What Are Handbells Made Of: Key Materials and Manufacturing Process

factory worker making a handbell

Handbells have been used for centuries to herald occasions and provide beautiful music. They are hand-rung by gripping the bell by its slightly flexible handle and moving the arm to hit the hinged clapper inside the bell. These interesting instruments have been used in rituals and music for ages, making them fascinating to study.

Like church bells, handbells are constructed of bronze alloy. This substance makes the bells sound crisp and resonant. Handbells are made by casting bronze alloy and then fine-tuning the blank bell to the appropriate pitch and tone. Due to tuning issues, not all bell blanks become handbells.

Handbells have been made from bronze alloy, copper, clay, porcelain, glass, wood, and other hard materials. Handbells have evolved from gourds or shells struck with a stick to chromatically tuned brass bells with leather handles.

Understanding Handbells

Handbell anatomy

Handbells are usually fashioned of bronze alloy, although they can also be made of copper, clay, porcelain, glass, and wood. Handbells have bells, clappers, and handles. To tune the bell, it is cast in numerous processes. When the handle is moved, the hinged clapper within the bell strikes the interior.

Plastic handbell handles are more flexible than leather ones. The ringer strikes the bell’s interior with the hinged clapper.

English vs. American Handbells

English and American handbells are the main types. Their clappers differ despite their structural similarities.

The clapper is positioned on a pivot within English handbells, limiting its motion. This design keeps the clapper hitting the same location on the bell, giving a steady sound. English change ringers used English handbells. Bell ringers do “changes” on a set of handbells.

Due to a ball hinge, American handbell clappers can move more. This allows the clapper to move in all directions, striking various bell locations and producing a wider spectrum of sound.

Handbell Composition

Bell Materials

Handbells are made of bronze alloy. This bronze alloy resembles church bell bronze. After casting, the bell is processed into a tuned handbell. However, some cast bell blanks may not be tunable enough to make the final product. Bronze gives the bell a rich, clear sound.

Clapper Materials

The clapper strikes the interior of the handbell to make sound. Some handbells feature external clappers, while most have internal ones. For sound quality, clappers are usually constructed of the same material as the bell or different metals. The handbell’s sound and performance depend on the clapper material.

Handle Materials

Ringers use the handle to hold and manipulate the handbell. Leather handbell handles were flexible. Plastic handles are more common now due to their durability and low upkeep. Depending on the ringer’s desire and the performance needs, handbell handles can be made of wood or other hard materials.

Manufacturing Process

Handbells are made using a combination of traditional and modern techniques. The main components include casting, tuning, and assembly. These processes create a precisely tuned instrument that produces a beautiful sound.

Casting

Bronze alloy handbells comprise 80% copper and 20% tin. Modern electric furnaces heat metal to 2,150°F before pouring into sand molds. The sand is removed from the molds once the molten metal hardens to show the bell shape. Companies like Malmark and Schulmerich are known for their expertise in handbell casting.

Tuning

Once the casting process is complete, the bells must be carefully tuned. Not every cast bell blank will make it to a finished handbell, as some may not be able to achieve the desired tuning after processing. To obtain correct sound and overtones, the bells are honed and polished, paying attention to shape, diameter, and wall thickness.

Assembly

Assembly concludes production. Handbells have hinged clappers and flexible leather or plastic grips. When the ringer moves their arm, the clapper strikes the inside of the bell, making the required sound.

Overall, the manufacturing process of handbells involves skilled craftsmanship, precision, and attention to detail. The finished product is a set of handbells that produce a beautiful, harmonious sound when played, thanks to the careful casting, tuning, and assembly of each individual bell.

Handbell Music and Techniques

Handbell Choirs and Ensembles

Handbell choirs play handbell music. Each ringer plays a set of bells within a diatonic or chromatic scale range. Handbells’ harmonizing tone is popular in churches, schools, and community activities.

Playing Methods

Handbell ringers can make different sounds using different approaches. The most popular approach is to grab the bell by its slightly flexible handle, usually leather or plastic, and move the arm to strike the hinged clapper inside the bell.

Notable Handbell Manufacturers

Malmark Bellcraftsmen

Pennsylvania-based handbell maker Malmark Bellcraftsmen is well-known. The company is known for quality craftsmanship. Malmark handbells are precision-made with plush-lined interiors atop substantial cushioning and individual bell pockets. 25–90 bell sets are typical of their handbells.

Schulmerich

Schulmerich is another prominent US handbell maker. Their high-quality handbells come with a lifetime warranty. Handbell aficionados and musicians love Schulmerich handbells because of their unique craftsmanship.

Whitechapel Bellfoundry

London’s Whitechapel Bell Foundry had a rich 16th-century history. This foundry made bells, including handbells. The foundry closed in 2017, yet bell enthusiasts still value its legacy and handbells.

Petit Fritsen

Since 1660, Petit & Fritsen has made Dutch bells. This foundry makes brass, bronze, clay, porcelain, glass, and wood handbells. Petit & Fritsen handbells are unique and well-made.

These handbell makers are known for their quality. Their handbell products satisfy professional and amateur musicians.

Handbell Cultural Significance

Handbell history and evolution

Handbells have a rich history that can be traced back to the 5th century B.C. in China, with the oldest existing bells with handles found in China dated from 1600 B.C. Their evolution took a significant turn in Europe, particularly in England, where they became descendants of the tower bells. In 1673, handbell ringers formed the Ancient Society of College Youths to make lovely music with their personal handbells.

England and elsewhere popularized handbells in the 19th century. Peake Family Ringers brought English handbells to America in the 1830s. The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers didn’t start until 1970. Handbells have evolved from beaten copper to brass, bronze, porcelain, glass, and other hard materials.

Handbells in different cultures

Handbells are essential to many cultures. English culture has inspired handbell groups, which use a variety of handbell sizes and materials to make music.

The Beacon Hill Ringers, a popular American handbell ensemble, perform at various occasions and promote handbell ringing. The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers strengthens their cultural impact. Swiss handbell ringers toured America in the 1840s. P.T. Barnum, a famous showman, was interested in pushing such acts to larger audiences. Handbells are also utilized in religious ceremonies around the world. This shows their lasting impact, even as materials and designs change.

Maintaining Handbells

Cleaning techniques for different materials

Handbells need regular care to maintain their sound and appearance. Cleaning methods vary by material. The bells are fragile, so handle them carefully.

To polish the handbell’s bell casting, which is constructed of bronze bell metal (80 percent pure copper and 20 percent tin), use a soft cloth. Only polish the castings from the shoulder to the lip, avoiding the internal and other handbell sections.

The science behind tuning handbells

Professionals should tune handbells because it’s sensitive. To get the correct pitch, alter the bell casting thickness near the shoulder and lip. Accurate tuning depends on mass, stiffness, and the harmonic relationship between bell sections.

Maintaining the clapper mechanism can also boost bell performance. Use an artist’s paintbrush to clean the bottom of the clapper mechanisms, then turn the bell upside down and gently blow away the dust. Maintaining handbells regularly ensures a consistent and accurate sound.

In conclusion, handbells should be cleaned according to their materials. Regular upkeep and attention to detail, including tuning by professionals, can help preserve handbells and ensure their longevity as beautiful and functional musical instruments.

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