What you see above is a kind of epoxy that is used for bar tables and other high punishment areas. It is called self-leveling epoxy, liquid glass, and other names depending on who makes it. It is also really great for harmonica combs. I found the stuff in the photo at Ace Hardware for about $18 including taxes. It is enough to do hundreds of combs. I will probably use it on some home improvement project just to use it up.
You can mix it up in small batches by eyeballing equal size blobs on some glossy cardboard and mix it with a putty knife. When you put this stuff on a Marine Band comb with a toothpick and get the thickness right it makes the face of the comb as smoother than silk.
All you need to do to prep the comb is this:
knock the sharp edges off the blocks with a fine file or emery board like you use on your fingernails,
sand the face of the comb with very fine sandpaper just enough to clean it up a bit.
That’s it. Practice on a few throw away combs and you will figure out the right amount to put on. Let it dry while on a flat surface and the self leveling will make it all nice and clean and even.
For less than the price of one fancy aftermarket comb you can set up all the harmonicas you will ever need…
I took a look in my gig box of harmonicas and did an inventory of combs on my harps. These are the harps I use for studio gigs or playing out solo or with a band. My main box. 38 harmonicas. Here is the breakdown: 2 corian combs, 1 acrylic comb, 2 bamboo combs, 1 silver plated brass comb, 2 sealed composite wood comb, 1 stock special 20 comb, and the rest were sealed 1986 Marine Band Combs.
The truth is, the comb makes almost no difference at all as far as the sound of the harp. I’ve participated in controlled experiments with people guessing what kind of comb different players were using, as well as listening myself and trying to guess what kind of comb was being played. My guesses were as good as anyone else, and were not very accurate at all.
The thing that matters most to me is if the face of the comb feels smooth when I am playing the harp, particularly for heavy tongue blocking or tongue switching.
I used to make custom harps with corian combs and later on, acrylic. I don’t do that anymore. I’ve found that as long as the face has no sharp edges and has a good slippery clear epoxy coating, that plain old Marine Band combs get the job done just fine.
When it comes to harmonica combs, how important is eye candy to you? When you watch someone like Kim Wilson, do you remember the color of the comb of the harmonica he is playing? I doubt it. Rick Estrin and Dennis Gruenling both show up for gigs with eye catching threads. They know how to look sharp. The fact that most of their harps are beat up and plain looking doesn’t matter cause 90% of the time they are completely covered by hands and microphones. My point is that spending $90 on a cool shirt will get you a lot more attention in the eye candy department than the same amount spent on some flashy combs.
If you go into the Store on this website there is also a free download packgage of My book “Turbocharge Your Harmonica”, a long PDF on collecting vintage Marine Bands for fun and replacement reeds – includes a color coded chart on inter-changable reeds from Hohner Classic reed plates. Also notes on the Hot Rod Your Harmonica videos. I put these in the store for free for anyone who wants the book or detailed information on exactly what is in the DVDs / Videos
I finally got draw scrapers in Stock – Plus a Burnishing Tool that also does a brilliant job of closing slots and bringing the root of the reed closer to the level of the reed plate.
So I now have two separate tools – a draw scraper and a burnishing tool.
Here is the draw scraper:
The new version of the scraper is 1/8” wide and is a lot easier to sharpen because the extra width makes it easier to maintain the angle as you draw the edge over the stone. The older narrow one takes more skill and concentration to get it right, but trial and error will get you there…
You can maintain the edge on your scraper with a hard arkansas stone a small one will do fine. If you ever have to restore the edge more extensively, I recommend the EZ-LAP Diamond hone & stone in super fine grade & then finish with the hard arkansas stone.
You have to guess at the angle, then test on a scrap reed plate to see how easy it is to get a clean shiny mark while you peel off a ribbon of brass…
The story of the burnishing tool is long and complicated. I’ve made many variations over the years and thought I had a great design with a “chisel tip” tool for reaching to the very end of the slot.
That was before I saw a burnishing tool in a specialty tool collection and contacted the people that made them. I asked them to make a variation of one of their tools, and when I got it, I was blown away by how effective the design was. It made closing up the end of the slot super easy AND I could use it to push down the reed closer to the reed plate at the very end of the slot in a very controlled way.
It turns out that small variations in the shape of the tool make a big difference in performance. I have the people who make these tools cherry pick the tools they send to me for my specs, and then I take them one at a time and make more small changes in the tip until the tool works just right. I will re-grind and polish the tip as many times as it takes to dial it in.
This was one time when a long delayed order from a machine shop ended up being at least partially a good thing. I was able to cancel the order for the double sided tool (scraper / embosser) and just get scrapers made.
What is a burnishing tool?
The second definition of the word burnish in the Webster’s dictionary is: to rub (a material) with a tool for compacting or smoothing or for turning an edge. That is what this tool does brilliantly – turns down the edge of a slot to bring it closer to the reed, and turns down the edge of the reed near the rivet pad to bring it closer to the reed plate.
Here is the new Reed / Slot Burnishing Tool:
This tool is changing the way I do reed work. I am able to control dropping the root of the reed to a whole new level of accuracy with this tool. When you try to get a reed right down to the level of the reed plate, it is very common to push it too far, end up in the slot, and then have to push it back up, which is time consuming and frustrating. It is so much easier to be able to move it a little at a time and stop before you get deep in the slot.
I have enough of these tools now to fulfill the pre-orders for the double tool ( if you agree to the substitution of the two tools for the original offer of the double sided tool) and take new orders for the burnishing tool and the scraper tool.
At this point, I have a good supply of burnishing tools, scrapers, reed wrench / support tools, stainless steel reed shaping tools, and a small number of reed replacement / riviter tools available for immediate shipping.
They are all in the shopify store on this website…
I recently injured my left hand ( working on a guitar – shoulda known better!) and I can’t shape cover plates. So now my work will now be focused on reed plate work – embossing, reed shaping, tuning, repairs. You supply the harp, I supply the skill and attention.
I now have three types of upgrades:
The “Juke Joint”
A free-breathing, easy bending harmonica set up for traditional blues. This harp will cut the room with a lot less effort than an out of the box harmonica. Extra attention to reeds and slots in holes 2 & 3, 9 & 10 in particular give you bent notes that are natural sounding and easier to get and sustain. The tuning is close to 19 limit just intonation for smooth chords with melody notes that sound in tune for fiddle tunes, etc. $59 per harp.
The “Jump Blues”
This harp is built for precise controlled bending all over plus over-blows in holes 4, 5, & 6. This combination of embossing and reed shaping is the most popular harmonica conversion I make. The tuning is close to 19 limit just intonation for smooth chords with melody notes that sound in tune for fiddle tunes, etc. $99 per harp.
The “Top Gun”
This harmonica is the highest level of reed and slot work I do. It enables over-blows in 4, 5 & 6, over-draws in holes 7, 8, 9, & 10. The 1 over-blow is available by request, but you won’t be able to hit blow 1 as hard as you can with a standard blues set-up. The tuning is close to 19 limit just intonation for smooth chords with melody notes that sound in tune for fiddle tunes, etc. You can also request equal temperament. $159 per harp.
Step 2 – You send me a Hohner Crossover / Deluxe / Thunderbird harmonica, or have it shipped to me with your name referenced in the shipping information.
Please ship harps to this address: PO Box 23, Boalsburg PA 16827. You can also have Rockin Ron ship harps to me for this deal. Just tell him what you are up to and he will know what to do.
My estimate for shipping is 6 – 8 weeks from the time I get the harmonica to work on.
Please Note: I can also do this upgrade for Marine Band 1896, Special 20, Rocket, and Golden Melody harmonicas for $10 extra. The extra charge is for dealing with all the extra screws that increase the final adjustment times. In the case of the Marine Band 1896, it goes for installing covers with screws – the reed plates will still be attached with nails. I will bill you for the extra charge for these harmonicas after I check them to make sure they are the right vintage for me to work on.
This offer includes free shipping in the USA. For international orders I will contact you to arrange shipping at extra cost to be determined by your situation.
Here is one of my secret weapons for my upgrades:
I use a big ass heavy duty tool that a friend of mine made for me for moving reeds while still attached to the reed plates with rivets. He swore me to secrecy on the design of this tool and it’s one of those things I’ve kept under my hat for years cause I don’t want people getting mad at me for having an unfair advantage (or bugging me to “just show it to me I won’t tell anyone)
Anyhow I use this thing to center reeds at the root to make embossing more consistent. Some reeds are really off center from the factory – like diagonal. Most customizers just work around the reed as best they can, and over-emboss to close up the wide areas.
I also use this tool to close the space between reed tips and the end of the slot when they are too far away.
Here is a video of the before and after on one reed plate:
The rest of the process involves a combination of burnishing slots, shaping reeds, waxing reeds as necessary, tuning, re-tuning, and final adjustments.
Wiha Scredrivers are super high-quality tools made in Germany and widely distributed. The type I use are called precision screwdrivers (pictured) and they have a red tip that rotates that you can put one finger on to guide the tool while using the rest of your fingers to rotate it and drive the screw.
Right now a 7 piece set part # 26190.MC (the same one I have been using for years) is on sale for $19.99.
They also have a pozidrive screwdriver #26210 that I use for the screws on Hohner crossovers and many other harmonicas. Pozidrive screws look like Phillips head screws at first glance but they have 4 thin lines that make the head look like a fat x over a very thin x. The blades in a pozidrive screwdriver and the walls in the slot are parallel so the screwdriver fits snugly and does not have the wiggle room you get with phillips head screws and screwdrivers.
I priced the 7 piece set of screwdrivers (26190.MC) and the pozidrive screwdriver (26210) with UPS shipping to Pennsylvania for a total of $31.82.
The new reed wrench / reed support tool replaces the two different wrenches that I used to include in my tool kit. I combined elements of both reed lifter / support tools into one design that works for exposed reeds or reeds that are inside the chamber. The other end of the tool is the reed wrench that has the gripper nibs that allow you to move reeds you are attaching with screws in any direction. A standard reed wrench won’t let you back up a reed if you get it too close to the end of a slot.
Reed Shaping Tool
This tool design is basically the same tool I have been making for a few years with a few refinements in the shaping and polishing process. It is Stainless Steel and works quite well with brass reeds and will also hold up well for shaping stainless steel reeds (it just takes a lot more pressure to work the stainless steel reeds) I use this tool constantly when customizing reed plates. It focuses pressure on exactly the part of the reed that you want to curve or straighten out and with practice becomes a very predictable extension of your fingers.
Both of the tools shown above are in the store on this website:
Hi Folks, this video will show you how to move a reed from one reed plate to another using the rivet that is already in the reed. I used to think this was a great way to destroy a reed plate, but I’ve learned how to carefully stack the deck in your favor to make the process close to bulletproof. The tool you see in the video is available in the store on this site, at Rockin Rons, and at Blue Moon Harmonicas. Enjoy the show!
Before you can attach a harmonica reed with a screw you need to enlarge the hole in the rivet pad with a reamer or round file or similar tool. The tricky part is holding it firmly while you do this. It gets even trickier when you are dealing with stainless steel reeds. Jon Harl, a harp tech in San Jose, specializes in the stainless steel screws and described a jig he was experimenting with and let me run with the idea. So I’m going to have these tools machined by Tom Halchak at Blue Moon Harmonicas. They let you hold the reed firmly in place with your finger or thumb and support the rivet pad solidly while you work. They will be machined from aluminum and the channels are roughly as deep as the average reed and in 3 different widths to adapt to most any reed you may want to work on. Stay tuned for details on when they will be available…