Crossovers vs Special 20 harps – Tone Factors

I recently got this question from one of my tool kit / video customers:

In talking to del Junco about different models of harp he spoke of the new Crossharp as being one of the brightest and the Special 20’s as the least bright.  Special 20’s are good for the higher keys but the Crossharp is better for the lower ones.
A Marine Band I bought from you several years ago had the cover plates opened up in the front and it is a pretty bright sounding (and very responsive) harp.  The cover plate openings on the Sp 20’s are so small, would opening them up make them brighter?
Here is my response:

Hi ————–,

The Crossharp is basically a Marine Band with the cover plates more open in the back and put together with screws.
The Special 20 differs from the Marine Band in two important ways –
1. The plastic comb of the Special 20 has the reed plates recessed into the comb so what touches your lips are the plastic face of the comb and the cover plates. A Marine Band harp has the reed plates exposed so what touches your lips includes the ever plates, the comb face, and the reed plates. The plastic in the special 20 absorbs some of the vibrations of the reed plates so you don’t feel the vibrations as much on your lips. How much of a difference this makes in the sound I can only speculate on, but it probably makes a difference.
2. The Special 20 has cover plates that do not have vents on the side. This is a lot more significant than how open the tabs are at the back of the harp in my opinion. If you drill holes in the side of the Special 20 cover plates, the harp will sound progressively brighter. You can also adapt Marine Band cover plates and put them on Special 20s.
In  my opinion, opening up the back of the cover plates helps out a little with projecting sound, can make the cover plates stronger if you do it right, and makes the harmonicas look cooler to boot. But the vents make the most difference in the sound. You can run with this info in a couple of ways: adding vents to Special 20 cover plates one way or another, or closing off vents in Marine Band or Crossover cover plates with tape.
As far as the comb factor goes, the main difference to me is that the Marine Band type harp feels more alive to me cause I am getting the vibrations directly from the reed plates. It may or may not be louder than the Special 20, but it seems that way to me.
Hope this helps!

New Tool Kits & Tool Wrap (with photos)

New tool kits (photos below)

I finally found a tool wrap that I really like – black canvas with pockets. I also collected files and other tools to create a great reed shaping / tuning collection of tools.

Here is the low down:

– The Reed / Slot Burnishing Tool is now in limited production again. I have an arrangement with a small family firm that makes printmaking tools. They have one particular person who makes the burnishing tool to my specs, put it in a handle, and then I do final grinding and polishing.

This tool is the easiest way I have found to close up the end of the slot near the root of the reed. You have to experiment with the angle as you hold the tool like a fat pencil, but once you find the sweet spot you can see the slot closing in in very controllable increments. There is a video at the hot rod harmonicas  site that shows you this…

You can also use this tool to shape reeds to drop the zero point.

The other tools:

!/8” wide draw scraper in thin wood handle. The easiest way to drop the pitch of brass reeds. High carbon steel ground to a super sharp edge for precision scraping of reeds. A 3/8’ wooden handle gives you a comfortable pencil grip on the tool. You can read more about this tool in the separate listing in the Hot Rod Store.

– Stainless steel reed shaper tool. This tool can be used as a prod or for pushing the root of the reed down on both sides at the sane time. I use it to push blow reeds through the slot to catch them with the reed wrench / support tool for tuning reed tips with the reed plate mounted on the comb.

4 in 1 screwdriver

Grobet Swiss pattern 3 square file (triangular file with all sides the same) This is one of the finest files made in the world and the 0 cut gives you the option of taking a small amount off with light pressure or progressively larger amounts of brass off with more pressure.

Two Reed wrenches that fit Hohner reeds – they have nibs that make it easy to move reeds in any direction when putting them in with screws…

– Harmonica Wax – this is a small jar of a mixture of Carnauba Wax, super filtered bees wax, and jojoba oil. I researched all ingredients for maximum purity. I discovered that Mineral Oil can contain some harmful ingredients, so I quit using it.

You can polish cover plates and the face of harmonica  combs to make the glide factor a lot better. Restores tired scratched comb faces and cover plates with a thin layer that you buff to a shine.

You can also use this wax to fill in at the root of the reed to get rid of squeaks and sizzles from over blows (and sometimes bends)

– A polishing cloth

– a small test tube brush just the right size for cleaning up harmonica combs

– a couple of ultra thin shims

If you bought all these tools separately it would be over $200. I am putting two of these tool kits in the store and taking the rest to SPAH. If you order the tool kit before they sell out in the store, I could probably ship Monday morning – if not, I’ll ship as soon as I come home from SPAH…

Current price at the store for the two tool kits – $150 – here is the link to the store listing

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New Light Box Prototype

I am preparing to teach a seminar on how to assess harmonica customizing at the SPAH convention next week in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I designed and built a new light box for the event and I have already decided that it will be my main rig at my own work bench. This design is much simpler to build than my original design and is also easier to switch back and forth from backlighting reeds in slots to sighting reeds through the slots.



It is a 4″ x 9 1/2″ box on a platform that allows me to pick it up and swivel it around. The dimmable 60 watt LED bulb and dimmer switch are in the same box. I have a recess routed out to make it easy to use a wrench for centering when checking reed / slot fit. The knob on the side is an off on switch and you rotate it to dim or brighten the light.

Extra Special 20s

Check out the photo below – I coated the front of a special 20 comb with the liquid glass type epoxy that I wrote about in the last post. The comb on the top has the epoxy, the harp below is stock. The feel of the face of the comb is vastly superior to the stock comb. It is smooth as glass and will hold up as well as any comb on the market. When you consider that you can spend in the neighborhood of $50 for a milled comb made of corian and the feel is about the same, it makes it worth while to explore doing this. I’m including a photo of the stuff I used. If you cut out the sprues (the black pieces inside the slots in the middle of the chambers you can use my draw scraper for tuning, same as a custom comb. Also – a tiny amount of Trident Pure Silicone Grease dabbed on the inside of the comb will seal up any small low spots for compression – although I really don’t think this is much of an issue. Practice on a couple of beater combs and you will get the hang of how much epoxy to dab on…IMG_2301Epoxy

Make Your Own Custom Combs


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:

  1. knock the sharp edges off the blocks with a fine file or emery board like you use on your fingernails,
  2. 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…

Harpe Diem!

What Really Matters in a Harmonica Comb?


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.



Instruction PDFs for R. Sleigh Tools

Greetings harp tech fanatics!

I created two instructional PDFs on the 4 tools that I designed for intelligently lazy harmonica technicians or anyone who wants to work on reed plates with tools that make the job easy.

Click on the links below the illustration for detailed, illustrated tips and tricks on using these tools to your best advantage:TYHimage

How to Use the Reed : Slot Burnishing Tool

Notes on Tools Designed by Richard Sleigh for Professional Harp Technicians and other Fanatics…

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

Draw Scraper & Reed / Slot Burnishing Tool

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…

New! – Three Levels of Upgrades

Dec 13, 2016

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.

Here is how to order these upgrades:

Step 1. -Please go to the store at to order your upgrades

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.

Harpe Diem!


My Favorite Screwdrivers

wiha screwdriver


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.

You can find these screwdrivers at