Zen and the art of fireplace bellows maintenance

They tell me it was Benjamin Franklin who once said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” but personally, I like Mark Twain’s further take on that sage wisdom. Referencing Franklin, Samuel Clemens is supposed to have added, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow just as well.” Very Zen and useful advice for procrastinators everywhere. At this house, we find that’s true more than most.

While writing my last post and thinking about the blacksmith’s forge, I’d been absentmindedly glancing at the old fireplace bellows down beside the fireplace that have been kicking around there for as long as I can remember. Back in the day, a fireplace was the most common source of heating a house through a long Melbourne winter, both in town and up country, so a bellows used for coaxing a flame from a dying fire was important.  Vintage bellows are pretty common and many are decorated in pleasing fashion almost like works of art, but nails rust, leather perishes and wood dries out and cracks, so when found they are often in a sorry state of repair. While not actually decrepit, it had been a long time since our bellows had done what they had been designed to do

I looked at those bellows and they seemed to look back at me, as if to say, “Enough of the writing already, what about me?” Those bellows had been made by long dead hands and in truth were a beautifully carved thing, but sadly the leather parts had rotted away long ago to practically nothing. If we were ever going to get them to breathe their fire again, well then they needed to be fixed. But where do you take something like that to be repaired these days? The answer is, well you don’t. If you want something done in life, sometimes you have to be prepared to do it yourself, which is probably why those old bellows had for such a long time been floating around here in their state of disrepair.

I examined the fireplace bellows closely. Although the guts were mostly missing, surely there couldn’t be that much to the mechanism could there? They consisted of two rigid boards, nicely carved with a metal nozzle between where the air would normally be forced out. A simple valve on the backboard was designed to allow air to be sucked into the bellows as they expanded, and to close when the air was being forced out.

Hmmm, doesn’t sound so very complicated, does it?

drawing of hands holding a simple fireplace bellows
Diagram of a simple fireplace hand type bellows. (Source: Wikipedia)

The first thing to do then was to remove the old domed nails holding the remnants of the leather sides in place. I tried prising the first nail off with the edge of a knife and heard it break and fly across the room for my effort. Not a good start. Proceeding more cautiously I eventually had all the nails removed and saved for reuse. I looked them over. Machine made so maybe these bellows were not as old as they looked, or as old as I had always assumed them to be.

The two boards of a fire bellows are most usually hinged by a piece of leather but I decided to improve on this by introducing an old brass hinge, secured of course with flat headed screws, even though I calculated the screws would eventually be hidden under the shroud of the leather diaphragm. A short string between the two boards was supposed to limit the expansion of the boards and a heavy gauge wire fastened on the underside of the backboard and anchored with string served as a spring.

The hardest part was working out the shape of the missing leather sides. I measured it off with an old dressmakers’ tape and realized I was going to need a rather longer piece of leather than I had anticipated. Fortunately, we had some left over raw leather from a job lot we picked up a long time ago. The shape of the leather sides required I would describe as looking like an elongated almond, a sort of flattened disc with a bump in the middle. I found this easiest to get right by drawing a template of one quarter, then doubling up the design and doubling up again, cutting the leather oversize to allow for the excess to be trimmed once it was fastened in place.

I used contact adhesive to glue the leather, wetting the leather to aid in taking up the shape and securing with brass tacks, adding a leather boot over the hinge at the nozzle to achieve some approximation of an airtight chamber. The sides were trimmed with a thin strip of leather and the reused domed nails. An aniline stain was used to dye the leather and match it to the colour of the timber boards.

The finishing touch consisted of a little Neatsfoot Oil on the leather and some beeswax rubbed into the boards. I pointed it at the dog and gave it a squeeze. It worked. She took off to hide under the table.

Brilliant, this might stop some yapping.

So that is how it took an hour or two to repair something that has probably been waiting for attention longer than I have been walking around on this planet. Afterwards, I looked at the very many other things that need doing around here and which is par for the course living in a 150 year old house. I wondered, what next?

We all know that procrastination can be the thief of time, but I find there is a peculiar satisfaction in repairing something that is broken. Just as much satisfaction as there is in finding something in a good state of repair. This is as true of fire bellows as it is in personal relationships and the world we live in. As an allegory of the search for a meaning in life, I think Zen and the art of fire bellows maintenance might just about be as good as any.

One thought on “Zen and the art of fireplace bellows maintenance”

  1. Do you ever open the house for the interested to view? It would be lovely to visit and see around it one day.


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