(Or, how a guy whose primary technical skills are patience, asking questions and listening well managed to rehab a battered, old Vox Continental)
For several years, I had been searching for a Vox Continental organ. With my limited technical skills, I figured I’d better get one in pretty good shape. Easier said than done.
Nothing ever seemed to come up for sale locally. And eBay didn’t seem like a good alternative. Most of the sellers seemed to be people who bought them a day earlier at a yard sale, and really had no idea whether they even worked. (Or they pretended to know nothing, so they could later claim ignorance when it arrived with half the tone generator boards missing.) Some looked really nice, but the thought of letting UPS work its magic on a fragile piece of vintage electronics was scary. Price was an issue, too. Continentals that weren’t fully functional, and sometimes looked like they had been fairly well beat-up, regularly fetched $1,500 to $2,500. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to pay more for a slightly abused combo organ than I had paid a few years ago to buy a lovely Hammond B2 organ and two Leslie speakers. I kept losing auctions in the last 15 seconds. Things weren’t looking good…
I was getting discouraged, but I kept looking. In April 2009, I spotted an eBay auction for a Connie that was located in my town. I emailed the owner, and found out it was at a used guitar store just a couple of miles from my house. Here’s what I found when I got there:
Pretty ugly, huh? Actually, in some ways the pictures (which are from the seller’s auction) made it look worse then it was: He photographed it without even wiping off the grime, and somehow, his camera made it look like the orange lid had been painted bright red. And his lens must have had some awful distortion, because it made it look like the rail under the keys was bowed out — but it was not. Still, this thing was a wreck. The back panel was ripped all over. I really liked the modern AC receptacle installation. (I just imagined the Tech from Hell working on this: “You want a modern plug there, kid? I’ll grab my hole saw. It’ll just take a minute,”) And just to add to the fun, it didn’t work, either. Half the keys didn’t play at all; the rest made vague croaking noises or were missing footages. No legs. No volume pedal.
The Vox Continental of my dreams, right?
On the plus side, it was an English Continental, with wooden keys and that original British mystique. It looked complete electronically. And, seeing that it was already seemingly beaten to death and I could cart it home myself, I certainly wouldn’t have to worry about the condition in which it would arrive at my house. I could pretty much guarantee that it would be just as junky when it arrived in my home as it was in the store.
I really didn’t want this “beauty” that badly; I was feeling stupid just considering buying something so abused. But I figured that if I could get it cheap enough, I could at least sell some parts to recover some of my costs if things didn’t work out. So, I offered the guy the $399 starting price from the auction. He said he’d have to get $500 for it. I thanked him and started to walk out. But then, I remembered the Vox equivalent of the “Hammond buyers’ secret.”
(The Hammond buyers’ secret, for the uninitiated, is that most thrift shops and people who inherit Grandpa’s Hammond haven’t figured out that there is a sequence of flipping the Start and Run switches that makes a tonewheel Hammond spring to life. When hitting the start switch fails to produce any tones, they assume it’s not working and price it accordingly. Probably the source of many bargains…)
Now, the Continental secret is that you can sometimes bring a seemingly dead UK or Italian Connie back to life by slowly and patiently turning the bias pots on each of the 12 tone generator cards. It’s worth a try, I figured. So I backed away from the door, and asked the clerk to remove the orange top. I started fiddling with a few bias pots, and could hear the tones returning, note by note. Those notes sounded great, too. I figured it might be fixable, pulled out my credit card and carted it home.
By the end of that evening, much of it was functioning beautifully. I had cleaned the contacts (mostly by playing, but a few stubborn tones required a little work with a pipe cleaner and some contact cleaner), cleaned the drawbar contacts and cleaned and adjusted the bias pots, For a week or so, it seemed like I had to fiddle with the pots of a few notes every day, but after that, they just seemed to settle in.
Within a few days, I re-soldered a handful of broken wires, which restored all but one of the missing tones. (It’s got one broken key contact, which means one key is missing the 8 foot tone — which really isn’t very noticeable when several drawbars are pulled. I’ll tackle that sometime when I’m feeling brave.) Tuned it using a chromatic guitar tuner. Levelled a few low-lying keys by adjusting the key springs.
Then I started working on the cosmetics. The orange top was in pretty good shape, but looked a whole lot better after being cleaned successively with Dawn dishwashing detergent, Simple Green and a weak bleach solution, and rubbed quite gently with a Scotchbrite pad. The insides were surprisingly clean (I was expecting rat stuff inside), and I just vacuumed and damp-wiped there, The area where the Rexine was intact got a good gentle washing, too. When it dried, I began gluing down little pieces of Rexine that had been ripped.
A visit to the neighborhood hardware store yielded a bunch of replacements for missing screws and bolts. I found some plastic polish, and used it to spiff-up the control panel.
Next task was attacking the ugly aftermarket alterations that had been done. I bought a replacement Mains switch from North Coast Music. It’s similar to the original switch (it doesn’t quite match), but it looked much better than the metal “bat” toggle switch someone had installed as a replacement. It took a little filing of the hole to get it to fit, but not so much that it would prevent me from using an original switch if I ever find one.
On to the rusty replacement AC receptacle that had been installed crudely into the back panel. I decided to remove that, and replace it with an original English three-pin Bulgin receptacle that would fit into the hole next to the guitar cable jack. These are expensive and hard to find (since they are no longer made), but I found a semi-reasonable price from a UK seller on ebay who had both the receptacle and the matching plug. I installed the receptacle with the help of a Yahoo Combo Organs Group member who provided a schematic — and interpreted it for me (thanks Norman!). And I installed the plug on a nice, heavy-duty extension cord to serve as the new power cord. All this left me with a large round hole in the back panel (where the replacement receptacle had been).
In my opinion, one of the coolest features of the Continental is the chrome z-stand. It’s just not right without one. But there seem to be far more Vox organs in the world than there are Vox stands. Now, this makes no sense, given that they are durable, and they aren’t small enough to get misplaced like, say, pen caps and socks. So, they really command premium prices. You can buy replica stands from North Coast, but, in my opinion, they just don’t have the same soul. So, what was I to do?
Okay. I’ve misled you here for dramatic effect. I actually solved my dilemma by making a quick decision: The Vox Jaguar that I had bought six months earlier for $200 was about to “donate” its more or less perfect z-stand, its wing bolts, its original Vox volume pedal and its leg case to the new organ in the household (Mighty thoughtful of the Jag to volunteer all its accessories, without even hesitating. Funny, the Jag didn’t even complain when I sold it for a nice profit a few weeks later, despite stripping it of all those accessories.)
Now, purists among you may point out that the Jag accessories are slightly different than the ones orginally packaged with a UK Continental. That’s true. They were made for Italian-built Jags and Continentals. But they are, in my opinion, close enough. (And they were “free.”) The stand got shined with ultra-fine steel wool. The volume pedal got disassembled so I could tighten it to eliminate some slipping, I used contact cleaner to get rid of static in the volume pot, re-soldered one plug, and used contact cement to glue down the rubber mat.
Unfortunately, the Jag wingbolts that hold the stand to the organ have different threading than those on UK Continentals. Since I don’t plan to gig with my Connie (and have no need to pack it up), I just bought some conventional 5/16″ bolts (short ones, since there is a pitch difference between the original threading and the bolts available to me). But I missed the original look of the wing bolts, so I invested a couple of bucks to replace the t-nuts in the organ cabinet to make them compatible with the Italian wingbolts. (Once again, I violated the sacred trust of keeping everything original. Oh well, practicality wins again.)
Now the organ was 98% functional electronically. While great improvements had been made cosmetically, there were parts of it that were still ugly. Fortunately, the Rexine was mostly tattered in just two areas: The underside (which I really didn’t care about, since you don’t see it when it’s set up) and the back panel (which had swiss cheese Rexine, a big hole in the case, no chrome glides and no Continental nameplate.
I considered re-Tolexing the whole organ, but rejected that because I didn’t want to lose the original smooth Rexine casing. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, you can’t buy any covering that matches the original. So, what to do?
I got this wacky idea that I could strip off a piece of matching Rexine from the inside of the Continental’s carrying case lid. With a little guidance from a Combo Organs Group list member (thanks Senhor California), I used a hair dryer to soften the glue, and very slowly pulled off the Rexine, being careful not to rip or stretch it. Then, I washed it in Simple Green to remove most of the residual glue from the back.
At this point, I decided I needed a little professional help: I called a guy whose company does leather restoration. They have some experience working with woodwork and upholstery, since they often rehab leather furniture. He surely was not as experienced in these matters as an upholstery shop person might have been. But the guy was clearly a perfectionist, and he immediately recognized that the organ wasn’t a piece of old junk — it was a treasured vintage instrument. I figured I’d rather have someone who really cared about doing a good job than someone with more experience who might be watching the clock while he worked.
So, he got the assignment of plugging the AC receptacle hole with a wood patch, using wood filler to fix some bruises, sanding off the old glue and residue, and using the salvaged Rexine to recover the back panel and back corners of the organ. Also, he had his leather-dyeing specialist mix up a batch of dye to match the Rexine, which he applied to camouflage some small scrapes elsewhere on the organ. It took him about three weeks to complete the job, for which he charged me $125, which I considered to be a real bargain.
When I got it back, I added a replica Continental badge (from Vintage Vibe) and the three missing chrome glides (from North Coast Music). I think the results are pretty spectacular. Have a look:
Not bad for starting with a $500 junker organ!
Now, two months into my ownership, I’m down to this short punchlist:
1) Replace the single broken key contact;
2) The vibrato on the D# notes doesn’t work on all the footages, making it a little weaker than the other notes when you play with multiple drawbars pulled (which I always do). (It only works on the IV drawbar.) I’ve already got some good ideas from the group on how to tackle this;
3) Its missing one yellow drawbar pull. (I’ve located someone who has a spare, but needs to find it).
So, the moral of this story is that you need not be some sort of combo organ genius to rehab one of these devices. With a little help from your friends (in my case, the Combo Organ Group — including many hours I spent reading in that list’s archives), you can handle much/most/all of this stuff yourself. You, too, may reach a point at which you will be well-advised to call in a pro, but if you work carefully and find some good advice, you will surprise yourself at how much you can do.
9/28/09: Task #1 is done! My Connie had just one broken key contact. In searching the Yahoo combo organ archives, I mostly found warnings that this was a horrendous task, not to be undertaken by mere mortals. But I also found several posts from Bryan Lord, who talked about fixing one with a guitar string and some glue. I contacted Bryan, and he provided some more details. (Thanks Bryan!)
What I did mostly borrowed from his experience, but I believe I improvised a little from his method. Here’s what I did:
I took a length of unwound electric guitar string, cut it about four inches longer than the length of a key contact. On one side, I bent a length of roughly 3/8 of an inch at a 90 degree angle, to form an “L” shape. Starting with the base of the “L”, I threaded the string between the buss bars and through the tiny hole in the “pusher” that moves the contacts as a key is depressed.
In my case, much of the bottom of the broken contact was still in place. So, with a little trial and error, I was able to slip the base of the L between the remains of the old contact and the flat surface to which it was soldered. I slid the base of the new contact in far enough so that it made contact with the round loop in the old contact.
So, now, the new contact was being held in place by the tension of the old one, and was touching the old contact in at least two points. It seemed like a pretty good temporary connection. So, I fired up the organ — and the new contact worked!
The next step was to glue everything into place. On Bryan’s suggestion, I mixed up some quick-setting JB Weld epoxy. I used a very thin wooden rod to dab some epoxy on the places where the two contacts touched each other. (Since the new contact was being held in place by the tension of the old contact, there was no need to hold the pieces in place to let them set. So, I probably didn’t need the quick-setting version.) You can’t really see what you’re doing in there with the glue, so I just hit several places with the glue to be sure.
The next morning, I gave the new contact a tug. It seemed quite secure. I cut off the excess guitar string, and the key now works perfectly.
Is this a permanent fix? Hard to say. I suppose it could fail tomorrow. But it seems quite secure, and I am hopeful that this will be long-lasting. (Bryan says his fix was done 7 years ago — and is still fine.)
Honestly, if I had five or ten broken contacts, I would try to fix them “the right way.” But for a single key contact, this certainly seems like the way to go.
(I’ve been told that replacement contacts measure .39 mm, making them equaivalent to the G string (third smallest) on a superlight guitar string set. The original contacts are gold-plated to prevent corrosion. A nickel-plated guitar string would be a reasonable corrosion-resistant substitute. In any case, make sure the string isn’t coated with something non-conductive, like plastic.)
But keep reading for better solutions for this problem…
10/10/09: Task #3 is done! A benefactor, who asked to remain anonymous, dug into his parts box and came up with a yellow 4′ drawbar pull. Never thought I’d find one! That’s the final cosmetic piece I needed. Looks good!
10/24/09: Task #2 is done. My Vox is completely functional! Guess I forgot that the IV drawbar sounds on each key come from the tone generator boards of different notes (since they are not fundamental tones). So, the vibrato was completely disfunctional on my D# notes. I swapped another board into the D# board location and the vibrato worked just fine, so I knew the problem was with the D# board.
Much thanks to John Brewer, a member of the Yahoo Combo Organ group, who, in a series of off-line emails, very patiently walked me through the process of using an analog meter to trace the vibrato signal on the board. It turned out to be a single faulty capacitor between the vibrato input pin and the oscillator. (And how fitting that an Englishman should help me solve the last issue on my UK Continental.)
My Vox now works like the day it was born!
I can’t believe it’s done! The organ looks great and works perfectly!
And still more!
January 2010: I got tired of having to frequently tweak the bias pots on each tone generator board when the lowest footages dropped out. And after a while, I found it hard to find any pot setting that would work. So I replaced all 12 bias pots. I got them from Vintage Vibe. There are probably cheaper sources, but you’ve got to love a company that has a ton of vintage keyboard repair videos on YouTube. Between my Vox, my Hammond and my Wurli, I’ve learned a ton — and avoided a lot of service calls — by using their videos. Here’s the video for installing bias pots. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8AKjvq9sks
March 2010: Found someone in Scotland who was willing to sell a working original Mains switch for a reasonable price. Subbed it for the North Coast replacement switch I had added. It’s a small cosmetic improvement, but that was the only item on the exterior of the organ that wasn’t original or a good reproduction part, so I was really pleased to find one.
By the way, these often-broken original switches can generally be repaired. Contact me for details. Or I would be glad to buy your broken switches.
Sept. 2013: Okay, I got compulsive. Bought this volume pedal (which is what Vox supplied with the UK-made Connies) to replace my Italian Connie pedal.
May 2014: Well, my guitar string contact fix finally failed, as did two subsequent efforts to restore the makeshift fix. Finally, under the influence of a friend whose technical skills far exceed my own, I decided to do a proper fix, and completely disassemble the contact assembly to add a new contact wire. To prepare for this, I went on eBay, and bought some spare contact boards, so I would have some contacts to use in the repair.
Well, if all’s well that ends well, then this is a happy story. It’s all fixed and working properly. But in between my decision to tackle this job and my declaration that it was fixed, there was a period of several months in which my poor Connie lay in pieces, and I was convinced I had rendered it so disabled that it could never be fixed. I thought I had converted this wonderful instrument into a pile of useless parts. In fact, I was even shopping for a replacement organ.
I encountered two main problems: In the disassembly and assembly process, I bent many of the contact wires. (Eventually I found a very effective way to straighten them.) And the re-assembly process, without benefit of the alignment jigs that were likely used in the Vox factory, was hellish. It took many frustrating iterations to finally find a method that worked. It was very painstaking work. And then I had to work my way through a variety of contact issues I created in the re-assembly process. But it’s all good now.
I really can’t decide whether, if the need to do this job arose again, whether I would avoid it at any cost — or whether I would figure that my hard-won experience would make the job much easier a second time around. In any event, this is clearly a job not to be taken lightly. You need patience and skill to tackle this task. (And depending on your disposition, a large vocabulary of foul language may prove helpful…)
June 2016: I finally learned the secret of replacing key contacts permanently, quickly, and without losing your mind! First, get a small supply of these contact boards from a parts Connie. (Vintage keys techs can often sell them to you. I also have a supply large enough to spare a few.)Loosen the key contact assembly top just enough to create some slack, but not enough to either remove the cover or let the contact boards slip out of alignment. There’s a little flexibility in these boards. Flex the one with the broken contact enough to remove it from its slots. Reinstall a replacement one by flexing it into place. You’ll need to get the contact wires through the tiny holes in the “pusher stick” that moves up and down as you hit and release keys. This may require a little patience, and the use of a small set of needle nose pliers to carefully guide each contact through its hole. Re-solder the wires to each of the correct contacts, and you’re ready to go.
Some of this will make more sense to you once you take a close look at the whole contact assembly. This is definitely the best way to handle this job. I was able to replace five broken contacts on an Italian Connie this way, with relatively little trouble. It’s worth noting that it’s possible to break one of these boards when you flex it into place. So, you’ll want to get a few spares to tackle this job. Occasionally, you can also knock some of the adjacent boards out of their slots when doing this, especially if you’ve loosened the top too much. Just flex them back into place.
I’m hoping people find this web page helpful as they rehab Continentals. I’d welcome hearing from you with comments or questions. Send them to alan.lenhoff – at- gmail.com