restoring old harps

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Apr 10, 2009 5:24 PM GMT

Several folks on here have expressed an interest in how I restore old harps so I thought I would make a post about an old 364 that I did recently. If there's enough interest and I can get my hands on a suffeciently cruddy harmonica to do I may shoot a video of the process and upload it.

Old Hohner 364 purchased on Ebay

Sometimes item descriptions are wrong, and sometimes that are reeeaaaaallllllyyyyyyy wrong. I thought I was buying a 270 since that's what the auction was listed as, and the picture was to bad to see the harp clearly. This is what I ended up getting in the 270 case. When I got it I tossed it on the workbench and forgot about it. Recently I was talking online with some folks about fixing up harmonicas and I wanted to try out several products which used in conjunction with each other made for a really nice outcome.

So here's what I saw in the auction, not this exact picture, but the picture showed the 270 case.

Here's what was in the case when I openend it. As I'm sure you can guess I wasn't to happy about it.

This is the condition the harp was in when I took it out and looked at it. It was so bad that I had to take a picture to show to a friend of mine.

This is the kind of harp that most folks would just toss in the trash. It was awful. I don't know where it originated, or how old it is, or what kind of conditions it had been left in but man oh man what a train wreck.

As you can see there weren't any coverplate screws with it, instead someone in their infinate wisdom though that bailing wire would be a good substitute.

The Restoration

Here's a description of some of the things I did to restore this harp. The first thing was to tear it all apart, the nails that were holding it together were terribly rusted and a couple broke off which after the reed plates were removed required the use of a small pair of pliers to remove the remainder of the nails. The reed plates and cover plates were the first things to be addressed. To start with I soaked the reed plates in CLR for a few minutes with constant agitation. The CLR can be quite harsh on the brass but it's really effective at getting the initial crud off of the reed plates. I then rinsed the reedplates, and you want to make sure you get them really cleaned off. Then it was on to the next step. I use brasso to further clean the reed plates by applying the brasso to the plates and then using my fingers to work the brasso over them. Of course I'm sure it goes without saying... wear gloves... and make sure you do that in a place with fresh air because the brasso has a VERY strong odor to it. So I work the brasso over the whole reedplate rubbing them with my fingers to clean the surface and work the brasso into all the nooks and crannies. After you feel it's as clean as it's going to get then rinse the plates again.

The cover plates were soaked in the CLR for about 30 minutes total. This was to try and neutralize all the rust that was on the coverplates. After soaking and a good rinse with clean water both the cover plates and the reed plates were clean in an ultrasonic cleaner with a bit of anti-bacterial soap mixed with the water. The parts were run through several 8 minute cycles. Taken out and again rinsed. After drying they looked pretty good, but to take it a step further and make the plates look even better I took a pencil and used the eraser to clean up the plates even further and to remove some of the darker stains. The eraser is a great way to clean the brass because it's abrasive enough to really remove tarnish and discoloration well, but without damaging or removing material. So at this point you're probably thinking ok we're finally done........ not yet. The next step is the final one in restoring the plates to a new condition. I use a product called neverdull, which comes in a can and it's basically a coton material like a cotton swab that's soaked with a solvent. I whipe the reed plates down really good with the neverdull, you just need to tear off a small amount of it and use that until it's good and dirty looking. Whipe down the reed plates with the neverdull and then when you're happy with the results whipe with a clean paper towel. Ok one more step.... Next I take the reed plates over to my buffing wheel. Now this is important !!!! When using the buffing wheel on a bench mounted buffer you MUST use a loose wheel, not a sewn wheel. The loose wheel is less prone to grabbing the plate while you're working on it and is much less aggresive. So what we're going to do is use the buffing wheel to remove more of the neverdull and to help polish and clean the plates even more. When doing this make sure that you always work with the rivet end of the reeds at the top so that as the wheel spins it starts at the rivet end and works towards the free end, and use very light pressure. After both sides of the reedplates have been cleaned with the buffing wheel it's time for the final wash and back into the ultrasonic cleaner one more time. The pencil eraser used earlier can be used on the edges of the reedplate to clean and restore their color as well. I think it's important to mention that you don't need a bench mounted buffer, and if you're doing this for the first time I would recommend using a dremel tool with one of the polishing wheels. When I first started working on harps and building my brass custom harps I did all of my polishing with a dremel, so it's more than adequate for the what we're doing here.

The cover plates were very rusty on the insides surfaces. The soak in CLR seems to help neutralize the rust and clean it up to a certain point. To further clean the rust off I use a wire wheel in the dremel and clean all the rust off. The surface may still be pitted but the goal is to remove any discoloration and visible rust. After that was done it was back over to the buffing wheel to polish the coverplates. For this I use a sewn buffing wheel with a rouge compound. Be very careful when doing this. A buffing wheel can be one of the most dangerous tools in the shop, because if it gets ahold of that coverplate it's going to rip it out of your hands, and when it does can very easily take a finger with it if you're holding a sharp edge. Again for those new to this kind of work a dremel tool with a polishing wheel would be a better choice.

So we've cleaned up all the parts and now it's back to the sink for a finaly cleaning and ultrasonic bath.

The comb was very cruddy and very normal for a really old harp that's been mistreated, to say the least. I wanted to use the original comb because I wanted to show people what could be done using the original parts. Sure a new custom made comb would be great, but if you don't have the means to make them and don't want to shell out the money for one there's no reason you can't reuse the comb that's in there. So to start with I went to the workbench and started the sanding process. I have a granite tile that I use for sanding combs. I took a piece of 220 sanding paper and used a light coat of spray adhesive to stick it to the granite. Then with a piece of steel placed on top of the comb to help with even pressure I started sanding the top and bottom surfaces until the gunk, discoloration were gone, and the flatness was to my liking. Then I use a thin flat file to clean the insides of the slots to clean off any gunk in there, I want to see clean wood when I'm done with this step. Then I sanded the coloring off the edges of the comb using the sandpaper tacked down to the granite. this needs to be done slowly so you don't remove to much material, basically just get the coloring off and nothing more. Then it was off to the belt sander to chamfer the corners on the tines of the comb.

So now we've got clean reed plates, cover plates, and a freshly sanded comb. The next step was to drill the comb and reed plates for screws. The nails that were originally in the reed plates were so rusted that there was just no reusing them. So I clamped the reedplates in place on the comb and went to the drill press to drill holes for the screws. For some reason the nail holes on the draw plate are nice and equally spaced and good locations for the screws, so I use those as the positions for the screws. I clamp the plates to the comb and then drill through the reedplate, into the comb, all the way through, and out through the blow plate. I drill the holes with the appropriate size drill bit based on the size of screw I'm going to put in. In this case I used brass 1-72 hex head screws. After those holes were drilled I took the pieces apart and drilled the through holes in the plates and comb. Next I tapped the holes and we're done.

I like to have the corners on my harps either with a chamfer or rounded off, so I temporarily install the reed plates and head to the belt sander to round off the corners. When that's done it's time to move onto sealing the comb.

Because of the age of the harp I like to pre-seal the entire comb with a couple light coats of instant drying laquer. I get this at my local hardware store and it works great. The laquer soaks into the wood and seals it without a lot of buildup. Remember we spent time trying to get the top and bottom surfaces of the comb nice and flat so we don't want a bunch of buildup on there and undoing the work we did. After the laquer has dried I start applying the finish to the edges of the comb and the insides of the slots. I use Cabot water based poly for this, it dries very fast, has a great finish, and it's durable. I apply it to the insides of the slots with a regular small brush and after a couple of coats inside the slots I use a foam brush on the outer edges. I put on 4 coats this way with about 5 to 10 minutes drying time between coats. Generally by the time I've finished the last section the first is dry enough to touch, so I let it set about 5 to 10 minutes between coats.

So after it was all dry it was time to reassemble the harp. Below are the after pictures.

Now it's on to working on the reeds.

Hope this was informative, and remember just because harp looks like it's ready for the trash bin don't be in to big a hurry to throw it away, but if you're set on throwing it away throw it my way.........


Comments (11)

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Apr 10, 2009 8:13 PM GMT
Oisin Replied:

What a transformation!! That is very impressive.

Apr 11, 2009 12:45 AM GMT
Robb L Replied:

What an artist. You do the kind of work I aspire to. Thanks for sharing this.

Apr 11, 2009 4:47 AM GMT
Builderofstuff Replied:

My pleasure. I love restoring old harps. Every harp has a story and bringing them back to life is a very rewarding project. It's also not as time consuming as one might think. This whole process on this harp was only 2 hours tops. Of course I have had some practice and I do have a well equiped shop, but that is no reason for a person not to try it. Everything that I did could be done with hand tools. At one time this harp was brand new and the person who bought it probably got hours of enjoyment from it, or it could have been a present to someone who played it at family gatherings. Who knows. But now it lives on in my collection. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade.

Apr 12, 2009 6:14 AM GMT
BlueMoose Replied:

Sweet! (great photos by the way!)

Apr 13, 2009 3:54 AM GMT
Elk River Replied:

Interesting.... very interesting... What is interesting to me is that we came up with pretty much the same process.... the only difference is I use Lime Away, which is pretty much the sam thing as CLR, but supposedly a little more gentle on the brass. I also use the Never Dull wadding and the buffing wheel, flat sand the comb... pretty much the exact same thing I do on the antebellums. That's never been a huge money maker for me, but it lets me see all these old harps.

I think the only major differences are 1) I usually leave em nailed. and 2) I use several coats of sealant. What I do is do a second sanding to sand the sealant off the sides. If you are only using one coat, there's no need to sand it again. Another thing, a pretty minor one, is that I used to use the buffing wheel in the days before I discovered Lime Away on the reedplates. Now, the limeaway is about as far as I go, after seeing you raise the bar with that clean brass, I might have to start using it again.

It certainly is something that makes you feel good, restoring old harps like that. It's a great public service, Chris.

I did make a cleaning vid a while back. I was using Kaboom! then. It works, but the Lime Away (or CLR) works better. Somebody suggested using vinegar.It was also made before I discovered Never Dull, which my dad introduced me to. He uses it on guns.

I don't wanna hijack the thread, so I'll make a new one.

Apr 13, 2009 10:13 PM GMT
Builderofstuff Replied:

Hey Dave,

Restoring these old harps isn't something I do for money, just the pure enjoyment.

Using the CLR isn't a problem as long as you don't overdo it, and I keep the bath agitated while the parts are in there, makes it work quicker and better without having to leave them in there as long. One other thing that we do different is that I make extensive use of my ultrasonic cleaner, which I highly recommend everyone get as it's a great way to keep your harps really clean.

The nails were terribly rusted and unusable in this case. The comb was sealed overall with a couple light coats of instant drying lacquer, then the edges including the insides of the slots were sealed with 4 coats of Cabots water based poly. And then the top and bottom of the comb were lightly sanded again to ensure flatness.

Neverdull is a great thing. I prefer to buff the coverplates when they are in as bad of a condition as these were as it help to remove scratches and some imperfections that just cleaning with neverdull won't get.


May 15, 2009 2:58 AM GMT
Al P Replied:

Very nice write up Chris and a job well done!! Great pics!! I too have done this type of work to harps but where you are at with this harp now is my main problem... the tuning stage of things.

Apr 11, 2013 4:08 AM GMT
manish d Replied:

I have Horner chromonica III of make 1961 .Can it be restored.I tis not as bad as the one you bought.

Aug 03, 2014 6:28 AM GMT
Chuck M Replied:

Thanks for that post. I Earlier today I received a wonderful old Pre-WWII Honer. The model seems to be "Unsere Lieblinge." It has a wonderful tone; the design is like having two harmonicas stacked on top of each other (sorry but I don't know the term for that is.)

This old harmonica does not use coverplate screws; instead the coverplates are held on by tiny nails. These nails are not connected to the top of the cover, instead the cover wraps around the comb and is nailed into the two ends, with eight nails total.

I would like to try to disassemble this instrument (after a bit of practice on a less important harmonica) but I am not sure how to extract the nails without damaging them or the cover plate.

If this makes sense and you have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know.

Thanks, Chuck

Aug 03, 2014 6:37 AM GMT
Chuck M Replied:

Thanks for that post. I Earlier today I received a wonderful old Pre-WWII Honer. The model seems to be "Unsere Lieblinge." It has a wonderful tone; the design is like having two harmonicas stacked on top of each other (sorry but I don't know the term for that is.)

This old harmonica does not use coverplate screws; instead the coverplates are held on by tiny nails. These nails are not connected to the top of the cover, instead the cover wraps around the comb and is nailed into the two ends, with eight nails total.

I would like to try to disassemble this instrument (after a bit of practice on a less important harmonica) but I am not sure how to extract the nails without damaging them or the cover plate.

If this makes sense and you have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know.

Thanks, Chuck

Aug 02, 2019 11:57 AM GMT
Gill J Replied:

Hi would anyone be able to help restore my old harmonica that was my Grandads?

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