The dirty secret behind Russian bell-making

The trick to making a perfect bell is in the ingredients, such as clay, horse manure and cow hair. However, one has to know the proportions, which bell-makers will not disclose to a stranger at any cost.

At more than a thousand degrees centigrade it is hard to imagine how molten metal will transform into an exquisite and world-class instrument. Each has an individual shape, and for each new bell, the whole process starts from scratch.

What makes them so special is the voice – unique for each and every bell.

“We can influence the main tone, but there are different timbres that make it sound special,” says Nikolay Shuvalov.

“I don’t even know what influences this. Perhaps it’s the mood of the molder and the caster that matter. I also noticed that humidity, and even the moon phase affect the sound,” says Nikolay, explaining the nuances of his art.

It is that special sound that has made Nikolay Shuvalov's small bell foundry in the Yaroslavl region in Central Russia a lucrative operation. Originally, he cast small bells in his backyard. Nikolay says they sounded like old buckets, but luckily his early failures did not discourage him.

“It was my curiosity, in addition to my ear for music, which is absolutely indispensable, and some education, including in physics, chemistry, theory of strength of materials, mathematics and even, to a certain extent, economics.”

It is not all down to science, however. In order to truly perfect the process, Nikolay and his team employ some old world technology that may be considered a bit strange by modern standards.

“I won’t mention all the ingredients. In general, it’s our local clay, sand, and different supplements as horse manure, cow hair and others. It’s vital that everything is used in the right proportions,” points out bell designer Anatoly Rodinsky. “Otherwise, ‘the porridge could be spoiled with butter’.”

The molds where the bells are cast are made entirely by hand, but also using a combination of exact science and ancient artistry. And it is this careful attention to detail and expert craftsmanship that make these bells in demand all around the world.

“Our main clients consist of Orthodox churches in Russia, the former Soviet Union states and such Orthodox countries like Serbia, Greece, Finland, Slovakia, also Germany. Recently we began to supply our bells to the US,” says Nikolay Shuvalov.

It takes about two months to make a three-ton bell, with many people take part in the process: designers, molders and casters. So the final quality depends on everybody’s work. Quality work that everyone involved can take pride in.