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How to Repair Bellows
By Gaines I. "Ike" Milligan
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Gaines I. Milligan
Ike's Accordion Hospital
10803 Keller Street
Silver Spring MD 20902
Why It's Important to Have Airtight Bellows
Once you have played an airtight accordion you will
forever afterward understand the facts that: 1. It's much easier on the
arm. 2. The reeds respond much better to instant changes in pressure.
Never put your
fingers on the steel reeds, or blow your breath on them, when you open
up an accordion, or attempt accordion tuning without a lot of knowledge.
I will gladly answer any questions you may have about repair and care of
accordions . If you want to try accordion repair on your own, I suggest
trying it on a junk accordion from a flea market which can often be had
for around $50. When buying a used accordion, be very conservative, as
people often try to sell accordions for a lot more than they are worth.Accordions
have thousands of moving parts and hundreds of reeds, and seldom has any
repair or maintenance been performed, because America has very few qualified
accordion repair persons, and many people who "repair" accordions are not
qualified, and often do more harm than good. More about this subject on
Over the years I have
tried many different methods of repairing bellows. I have read the late
Mr. John Reuter's
repair book Accordion
Repairs Made Easy
(and others) and have found the methods he describes
therein somewhat dated and inadequate. I play for money and have to depend
on my bellows, moreover I am using old squeezeboxes (because they interest
me) which I have tuned and restored, and old bellows are seldom able to
stand up to the stress due to age of the materials. Accordion bellows are
made of layers of cloth and cardboard with leather and metal added. These
materials dry out deteriorate, and shrink. After 20 years the average set
of accordion bellows will begin to leak if the accordion is played a lot.
I have developed a method which gives me a reliable way to permanently
stop most air leaks.
Finding small leaks.
A. From the outside:
in a chair with the accordion supported on your knees. Locate the air button
and hold it down and stretch the bellows open. Most leaks will be near
the corners. Hold your face near the corners and squeeze the bellows with
all valves closed. The inside of the mouth is most sensitive for feeling
air leaks. If the leak is from the leather "diamond" on the corners the
air can bounce off the corner facing it and deceive as to the exact place
The air from a pinhole in the leather diamond can bounce off the other
side of the fold and seem to be there instead. Also bear in mind that the
leather in the corner that leaks is likely to billow out or move slightly
as the bellows pressure changes. This is not because it is thinner there,
but from air currents moving along it like the sail on a boat. If you see
this, there is a leak in that corner. Repeat this procedure on all sides
of the bellows, front back top and bottom. You may also hear a slight hissing
or breathing noise indicating a leak. Sometimes, rarely, the leak will
be from leather coming unglued at the wide angle of the diamond away from
the bellows corner. To see this you have to strip away the cloth or paper
covering (see below). If the cardboard is damaged the bellows will usually
flex or wobble at the break, which could be near the corner or toward the
middle. Cardboard is always repaired from the inside (see below). The metal
corner could be leaking, from improper repair, from looseness due to shrinkage,
or from cracking due to metal fatigue. In the last case the corner has
to be replaced (see below), and serious consideration given to having a
news bellows made, as all the metal corners are due to split, if one does.
If the corner splits or loosens it can cause all the other parts to go
bad from extra stress on the materials. Eventually the metal will split
completely in half.
Note: For best result use exactly
the materials I describe,
B. From the inside:
the squeezebox on a table resting on its four feet on the bass side. Look
all around the bellows where joined to the shell, and find and remove all
(usually 4 to 8) pins and/or screws holding the bellows to the shell.
If you don't find and remove all the pins you could damage the wood
bellows frame when removing the bellows. The pins are simply pulled out
taking care not to bend them. Sometimes a dull knife can be used to pry
out the pins taking care (TC) not to scratch the finish. Especially TC
that ALL the pins/screws holding the bellows are removed before opening
it, so as not to damage the frame if one is overlooked. Sometimes the strap
holders screws will go into the frame, so look to see if they are lined
up in that area and if so remove them and put all screws/pins in a wide
bottomed cup to not lose them. If possible take the bellows loose on both
sides and mark the top front frame beam with an X pencil mark.
Look at the condition
of the gasket around the frame, if it leaked, it should be replaced. (See
Below, or SB). Look at the cardboard inside the bellows, use a small flashlight
if necessary. Bad cardboard can be repaired SB. Now hold the bellows up
to a light and stretch them, looking inside to check the leather diamond
corners for light shining thru pinholes. Stick a pin thru the pinhole to
locate it from the outside, and put a piece of masking tape over it to
find it later
unless you are sure you have something
DO NOT use epoxy glue, or cyanoacrylic
For cardboard: If
the repair is in the middle of the bellows not the corner, just glue a
thin card board patch folding it in half using any kind of wet glue such
as Elmer's (tm) white glue or Franklin (tm) hide glue. A greeting card,
business card, cereal box or shirt cardboard will work. Inside the fold
press the patch in place with a butter knife, etc. to firmly seat it along
the fold, and put a book on the closed bellows as a weight to clamp the
repair. If the cardboard splits in the V notch cardboard can also
be used, folding it in half and cutting a v notch to match the angle. However,
I prefer to use a piece of genuine chamois on this particular place, with
a kind of glue called "The Welder" (tm) a clear volatile solvent based
rubber glue available from well stocked hardware stores. Another similar
glue called "E6000" (tm) can be obtained from jewelers supply or industrial
supply stores. I cut a notch in the leather patch also. Before applying
either patch, carefully scrape any loose paper tape or pull any loose cloth
tape from the broken area inside the bellows, to expose a surface to the
All other repairs must
be done starting on the outside. We strip down the bellows to the damaged
area. Don't just slap a patch on it and hope for the best.
Any previous repairs that are sloppy or leaking must be carefully taken
off. Sometimes heat from a low power soldering iron will help getting off
the old repair materials, of course don't touch the leather with it.
If the leather diamond,cardboard
on the corner, or metal corner is the problem, you must strip down
the repair area from the outside. Start by stripping the tape back from
the metal corner, often it is loose, if not, a thin blade can be used to
remove it. ( Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any injury to
you or your instrument and do this or any other repair under adult
supervision.) The corner can then be gently pried off, unless it has been
glued on too tightly, in which case you will use a low powered soldering
iron such as Radio shack sells 25 or 30 watts touching it only to the metal
for maybe 60 seconds to melt the glue and pry it while it is still hot.
I always put my finger on the corner to see if its hot to the touch, before
prying. Then, once the corner is off, take a small screwdriver blade, twist,
and spread the corner a little wider, to get it back on.
If the metal corner
is split, due to metal fatigue, it must be replaced with another having
the same curvature. The split corner can not be reused without causing
more damage as it has to clamp the materials securely to prevent stress
and destruction. Eventually it will split completely in half and fall off.
Moreover, if one splits the rest are due to split and should be inspected
for splits and hairline cracks.
If the cardboard
near the corner is damaged, fold a piece in half which has been cut
to fit the area damaged, and cut a point at the same angle as the bellows
cut, put glue on it and push it in from the inside, making sure you are
in the right fold. Use a butter knife, etc. to push it in place snug in
the crease. Then use sharp scissors to trim it on the corner, to match
the curve of the metal corner.
Usually the leather
diamond shaped piece glued in the corners) will also be damaged if the
cardboard is damaged. Then strip back the cloth or paper sheath from the
leather diamond trying not to tear the cloth. The whole diamond can be
replaced, if necessary, they can be mail ordered from accordion repair
suppliers. However, I usually just cut a triangle from a piece of thin
chamois leather, or a thin kid glove and glue it over the damaged area.
Leather stretches in one direction and the stretch direction should point
to the corner. The metal corner will be spread enough to clamp over the
leather patch. That is why I pay attention to the thickness of what skin
I buy as the same store, e.g. TRAK auto, will have both thin and thick
chamois skins mixed. To widen the metal corner enough to slip over the
repaired area, put something inside it and twist gently to bend it out.
Put glue inside the corner, such as The
Welder brand, and CAREFULLY squeeze it with ordinary slip joint pliers
just enough to clamp the corner. If the corner doesn't line up with the
edges of the other corners, you may want to tap it down gently. A flat
nose clamp, such as a welders clamp sold by the Vise Grip (tm) Company
can be used to squeeze the bellows repair area flat before putting on the
metal corner to help the corner fit. Also make sure the corner of the cardboard
under the metal corner is trimmed to match the others to let the metal
corner fit into the uniform position, making for a neater looking repair.
And, of course, it will go on easier when the bellows are not expanded.
Next, use your finger
to spread a light coat of glue on th cloth that has been stripped back
and smooth it back down. Of course if any excess glue is present it may
cause the bellows folds to stick together.
Obtain a roll of bellows
tape from a supply house, or cut a piece of "buckram" cloth (from bookbinders)
in strips and glue a strip down to replace the piece of tape pulled back
from the corner. Make sure the tape snugly holds the corner as the glue
dries, maybe press it smoothly down with your fingers, and put a book on
the bellows as a wieght to clamp it. A water soluble glue such as Franklin
(tm) hide glue, (available at Sears) or Elmers (tm) furniture glue can
be used on the tape. When applying it keep a damp rag handy to wipe your
fingers as you work, hide glu is very sticky. Be sure the tape is firmly
seated and not loose before the glue completely dries. If the cardboard
is old and brittle, I use The Welder (tm) or E6000 (tm), instead of water
soluble glue, thickly spread on the tape to strengthen the area, always
wipe off any excess glue that may cause the bellows to stick together,
and if any doubt stick a sheet of wax paper in between until dry.
the frame is a leather or foam gasket. Thick chamois can be carefully cut
in a strip to replace it. Gasket foam strips are sold by supply houses.
Leather stripping is no longer sold. Dense black "open cell" type foam,
self adhesive on side only, is the synthetic material. You may find a narrow
roll of it at a plastic supply house but if it's too wide it may be a nuisance
to trim down. I use a single edge razor blade pressed straight down on
the bellows frame after reassembly of the bellows onto the instrument.
Do not use sticky grey window insulation strips as the thick self-adhesive
glue on them can cause problems. When replacing the old gasket carefully
scrape of the old glue from the frame, if it was rubber cement, lighter
fluid (naphtha) will dissolve it, do not use paint thinner . If
it was leather a hard glue was probably used and must be scraped, TC not
to gouge the wood, or a leak may result. For leather use a water based
glue mentioned above, for foam use contact cement, such as Weldwood brand.
Do not stretch the foam. If it did not leak, leave it alone, and don't
the bass section on its feet again and check the pencil mark on the
bellows frame, indicating top front. The bellows must go back in the same
position for the pins to line up with the holes. Use the long pins in the
thick frame side, if there were long and short. The pins may look alike,
but may be slightly different in thickness. Test each pin as it goes in.
Use a hard object to push the pin in, TC not to bend it, and if it sticks
or binds, don't force it in, but pull it back out and try it in a different
hole. Pins that are too loose should be put in tight holes, and vice versa.
So switch them around, if need be. if one pin was cut short, it may have
to go back in that same hole as it was probably shortened for a mechanical
reason. I never pound the pin in with a hammer. If the gasket replaced
was thicker than the one before, you may have to lean on the edge of the
keyboard to squeeze it down at the same time you or your helper push the
Date: Fri, 05 Mar 1999 09:40:29 -0500
Subject: Hi Ike!!!! HELP!!!
i have 2 questions...
my boyfriend and i are trying to fix some pretty major leaks in his instrument and i printed up your instructions yesterday. first of all, you've got a really fabulous website!!!!! in the section on repairing the bellows with cardboard you mentioned a "V notch"---what's that???? we're also not sure what the "diamonds" are that you refer to!?!?!
thank you for your advice!!!
have a groovy day!!!!!!!!
Date: Fri, 05 Mar 1999 10:26:12 -0500
Subject: Re: Hi Ike!!!! HELP!!!
wow, now that's service!!!! i didn't expect to hear back from you for days!!!
thanks a lot!!!!!!!
cross your fingers...
"Gaines I. Milligan" 03/05 5:00 AM
So People actually use this information!! The diamonds are diamond shaped
pieces of leather glued inside the bellows that flex in the corners. you
can make new ones from chamois leather sold to polish cars, or to Polish drivers who want to polish Polish cars. The stretch
direction should be pointing to the corner. V-notch refers to the cardboard
below the corner, where the wide angle of the diamond is glued. Thanks for your feedback and good luck.
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