Category: Xylophones

Premier Xylophone Repair (part 2) (Job no: 1281)

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With the new, simplified trolley built in part one and away being painted, I turned my attentions to repairing the note bed of this Premier Xylophone. Obviously it is a good excuse to get out my longest clamps!


What I didn’t say in the video is that the pegs were originally glued in with a clear silicon. I have seen this technique used before, and really don’t understand why. If you have used it to seal around window panes, bath panels, or the kitchen sink, you will understand that the real reasons are that it is really cheap, comes in a well designed tube so that it can get into awkward corners and stays wet in that tube for a long time. This is useful in a factory, it means that the lid can be left off overnight without the glue spoiling.

However what I don’t understand, and maybe I need to mull it over more, is why silicon sealant would be used to secure a structural joint. Surely the very same attributes that make it perfect for bathrooms – water-resistant, flexible, gap filling and slow cure, make it the worst choice for musical instrument manufacture, furthermore it will absorb vibrations and deaden resonance. Did I mention that it is gap filling and you can leave the lid off overnight?

The problem for me of course is that I have to remove all the silicon goo because nothing else will stick to it.

I do use synthetic glues, they are great in the right place, easy to use, easy to clean off the excess, good shelf life, etc. But more and more I choose to use animal glue, after all it has all the same attributes whilst using it and it is exceptionally strong. It is not water-resistant, but that means it is easy to un-glue something, so for me the only down side is that it takes longer to use. Even then it only takes longer if you forget to warm it up before you need it and have to wait; what a disaster you have to make a cup of tea.

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Premier Xylophone Completion (part 2) (Job No: 1291)

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There is not very much left to do on this Premier xylophone since the vast majority of the work was modifying the metal trolley which was shown in part one. As with most instruments, finishing (by which I mean applying a finish, paint, varnish, polish, etc) happens towards the end of the process. I suppose it is like decorating a room in your house, there is a lot of preparatory work then the final coat goes on and everything comes together.

However unlike decorating, applying a finish to an instrument is not finishing an instrument. The final process is what is setting it up. On a xylophone this is straight forward, simply a matter tweaking note pegs, whereas on a timpani the set up is most of the job, the repair often being a minor element.

Along with tweaking note pegs there is invariably some fragging to be done, some cleaning, and checking the bits I haven’t looked at, in this case the resonators. Making sure the instrument works properly and is ready to be returned to the customer.


Premier Xylophone Modification (Job No: 1291)

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This is déjà vu. Actually I have done it deliberately; sometimes it is nice to work on two identical instruments side by side. However, the job that I have to do is completely different to the other Premier xylophone that I am working on (Job no: 1281). For a start this instrument is almost in one piece!

Unlike the xylophone in Job no: 1281, this instrument lives in cases and is frequently taken out for performances, so portability are versatility are important features that I have to retain in my design solution.

There is often a compromise between weight and strength especially when there is a budget. Unfortunately I do not have the resources or facilities of a Formula One team or Nasa, and I think that most customers would not really want to pay for composite or titanium frames. Aluminium is the option that most manufactures are taking (ignoramacies!). In my view this is the wrong direction; it is like using chocolate to make a tea-pot! Better design is the answer, and accept the fact that percussion instruments are heavy, after all, they are massive. If you want to buy a lightweight aluminium frame that can be carried, then carry it! Don’t put casters on it so that it can be wheeled around. Furthermore, when the aluminium breaks, it is harder to repair. I send aluminium out to be welded; I already spend around £500 a year on renting the bottles of gas I regularly use without needing another one specifically to weld aluminium occasionally.

So I use steel. Steel is strong, steel is cheap, it is easy to work, easy to finish, easy to repair. Steel has a lot of benefits over aluminium, the one downside is that it is heavier. But let’s get our facts right, if I were to hold two bits of tube, one steel, one aluminium, of equal length and equal strength I think that difference between the two would be negligible. Anyway, that’s something for me to find out.

Despite all that, Premier use steel, so that is what I have used to modify this frame. I have also beefed up the design so that the frame is a lot stronger. At the end of the day, it has been given to me because it is broken – the original design failed. Inevitably this means it has put on weight, but I have spent a lot of thought on how to limit it.

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Premier Xylophone Rebuild (Job No:1281)

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It is not uncommon for me to receive an instrument in a pile of bits. This Xylophone made by Premier Percussion typifies the condition of instruments when they arrive.

Whether I am doing a repair, or completely starting again these bits are really important. In this instance, a repair is possible, but the manner in which the frame has collapsed, combined with what the customer requires from the restored instrument gives me an insight as to how I am to do the repair in order for it to survive over the long-term.


One of the many things that I have learnt over the years is never to make assumptions – it is one of my golden rules. Invariably if something I do doesn’t work, when I analyse the reasons why, it is because I have assumed, for example, that the manufacturer will have drilled the holes in the right place. So when I make new frames for instruments, I really do need the instrument.

I used to make up new bottom bars to be fitted to Musser M55 vibraphones, they were made on a jig for consistency and individually checked. They were all good, but the next time I had an M55 in to the workshop requiring one to be fitted, it didn’t work. It was miles out (exaggeration), so I had to make one from scratch anyway. Lesson learned; don’t assume that just because something is mass-produced that it will be the same shape as the next one coming out of the factory.

Premier Percussion generally have higher standards than most using smaller tolerances, but even this xylophone (when assembled) is different to the next job I have to do, which is the same model of xylo. However the two customers have totally different requirements; this customer wants the simplest of frames so that there is nothing to go wrong, so this is what they will get.

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LP Xylophone Notes (Job No: 1242)

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Out of the whole family of keyboard percussion instruments, xylophones suffer the most with going out of tune.  There are two reasons, first the note bars seasoning, second from being played.

Due to atmospheric changes wooden note bars absorb and release moisture, as the moisture leaves the wood, it takes a bit of matter with it, so the note will always go out of tune even if the instrument is not played.  However this is more evident in marimba bars which are wider, thinner and more extensively arched, whereas xylophone bars are more chunky and tuned to fifths, or should be, but more of that later.

When xylos are played, hard beaters are used, and these damage the surface of the note bar leaving indentations.  Therefore nothing harder than the note bar should be used to play it, so no hard plastic beaters if the piece has lots of fortississimo.  Furthermore the edges of the bars take a battering, and they become frayed.  When the bars are tuned, I have to remove this loose material, which further affects the tuning.  Eventually I run out of wood to tune the bars, or the internal structure of the wood has been softened or split thus killing the sound, so new bars need to be bought or made.

One last bit to finish off, there is a trend now in new instruments towards thinner bars which have been octave tuned as well as using cheaper woods like padouk.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Thinner bars don’t give the stacato sound of a xylophone, octave tuning just sounds wrong – a xylophone has a jarring sound, that is what it is for musically, and padouk is even more prone to damage and splitting.  So not only are they not xylophones, but more like piccolo marimbas, they will not last very long – years instead of decades!  Finally, because the bars are so thin, my job of retuning them is severely limited.

So lets get into the job.  First I get a plank of Honduras Rosewood that will do the job.

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This is then ripped to give me the width.  I got two lengths out of this plank which is enough to do all the notes.

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These batons are then cut down into the lengths required for the note bars, resulting in lots of sticks of wood.   I then plane to faces to get them flat and square.

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I can then thickness them to the correct width and depth.  I now have a pile of equally sized sticks of wood.

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The next job is to drill the holes for the note cord.  It takes ages to set the drill up so the notes are held in the correct place, and flat on the bed of the vice.  Getting the angle right is the easy bit (if you have the right equipment).  However once everything is set it is quick to drill all the sticks.

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I can now put the radius on the edges of the bars.

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Now I finally have note bar blanks which can be varnished and tuned.

Premier Xylophone (Job No: 1079)

An old Premier xylophone in for tuning and repair.
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There are two main design issues with this instrument, and a further complication:
The note rails sag in the centre mainly because of the joint, but fundamentally because thin wall tube isn’t strong enough. The simple solution is to weld the joints in place to create a fixed rail.
The second design problem is that the resonators act as a structural component of the frame; this is just silly, doesn’t provide strength and is an example of how instrument manufacturers fail to understand the rigours of life as a xylophone and how they are used.
The complication is the round tube on the lower transoms which hold the castors; again this is just a silly idea which makes caster renewal needlessly difficult.

So this frame wobbles all over the place, and investigations show that whoever repaired it in the past didn’t understand the forces in play.

Newtons Mechanics: p=mv

p is the momentum or force, m is mass, v is velocity. Ignoring units of measurement a 60kg xylophone being wheeled along a corridor at 3mph (slow walking pace) will triple the mass to 180kg.

Put the castor at the bottom of long lever (frame leg), and that 180kg is multiplied again.

Understanding these principles explains why bolts shear, frames break, castors fall apart on commercially produced instruments.

However, understanding the principles also gives the solution for me to make the repairs that will last. I am happy to sacrifice the lifespan of a caster to save a xylophone, that is easy to repair, use stronger casters.

Back to the xylo.
First job is to make new lower transoms that are fit for purpose, and will make the rest of the frame easier to strengthen; solution = square tube

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