Door Chime Tubular Bells

The tubular bells of long bell chimes can cause  the biggest problems because they are the most difficult to solve. 

The bells are very simple in concept-- just long thin-wall tubes, cut to special lengths for tuning, plugged at one end with some sort of hanger attached.  In some cases the plugs provide the base for the hanger. In most cases, the plug serves to provide substance where the plunger strikes, which somehow contributes to volume and resonance.  It is very important that the bell hanger loop is the correct length so that the plunger strikes the bell directly in the plugged region.

The tubular bells can have a couple of problems. Most significantly, cracks at the ends.  Many older bells have a crack of about 2” long at the plug end.  I’ve seen so many like this that I conclude that it is a fairly normal state, as opposed to the result of abuse.  I suspect that the force of the metal or plastic plug pressed into the top end is the cause.  The cracks are visible only upon close inspection, so are of little cosmetic consequence; unfortunately they can cause tonal problems. In the worst cases they can cause the bell tone to have a buzzing character and perhaps slightly affect volume.  The crack may have less effect on tone if the bell is placed so that the crack is away from where the plunger strikes.  Theoretically I suppose the crack could be brazed and reshaped, but that seems dicey—not to mention difficult.  My sense is that cracked bells stay cracked.

One really nasty problem is finding a chime with bells that have been cut for reasons unknown. I saw one on eBay recently where the lengths were visibly not right.  Hard to say what bad history had transpired.  Maybe someone tried to “fix” a cracked bell by cutting off the cracked part.  Maybe a bell or two had been dropped and bent, so the bent part was cut off. In any case, it is possible to retune the bells by adjusting the length.

Below are a couple charts of some known bell set lengths that may be helpful guidance for retuning or making replacement bells.  All 4-bell sets are for the classic Westminster chimes tune. Two bell ding-dong tones are less standardized and the note ratios vary among those I have surveyed.

 

4 bell lengths - in inches

1

2

3

4

43-1/4

37-1/4

35

33-5/16

43-27/32

37-21/32

35-19/32

33-1/4

44

37-15/16

35-3/4

33-5/8

46-1/16

39-9/16

37-1/4

35-3/16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 or 3 bell lengths - in inches

1

2

3

37-3/8

34-1/8

for chimes with third dummy tube, dummy typically same as short tube

39-3/8

35

39-7/8

35

43-5/8

38-7/8

44-5/8

39-1/4

    .888

 

 

 

 

I occasionally get a question about fitting a long bell chime into a niche that isn’t quite long enough.  I usually advise that a more modest 2 or 3-bell chime with shorter tubes would be the best answer… but then I found this notation in some NuTone literature from 1949:

“FOR SPECIAL SERVICE--  If you have any special problems (such as shortening of tubes for small niches, apartment house installation, etc.) write giving full details to NuTone Inc., Cincinnati,27 OHIO, U.S.A.

So there you have it, you could actually get NuTone factory customized lengths.

Another issue with old bells is cosmetic.  Every set I’ve seen suffers from discoloration—overall or localized dark and dull areas or spots of tarnish under the clear coat. Given that it is under the coating, there is no simple remedy, and even if you could spot polish the blemishes, they would never match the original radial brushed finish.  I have developed a technique to totally refinish the bell to original appearance.  I spin polish the entire length of the bell.  My method involves making a tapered mandrel sized to fit into the open end of the bell.  The mandrel can be made on a lathe, or a short tapered furniture leg can be used instead.  I chuck the mandrel into an electric drill and spin the bell while gently holding fine sandpaper against the bell.  The old finish and whatever tarnish is sanded off, and a new radial spun brushed finish is created—just like the original.  This must be done with gloved hands, as any hand oils will cause irregular tarnish spots.  Once an even appearance is achieved, immediately clear coat the bell with a spray gloss finish.

Metal polishing is one of the tasks that you can generally get someone local to do for you. However, all the bell polishing that I've seen done by others is either a general bright unbrushed finish or brushed in a lengthwise direction.  This does not result in the shimmer of the original radial brushed style that most vintage chimes had. 

But the really tough problem with bells is that they have a nasty habit of going AWOL.  A chime without bells is like... well, sorta quiet.  There are a limited number of solutions.  Theoretically, new bells can be ordered from NuTone, but if so, they would surely be the new style with molded hanger hooks, so some improvisation to adapt to older hangers would be needed. Alternatives? Buy another whole chime and scavenge the bells.  Or make new bells from scratch.  Tuning by ear is unbelievably difficult, so refer to the chart above for  various known length combinations to serve as a guide.  Getting the correct spin brushed look is covered above.  Beyond that there is devising an end plug and hanger loop of correct length.  There is just a whole lot to making bells, and while I have done it I don't relish the task and don't wish it upon any amateur.  My advice:  support your local wind chime crafter and commission the work. 

A   Older bells have a metal plug in the upper end; newer models have a plastic plug.   Note the typical longitudinal crack, which I believe is caused by stress from the pressed-in plug.   

B   Typical tarnish and discoloration on an older bell set.  Seems like every one of these I've seen on eBay is described as "just in need of a little polishing".  Perhaps it's that easy in some parallel universe, but not here on Earth.

C  My polishing technique.  Tapered mandrel is pressed into bell and rotated with a power drill, while “brushed” with fine sandpaper.  Brass must be clear coated immediately before tarnish sets in.

D  Old bells freshly refinished with new radial brush finish and clear coat.  

E  Bells which have had a really bad case of corrosion may have a cosmetic condition that can't be entirely corrected.   Corrosion can be so bad that it causes pits in the surface, just the way rust does on steel. The pits have a reddish orange color to them.  In the worst cases, it is not possible to sand deep enough to remove the pits without effecting the integrity of the bells.  I have tried removing the discoloration with a mild acid, though have not have success with that process.  While the "age spots" are quite visible in the photo, in real life, they really are not very noticeable.

F  Ugh-- here's something I hate see.  End damage here seems to be the result of being dropped, maybe when an ancient hanger loop broke, which happens.   This damage was tapped out using a wrench socket as a dolly.  Not really a huge problem if bell is to be refinished.

G   Here's an usual bell design by Nutone, patented in 1939.  Bells of course have to be plugged at the end to provide a very solid region to strike. In this case that solid feature consists of a rod that extends at  the top of the tube,  referred to as an anvil in the patent description.  The sound quality is outstanding.  The down side is that given the lower attachment point, the strike of the plunger has more leverage to move the bell so it tends to wobble quite a bit when struck.  The design was very short lived and surviving examples are rare.

H   My first attempt at making bells from scratch. Lots of work, but turned out great.

 

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