Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Pokerworks and their many kin

The so-called Hohner Pokerwork (Model No. 2915) is the musical equivalent of a draft horse, or Toyota Hilux. Maybe it's more like an African Grey parrot: buy one today and it may outlive you, swearing at your great-grandchildren. If you have a Pokerwork then you know your instrument is practically indestructible, utterly affordable, built like a tank, and you won't wince when it accidentally gets wet. Indeed, the thing even sounds better when you spill a beer on it (so I'm told). Bearing this in mind, maybe the Hilux analogy works best. These things were built to last. 

The Pokerworks of today, like the one in the first photo (courtesy of Wikipedia), are built in China. They are offered in G/C, A/D, C/F, and D/G tuning. The paint job of a new Pokerwork is dangerously brighter than the understated gold tones of classic German examples. You could signal an aircraft with one of these things! Sunglasses are sold separately. Unfortunately, quality has fallen since production moved to China. For instance tuning is not what you'd expect from a new instrument. But it comes with orange bellows paper, tacky gold bellows tapes, no depth stop in the keyboard, and the warranty is printed in German. Some things just never change.
                                                                                                                                                                                          
Here is a Pokerwork I sold in 2009. It was built in Germany. I was quite fond of this accordion. My neighbors were not! But I was not fond of my neighbors or their dog so I figure in the end, we were square. I learned that the man who bought it actually sold it to someone else and recently, I received an email from that buyer. The most recent owner enjoys it very much. I'm happy to know my old box has a good home and may even spend some time on a sailboat! Considering all the persons who may own a single accordion, I am caused to regard the purchaser of an instrument as a steward, not an owner. 

Before plastic was used, the Pokerwork came with a wooden keyboard cover routed from a single block of timber. At right is such an instrument. This is sometimes referred to as a "horned" keyboard because of its shape. To a player familiar with plastic keyboard covers, these wooden keyboard covers feel different during play and some prefer that. I like wood over plastic but these have a serious design flaw: the playing surface is quite thin and unsupported. As a result, over time it will crack and split between the buttons. Some enterprising shops and owners have taken to constructing new wooden covers with a detachable metal plate as the surface.

In the early days before World War Two, Hohner produced accordions decorated by different goldbrand and holzbrand patterns. "Goldbrand" is how Hohner describes the gold/black paint applied over pressed wood, and "holzbrand" is essentially goldbrand without any paint -- just pressed wood.** Design elements from the various cabinet motifs were shared between different models. Considering the number of factories Hohner had doing their contract work and the range of years these accordions were available to different dealers, there are plenty of "pokerworks" floating around to keep a collector busy for years. Just which factory filled which contract remains a mystery to me, but some clues indicate dates of production and possibly origin.

This old Hohner accordion has the anchor trademark flanking the name, placing its date of production at a point following the Hohner takeover of Kalbe, where the trademark originated. Pre-Hohner accordions and harmonicas made by Kalbe all featured the anchor in a prominent place, and Hohner retained the trademark when they absorbed the Kalbe company in the sale. This vine pattern is rare by comparison to other holzbrand and goldbrand patterns made by Hohner, which makes it appealing to me. The same pattern was also offered in goldbrand style, with staggered bass buttons. I'd like to think that different bass buttons indicates a contract filled at a different factory but in the absence of documentation, there is no way to tell. Perhaps Hohner was only experimenting.

The next type of accordion (left) was produced in large numbers and is commonly available on auction sites like Ebay. It is a great accordion to restore, and plenty of people do restore them. Note the design motif is different than the "viney" example above. This accordion's cabinet has an upright Hohner logo and a pressed wood or holzbrand design that looks more like bubbles or waves. I think it looks quite nautical and exudes kitschy folk appeal. Note the oak leaves pressed into the inner edge of the keyboard cover. These accordions as are popular for being lightweight with two voices and they are very attractive.

What's this? It looks just like the one above, except that its design has been painted onto the cabinet. The grille, which is also painted, has been cut from wood instead of punched from metal. There is a small step dividing the inner and outer rows of the treble keyboard. The bellows have been furnished with printed paper and black tapes. The metal hardware holding down the straps is a different shape (difficult to see in this photo). So the questions linger: Which came first, the pressed accordion with the metal grille or the painted accordion with the wooden grille? Was the same design produced concurrently in two different factories? Can differences in hardware be owed to using parts from jobs contracted to outside factories? After looking at some old catalogs, I believe the accordion with the metal grille could be as much as 20-30 years more recent than its painted counterpart, but they could be much closer in age. My instincts tend to lean toward a painted/wooden progenitor from a different factory or company, perhaps the Koch factory, but honestly, I do not know. As noted above, Hohner had different factories producing parts for different accordions, which were then assembled in different factories, so the questions are all up for debate.

More bass button discrepancies can be found in the model at left. Again we have a design, paintjob, corners, keyboard cover and grille all shared with the model above except that in this accordion the bass buttons are staggered. That doesn't necessarily mean that there are Stradella bass buttons, by the way. These are usually arranged in a standard bass/chord configuration that corresponds with the tuning of the treble keyboard. This accordion belonged to Ray Laforest and the photo is from his website.


At right is the Venezia Chromatic. Weird, huh? That's probably why it didn't last very long. It is tuned like a piano accordion and no, it is not easy to play as one plays a PA -- it even comes with a thump loop! The interest, to me, is in its painted cabinet design which is the same as modern 2915, as well as its dimensions and general design. The painted grille and stepped keyboard covers are shared with the two diatonic models discussed above. The reed plates in this accordion bear the trademark of the A.S. Koch company, which Hohner bought in the 1920s. Were these accordions built in the Koch plant? Are they the product of a contract, or were they built in the Koch plant under Hohner control? Maybe Hohner was just using up old supplies of reeds they purchased from Koch?These are all possibilities.

Before Hohner stepped in, Koch was producing their own line of holzbrand accordions, like the one at right. I think it is possible that the holzbrand accordion, the whole pokerwork idea, originated at the Koch company although I do not have two positively dated catalogs from both companies to be sure. This example has leather flanking the bellows and also familiar metal corners, which are found on some Hohners. It has the familiar Hohner grille and keyboard cover shape, as well as the same leaf motif that can be compared to the Hohners already discussed. Dig that mountain goat! Like Hohner, Koch produced their holzbrand accordion in a few different designs.

(**Thank you to michik at melodeon.net for this information.)

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post! I have one of those pressed wood Hohners that was restored and wanted to get an approximate date of manufacture.. It is a sweet sounding bos..

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  2. hello! im trying to do research on this accordion I have and I do believe its like the ones above. My old man passed away last year and although I do not know how to play it (yet), I could not get rid of it. I know for a fact my dad had this thing before I was born in the 80's, but I want to find out maybe exactly what year it was made. And your absolutely right... My dad use to take it on 13 days at a time partying and this thing is still solid ands sounds awesome! Appreciate the help, have a good one.

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  3. Hi,

    I just inherited a Hohner Holzbrand accordion with the pressed metal grille anchor/nautical decoration, as pictured above.

    It appears that someone has, at one point, attempted to restore it. The wooden keyboard has been replaced with Masonite.

    I was wondering if it was possible that, whomever restored the accordion, misplaced the reeds? I just can't seem to wrap my head around the scales. Or it could be that I have never attempted to play an accordion before.

    I am always interested in learning new instruments and would appreciate any information you could impart.

    Thanks,

    Mark Wotton
    mark@markwottonfx.com

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  4. Hello everyone,

    I have an old model, who estimated its value. I want to sell.

    Thanks
    Sasa Dj

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  5. In defence of the oriental model, I have a Chinese pokerwork purchased about a year and a half ago. I also have a German pokerwork of unknown age, probably 1980s, from what I know of its history. Of the two, I find the Chinese model easier to play and I prefer its sound. The tuning was fine. It is the one I reach for first. Guess I'm a cultural pleb!.

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    1. Hardly a pleb, Greg. They are still a good value, and every bit as indestructible as their predecessors, however, in my personal experience, which has been confirmed by dealers, Chinese Pokerworks (and other models, too) often arrive without seeming to have had any attention paid to quality control. You are correct, the reeds do not sound bad, only different. I have models both Chinese and German, with many different reed types and enjoy them all but prefer the older steel tongues and H-marked alu plates. Stuck reeds, bad valves, unseasoned wood, stuck keys, and poor tuning are common problems right out of the box with Chinese Hohners now. This does not bar the occasional example that is playable and in good tune, and the company's North American warranty team does a great job fixing these problems for free. But considering this, I always advise persons wishing to purchase a Chinese Hohner to do it through a dealer who can correct any deviations in tuning, stuck reeds, etc. This blog post is mainly a discussion of the various models of accordion that Hohner made over the last century which people have come to call "pokerworks."

      Chris

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    2. I need 2 base buttons for my HA-2815 Vienna Pokerwork,would any of you kind button box guys or gals know where to find,also is it a hard repair?...thank you Wayne

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    3. Wayne, that's a pretty straight forward repair, if the rod isn't bent. The hardest part would be matching the button, because the shape and color changed several times. I'd start by contacting Charlie Marshall at CGM Musical to see if he has what you're looking for. Just pop it into Google.

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  6. Rediscovering this discussion by accident, a few years on, I now have more experience of the Chinese model. I love playing it and find it very responsive, light and loud. The tuning is fine to my ears, but there have been one or two minor issues. the treble buttons disappeared into the holes when played (typical Hohner), which I found difficult. I had the instrument fettled and what the fettler did with the depth of travel on the treble keys made it much easier to play. He added low notes at the same time (B,C pull D and F), which I love and recommend. I had a broken bass spring after about six months playing, but there has been no recurrence. I had three reeds that needed attention: Just a two minute job, though. Overall I am extremely happy with my purchase but might have been less happy had I not had someone fairly near who could sort out the odd problem. The German model has moved on to another custodian and I don't miss it. I prefer playing this box, probably because it is set up to suit me. I recommend.

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    1. And a good setup is everything! I'm happy that you're enjoying your pokerwork. :)
      Chris

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  7. hi guys,
    I am from germany and have inherited a Hohner Accordon with anchor and metal grille, the same as you described. My american relative visited me and made me cutious of learning to play it. Does this Accordeon has got a special name? or just Hohner Accordeon? which yeare might be the constructing year? (1935 was the supposed date in my family) is that right? The Keyboard is a bit broken, but doesn't bother the function. re there european shops where I can buy the straps for the bulg? I hope you guys could help me...

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    1. It had a model number, but it wasn't given any special name in the company's catalog. Today, we call that model (if we are talking about the same one) either a "pokerwork" or "presswood" or "pressed wood pokerwork," based on its cabinet style, and as described above. 1935 is a plausible date of manufacture. Chris

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