There is no modern technology in bell prodction, and almost everything is still traditional handicraft. Generally, bells have been manufactured for about 5000 years. The method in use until today dates back to the 16th century.
Most of you will know the poem “song of a bell” from the famous by Friedrich Schiller (general translation):
Firmly built into the earth, the form of clay is fired.
Today the bell needs to be done. Come on fellows, be on hand!
From the forehead, the sweat must run hot,
The work should praise the maestro, but the blessing comes from above … .. etc.
Being present at a bell-cast during the christmas season is really magic. Once I had the opportunity to do so in Karlsruhe respectively a company called Bachert (founded in 1725) which is one of the last bell foundries in Germany.
Already near the entrance area larger and smaller specimen can be seen; mostly broken bells with big cracks. Also various types of clappers are placed on the floor or are resting on wooden frames. It is hardly possible to raise or move one of them. By the way, the big bell of the Cologne Cathedra weighs 24,000 kg, her clapper/tongue alone 600 kg.
Bachert has a worldwide reputation; for example, bells for the Dresden Frauenkirche were casted here. One of our bells today goes to Hungary and the community – for sure – has saved money for it a long time.
After entering the large brickstone factory hall, where donators, church dignitaries and representatives of the congregations are already gathered to experience the completion of the three bells waiting in the ground, it is getting increasingly dark. There is a ceremonial mood while a brass quartet begins to play.
Upon arrival we had received a 30-minutes-introduction at the model. It illustrates how brick and clay first build up an inner bell shape, the so-called core. A layer of clay is applied over it and with the help of the “rib” exactly shapes the curve of the later bell – called false bell. On top of this all desired inscriptions and ornaments are applied with wax. Above this, a third layer of clay, called the mantle, is modeled.
Now 1.5 exciting hours are ahead of us. Is everything going well? In front of us in the ground you can clearly see various channels that lead to the individual “bell cellars”. And although it is quite cold outside, it soon gets quite warm inside and dust bites the eyes.
The man in the silver protection suit crosses himself in front of a small altar and murmurs a few sentences ending with the words “in the name of God”. Traditionally, it is around 15.00 clock, the death hour of Jesus. He kneels in front of a huge stove and holds an arm-thick pin to open it. Another beats a dozen times with a sledgehammer. Smoke rises, then “the so-called Glockenspeise”, a red-yellow glowing mass (about 75% bronze / 25% tin) swells at 1,100 degrees from the oven. Sparks fly, further smoke rises. Like a lava flow, the metal in the gutters moves on to several openings in the ground. Weeks before, the molds of the bells had been tamped there.
The recipes still used today are almost 200 years old. In the so-called “Lehmbude, hugh dough” hooks are stirring in a tough mass. This models the molds. Allegedly, animal urine is added to this mixture to make it more supple.
We also learn that the “rib” is the trade secret of every foundry. This refers to a wooden curved template – the major original bell form. By the way, every bell that is produced carries a stamp or a signature of the manufactory.
When the clay is heated, the wax melts and letters and decoration remain as a negative imprint on the inside of the “mantle.” Now you just have to lift off the coat, knock out the wrong bell and put the coat back over the core: the mold is ready. Easier said than done. And in order to avoid shatter when the form is filled with fluid-hot bronze, it is buried in the ground.
But what distinguishes good and bad bells? The visitor learns that a single bell does not simply produce one sound, but a symphony of different tones that should be in tune with each other and in harmony with other bells.
Originally, the bells of the Christians were considered a pagan custom and the first exemplars were more likely simple cowbells made of sheet metal. Only the monastery brothers of the Middle Ages ventured to the bronze casting technique.
The bell making and commissioning is not an easy business. More than 10 employees are constantly on the road to repair bell chairs and percussions.
Slowly it has become quiet, only some camera click-clacks can be heard. The air is now so dusty that the fotos are increasingly blurred and breathing gets difficult. The five men on the hot platform have meanwhile controlled all “lava-accesses” and performed heavy work. Accordingly, their faces are red and sweaty as they later remove the protective masks.
As the big sliding door is finally opened again, we enjoy the fresh air. Truelly a sustainable impressive event during the Advent and Christmas season.
However, we were not able to hear how these bells will actually sound later, as they have to cool down in the earth for three weeks prior to salvage. Only then is it checked with a tuning fork, whether the casting has succeeded well. A bell can have up to 50 tones while its sound depends on hight, diameter and wall thickness.
According to the experts, the bow makes the bell sound – I just like to listen to its monumental gong, a faithful sound in difficult times like these. May all of you have a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS !