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beginner forum: for novice and developing blues harp players > Tuning, or retuning a harp - I finally can!
Tuning, or retuning a harp - I finally can!
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1 post
Dec 04, 2019
2:37 PM
Gents, as a newbie, I tried to tune the reeds that went south. I had an old guy from the Harmonicats give me some helpful pointers, and I watched many videos - and I broke lots of harps for good!. Bought new ones and, repeated the drill.

I discovered a tool that changed all this for me. It is expensive! Not the new tool, but the buying new harps part! The tool, purchased at your local Harbor Freight, cost (including tax) less than $9.00! The description in the video stated “ this engraver is really weak. It will not take very much pressure to stop it, and it will take all day to leave a mark on hard metal. This is the secret that has alluded me for years - how to take that very small amount of brass off the reed, and now I found the tool! And the bit is long enough to reach into the comb so you don’t have to remove the reed plates from the comb.

It is: Micro Engraver by Chicago Electric Power Tools, and comes with 2 AAA batteries.

I was so excited that I tuned 7 harps on one day, and 4 more the next. It makes all the difference in removing the guess work on slowly reducing - or increasing the pitch. I think you’ll like it! I might even try some of those weird tunings folks talk about. Good luck, and sweet harping!
6357 posts
Dec 04, 2019
3:18 PM
Yeah I tried a cheap, battery powered, engraver. I never really liked it, and the bit wore down quickly. I tuned probably 20 harps with it.
Now I often use a variable speed reversible tool with replaceable sanding drums which cost me $60 all up. It’s super handy and especially on steel reeds which are drudgery and hard on tools.
I’ve tuned hundreds of reeds with this thing.
When a reed ‘goes south’ though, it’s usually beyond help. Brass reeds often drift north, occasionally south. If they’ve just drifted it’s no drama to return them to pitch but if they’ve dropped more than 10-15 cents they’re likely scrap.
Learning to replace reeds and then tune them is a good skill.
Learning to play with out breaking reeds is a good skill too!
6359 posts
Dec 06, 2019
3:48 PM
I’m also interested CaptJim, in the part where you imply you’ve been tuning reeds with this tool, by putting it inside the chamber.
I can see that as perhaps feasible if you are lowering the pitch of a reed. I personally use a scraper for this and it took me a few tries to get the hang of it.
I certainly would not be trying to raise pitch that way.

This is an issue only for blow reeds.
Usually blow reeds can be a problem to fine tune because the harp is not tuned until it’s in tune as an assembled instrument.
What I mean is that you can tune your blow reeds with the harp taken apart and it all seems sweet but then you put the harp back together and it’s all different. Then to access those blow reeds you have to take it apart again. That quickly gets old.

You can tune the blow reeds a little while the harp is assembled but it takes care. You can support the reed from inside and take a little metal from the free end but it’s easy to mess up the tip so this is limited as to how far you can go.
You can excavate a little on the back of the reed too but be careful not to mess up the shape and gap.

The best solution I found so far is to disassemble and tune the blow reeds erring on the sharp side just a little, then fine tune with the harp assembled, using a scraper such as that marketed by Richard Sleigh to reach inside and gently scrape the reed pulling back from just a few millimetres ahead of the rivet. It takes practice but once you have the feel of it it’s easy enough.
I think it’s hard to get the sort of feel for the task with a rotary tool but if you can do it, power to you!
319 posts
Dec 07, 2019
5:28 PM
Great job CaptJim,

I've used that same handy engraver for a few years. I like it too. SuperBee is right though. I wore out the original tip within the first month. That happen while I was drastically re-tuning a Lucky 13. I think if you stick to brass you may be fine. If not, no worries just replace the original bit with a new one.

That's what I did and it's been working great ever since. I found a high quality bit at a jewelry supply store. It may be worth it for you to look into that. A nice tip will cut clean and fine... on all metals.

You may be well aware of this, but pay attention to the spin direction. If you catch the reed tip spinning into it the result is not good. Get into the habit of always spinning away.

I like this little engraver because its small, light and portable and has plenty of power for tuning (but that's about it). I have abused mine by drilling holes... thinking if it wears out I'll just buy a new one. This one just keeps ticking!

I have no doubt that SB's tuning method works great. I've never reached in to remove metal but I can imagine that working very well with the right: tool, support, eyes, lighting, and touch. The same factors affect the engraver.

I use a variety of methods depending on how drastic the tuning is: plinking by ear, playing the naked plate, using a "French Tuner", and lastly putting the harp together. The most maddening thing that I find are the tiny changes in pitch that can happen a day or three later. I guess it's due to some type of metal memory or micro distortion. Anyway, it seems unavoidable. It also seems to happen more often after major changes in tuning like half steps or more.

I also use an Exacto pen with about a 1/4" x 45 degree blade as a scraper but only on brass reeds. It works well for minor changes. I do the bulk of my tuning using the same little engraver that you have.

When I get close to pitch I plink the reed a few times after each grind then recheck the pitch. I don't know if the buzz of the engraver takes care of that plinking task or not, or how important plinking is but that's how I was taught.

The good news is once I give a harmonica a going over I rarely have to mess with it for a very long time.

While tuning and gapping... I hold the harp together using two small spring claps rather than using the fasteners. The clamps make quick and easy work of dismantling and holding the sandwich tightly together during the process.

Swapping reeds and changing reed pitch is a quick and economical way to explore alternate tunings. About 1/3 of my 10 hole harmonicas are Richter. The majority of my collection is made up of two alternates tunings that I have created by grinding and swapping reeds.

Harmonica Mutes & Accessories

6363 posts
Dec 07, 2019
8:05 PM
Kinya Pollard told me about ‘tuning past the edge’ (I think he used those words).
What he meant was, tune towards the point you’re aiming for, and go a little bit past it, then come back to it.
Kinya claims this is effective to stop the ‘drift’.
I can’t say for sure because I’ve failed to investigate it methodically, but I’ve often done it anyway.
I know that I’m usually quite happy when harps come back to me for further repairs, because they are usually still well-tuned. Let’s say I know for sure that it’s a much quicker job to mend a harp I’ve repaired before than it is to do a fresh one.
Today I am tuning a Seydel chromatic with ‘true chromatic’ tuning.
I have no idea really but I’m gonna put it back to ET and hope that’s how it’s supposed to be.
It’s a long way from ET at the moment, that’s for sure!
323 posts
Dec 09, 2019
11:25 PM
Thanks for sharing that Superbee. After responding above I started questioning the plinking step. Do you plink? Does that actually contribute something meaningful?

I did a quick search and found this well presented video from BP. It's identical to what I do except I always plink the reed a few times before pitch tests. I once heard that was an important step and have never questioned that claim.

Harmonica Mutes & Accessories

6375 posts
Dec 10, 2019
12:48 AM
same, Dave. i have just accepted it as fact. But:
i think i have noticed on occasion when i forgot to plink that the reed changed pitch as i played it, or that it didn't change straight away.
i think about this when i'm executing the assembled blow reed tuning manoeuvre described above. how do you plink an assembled blow reed?
feeling perhaps a tad foolish, i give the reed a bit of a flex using a toothpick. sometimes i give it a short sharp toot, but im conscious of the possibility og condensation affecting the subsequent reading so i warm the harp and keep the tooting quite brief and think 'dry' while i do it.

ever since i began working on reeds though, ive just blindly accepted that the plink is an essential part of the job.
6376 posts
Dec 10, 2019
12:53 AM
also, i just thought about this. when i was learning to replace reeds i watched a lot of videos. ok, a few. i was doing the job with tapping and reaming and used screws to fasten the new reeds.
Only Andrew Zajac mentioned the need to lubricate the cutting tools. i suppose a metalworker would just know to do that but i was impressed that Andrew mentioned it and ive been on his side ever since.
326 posts
Dec 11, 2019
12:31 AM
Thank's for sharing SuperBee. I've gleaned a lot from Andrew and from vintage threads where he was learning. As you know this forum is a deep well of knowledge. I do most of my tuning disassembled. At that point I can inspect everything and do whatever I have going on, like: centering, shaping, embossing...tuning. If I'm just doing a minor adjustment I may not disassemble. Instead of plinking the blow reed I thump the side of the harp a few times against my thumb. I admit that sounds questionable.

Speaking of questionable. I've use this type of cutting oil for nearly everything, for years.

Some type of lubricant is necessary for general machining. But I don't use lubricant for drilling out preexisting holes or while tapping small holes in brass reed plates. I've always tapped "small holes" in "thin brass" dry. I know some folks swear by using oil, lard, butter, diesel... I also don't lube the MB covers/plates/wood sandwich when I enlarge the nail holes for screws. I've used the same tiny tap set and drill bits for years.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with lubing brass for this type of work. I have just never found a need and I was taught not to bother under these types of conditions. Bit speed and feed rate are factors so if someone has a successful method it's probably safest to stick to it.

OT/ Photos from another cool forum I belong to. This is some of my larger scale metal work that required plenty of cutting oil.

The wood splitter gets plenty of use here. We are currently keeping the fire burning 24/7_ while you are the middle of summer right? You lucky dog!

Harmonica Mutes & Accessories

Last Edited by dchurch on Dec 11, 2019 12:35 AM
6377 posts
Dec 11, 2019
2:25 PM
lubrication made a big difference when i was using a hex file to ream the reed pad and reed plate preparatory for the tap. the hex file was much less inclined to grab and hence the danger of twisting the reed was greatly reduced.

maybe had i been using a drill bit to enlarge those holes the difference would be less marked

i subscribe to the notion summer begins on the solstice, so we are not quite there yet. down here on the island there has not been much hot weather yet, in fact we had snow last week, but i enjoy the longer daylight hours. it gets quite dark here in winter, although the climate is really extremely mild year round.
its a different tale on the north island though. they've been experiencing drought conditions for a long time across large parts of NSW and QLD especially, and this season the bushfires have been early and unprecedented in terms of forest which 'never' burns (due to being rainforest)catching fire. its really quite hell-ish for those affected.
2321 posts
Aug 28, 2022
9:35 AM
EDIT: Oops! Actually it was in a thread on the main forum that I read about the engraver, not this thread.

B-thing tuning


I was recently at Harbor Freight for other reasons, but I saw the engraving tool and remembered this thread. I bought one and have since found that it works really well in adjusting reed pitches!

I find that the engraver is more simple to use than my files, draw scraper, or rotary tool and less likely to damage reeds. It is especially good for tuning blow reeds without removing the reed plates as it is far gentler than the draw scraper.

So far I have just used it on diatonics, but I previously had read that tuning chromatic blow reeds without removing the plates was a useful skill. I have tuned that way with my draw scraper a few times, but it was a challenge to not damage the reed. I will certainly use the engraver to adjust tuning the next time I flatten a Hering chromatic reed.

When tuning with the engraver I gently lift the blow reed in the slot with a paper clip or reed lifter, support the tip with a small square of printer paper, tilt the harp so metal shavings fall away from the slot, and adjust pitch with the engraver in small increments approaching my pitch goal. With the reed plates still mounted on the comb it is a faster process to check and recheck pitch as I tune.

Thank you for this idea!

Doug S.

Last Edited by dougharps on Aug 28, 2022 9:52 AM

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