The Accidental Excelsior
by Arleigh B. Baker
The Accidental Excelsior as Shown on E-Bay
The Accidental Excelsior SN 6365
On one hot July day, I was browsing on E-bay, looking at the deals on accordions, which I often did just because of my interest in these instruments. As I perused all the great offerings, I came across an old Excelsior NY Excelsiola. There were five hours left on the bid time and the high bid was $40.00. I thought that I would try a bid of $100 and see if anyone else wanted it more than that. I clicked on what I thought was the "Make Bid" box, expecting to see the normal screens that usually follow making a bid. But, the next thing that I saw was a screen congratulating me for a "Buy-It-Now" win. I contacted the seller and apologized for my error, but was confronted with a characterization of myself that I did not happen to care for. So, I paid the "Buy-It-Now" price of $525 and waited with anticipation for my accidentally purchased Excelsior to arrive. 
Almost a week later, the accordion arrived and I opened the box with the anticipation of a child opening a new toy. The first thing that I noticed was the musty smell. I thought that this could not be a good sign. Once opened, I adjusted the straps to the ends of their limits and climbed into this thing that was described as having "great voices". But, the first gentle squeeze brought out the sounds of a bagpipe accompanied with a whooshing noise. Several notes played all by themselves and the "excellent compression" seemed to be highly exaggerated. 

I opened it up and found that all of the bass reed blocks were unsecured. Worse than that, two of them were placed in the box without regard for the leather pads. So, many of the pads were trapped under the blocks. Many more were simply missing. After securing the reed blocks, I put it back together for another try. Still, very poor compression and the bass chord, F# was dead. On opening it up again, I found that the valve opening for that chord was covered with tape. Removing the tape and trying again, it now wheezed that chord all the time.

Having developed an assessment of the accordion, I contacted the seller again. But this was as fruitless as it was unpleasant. So I decided to tackle the job of restoring this old accordion.

Fortunately, I have a good friend (Andy Bakke) who is an accordion builder, technician and performer. Andy offered to come over and help with the restoration. I accepted his kindness and I learned how to remove and tune reeds, replace and redress leathers and wax things into place. Although I didn't count them, I estimated this 4-by-5 accordion to have 448 reeds. I think that I must have tuned about half of them. It seemed to be centered on A442 so I stayed with that centering. I finalized the musette distance for about 15 cents on the low end and gradually down to about 8 cents on the high end. This should give it the sound that I wanted for a few songs that I hope to record, someday.

Checking Valve Spring Tension
Checking Valve Spring Tension
After the tuning and general repair, there still was the nasty F# wheeze on push.   I created a makeshift tension gauge with a postal scale, then measured all of the bass valve springs. Finding them to be uneven, I proceeded to take the bass assembly apart, which took about two hours. The valves springs were all set to match the strength of the strongest one. But, after this effort, the F# valve continued to leak. I tested by substituting a piece of polypropylene foam for the leather. Still, no improvement. I made a fixture for blowing air into the F# valve hole and noticed that some air seemed to be coming from the edge of the sound board, as well as through the valve. 
Delaminated Veneer Of Sound Board
Delaminated Veneer Of Sound Board
I adjusted my binocular work glasses for maximum magnification and took a closer look. I noticed that when I blew air though the F# valve hole, the sound board would bow slightly. On close examination and probing with a toothpick, it was suddenly quite obvious that the sound board had delaminated in the area where it was leaking. It was an easy fix. I pried the lamination open with more toothpicks and squeezed ethyl cyanoacrylate, (Instant Krazy Glue Gel) into the openings. After setting up in a makeshift jig for a few minutes, the sound board seemed to be airtight and things began to look more promising. After another two hours of assembling the bass section, with all 120 of those metal rods, the whole accordion was again put to the test. This time I was rewarded with the nice sound of silence when giving it another good squeeze. 
There were still some air leaks. But, these were easily discovered as in the main seals at each end of the bellows. Returning from a trip to Home Depot, with an assortment of closed cell sealing tapes, I was happy to be in the home stretch with this project. I found that the treble end needed a 1/4" thick seal while the bass end was nice and snug with 3/16". But, all was well as the compression now felt like as if it was a new accordion. 
Playing The Accidental Excelsior
The Accidental Excelsior Now Playing
Finally, after all of the stages of repair, consuming four tubes of Krazy Glue Gel, a quarter pound of wax,  20 some leathers and 14 bellows pins, it seemed like it was all worth it. Some of the restoration effort was avoided by earlier work that was apparently done by a previous but unknown repairman or owner. It appeared that, at some point, the work had just been stopped and the instrument set aside. Among other things, there were newer pads in the treble side and the keyboard was nice and level.

This old Excelsior seemed to have a willing spirit that was just waiting for me to assist in bringing it back out. It is a beautiful sounding instrument and, as I continued to hone in the tuning, it eventually did it's part in creating some nice recordings that feature a gentle musette sound. 

The final touch was to install a new ECM microphone system so that this accordion could easily be used for recording and playing on stage. This system is a prototype of the Augustina ECM Accordion Microphone system now being sold by Andy Bakke.

This story would not be complete without thanking those who were so helpful in the restoration. I would especially like to thank Andy Bakke for his encouragement and tutelage giving me the benefits of his experience in the trade. Without his help, I would have had a far different story to tell. I would also like to thank Sam Shublom for providing the materials that I needed and delivering them so expeditiously.

Click Here for Demo Song

 

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