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Set up and sealing 1896 Marine Bands

Back to the Maintenance, Repair and Customization Room

Andrew T
Jan 10, 2010 11:05 PM GMT

I have been chatting in the “gear” room about 1896 Marine Bands vs. Deluxe MBs, custom harps, fully vs. partially sealed combs, harp set-up, etc. I got to thinking I might just continue playing standard 1896 Marine Bands and FULLY seal the comb and set them up myself. Do any HS members do this? Can you please share some tips and specific guidelines to setting up and improving out-of-the-box Marine Bands? What product do you use to seal the comb? Where can I find it? How exactly is it done? What about replacing the nails with screws and other efforts to reduce leakiness and improve responsiveness and tone? What are people doing at home to beef up regular MBs there? How is that “opening up the back” done? I tried it once and ruined a perfectly good Marine Band. Lastly, what are some novice reed adjustments I can make to improve responsiveness and overblow/overdraw playability without much filing, embossing, and other advanced harp work that I would probably botch if I did it by myself the first few times? I’m ready to step up my gear by working on it at home without sending away for $180 custom harps. Step-by-step approaches by people who have successfully and repeatedly set up harps this way would be greatly appreciated.

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Jan 10, 2010 11:59 PM GMT
Not a Replied:

Personally, I soak my MB combs in Butcher's Block oil (aka. mineral oil, aka. liquid parffin). When buying this oil, look at the ingrediants. You want 100% mineral oil, with nothing else (sometimes they add chemical "drying agents" which are high VOC, and could cause respiritory issues). The kind I use is from IKEA, and I bought it originally for my butcher's block countertops and wood cutting boards. It's cheap; like $2 for a bottle that will last you years. I dissassemble the MB with a pocket knife, and then flat-sand the comb on 200 grit sandpaper that I've adhered to a very flat piece of laminate board. Use minimal pressure when doing this flat sanding, and do it until there are no more high spots on the comb surface (ie. when the surface is absolutely flat). This will take time; don't rush it. It's THE most important step. After this is done, I wipe the dust off the comb with a lint free cloth, and then soak it in the mineral oil. I just use the plastic case the harp comes in for this step. I fill up the case with oil, put in the comb, make sure it's completely covered, and then close the lid. I'd say at minimimum let it soak overnight, but if you want it to be really impregnated, let it soak a week or so. Then take it out, wipe it down, and oala! A fully sealed MB comb that won't swell on you, attract dust like beeswax, and was not nearly as big a pain in the ass to do as the salad bowl finish method.

I'll let others speak to the reed work as all I do is gap them (according to the method outlined int he Joe Spiers YouTube videos), and lightly emboss them using a proprietary method taught to me by Chris Michalek. I just open the backs up with normal pliers. I've just started to wrap the jaws up in duct tape to avoid marring the surface, but I'm not too picky about how the harp looks, more about how it sounds and how it plays.

Jan 11, 2010 10:03 AM GMT
Kingley Replied:

I seal the combs with beeswax using a double boiler. Once it's melted I dip my comb in it for around 40-50 seconds. Then scrape off any excess wax once it's dry (less than a minute). The covers I open up using a vice. This makes sure you get an even roll and no marks on the covers. This method is way better than using a hammer or pliers from an aesthetic point of view.

I use M2 X 10mm screws on the reedplates and use a 1.6mm drill bit to drill them out, then an M2 tap to cut the threads. I use the same screws on the covers and use M2 nuts to secure them.

For embossing (which I rarely do these days as it's not always necessary) I use a small socket . A penny or tuning fork is also a good tool for embossing.

For gapping I use a small brass tool (from the Lee Oskar tool kit) which is flat at one end and pointed at the other.

Watch Joe Spiers set of videos on YouTube for the best free gapping videos you will ever see. Joe's username there is "Choppajoe".

Here's what all these things do to your harmonica.

Gapping correctly is the single best thing you can do to make your harmonica play better. Make reeds respond more quickly and allow you to obtain overblows / overdraws and bends more easily.

Flat sanded, sealed combs will make your harmonica louder.

Embossing reed slots will change the tone of your harmonica and make it noticeably more "brassy"

Screw assembly makes your harmonicas easier to work on and maintain.

Opened coverplates give a perceivable difference in volume.

Jan 19, 2010 9:42 AM GMT
Andrew T Replied:

Thank you both! I'm thinking about taking my first stab at it this weekend. Good call on using a vice to open up the cover plates. I tried with pliars onceand it looked aweful. I think I could save money, improve my tone and overblow playing, and learn a neat new skill if I approach customizing harps myself using the methods you two have shared. I really appreciate it!!! :)

Jan 20, 2010 7:47 AM GMT
Andrew T Replied:

I'm wondering if I can get some of the necessary materials for sealing MB combs at Southerlands, Ace Hardware, Home Depot, etc. I need to collect the necessary tools for this job and so I'm thinking about hitting up hardware stores. That's probably where I would find the stuff. Where do you get bees wax, I wonder???

Jan 20, 2010 7:52 PM GMT
Boris Plotnikov Replied:

I dislike all marine bands. Anyway I have 2 classic (A and Am, retuned by me from D) and two Marine Band Deluxe (LF and Eb). MB Deluxe out of the box much better, but after customizing they are close to each other. All combs (classic and deluxe) soak and to solve this problem I put them to beeswax, melted in bain-marie for some minutes. When comb gets cold I remove all extra wax by knife.

For MB classiс I replace nails by bolts and nuts. Just drill some holes. I drill four 2.3 mm holes through covers plus two inside harp at the center of reedplate.

Also for MB classic (for Sp20 too) I bend in the edges of the coverplates. It gives me more compressed sound.

The main work I make with reedplates. I emboss slots, reduce gaps at rivet end to zero, and higher the tip of the reed. Sometimes If overbend squeeze I add small amount of beeswax to rivet end of the reed (waxing).

Jan 20, 2010 9:13 PM GMT
Not a Replied:

You can get 2-56 bolts, taps, and nuts at Ace. You can also get mineral oil (make sure there are no drying agents though). Ace has more variety of stuff, and it's easier to find it than in home depot. Beeswax, you are more likely to find at a farmer's market or at whole foods or some hippie place like that. I got some "softened" beeswax (softened becasue it was mixed with coconut oil) at a farmers market. It's supposed to be used as hairwax (for dreadlocks), but it's pretty damn good for a light application on harp combs. Before I switched to mineral oil, i used to apply this in alight coat,a nd then melt it in with my wife's hair drier. I did three or four coats. It worked pretty well, but in the long run, beeswax stays too tacky,and it attracks all sorts of gunk that get's stuckin the reedslots,a nd eventually in the reeds. Plus it really inhibits the harps ability to dry out after you play it, and hence saliva and condensation collects and gets trapped up by the reedplates. Sooner or later, your reedplates, and even your reeds will start to corrode. None of these things is a problem with mineral oil sealing, and that's why I switched over.

Jan 20, 2010 9:35 PM GMT
Not a Replied:

Oh, and you can get really nice, high-grit sanding sponges and wet sandpaper at Ace too...

Jan 25, 2010 10:50 PM GMT
Boby Replied:

Thanx everyone for the good advice!

I'll definetly try to find (and translate :) mineral oil

I stopped buying MB Classics because the nail make it just too much hastle to customise. But I have one failed project that I might ressurect some day. I sanded the comb to make it look like a Seydel Soloist Pro, but got a little carried away and ended up sanding it too much. so now the reedplates stick out way too much and now I have to sand them as well.

At that point I packed it all up and switched to SP20s :)

Jan 26, 2010 9:47 PM GMT
Not a Replied:

Hey, I just made this step-by-step list of the stuff I do to improve a Marine Band for another forum, and I thought I might as well also post it up over here so the good folks of Harmonica Space can have it too... Here it is:

17 Steps to a Better Harp,

By Isaac Ullah

Step 1: pop out the front two coverplate nails using a small knife blade (leave back to nails in for now)

Step 2: Drill out these two front holes using a drill bit that's wide enough to leave easy clearance for the screws I'll use (I use size 2-56).

Step 3: Pop of the other two nails, and remove the cover plates.

Step 4: Debur the holes I just drilled if needs, and tap the back coverplate nail holes flat with a small hammer and anvil.

Step 5: Pry up the reedplates with the knife blade and remove all the nails.

Step 6: Temporarily hold the reedplates back on with two bolts through the coverplate holes we just drilled (don't put the coverplates on though). Make sure the reedplates are aligned properly (I just make them even with the front of the comb), and tighten the screws up.

Step 7: Drill the reedplate screw holes out. I use the draw plate nail holes (there are 3) as a guide. Use a drill bit that is slightly narrower than a 2-56 screw.

Step 8: Unscrew the reedplates. Use a 2-56 tap to tap the holes in the draw reedplate you just drilled.

Step 9: Use the next wider drill bit or a diamond reamer bit to widen the drilled holes in the blow reedplates a bit until a 2-56 bolt will have easy clearance.

Step 10: Flat sand the comb with GENTLE pressure. Round off all the comb tines with a light sanding.

Step 11: OPTIONAL! Reassemble the harp completely, take it to the belt sander, and round off the ends. This is optional, but I think it feels better in your hands if you do this. After you rough the shape in on the belt sander, hand sand to a smooth finish. Disassemble the harp.

Step 12: Dust the comb off, and let it soak, fully submerged, in mineral oil for a few days. I use an old plastic harp case (from a Marine Band) to do this soaking, and mineral oil from IKEA.

Step 13: While the comb is soaking, flat sand the draw reedplate with gentle pressure until it is FLAT. Do any reedwork and embossing and retuning that I want to do.

Step 14: Fold down the back tabs of the coverplates (I just use pliers, others use a vinyl mallet).

Step 15: After the comb is fully impregnated with the oil (minimum 3 days or so), take it out and let it dry.

Step 16: Reassemble the combs with the reedplates making sure everything is aligned. Do all the gapping as per the Joe Spiers videos.

Step 17: Put the coverplates back on, and tweak them so that they are more open (again, I just use pliers, squeezing at the ends with a little upwards turn).

And there you go! After just 17 "Easy" steps, your OTB harp is now a wonderful "professional" instrument! ;)

Jan 27, 2010 1:42 AM GMT
Andrew T Replied:

Thank you! Issac U tha man!! Great find. Very very helpful. I broke down and purchased a MB2005 (Marine Band Deluxe) in the hopes that it was an existing manufactured version of what I'm going for with my own MB set-ups. And for $50 it is certainly NOT. Lets leave it at that cuz I registered my complaints about my new harp all over other rooms on HS haha. But yes you have been more than helpful in setting me on the right track for setting up my own harps. Thanks again!

Jan 27, 2010 5:37 AM GMT
BluEyes Replied:

Issac U, how about a nice step by step instruction for small improvements to the harp. You did such a great job, I was just wondering if you could give it a try. I have already destroyed two harps trying to customized them. A step by step guild would go well.

im just talking little baby steps

abner (BluEyes, one must learn to crawl before they stand then they can walk )

Jan 27, 2010 6:39 AM GMT
Boris Plotnikov Replied:


Great instruction. Anyway why not hold coverplates with 4 nuts and bolts instead 2?

Is mineral oil ok for breathing in?


Try other harp models if you're not happy about marine band. I dislike them too. If you like tone of marine band, remember the main harmonica player's phrase "the tone goes from player, not from harp".

Jan 29, 2010 4:18 AM GMT
Not a Replied:

I'm glad you guy's are finding this helpful... In the MBH forum thread I originally posted this in, I got into details about why I don't like to use 4 screws. The short story about this is thus: 1) A lot of time I need to "get under the hood" of my harps very quickly (ie. to free a stuck reed or to regap, or to do a quick retune), and having to remove 4 screws is a lot bigger pain in the ass than just the two. 2) This one is actually more importnant: It's a little known fact that any screw isgoing to deform the reedplate a bit when you tighten it up. The trick is to use JUST enough torque that the screw stays in, but not too tight. It's also better to have as few screws as possible, and have those screws laid out in a formation that prevents the multiplication of these individual deformations. IMO, 2-3 screws across the back of the reedplate coupled with the 2 coverplate screws at the front provides the optimal solution to this...

Blueeyes. I can give you more specific advice about techniques I've discovered for myself, but I'm not at liberty to disclose certain details of the those advance techniques taught to me by a top customizer in my area do to the fact that they are proprietary, and I promised I would not tell any one. So, I guess, just feel free to ask me, and i'll give you the best answer I can!



Jan 29, 2010 4:24 AM GMT
Not a Replied:

Oh, and yes, Boris, mineral oil is fine to breath. It is inert. Make sure to look at the ingredients. It should be 100% pure mineral oil. If it has anything else in the ingredients, don;t buy it. These are added "drying agents" to help it absorb faster, and they are potentially noxious. 100% mineral oil is 100% safe and non-toxic. And it does a great job of sealing. Plus, it's super easy to apply and to reapply if you ever feel the comb needs it (which is possible I suppose)

Jan 29, 2010 5:11 AM GMT
Boris Plotnikov Replied:


Interesting opinion. Maybe I'd start thinking about removing extra 2 nuts from my marineband classic and two marine band deluxes next year (((-:

Jan 29, 2010 2:21 PM GMT
walterharp Replied:

issac, nice, you have a step by step for replacing reeds?

Jan 29, 2010 4:14 PM GMT
walterharp Replied:

one more thing. Mineral oil is swallowed by people to fight constipation.. so they can poop.

In the US you can get pharmaceutical (USP) grade at a drug store, or pharmacy over the counter. I suspect that is true elsewhere in the world. I would suggest using this to avoid any possible problems with toxicity as it is certified (whatever that means) not to be toxic.

Still is is no perfect... according to wiki

In Europe the use of mineral oil as laxative is considered obsolete mainly due to its potentially harmful effects on the lungs if accidentally aspirated. Furthermore, the oil may be absorbed to a small percentage into internal tissue and cause adverse reactions to the body

Synonyms: Paraffin oil; liquid petrolatum; White Mineral Oil; Nujol

the material data saftey sheet makes it sound pretty bad, but it is used internally by some, so user beware!

Jan 29, 2010 4:47 PM GMT
BluEyes Replied:

Isaac U, thank you for your honesty in your answer.

Im a newbie that just plays at open mic with a bunch or guys that play acoustic rock songs. Me myself I enjoy the blues and Jazz " Cry Me A River " love that song. I don't know much about the true working of a harp or how to do simple stuff to them. Its always easy to watch and read about it, but when i get down to it, its hard as hell. I tried gapping once or twice a few months ago and just blow out two harps. Im thinking about gapping some lee oscars and that as far as I think I can go..

Isaac U thank you in advance.

abner ( BluEyes, having problems at work)

Jan 29, 2010 6:58 PM GMT
Boris Plotnikov Replied:


You know any hydrophobic liquids are easily goes through cell membranes, alcohols too. It seems to mee, that is't better to use less evaporative and more natural product like beeswax or pure wax (in the other hand you can inhale wax's evaporation while melting it).


It's not too hard as it seems. Biochemistry and molecular biology is much harder than harp customizing. Just practice a bit.

Jan 29, 2010 7:15 PM GMT
walterharp Replied:

issac mentioned the problem with bee's wax, it gums things up. stuff sticks to it. particularly a problem when your harps get hot and it is runny again (e.g. on a hot summer day).

one solution with be's wax, and people made fun of me, is to soak the comb in melted bees wax, take it out and get as much as you can off, then get a small propane torch and quickly flame the comb (don't catch the whole darn thing on fire though). This burns off the outer layer, and heats the comb up so it absorbs the wax into it.

i suspect any of the coatings harps come with are toxic to some degree, there really are no laws to deal with that, so this is probably a matter of preference. most plasicizers cause cancer, and water bottles are being made clear of that, but i doubt plastic harp combs are, so guess any way you go, you gotta take your chances.

i practice while walking to work, so the chemicals i breathe from a harp are probably less hazardous than my chance of being hit by a car!

Jan 29, 2010 7:39 PM GMT
Boris Plotnikov Replied:


I'm practice while walking too. I put my combs to melted wax and when it gets cold I remove all extra wax by knife ant it works for two mine marinebands. Anyway I dislike them (tone and covers).

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