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Steeple Keeper's Diary 1: Now with added Epilogue!

by Josh Burson

First published in The Clapper, Winter 2019

Some background on bells and clappers: In modern changeringing bells, the clapper swings from a short horizontal rod (the clapper pin), which runs between the two arms of the u-shaped staple. (Which is attached to the bell with a staple bolt, which is the thing that broke the LAST time we had a problem with the #5.) On the bells at the Church of the Advent, the clapper pin screws into one side of the staple, and is then further secured with a nut on the outside.

Everybody with me so far?

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The first thing to note about The Time Wot The Clapper Fell Off The Bell is that I wasn’t actually there: I only found out when one of newer ringers (Katarina Whimsy!) texted me that I was “missing an Exciting Day at bells today!”

The second thing to note is that it was still, pretty much, my fault.

You see, the #5 had been sounding a little off for a while now, in an off-and-on fashion; but because of that last, I didn’t think much of it. Bells do weird things sometimes. But then last week, we heard (or some of us heard) a sharp “Crack!” when somebody was ringing it.

“Stand!” yelled the conductor.

“All right, 4, 5, and 6 down please!” yelled me.

“Are you sure that’s necessary?”

“If we’ve broken something, I want to find out BEFORE it causes serious damage,” I replied. (And if I’m going to inspect a bell, I don’t want to have to worry about joggling the one next to it with disastrous results.)

So we got the bells down, and I and the aforesaid Keen Younger Ringer climbed up to have a look at it. We checked the stay and the slider, because that’s what usually breaks; and we checked the axles, because that’s what went (nearly disastrously) wrong on one previous occasion; and we checked the wheel and the rope and the various bolts on the bell and the area around the trapdoor.

We forgot to take a close look at the clapper, partly because due to the peculiarities of our belfry, the clapper on the #5 is used to brace the trapdoor open when you go up there.

We couldn’t find anything wrong. I concluded that it was just one of those things, or perhaps that a slightly-larger-than-usual fragment of brick had fallen off the walls (yes, this is a thing that happens; and yes, we should probably bring it up with the property committee).

I did not consider the possibility that the noise we heard was the nut falling off the end of a mostly-unscrewed clapper pin.

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Falling Out

As I said earlier, I wasn’t there when the clapper fell out of the #5. I heard about it afterwards, though: the frankly terrifying THUMP, a quick "STAND" and a frantic handling of bells. The bell rope being yanked up through the ceiling when the falling clapper hit the slider and bounced it out of its housing, whereupon the bell turned turtle. One or two people missing a stoke, but recovering and getting their bells down in a hurry. A massive puff of dust from the trapdoor, since once again, our steeple seems to leak plaster dust.

Before anyone else asks, No, there was pretty much no way that the clapper was going to fall through the ceiling. Sure, it’s probably forty pounds of metal, and it was moving at some speed; but the odds of it actually getting projected at the floor without hitting anything else on the way (the bell itself, the bell frame, the slider, the girders that hold the whole business up) are close to zero. And unless it got launched like an arrow into the floor, it wasn’t even going to make a dent in it. We need to walk on it, so it’s a sturdily-constructed floor; and that’s before you even get to the second ceiling and all the insulation between the two layers.

It IS fortunate that it didn’t do more damage, though. I’m actually a bit surprised that it didn’t break the slider on its way down, and if it had actually flown and hit one of the OTHER bells … (shudder)

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Assessing our options

Once everything quieted down, a couple of people climbed up to have a look at the damage, and then my fellow steeplekeeper from Old North and I had another look last night. From what we can gather, the pin had gradually worked itself out (and the nut that was supposed to stop all this fell off at some point). Then there was some period of time when the clapper-and-pin was hanging from the very edge of the staple, because the threads on the edge of the hole in the staple actually got crushed together at one end.

And that, in fact, is my problem. We didn’t break the slider; the staple is otherwise fine, as far as we can tell; and the clapper pin appears to be undamaged…but it won’t screw into that side of the staple. Since the screw isn’t load-bearing, we can just excise the damaged threads and go on using the staple; but doing that is likely to be tricky.

Plan A is to find someone with something called a tap, which I gather is basically a drill-head thing that you use to bore (or re-bore) screw sockets. The problem with this plan is finding that someone. Our neighborhood hardware store (who were super-helpful when we brought this weird chunk of metal in and said “Hey, can we re-bore this with a tap?”) do not have one NEARLY that large; neither did my crazy engineer friend who rebuilds antique racecars as a hobby. Other possibilities include various people’s schools and the local technical college. (And of course, even if one HAS one, we have to convince them to let us use it…)

Plan B is to just file the damaged portion of the threads off. We now have a file (again, thanks, Charles Street Supply!) The problem with this plan is that we can see several ways that this could go horribly wrong and ruin the whole part.

Plan C (if we ruin the staple with Plan B) is Buy A New One. The problem with this plan is 1. finding one that’s congruent with the current clapper, 2. Expense, since while the Church would pay for it, we’d rather they had the money to, say, stop the stairs from creaking so much, 3. The fact that it the new staple might have to be shipped all the way from England, 4. What do we do with this now-useless hunk o’ metal?

As such, Plan T (for “Temporary”) is Just Stick The Old Clapper Back On, Like We Did Last Time, since unlike the other plans, I’m pretty sure I can actually get that one done on Wednesday.

And the moral of the story is, Always Inspect the Staple.

Epilogue, One Month Later

We did indeed go with Option T, such that while ringing at the Advent sounded a bit odd the Sunday after all this occurred, by the following Sunday things were pretty much back to normal, although we noticed that the bell didn’t sound quite as good with the old clapper. Meantime, we’d embarked on a variant on Plan A, one which involved me dropping the damaged staple off with local handbell-ringing aficionado, former steeple-keeper, and certified mad scientist Jeff Del Papa. Jeff, in turn, is involved with Waltham’s Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation…and they, in turn, have a tap of the right size.

So on February 2, a month to the day after it fell out, it was time for the permanent fix. I had the staple (the pin was slightly warped, as it turned out, but not enough to prevent us getting it back in), and I recruited Kat, who’d expressed interest in learning more about steeple-keeping, and Matt Austin, who happened to be visiting with several of his students. (Thanks to all of you guys, by the way!) We schlepped the various bits of ironwork up into the belfry, figured out how to get the work lights connected, and put the whole assemblage of staple bolt – staple – clapper pin+nut – clapper back together. (This time, with added Loctite!) Then one of us did the thing where you stand under the bell, trying to manoeuvre the whole assemblage (which, of course, is hinged in the middle!) up through the bell, while someone else sits on top* and screws the nuts onto the staple bolt. It helps, at least at the Church of the Advent, to have a couple of extra people too: to pass people things, hold the lights, and climb up and down the ladder to retrieve whatever you forgot in the ringing room.

And so, without too much difficulty, we put the new clapper back in, complete with repaired staple. We put the twiddle pins back to our best guess of where they’d been before.

And then, before you ask, we each took a bell, climbed under it, and checked whether the clapper pin was properly attached!

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Once again, huge thanks to all the many people who helped, in person or through advice, with this effort. I’m the official steeple-keeper, but I got this job because I’d helped other people out with it, and other people have helped me many times since. So really, steeple-keeping is a team effort!

* Usually when I mention doing this, people start to look at me a bit nervously, but in this case, their fear is misguided. A bell ringing full circle exerts a force, if I remember correctly, of two-and-a-half times its own weight…horizontally; the vertical forces are even greater. So even if you weigh 200 lbs. and have somehow crammed yourself onto the yoke of the treble at Princess Anne, there is no way that you are going to break it, because the force that the bell exerted the previous Sunday was more than your weight plus that of the bell.

Posted Feb 20, 2019

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