The Sound of Bells

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The tuning of Hale bells

This article, by John Wilton of the Liverpool Bell Restoration and Maintenance Group, was published in the Ringing World of February 24th, 1984 (no. 3800, pages 161 - 169). I am very grateful to John and the Ringing World for permission to reuse this article. It gives a striking account of what amateurs can achieve given sufficient energy and knowledge. The description of the tuning of these bells shows how well they did.

Amateurs steel themselves for the task

The time has come my friends have said
To talk of many things,
Of Primes, of quints and nominals,
Even tierces in steel rings.

Midway through October a unique endeavour was realised when the recently accumulated octave of Naylor Vickers steel bells were tuned on a near Simpson principle by members of the Liverpool Bell Restoration and Maintenance Voluntary Group using a large ancient vertical lathe and some electronic acoustic equipment at the premises of the local Widnes iron founders, Thomas Platt and Sons.

Absolutely no experience

All the people directly involved with this operation had absolutely no previous experience of tuning or even machining bells, but thanks to the untiring research, advice and encouragement of Dr. Ray Ayres (Eayre & Smith) a mountain of written relevant information had previously been digested.
We believe that this is the first time ever that a ring of steel bells has been augmented and tuned. Those who read the relevant section in Dove's incomparable Guide will know the origins of Hale's "new" steel bells.

Sound profile obtained

Initially a sound profile of all our bells was produced from which it was discovered that the original six (ex-Bootle) were pitched in A and possessed five prominent harmonics i.e.: hum, prime, tierce, quint and nominal in approximately similar ratios to those suggested by Canon Simpson, though sharp hums and quints appear to be characteristic of steel bells. Our two extra trebles possessed rather unexpected qualities in that although they were somewhat smaller and lighter than the treble of the old six they possessed a "strike note" which sounded only fractionally sharper than that of the "new" third thus making them a tone and a tone-and-a-half flat.
Problems! We had searched the country for these two augmenting trebles and had obtained them believing their size and weight and apparent strike note would render them suitable to make our octave.


They say that it is only possible to raise a strike note a maximum of about one half tone. Experiments by Ray Ayres on a spare bell of doubtful casting quality - it had several holes in it - indicated that steel bells roughly follow similar tuning trends to their non-ferrous counterparts. A tone and a half? Impossible!
Should we give up the idea of an octave? NEVER! We have already installed our "home-made" eight bell frame. If room had allowed we would have gone for Royal! So it was, with the dice loaded against us, the momentous decision to book machine time at Platts was made. We had nothing to lose really, only several years of hope and hard work, the least we could gain was bitter disappointment.

Medical electronics used

On Monday morning, the sun still very low in the east, we gathered with much trepidation the very recently acquired and assembled electronic acoustic tuning equipment (thanks to Alex White, a former Woolton ringer and a medical electronics engineer) which consisted of a signal frequency counter, amplifier and vibrations probe generator (apologies for the layman's terminology), miles of various cables and a hospital theatre instrument trolley, then set off on a week's holiday to the iron foundry.
Our vocational reading matter, stuffed into a briefcase was reams of Hertz on graph paper, lists of figures and graphs which closely resembled a patient's temperature chart taken during an attack of tinnitus maximus, also included were some obviously highly technical sketches produced by Ray on where to carve it off! Actually with steel bells you could quite easily weld it back on! (This had been considered at one stage, to make the sound bow thicker to raise the nominal). However back at the ranch (Platt's), the six of our bells which had been languishing there since the Hale project began, an interminable four years ago, had mysteriously become two! Had they been rustled? There was a new gypsy encampment on the adjacent land. . . .

Inspirational stacking

Fears allayed, some deft work with an electric hoist and a crowbar dismantled the Russian doll. Platt's men, tired of falling over bells - or castings as they called them - had inspirationally stacked them one inside the other, clever considering none of them had ever been to Loughborough, let alone Whitechapel.

Dear Editor,
When time allows, if ever, I will produce a series of articles on forming a local and voluntary bell restoration / maintenance group. The difficulties therein and how not to find work or bite off more than you can chew. Also on how to reclaim a burnt out tower from scrap; steel bells and frame also from scrap, etc, etc, etc. Perhaps you will publish them. They might prove useful as a guide on how to do everything from next to nothing for next to nothing, how to produce a steel erector from a chemical engineer, bell tuners from government employees or a bricklayer from a car salesman (actually he owns the showroom), even a builder from a launderette owner though admittedly this was a return to a former occupation. Perhaps we can be an encouragement to those too scared or lazy to grease a clapper, or hang a bell! And maybe even a useful deterrent to those who think such ventures can be lightly undertaken without some personal sacrifice. There is no place in the team for unreliability.

Tuning of Hale bells In this unposed photograph taken by Ernie Runciman, the fifth bell is on the lathe, the steadies have been withdrawn to allow free vibration. Nick Willasey is holding the vibration probe against the soundbow. Arthur Maddocks, Hale's Chief Ringer, looks on while John Wilton is operating the signal generator and recording the results.

Men at work

I digress; on arrival at the tuning site these two apprehensive but intrepid government representatives (Liverpool Major Projects and NHS) were about to be confronted by the vagaries and rooted traditions of the great British (or is it now European) workman and his day. We really do enjoy tea anyway. Foreman identified, introductions made, vertical latheman off sick! Understudy appointed, a start can be made.
First you dig out from its inundating impediments your large and very ancient vertical lathe. Discuss with Alan (the foreperson) why the 3 ton cylinder ring casting cannot remain on the face plate (the part that goes round) for a further two days work as you had booked the machine, albeit at very very favourable rates, to start work there and then, since as many of you will know the holidays of minor government employees is limited anyway. Platt's men never did understand quite why anybody could possibly want to spend their own time playing around with old castings in their antiquated, unrevered workhouse (strangely, a place not unlike other bell tuning emporia we have visited).

Pleas heeded

Our pleas were heeded, the casting removed, as was the two ton outer face plate so that we could stand on the edge of the machine base to see inside the bell being turned without being centrifuged (whirled around like a spin drier, to the uninformed).
Tools selected, bells eyed up, tea time again.
We decided to start by truing up the flat top surfaces of the bells' button like crowns, this would ensure that the bells would sit and run true on the lathe when the more intricate internal machining was done. Treble goes first, being learners we decide to stick to rounds. Then second, what could be easier? Third next . . . , at this stage the foreman decided that we would try a more substantial cut at a higher speed to hurry things along a bit; who were we to argue? With a crack like a pistol shot the cutter dug into the bell and shattered, the whole lathe shuddered, the bells broke loose and pirouetted around the machine, we joined in the dance across the workshop floor. Simultaneously with an apt Biblical cry, Alan, our principal, leapt through the air and in an instant or two wound back the tool post and hit the emergency stop lever. But for what seemed like eternity the great machine lumbered on, bouncing our fragile treasure to and fro. At last, peace. . . . In panic we rushed to the victim, our uttered prayers were answered, only a deep groove marred her beauty.
An assured and recomposed boss added with obvious indignation "You should have used steadies".
"Steadies?? Oh those? Right Sir, steadies it is".
Amazing things steadies - an uneventful roll up, just the usual handling problems with the back-enders.
Tuesday afternoon and not one excited Hertz. We must press on. We will start with two new trebles, everything depends on these - if they will not go up, then pitchwise the others will just have to go down.

Theoretical limit passed

E&S had already taken some metal from the lip of the selected treble but had stopped cutting, for fear of wrecking the bell when it seemed that the theoretical limits of raising the prime and nominal had been reached.
With the work force remustered, and not a little time taken to centre the bell, we resumed where our mentors had stopped. A little off at a time carefully checking progress with all electronic gudgetry. Up and up went the prime -we seemed to lose the nominal - but it's probably still around somewhere in there. Stop!, give it a thump - Heck! it sounds right, it even reads right, 880 Hertz with hardly a waver. We had reached the moon - a tone and a half! Our little bell was now even shorter and a little bit thinner just here and there, but what a tone! What clarity! What exuberance, we had a treble. At last, long last, it all seemed worthwhile, the hours of discussion; queries, mathematics, diagrams, all had new meaning. Who said you could not tune steel bells? This achievement was a great relief, the original six would now only need minor adjustment.

Troubled with dual primes

Our intended new second bell originated as a similarly sized and toned casting to the bell designated treble, but had some areas of casting porosity. However tuning was approached in the same manner but with only a tone to go. Metal was removed from the lip and both inside and outside surface of the sound bow. Soon we reached our approximate goal but were troubled with dual primes just seven Hertz apart which created a "warble" or beat. In emergency conversations with Ray we decided that this was probably due to the varying density of the sound bow created by the areas of porosity in the casting. However we found that clappering the bell on different areas of the sound bow resulted in amplifying or diminishing the "warble" effect. The optimum position took the clapper back to the same century-old contact spot -interesting we thought.

Inspired by pioneering spirit

We decided that the second was now more or less acceptable mainly due to the rapidly diminishing time available caused by all manner of plausible industrial delays - and tea.
To be fair, our now recovered machinist, gathered momentum, interest and bell profiling skill as the week proceeded, inspired no doubt by our pioneering spirit, actually he was saddled with the job anyway and had little option. The third, despite its earlier plight, gave us no further problems.
We had decided that the fourth (ex-Bootle second) would remain a maiden, her voice and proportions were just right, and be our "pivot" belle. Next we turned our attention to obtaining acceptable cru's, i.e. tenor's hum and prime were too sharp, down they went. Seven was appropriately adjusted which left us with the prime and nominal of the sixth to raise. Easy Sir, your wish is our command.

The bogy bell

Now for the bogy bell, our new fifth, even as Bootle's third it always did sound odd, even for a "steely". Why? Well, delicate investigation of this maiden proved a different physical profile much thicker at the shoulder, relatively. She (perhaps steel bells should be he?) had a low nominal and tierce, a correct prime and relatively flat hum, the quint was also approximately correct relative to the other bells, difficult this one.

Test of skill

We decided to raise everything, even the quint went up marginally (please note, experts), but then it went down again, ("told you so", they will say). We were then left with the prime alone to lower; yes it can be done. This latter operation really tested our machinist's skill and nearly cut us off at the ankles. Metal was turned from the inside of the shoulder, right down inside the bell. Our toes could feel the closeness of the bottom rack gear of the 7ft. diameter face plate as we stood on the machine base looking into the bell in order to direct the cutting tool now out of sight of the operator. Alas our week was ended, Platt's work force was demented by the incessant sounding of bells as we strove to adjust our musical ears to gauge the effects of each operation.

Hallucinatory effect

We were overcome by it all, our heads ached and our eyes were bloodshot from poring over a myriad of Hertz in numerical and graphical form at the end of each day, worrying and wondering if we had done the right thing, then planning the next day's strategy from the results of our deliberations. We were burning the candle at both ends and in the middle too. Delusions of grandeur took over, we were like the first men on the moon, the conquerors of Everest. One colleague diagnosed these hallucinatory symptoms as acute tannic acid poisoning. . . .

After better than before

Throughout the week several prominent Merseyside bellringers had called in to view and assess proceedings, just to be there to soak up the atmosphere, to say "I know, because I was there". Their opinions were duly regarded and assessed. Near and far recordings were made of our new octave and scrutinised ad nauseam at the end of each session. Even the vicar called in for a bulletin (and found that he could not lift the tenor with one hand). An assembled, venerable company of ringers, that is, those present at the Pier head 12-bell practice (St. Nicholas) that same week, were subjected to our final recordings and all more or less agreed that the "after" sound was a great improvement on the "before".

Second has a cardiac complaint

However, besotted with this new-found skill, I decided that I could further improve the second and the fifth, they were not quite right to the ear, or on the graphs produced. So, two more days away from the misery of a general hospital, and back onto the lathe went two and five - final tuning - a little off here and a little from there, the bells singing in response to the injected signal; rising a few Hertz on the prime, dropping a few on the hum and happiness is bell shaped -well almost.
I still cannot rid the second of its prime warble (sounds like a cardiac complaint) but five is beautiful.

Clapper effects

We have all our digits crossed that they will sound as nice in the tower as they do upturned on the floor. The initial damping effect of the clapper is quite marked and we are considering fitting some sort of rebound spring to bring the clapper off the bell after the initial strike. Apparently Naylor Vicker's routinely fitted clapper springs to their "ringing" bells but later attention (vandalism) by other bell hanging concerns resulted in their wholesale removal. Why? Since the tuning episode, most of the bells have had their button like pads (canons) removed and have been drilled through the crown to be fitted to their new headstocks. They have all been shot blasted clean (another first time venture for our group, using hired equipment, favourably rated) and have been coated with the well tried rust convertor and inhibitor, matt black WAXOYL, which has left them looking quite majestic and tonally unaltered.

Travel by haycart

On the Sunday before Christmas the bells were moved on a haycart and tractor to their new home, the rural, rebuilt 12th century Hale parish church, arriving there to coincide with a welcoming gathering of local villagers and Merseyside ringers. The occasion proceeded with a special blessing as the bells remained on the trailer and the assembled throng then returned into the church to sing a hymn specially composed for the occasion and set to the tune generally used for the bellringers hymn. After this service the bells were off-loaded and moved into the church by those ringers present and are now on display in the body of the church pending their eventual installation up the tower.

Other bells saved

For those who keep such records: nine years ago the Bell Restoration Group removed the derelict Warner octave from St. Paul's, Widnes and transferred them to St. Paul's, Stoneycroft, where, when finances allow, they will eventually be installed. These bells have also been sandblasted and cleaned and are also on display in their new home.
This rather hurriedly arranged rescue operation was made possible by the timely involvement of the Central Council Redundant Bells Committee who quickly arranged a loan to purchase these bells and save them from destruction.

A word of thanks

In conclusion, we would like to thank Ray Ayres for his interest, research, encouragement and personal involvement in the whole of the Hale venture. Without his help this unique undertaking would most probably have been impossible. Thanks are also due to Alex White for his electronic and musical skills, and to the general acceptance of the status quo by the engineers at Platt's.
I am sure that once he has analysed the results of our tuning adventure Ray Ayres will publish a much more meaningful and technically orientated treatise on the tuning of steel bells to satisfy our more pedantic readers who for the time being have only my non-technical meanderings to attack.

(Graduand Bell Tuners)
Liverpool Bell Restoration and Maintenance Group

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Last updated November 10, 2002. Site created by Bill Hibbert, Great Bookham, Surrey