Tag: Vintage

Parsons “Super Ideal” Timpani For Sale (ref# 1773)

FOR SALE £2750

I have the pleasure of being able to sell this really nice pair of early pedal timpani made by Parsons.  These are the “Super Ideal 24” model which were top of the range at the time.  So with the Premier Deluxe Timpani, I now have for sale both both premium brand timpani made in the UK during the early 20th Century.  The Premier timpani have been on my books for a while now, this both surprising and not. At over 100 years old, they are now unusual instruments now and certainly not up to date with modern styling and those ugly oversized wheels, etc.  However, if playing timpani in classical and baroque orchestras is your thing, then why would you not want to buy drums that are actually the correct tool for the job?  The alternative are the old hand tune pots or modern versions of the same with some sort of cable tuning mechanism, or modern, out of period instruments with a more compromised shape.


The advantages of these drums over more contemporary drums are numerous: at the top of the list is the size and shape of the bowls being nice and deep and using thicker gauged copper.  Then factor in that the pedal mechanism was specifically designed for calfskin heads  which has reliably worked for 100 years without irreparably breaking.  Not only do they both look the part and sound good, they also have a historical heritage.  The downsides are few; they weigh a bit more than modern drums, but that is primarily due to the amount of copper in the bowl which was on the list of advantages; the pedal mechanisms on modern drums are smoother and quieter with the exception of the Ringer or Dresden style ratchet, and spare parts are not readily available. However, spare parts on modern drums in my view are not worth the money even if you can get them – after all things break for a reason.  Regarding the pedal mechanism, isn’t it like any percussion instrument – you’ll have to learn some technique, a small price to pay for owning fantastic timpani costing under £1500 per drum!

From what I know, which is limited indeed, E. & A. Parsons Ltd were based in Birmingham here in the UK at the beginning of the 20th century. Birmingham is the UK’s second largest city and the heart of the black country, a colloquialism for that whole section of England, which describes the filth of industry at the height of the industrial revolution. Birmingham was therefore well known as an epicentre for all sorts of industries including more creative crafts and artisan skills (and I’m not talking about coffee houses or bakers!)  Still to this day it has a thriving jewellery quarter. Although big, Birmingham is not London, so for musical instrument makers the market place would have been much smaller and therefore the business would have been smaller than other companies around during that period. However, from my personal experience, when businesses grow too large the owners become more interested in profit and care less about quality, and it is quality that becomes known and recognised.  This recognition put Parsons right up there as a leading percussion instrument manufacturer globally and they were strong competition for the Leedy Drum Co in the US as well as Premier over here.  As instruments moved around the globe a lot of the same ideas or developments were being rapidly copied from one manufacturer to the next.

Ernest A. Parsons senior as well as his two sons Ernest A Junior and Albert were all established percussionists, indeed Ernest Junior was the principal timpanist for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for a period of 45 years, from the orchestras inception in 1920 right up until the mid-1960’s.  It was his brother Albert who actually built these timpani giving them the Super Ideal moniker to denote that they are the top of the range instruments produced by the firm.  I don’t know what the 24 refers to, certainly not the size, but it is very evident that the overall build quality is excellent.

I have come across Parsons instruments a good few times during my career and all of those instruments exuded quality and sounded brilliant. I guess that it is just a fact of life that if you want percussion instruments to sound good, they generally need to be made using thicker material somewhere along the line, so consequently they always weigh more than the modern equivalent. From my perspective it is because of this diminution of tonal quality in the majority of modern instruments, that this is one area that I am looking into. However like everything, this work require time and money and as a poor but busy instrument maker both are in short supply (especially now in pandemic world).  This means that everything takes me much longer to achieve because they have to be fit in and around the work that I need to do to pay the bills.

Anyway, enough of that. These timpani essentially hybridised the old pots and added an internal tuning mechanism which could then be attached to a pedal system. This means that the pedals can still be removed in order to create hand tuned timps which was pretty standard practice at that time and makes the drums considerable easier to transport. It just goes to show that nowadays there is nothing revolutionary about having a detachable bowl on a timpani, rather it is a massive step back to an old technology that ultimately became obsolete. Whereas back then, the pedal mechanism on these drums actually represented something that was new in the world of percussion and a huge leap forward.

There are some repairs on the 25 base casting; nuts and bolts have replaced the original rivets which often become loose as the alloy of the leg castings become worn.  The wooden boards that the drums sit on are a good inclusion, because these style of legs are susceptible to damage – they are only aluminium castings so can easily be broken which is seen a lot in the Ludwig universals which shares the same design. This was also probably when the colour of that base frame changed.  This was probably done when the drums were last fully refurbished, work done by the late Arthur Soothill.  Arthur was widely regarded as the leading proponent of my profession in his day and is incomparable to some even now. Although I would dispute that claim, I can say that his work was generally of a high standard and still stands up when compared to the standards achieved today.

The clutch mechanisms are ratchet and pawl style and both are in very good condition, holding their notes very well.  This is a testament to the techniques of the players who have owned these instruments.  If the pawls are allowed to scrape over the ratchet, they grind away at the teeth.  Although the levers are designed to cope with this to some extent, over time and constant misuse they do wear out and would represent a large repair bill.  So the new owner will need to hone their pedalling skills and maybe they will last another few decades!

These drums were originally owned and extensively used by Alan Taylor who was the principal timpanist at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden London for many years as well as the Brighton Philharmonic, English National Opera and the BBC players, right up to the late 80s.  Consequently they have very nice Kalfo heads which are calfskin and produced in Ireland.  It rains a lot in Ireland, even more than the UK, so the grass is very lush resulting in cows that are sadly much healthier than the norm.  Combining this super diet with the lack of barbed wire fences, the skin of the cow becomes nice and supple which makes them perfect for vellum drum heads.  The company who produce the heads also have a secret method of skiving the skins to an incredibly thin and consistent thickness, but since I have always been refused entry to any percussion manufacturer’s factories (even asked to leave trade stalls!) I can only deduce how they do it from what I can see on the skin.  They use a triple drum sanding machine or similar, the sort of thing they use in most wood furniture factories to abrade surfaces to very fine tolerances.  Another example of mysticism and protectionism surrounding the percussion industry, what they forget is that some of us actually know our trade and can read materials like a book.  You don’t acquire these skills from sitting at a desk running a factory, so perhaps they don’t know that their manufacturing techniques cannot be kept secret.

In summary then, these excellently built, antique drums, with a pedigree that demonstrates their tonal quality are perfectly suited to the baroque orchestra.  They would no doubt appreciate some refurbishment, but they are ready to go.  Although part of me likes to see the original finish on old instruments, they would probably also benefit from some sympathetic re-finishing to make them look more the part and to hide the previous bowl re-shaping work.

Thank you for reading.  If you are interested in buying the drums, send me an email and we shall take it from there.  If you have any comments pertaining to the article or associated historical information, please put it in the comments below.

Vintage Bass Drum (part 2) (Job No: 1233)

In the first half of the repair of this vintage bass drum (1233: (pt 1)), I wrote about making a new counter hoop, fixing the shell and making replacement tuning lugs.  The lugs are now back from the chrome platers, but more importantly, the drum is now needed by my customer at the end of the month.  In order for me to realise the deadline, and fit in with my delivery schedule, I need to finish the bass drum today so it is ready to be delivered at the end of the week.

After selecting a calfskin big enough and then putting it in to soak, I get everything ready to lap the head onto the existing flesh hood that I repaired.



I like to leave the lapping to dry for a bit, so that the skin becomes tacky and starts to stick to itself before I put it on the drum.  It will take 48hrs for the skin to completely dry around the hoop, but the playing surface will start drying quickly.  So as long as I keep the playing surface wet, I have plenty of time to do the drum and get the head on later in the day.

In 1233: (part 1) I made new barrels for the tension rods to screw into.  What I didn’t have was a tap long enough to put in a 2.1/4″ deep thread into the barrel.  I had to order these specially, so sent the stuff to be plated during the delay.  The video below shows the problem I had.  It is a bit boring (in both meanings of the word), but it shows how the thread feels like it is going on and on and on.



Once the threads are cut and checked, I can assemble the drum shell and start preparing to put on the head.

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I have mentioned putting on heads in other posts, and explained what I do.  This time I remembered to video it!



With both heads evenly set, the drum is now finished, and has plenty of time to dry before Friday.

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Today of course is polling day – time for us to support the essentially anti-democratic and self serving political system that we have here in the UK (and aggressively export).  We will all (well about 10% of us) go out and give a mandate for 650 corrupt, dishonest and dishonorable bloody idiots to avoid the big issues for another 5 years.  Politicians call it voter apathy (because they are a bit thick) but I think that they are wrong; it is not apathy, the general public is more political than ever (the one good thing that ukip have exposed).    In our democratic system we have no constitutional ability to change how the country is run.  The ability to do that is in the hands of the government, and mp’s won’t vote to get rid of themselves, they won’t even take a pay cut!  Rant over.

Small Bass Drum (Job No: 1257)

It is funny how that what I am repairing goes in cycles; this winter I was doing timps after timps, now it is all vibes and drums. Here is yet another little drum that needs a new head.

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As usual I forgot to take a before shot, but all I have done is put the new skin in the drink and taken the old heads off the drum. This is the old style fittings where both heads pull against each other, so the tension bolts are as long as the drum is deep, and the lugs are little eyes that they pass through.

Now I have the pieces, I cut the split head off its flesh hoop so that I can reuse the hoop, onto which I lapped the new skin. I do this first so that the lapping has a bit of time to dry out.

Next all the metal work, which is nickel plated, gets cleaned up, and the threads degreased. You know how oil can soak into your hands and make them stink, stained, dry and sore? Well the same happens to drum heads, because it is the same stuff (more or less) that we are covered in. DO NOT USE PETROCHEMICAL PRODUCTS ON DRUMS WITH NATURAL HEADS. If you come across a drum smothered in grease – it has been worked on by a moron!

With all the metal work finished, I now turn my attention to the drum shell. The critical part is the bearing edge, so this gets cleaned and lightly sanded, finishing with an almost polished surface. What I am wanting is a nice surface over which the skin will slide; what I don’t want are fibres of wood standing up like little spikes.

So now I have got the bearing edge how I like it, I now seal it to stop water going in and lifting the wood fibres. Candle wax, being made from paraffin which is an extract of oil is exactly what I don’t want to use to seal the bearing edge. Beeswax would be OK, but I use tallow which is a boiled sheep. I rub this into the wood using friction to generate heat enough to melt the tallow so that it can run into all the microscopic gaps in the wood fibres. I go over the drum a second time but also go down the sides a little so that the inside of the flesh hoop doesn’t stick to the drum shell as it dries. Finally I use tallow to lubricate the threads on the tension rods, and where there is metal to metal contact.

With everything clean and slippery, now the easy part – I put the drum head on, and the job is finished.

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Vintage Bass Drum (part 1) (Job No: 1233)

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It seems like I have been occupied taking lots of small steps with large projects recently and have neglected to take photographs and write posts about them. This is one of those jobs that have been on the go for a while.

As can be seen this vintage bass drum has seen better days. There are several aspects that need to be repaired. First on the list to make a new counter hoop to replace the original which is in several pieces and cannot be practicably repaired.

I have never needed to make a counter hoop in wood before, the hoops I make are normally polished stainless steel. This lack of prior experience is never a problem, the reality is that I spend most of my working life going into the unknown, which is how I develop new methods and techniques to constantly improve quality. What I therefore do have is a lot of know how.

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So I started by planing a long board of oak to the depth of the hoop and cutting off a thin strip, in the above picture I am using the thicknessing sander I built to clean up the sides of saw marks and make the width uniform.

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There are two types of jigs or pattern used to make things; internal or external. A pie dish is an external mould. I made an internal mould to prevent the hoop forming below the correct diameter. Then I calculated the circumference which gives me the length of the strip of wood so that I could angle the ends to create a scarf joint.

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The long strip is then steamed (inside a long tube) until it goes floppy, then bent around the mould and clamped in place until the wood has cooled and set. The next day the hoop came out of the mould so that it could dry off for a while.

When oak gets wet, the tannins are pulled out and the surface of the wood (and my hands) get stained black. The moisture will also lift surface fibres. Both issues are resolved by sanding until that surface layer is removed. The final step before varnishing is to create the radiuses on the external edge.

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The next job is to make replacement barrels for the tuning lugs. These are solid with the thread cut into them, so to replicate them it is lathe work: drilling a small pilot hole a long way into a thin rod. This is a heart in the mouth process, if that drill bit snaps inside the rod, then it goes in the scrap bin; obviously there is a hole at either end. Patience, care and feel gets there in the end.

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With the barrels made, they can be sent to be chrome plated. In 1233: (part 2) I will assemble and finish the drum.

Vintage Premier Xylo (part 2 of 2) (Job No: 1188)

The first part of this blob post is Vintage Premier Xylo (part 1)

After the note bed is completed, I make the frame that the instrument sits on.

The first thing I do is make the top and bottom transoms, which are either end of the legs.  The top transom is a known length as it is defined by the note bed, the only decision to make is where to put the hinges.

The bottom transoms have the casters attached.  I make these 10mm longer than the upper transoms at the low end of the xylo, so they are 5mm wider than the instrument on either side.  This is so that it is the very bottom of the instrument that hits a wall or is a positive contact point for tying into a van.  This is also when I calculate the caster swing, and the bottom bar fixing points, and decide on the width of the high end legs.

After the bottom transoms and fixings points are made, I can join them by adding the bottom bar because I already know the length of the instrument.  The only decisions is where to weld the bottom bar in the horizontal plane, front to back.

The leg length is a matter of mathematics – I have been told how high the customer wants the instrument, so I make it to the correct height.

So now I have a note bed, two sets of legs and a bar for the bottom, in other words a complete square, I can assemble the instrument, and put in a brace to keep it square.  Depending on the instrument, I use one or two braces.

All the metal work can now be sent off to be powder coated.

In the interim, I finish the note bed, by putting in the note pegs.
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And the original badge.
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Once all the bits are back from painting, I clean everything, and put it all together and put the notes on.  Below you can see the figure in the end boards.
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Finally below is the finished xylophone.
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Vintage Premier Xylo (part 1 of 2) (Job No: 1188)

It is always nice to receive a pile of bits and asked to turn it into a usable instrument.

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The xylo is actually complete, including the frame, however requirements and expectations have moved on somewhat since this was made.

The first thing I need to do is get the note bed repaired.  All the joints are loose, and it looks horrible, so I will disassemble it down to components, and strip the finish off.

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In the first image, it can be seen that the notes originally sat on felt strips with the note cord running along the outside of separation pins.  This is rubbish, it’s going to be really noisy, so I will substitute the pins for note pegs which means drilling bigger holes.

The consequence of this is that the rails need to be moved further apart, because the note cord now runs down the centre of the note rails as opposed to the outside edges.  The benefit is that the instrument will be that little bit wider, which is no bad thing.

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Above you can see new end blocks between the note rails which have been glued and pegged in place.  I don’t often use nails or screws when making a frame.

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Zooming in on the photo, it can be seen that the note rails are a bit arbitrary in length. There are several reasons, but essentially it is because it was made wrong in the first instance  I have tried to reach the best positioning of the notes, so they run parallel to the ends.  The ends need to be parallel so I can make the base frame square.

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Underneath all the clamps, I have added onto the outside of the instrument a spacer and and end plates.  The end plates will make it look nice, and protect the notes, and cover the top of the legs.  The spacer is just another bit of wood (the offcut from the board after the end plates were cut out), but it will give me something to work with when I make the base frame.
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I mixed up some stain to colour the end plates to somewhere near the colour of the note bars, so that the instrument will hang together aesthetically.  It will also bring out the figure in the wood.  It is now ready to be varnished whilst I make the base frame.

The second half of this project in in Premier Vintage Xylo (part 2)