reeds and reed plates, I might almost as well buy a complete harmonica and try to tighten up the tolerances on that, then I might be able to make a hot rod out of a clunker.  Starting from scratch is hard, I've tried it with other things furniture, wooden old-timey cameras, pvc pipe flutes, that don't require such tight tolerances.  In the end I finished those projects and in the case of the camera I bought a restorable 8x10 camera in cherry and rebuilt it.  For almost everything, it is a better tool than the one I hand built from scratch.  No, I didn't grind the lenses.

Even more likely is that I am patient and get a standard harmonica of some sort and play with it.

Offline BeauKim

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #8 on: November 24, 2020, 01:34:57 AM »

I can tell you for a fact (personal experience): it ain't nearly as cheap nor as precise as a commercially produced harmonica. Getting all the little details correct is not an easy process.

I have a design for a slideless valveless 4.5 octave chromatic. The drawings spread over 42 pages, with lots of fine details. I had Will Wu, a Chinese harmonica machinist working as Will's Make, make everything except the reeds. Will has very reasonable prices for his work, and I can tell you, he's a superb craftsman.

So far, I've spent $1600 on it - and it's not functional yet. (That's MY problem, nothing to do with Will.) Will did outstanding machine work, and also made several suggestions for making the machining process easier, suggestions which I readily accepted. The reedplates were lazer-cut in one of the big Chinese harmonica factories. Will made the comb (silver-plated brass) and the covers (machined ABS plastic).

Crazy (there's a good reason for THAT nickname!) Bob

Wow!  I'm interested in learning more about what you're making, and I would hope to see a photo of it when you're finished!  So does it have the piano layout or is it like a polyphonia?

Offline The Lone Harper

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #9 on: November 24, 2020, 04:07:39 AM »
Easttop harmonica reed plate producing;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4J4nJFYqzyA

Easttop cover plate producing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdyFWpgqnx4

Easttop reed producing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kkrOm6dOvk
« Last Edit: November 24, 2020, 04:09:55 AM by The Lone Harper »
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Offline robertpcoble

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #10 on: November 24, 2020, 11:45:56 AM »
A lot of my plate right now, so I haven't worked on the new harmonica for a while.

I addressed the note layout before; Look for The Valveless Chromatic Fan Club. There is a very informative exchange between Brendan Power and me regarding design tradeoff decisions.

The basic concept is a "Spiral" (Circular; Zirkular) with two distinct differences from the diatonic: (1) The chromatic scale (NOT the diatonic scale) is the basis. (2) The blow notes (hole to hole) are always one WHOLE tone apart. The draw notes are always one WHOLE tone apart. This means that the tuning is essentially a wholetone tuning.  There are two reeds in each hole, blow and draw. The draw reed is always one HALF tone higher in pitch.

As a consequence, it takes 6 holes for a complete chromatic octave. Each octave mirrors the other octaves. So, for example, starting on C (the actual prototype starts on note E2 so I can get all the bass notes):

BLOW C   D   E   F#  G#  A#  C
HOLE 01  02  03  04  05  06  07
DRAW C#  D#  F   G   A   B

One advantage is that there are only two mechanical breath patterns to learn for all 12 keys. The disadvantage is that there is more lateral movement than a slide chromatic (but not as much as a ployphonia like the 263).

HTH,
Crazy Bob
« Last Edit: November 24, 2020, 11:49:37 AM by robertpcoble »

Offline BeauKim

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #11 on: November 24, 2020, 07:18:48 PM »
Bob,
That’s very cool!  I like the idea for this system using the two whole tone scales that share the same hole number.  I have seen some variation of the vintage Hohner Polyphonia line that was tuned very similar like yours BUT I think the two scales don’t share the same hole number, at least with the two that I’ve seen.


Example: hole 1 would be blow and play the note D, but nothing on the draw.  Hole 2 would be draw and play an Eb but nothing on the blow.  It would continue like that the rest of the ways.  If you went from one end to the other using the same breath direction, you would play a whole tone scale.  (Another variation I’ve seen from the Hohner Polyphonia line is a tremolo tuning of the reeds)

I’ve only heard two of them so there might be one with your exact idea in terms of reed placements with the separate scale sharing the same hole number.  Either way, when you get yours completed it’ll be better than them I’m sure!

Offline vid wes

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Re: Making a Chromatic Harmonica from Scratch
« Reply #12 on: November 25, 2020, 11:12:21 AM »
I watched the East Top videos.  What a fascinating snap shot of a modern CNC factory.  Makes me think about the shrinking opportunities for jobs in the future.  One machine can displace a lot of people.