The finished Bell Blossom cluster.
For the standard bell models, such as the Tiburon, cha cha, and agogo bells, there are two separate pieces that he welds together to form the bell. For the conical bell shapes, such as those used for the Bell Blossom, a single piece of metal forms a cone and he makes the piece whole by welding along the seam to close it up. For consistency and ease of welding, he’ll often use fixtures that he’s built to hold pieces of different sizes and shapes in position. “As soon as it starts getting tiring or you have to make a lot of something, you very quickly figure out how to make a tool to help things along,” he says. “What you’re trying to do is get away from anything you have to hold. Otherwise, you can try to do it by hand, but it’s going to take forever.”
In some instances he will simply hold pieces together by hand to tack weld them, and then he can manipulate the fit before welding it fully together. To demonstrate, he sets up to attach a bell to the center of a Bell Blossom, pulls down the visor of his helmet, and welds the bell to the bracket. Sparks fly, blinding white light flashes, and blue smoke wafts up from the melting metal. He adds a little dot of molten steel in the middle of the joint to make it nice. The steel is red hot until it cools. Once the bells are welded to the bracket, he will heat them up again to bend them to the proper angle for the cluster.
The size influences the fundamental note of a particular bell, and he has templates for a chromatic scale all the way up to C. Higher-pitch bells typically have smaller chambers, and lower pitches take a bigger chamber. He initially makes the bells so that the pitch is flat from its intended note, citing that it’s easier to bring the pitch up than to bring the tuning down. He’ll hammer around the edge of the two-piece bells, bending it slightly inward on one of the anvils in his shop to tweak its pitch. Testing the sound against an already tuned bell, he’ll check his accuracy using an old-school Peterson strobe tuner above his workbench.
With the conical bells, he grinds them down to tune them. “That’s really tricky,” he says, “because if you miss, then you’re going off into the next bell because you can’t bring them down again. These,” he says, grabbing a flat profile bell, “if I go too sharp, sometimes I can bend them back flat again.” He does this by gently squishing the bell so that it flattens out a bit before putting it back on the tuning mount to bring it to the desired note.
The newest model, the Garrapata (which means “tick” in Spanish), is a six-bell cluster with a flattened profile played with the hands like a hang drum. The bells face inward at each other and it has a mellow, melodic resonance. He tunes each set in a different scale. “It’s really interesting with the higher pitched bells,” he says. “I had to make sure that they didn’t create a nodal point and cancel each other out by vibrating into the other cavity across from it. The angle has to be just right.”
The rounder bells ring more, such as the Blossom Bell sets. “They have a nice bloom,” he says. “Really resonant with some nice beating warbles.” Ultimately the shape, size, and tuning treatment will determine the pitch and resonance of a particular instrument.
Once an instrument is built, Engelhart smoothes down the edges with a grinder and the belt sander, and then hand sands it for the finishing touch. To achieve an all-over satiny finish, like for the Garrapata, he’ll rub the entire surface with either fine sandpaper or a plastic brillo-like material. He then protects the instruments from rusting with a carnauba wax-based coating, rubbing the surface down, or using a spray wax for the hard to reach places. The interiors of the bells get painted red, giving them a distinctive appearance.
Each handcrafted instrument is a musical piece of art born from the imagination and metalworking genius of Pete Engelhart, who puts his special spin on traditional designs like the cha cha and agogo bells, and comes up with especially unique creations like the Satellite Drum, the Garrapata, and the Snail. From Engelhart’s shop come well-rendered dreams of steel.