An Excerpt From The Bells of Russia
By Edward V. William
Source: Princeton University Press NJ - Date: 1985
The Russian Bell: From
The Foundry to the Bell Tower
The founding of, a Russian Bell was carried out in five successive
stages: the designing of the bell, the cutting of the strickle boards, the construction of
the molds, the actual pouring of the metal, and the removal of the bell from its mold.
Russian founders traditionally omitted a sixth step that was custom-made in Western Europe,
which consisted of tuning the bell by grinding metal from its inside wall. After cleaning
and chasing, the newly cast bell was ready to be fitted with its clapper, consecrated, and
hoisted into its belfry or tower.
The earliest witness of bell founding on Russian soil appears in a
chronicle notice of 1259, which mentions bells cast in the town of Kholm in Galicia. Most
of the bells in Kievan Russia and in the early period of Mongol domination are thought to
have been cast in the yards or courts of churches and monasteries. By the mid-fourteenth
century bell casting was reported in both Moscow and Novgorod, and during the fifteenth
century the industry began to develop along highly professional lines The first detailed
information on the technology of bell founding in Russia, however, did not appear until the
mid-seventeenth Century in Paul of Aleppo’s account of the founding of Aleksandr
Grigor’ev’s great Kremlin bell of 1655 for Aleksei Mikhailovich. Comparison of the
techniques employed in the founding of this bell and the Motorins’ Tsar-Kolokol of 1735
with those employed in nineteenth-century founding indicates that the basic operations
remained essentially the same.
A sixteenth-century Russian miniature showing the founding of a large
bell in Moscow. Another bell is already hanging in a structure behind the furnace
Designing the Bell
A Russian foreman was responsible for determining the size, weight,
proportions, and profile of any bell he cast. He then prepared a working drawing at full
size in order to minimize error in plotting the contours of the bell’s inner and outer
surfaces. About the same time this was being prepared, specialists were planning their
designs for the inscription and decorative scheme.
At this stage also a foreman estimated the amount of copper and tin that
would be required to cast the bell. Though he would have a general idea based on experience
and his drawings. Founders were cautioned to provide sufficient metal for overflow and to
calculate the weight of the bell’s cannons and the melting loss of metal using their own
judgment. If too little metal were on hand, a short run would result, that is, the mold
would not be entirely filled with metal and the bell would have to be recast. Excessive
overestimation would likewise add considerably to the cost of founding.
Making the Strickle Boards
Following his drawing, the foreman prepared two principal strickle
boards, one cut to the contour of the interior wall of the bell and the other conforming
to the profile of the bell’s exterior wall. A third, but temporary, strickle board
approximating the shape of the interior strickle board, was also prepared. A spindle or
stake was attached to each so that the board could be securely set in a socket and rotated
360° to shape both the core mold and the exterior wall of the false bell.
Construction of the Molds
Construction of the inner and outer molds and the false bell demanded the
most extreme care and accuracy. It also, not incidentally, required the longest time to
In the center of the circle drawn to define the circumference of the bell
mold was placed a pointed spindle (2) attached to the temporary strickle board (3); the
base of the spindle was enclosed by several layers of brickwork (4). Flues in this
foundation (5) would ventilate the fire that would be built inside the core as well as
provide avenues by which exhaust gases could escape, insuring that the mold would be
uniformly baked. With the rotation of the temporary strickle board the circumference at the
base of the core mold could be finalized and a rough brick core built up to about half its
total height. The temporary strickle board and its spindle were now replaced by the
strickle board that would form the final profile of the core.
Then the founder applied a mixture of clay, pulverized fireproof brick,
and molding sand and gave it the desired shape by sweeping the strickle board around the
perimeter of the mold (figure 85). The entire core was then covered with a coating of clay
and the strickle board rotated again to remove any excess clay or reveal any depressions.
Clay could be added where necessary and the strickle board rotated until the core was
uniformly smooth and symmetrical.
Several applications of loam were required at this stage, since shrinkage
occurred on drying; each layer was swept clean with the strickle board, wrapped with cord
and wire, and allowed to dry thoroughly before a new coat was applied. To hasten this
drying process, a wood and charcoal fire was kept burning in the cavity inside the core.
Loam applications were repeated until a core was built up whose shape corresponded
precisely to the contour defined by the strickle board. The final layer of loam was then
covered with a mixture of either powdered brick diluted with kvass (a prefermented stage of
a Russian beer made from barley, malt, and rye) or ash in soapy water and beer. This
coating was essential to prevent the heat of the fire inside the core from cracking the
Molding the false bell with the second strickle board and its drying
through a fire within the cavity of the mold.
The false or sham bell
When the clay of the core had dried completely, its surface was coated
with tallow. It was on this greased surface that the founder built up the false bell, a
clay model of the bell to be cast in bronze. The second strickle board, cut to the exterior
profile of the bell, replaced the first. Then two or three layers of fatty clay were daubed
on the core and the strickle board swept around the circumference of the mold. This process
was repeated until, as earlier, the contour of the mold was uniformly smooth and
symmetrical. At this point inscriptions and ornamentation were modeled on the surface of
the false bell with a special mixture of wax and resin.
Of the three principal stages in the construction of a bell mold, the
formation of the cope required the founder’s greatest skill to insure that the bell would
be cast with a proper finish. Being careful not to disturb the inscription or relief
decorations applied to the false bell, workers first brushed on a liquid substance of
finely sifted molding clay mixed with dry and sifted horse manure, cow hair, and chopped
flax. This procedure was repeated as many times as necessary to build up a layer 0.19 to
0.27 of an inch thick. Each protective layer took from ten to sixteen hours to dry and
harden. When the desired thickness had been reached, a heavier mixture of the same
substances was applied in successive layers and allowed to dry. To strengthen the cope
further, workers set vertical iron ribs bound by horizontal bands inside the clay. A third
application of clay, even thicker than the first two, completed the formation of the cope.
To this outer surface were attached iron ribs of even greater thickness than those inside
to give the cope an iron frame. The lower ends of these ribs were bent under the lower edge
of the cope and the upper ends were bent outward to form hooks by which a derrick could
lift the cope from the core. Horizontal bands held these ribs in place around the upper
portion of the cope. The bell mold -- consisting of core, false bell, and cope -- was now
ready for baking.
Workers built a fire inside the cavity of the core; and as flames rose,
the mold dried and hardened. The layers of grease on either side of the false bell and the
wax inscriptions and decorations were also steamed out, which loosened the false bell so
that it could simply be sliced with a knife and removed in pieces once the cope was raised.
Then the surfaces of both the core and cope were thoroughly cleaned to make sure that they
were free from ash and carefully inspected for flaws. At this point an iron loop, or crown
staple, for hanging the clapper was inserted in the upper part of the mold. Then workers
replaced the cope over the core, locking and sealing the two portions of the mold with
clay. The secure and accurate clamping of inner and outer molds was critical, for this is
what guaranteed a uniform thickness in the wall of the bell and prevented leakage of molten
metal at the bottom. The last step before pouring the bronze was setting the separately
constructed mold for the bell cannons in place and fastening them to the top of the bell
Before the furnace was tapped, the space between the bell mold and the
brick- or rock-lined wall of the pit had to be filled with earth and thoroughly packed. In
fact, earth shoveled into the pit was packed every five to seven inches until the entire
mold was buried. The weight of the earth between the mold and the wall of the pit braced
the cope against the considerable hydrostatic pressure the molten metal would exert as it
filled the cavity between the core and the cope and prevented the cope from cracking and
releasing liquid metal into the pit.
A cross-section of a bell mold in its casting pit with the casting gutter
leading from an open hearth furnace to the pouring gate.
Casting the Bell
Despite careful preparation and precautionary measures, the casting
process always entailed certain risks. If the bell mold had not dried sufficiently, if the
temperature of the metal was not high enough before being run into the mold, or if trapped
gases could not escape from the molten metal, the solidified bronze might be too porous
and the bell liable to crack when rung. At other times the bell metal might solidify too
rapidly and cause cooling stresses if the outer surface contracted at a faster rate than
the inner wall, producing defects in the bell’s wall unable to withstand repeated blows of
the clapper. If the core should shift during casting, pushed to one side by the weight and
pressure from the stream of molten metal, variation in the thickness of the bell wall could
easily result. This would produce not only a bell with an unsatisfactory tone but one that
would be more likely to crack after repeated ringing. And if the core and cope had not been
securely locked, metal could even seep from the mold. Occasionally metal ran into the
hollow conical space inside the core mold and made removal of the bell from its mold
extremely difficult. The solution when such accidents occurred was generally a recasting
of the bell, which meant the beginning of another long process of preparation.
Because no amount of earthly effort assured success in the founding of a
bell, prayers, invocations, and benedictions traditionally preceded the moment when the
metal began to flow into the mold. These prayers placed the casting results in the hands of
God. In Russian foundries the foundry owner brought an icon into the workshop and set
lighted candles before it. Activity ceased and all foundry workers gathered to witness this
most solemn moment. The senior foreman removed his hat and crossed himself. Other workers
did the same. The foundry owner then read aloud a special prayer for a successful casting,
and all foremen and workers, from the youngest and least experienced to the oldest and
most accomplished, repeated his prayer. Then the owner ordered all doors to the casting
area closed. The heat and smoke from the furnaces became almost unbearable, the air heavy
and difficult to breathe, when finally the owner gave the sign to tap the metal. Several
workers pulled a bar, which punctured the plug in the tapping hole to release the molten
bronze. And suddenly, like a fiery spring, the liquid bronze rose up from the mouth of the
furnace and ran down the casting gutter slowly and evenly into the mold (figure 90).
Workers stirred the metal around the pouring gate at the top of the mold constantly to
prevent its solidifying and blocking the passage. This entire scene was harshly illuminated
by the incandescent bronze and blurred by the smoke and rising heat.
The drama of the pour, the bell foundry of P. I. Olovianishnikov and
Sons formerly in Yaroslavl.
Removal of the Bell from the Mold
Once the metal had been, poured and the furnace emptied, the founder
had to wait for the bronze to solidify before the new bell could be removed from its mold.
The time required depended on the size and weight of the bell. A smaller casting of 500
pounds or less cooled overnight; a very large bell might require several days. When the
bronze had cooled sufficiently, the packed soil around the mold was removed from the pit,
and the cope was broken up to reveal the newly cast bell. The bell was then removed from
its mold, its inscriptions and decorations cleaned with metal brushes or chisels to remove
oxidized metal and any residue from the mold, and its surface chased and polished. Only
then was it ready to be raised up out of its casting pit. Finally came the moment of truth.
The new bell was fitted with an iron clapper, and foundry workers waited anxiously to hear
the voice of the instrument their weeks of labor had produced. A rich and resonant stroke
was greeted with rejoicing.
Dedication of Bells after Casting
In the medieval West bells, like people, were named, anointed, sprinkled
with holy water, and robed; the hope was that the bells would act as preservatives against
thunder and lightning, and hail and wind, and storms of every kind, and that they [would]
drive away evil spirits. The origin of the baptism of European bells remains obscure, but
the oldest known evidence of this ritual is preserved in the Liber ordinum, a book used in
Spanish churches before 712.
In Russia, too, before a newly cast bell was hung, it was consecrated
in. a ceremony sanctioned by the Orthodox Church. The order for the blessing of a bell is
found in the enlarged version of the prayer book and was performed by a member of the
higher clergy or by a priest who, after leaving the church, approached the bell and
sprinkled it with consecrated water.
Click Here to go to a service on the blessing of the bells.
Hoisting of Bells into a Tower
After a large Russian bell had been moved to the base of the tower
where it was to be hung, a way had to be found to raise it into the tower. This could be
accomplished either from within or without the tower.
Raising a bell inside a tower was the simplest method and required
fewer workers, but it was possible only when construction on the tower was not yet
complete and when there were no obstructions to a bell’s access into the desired tier.
The operation also took several hours. An outside hoist demanded the concerted efforts of
a greater number of men but could be accomplished fairly quickly (in only five to ten
minutes) and easily. In either case, Russian engineers used hoisting tackle of hemp ropes
and chain blocks for the maneuver, the number and size depending on the weight of the bell.
The ropes were controlled by winches, capstans, or in the case of the largest bells, men.
Some of the ropes were employed directly in lifting the bell, while others were used to
control its lateral swaying and to prevent the bell from striking the tower during its
If the construction and strength of a bell tower would not permit a
large bell to be raised by either of the methods above, another procedure was available,
although costly and requiring considerably more time and labor. A temporary wooden or iron
structure could be built adjacent to the bell tower within which the bell could be raised
on chain blocks. The bell would then be moved laterally from the temporary structure to
the tier in the bell tower where it was to hang. Since the larger bells occupied the lower
tiers in Russian bell towers, the vertical distance of the hoist was minimized. In any
case, before a Russian bell was lifted, it was securely wrapped in towels and cloth to
protect it from injury. As it was being raised, holy water was sprinkled over it, hymns
sung, and prayers said for its safe passage.
Sixteenth-century Russian miniature showing the outside hoist of a bell
into a wooden tower.
The Suspension of Russian Bells
The systems and structures used for hanging bells were of special
concern to founders and bell ringers. Smaller bells generally presented no unusual
problems, but the stationary installation of large bells in Russia and Asia often severely
taxed, sometimes overtaxed, the ability of bell towers and suspension systems to support
their dead weight and to tolerate the vibrations they produced when rung.
Russian bells had to be securely suspended from their beams to withstand
shocks from repeated clapper blows. And faulty suspension or a flaw in a bell’s cannons was
occasionally responsible for the bell’s breaking loose from its beam and falling,
sometimes through the vaults of lower tiers in its tower, to the ground. Of course,
suspended in towers as they were, Russian bells were also vulnerable to lightning and the
possibility of fire. And they were threatened by the Russian winter when extremely low
temperatures made the bronze brittle and more liable to fracture. But a far greater menace
was the ringer whose careless handling of the clapper often did irreparable damage.
The old (pre-1910) suspension systems for three great bells in the
central Petrok Malyj structure of the Ivan Velikij Bell Tower in the Moscow Kremlin: (1)
Great Uspensky Bell (4,000 puds); (2) "Reut" bell (2,000 puds); and (3) "Polielejnyj" bell
Broken Bells and Their Repair
Perhaps the most common source of injury to bells in Russia resulted
from a breakdown of the microcrystalline structure of the bell metal under repeated blows
of the clapper at the same point on the sound-bow. A crack would open at a weakened spot
and run upward into the bell’s waist. Using excessive force in swinging the clapper
against the sound-bow was another common way that Russian bells were broken.
One method of repairing a cracked bell was to open or enlarge the crack
and pour molten metal into the space. Although this was intended to at least partially
melt the surfaces of the division and fuse the bell wall, the procedure was rarely
successful. The bell could not withstand the tension from the contraction of the metal and
the impact of the clapper when rung again. Various other methods have been proposed and
employed for the repair of fractured bells, including welding, but the ultimate solution
was usually a recasting.
Sixteenth-century Russian miniature showing the repair of a broken bell
At the end of the eighteenth century Andrew Swinton remarked that
"Russians take as much delight in the firing of guns, as they do in the ringing of bells.
Artillery, in summer, makes a part of rural entertainments."And indeed, the Russian
fascination with the instruments of both church and battle is expressed not only in the
proximity in the Moscow Kremlin of Chokhov’s Tsar Cannon of 1586 to the Motorins’ Tsar Bell
of 1735 but also in the frenzy of ringing bells and cannon salvos in the final pages of
Tchaikovsky’s overture, The Year 1812.
Bells were being cast on Russian soil several centuries before cannon,
but the same European technology was applied to both, and many Russian masters became
equally proficient in the production of both. In times of national emergency bells were
particularly vulnerable, however, and were often sacrificed to war efforts. They were also
reduced to misshapen hunks of bronze in the frequent conflagrations that swept the wooden
churches of Russia. Even so, the bell, not the cannon, ultimately prevailed as the symbol
of Russia. And in the great bells of Moscow, cast between 1599 and 1817, the technology of
Russian founding reached its apogee.
Readers who wish more information about the history, ringing and purchase of bells can reach the Blagovest Russian Bell Site thru this link.