We have many interesting customers visiting Hungerford Arcade, and I am very happy to say, Jerry Harwood is one of them!
The Humble bellows
Over the years, I suppose I must have rebuilt, repaired, and otherwise recycled well over 200 pairs of bellows, from early Victorian to later 19th & 20th century versions, some well past their individual sell by dates, to virtually mint versions which really only need minor refurbishment and a coat of beeswax polish.
What started out as a very needed, home built fire starter, consisting of at best two pieces of wood, roughly shaped in the form of a rounded oblong with a rectangular handle at one end, and a shaped , rounded funnel at the other, joined by a brass tube, some plain, some ornate, the two pieces attached to each other by a pair of shaped leather sheets, making the whole contraption an article for basically puffing wind into the heart of a recalcitrant fire, in order for it to ignite, and saving the peasant family from freezing, to the later highly decorated, but still functional device so beloved by the Victorian & Edwardian family, as an adjunct to their fireplaces.
Many of these functional implements were an art form in themselves; Some were created from two pieces of beautifully grained oak, approximately ½ to 1” in thickness; one piece had a circular hole cut into it to allow air to be drawn in, via a very crude valve, formed by a piece of leather which fitted over the hole, and weighted by a piece of wood glued or tacked to the leather.
Next was a pair of “springs” formed from two pieces of willow, approximately 18” in length, and 1/8th in diameter. These were carefully shaped into an open bell shape, and the ends tacked or secured by leather strips adjacent to the end where the funnel was situated.
By superimposing one willow wand above the other, a form of spring was created, so that by carefully shaping and tucking of the leather pieces which when carefully secured to each piece of shaped wood, created a variable bag, which when pumped created a fairly forceful blast of air from the end. Some of the early bellows made do with a piece of rolled, hammered tin with a nozzle, which was inserted into the end of the two pieces of oak, so that the nozzle could be inserted into the embers without burning.
The true artistry came about when brass was moulded and shaped to create an artistic, bright nozzle, which still functional, could be polished and shaped to the owners desires- this was further implement by clever carving of the top, or “show” piece of wood, often finely engraved with scroll work, faces, flowers and animals;
Some of the Victorian pieces were also very finely painted, depicting scenes of flowers, horses, anything which could be adapted to the basic shape of the bellows.
Add to this the methods of securing the leather “bags” on top and bottom of the twin pieces of wood, and you have a finely decorated functional yet decorative implement, with brass or metal studs, or pins as required.
Firstly, the actual repair isn’t at all difficult; bellows are one of the most simple mechanical instruments you can think of.
But, what is difficult is finding the bits to repair your bellows to their original art form.
Many pairs I have resurrected have had metal springs inserted rather than willow, purely because people can’t be bothered to find and prepare the correct willow twigs. And yes it can be a pain to go down to a river, and spend an hour or more hunting for some correctly sized willow twigs; then to strip them carefully, cut to the right length, then soak them in a bucket of water for 8 hours before carefully bending them to the right shape, and binding the ends, and leaving them to dry, to attain the final shape of the spring.
Once these stages have attained, you then fit them to the lower piece of wood, over the air valve.
Having done this, you make sure that the exit for the air way is clear, and not clogged with carbon and debris from the years of being thrust into the burning embers. This usually entails a bit of careful glueing and nailing; the reason is twofold; the top operating piece of wood rests on a lip created for this purpose on the bottom piece, which also acts as the airway and mount for the brass or metal nozzle. This has to be fairly robust as it takes a lot of mechanical force during its lifetime, and would soon fail if it were not substantial.
The second difficult area, although not insurmountable, is obtaining the right type of leather for the bellows. The days of getting large pieces of scrap leather from chair manufacturers, car dealers, and upholsterers has long gone. Now I find my materials in charity shops ! Leather jackets, especially those from Italy are the best, but you really have to hunt for the best quality; goatskin is certainly the strongest, and most easily workable, and does not tear.
I have left the most difficult bit to the last; yes the pins; oh those damn, unobtainable pins ! If you are very, very careful, you might, just might salvage those exquisite conical brass pins from your old bellows, but don’t count on it- almost invariably they will be corroded, bent, and very misshapen by the time you have weaselled them out from years of being in heated, very hard oak.
Bearing in mind that there are probably 150 or more of these pins in any pair of bellows, and you can see the problem. The more ornate, the bigger the problem; you can, and I have, spent hours and hours trying to source upholstery pins in all the usual places. There are very few manufacturers who take the trouble to make these pins now; most just get a brass disc, and punch a steel pin through the top, with a dab of braze. Hit it once and it pushes straight through- totally and utterly useless.
Once you have a source of supply of all the little pieces, you can start your rebuild ! In actual fact, if I have everything I need, I can do the job in a day- from totally worn out, to a fully functioning smart pair of bellows, fit for display or work.
The whole secret is system; although bellows may vary in design, they all function the same basic way, even down to the commercial type. Al you have to do is to take one step at a time- clean and prepare the wood, repair any cracks etc, repair the nozzle, glue the
Nozzle mount, refit the nozzle; then clamp the lower piece of wood FIRST. Measure the amount of leather required for the actual bellows; it will usually be no more than a strip 6-7 inches wide, but at least 18” long. Tack one end to a point adjacent to the bellows nozzle, and gently run the leather around the circumference to the other side. Then gently glue around the circumference without stretching the leather- this is most important. Once it is dry, tack the leather in three or at the most 4 places around the circumference. Now you have the lower half in place, and you are ready to insert the top piece of wood- the operating half !
This is just the same as before; the only difference is making sure that the leather is fed in between the springs on each side- an inch or so is enough, just so that the spring functions as it should.
This sounds more complicated than it is, so don’t despair !
Once you have the leather in place and glued, now you are at the final stage; mount the lower part of the bellows in the vice, and gently put in your pins; the best way is to space them about ¼ “ apart, all round the lower circumference. The do the same to the other half, until you have your bellows complete. Test for functionality, and then trim any leather spare, until it is flush with the woodwork. If you feel you can put in some decorative pins without splitting the top surface, you can; but be careful !
Polish the whole, and admire !
The attached photo of a pair of bellows in a rough state, shows how the leather is badly worn adjacent to the springs, and the engraving on the top bellows plate- carved oak.