Foam pads

Foam pads on handbell tables keep bells from rolling and protect them during techniques like martellato, where the bell is “hammered” on the table. As with tables, choices you make about foam can affect the fit of your table covers, so it’s best to pin down the details before having covers made. Handbell choirs usually use foam sized to fit the table width, then cut into manageable lengths. A typical foam pad is 3’ or 4’ long by 30” wide. Preferred thickness is usually 3 or 4 inches. Most soloists use the same thickness, both because they often use equipment belonging to their church bell choirs, and because, without adjustable tables, they need foam to raise the ringing height.

Recently, I realized that 1 inch thick foam is sufficient for solo work, so that’s what I use on my tables now. Remember that my tables are adjustable height; for most people, the ringing height would be too low with 1” thick foam on a standard table. The advantage of thinner foam is that it’s easier to transport, and I was able to purchase a single piece. Without the split between pieces of foam, bells can be placed anywhere on the table. Otherwise, they tend to roll if set down too close to cracks. I believe the sound projects more, because foam absorbs sound, so it seems logical that thinner foam would absorb less sound.

The disadvantage of thinner foam is that you can’t mart large bells, which soloists almost never do anyway. You need to have enough control over bell changes to replace the bell on the table instead of dropping it. You also need to take care during table land damps, where you damp the bell on the table and stand it on end. Using too much force will drive the bell into the table right through the foam. If you break a casting, the manufacturer may not honor the warranty, arguing that using thinner foam constitutes abuse. If you combine thin foam with sloppy technique or an over-exuberant ringer, I’d have to agree. However, with proper bell technique, there’s no reason thin foam would damage castings.

You can buy a second 1” foam pad and split it into pieces sized for a single table, then stack more padding (under the main piece of foam) where you need it for a specific piece, lowering the tables accordingly. For example, put the extra thickness at the bass bell end if you do mart them sometimes. When not using the duplicate 1” pads for performance, use them on your practice table as the main foam pad. I had been using 3” thick foam on my performance tables for several years, and it’s more than thick enough for anything a soloist does. 4” thick foam is overkill for a soloist, in my opinion. If 1” foam makes you nervous, consider 2”.

For a bell choir, however, you’ll want at least 3” thickness for bells above C5, and 4” thick foam below that. This assumes you can adjust table height to equalize the ringing height across the bell choir. Otherwise, you need to use uniformly thick foam.

Foam is a petroleum product and surprisingly expensive. (This is another reason to use the thinnest foam you can safely get away with.) Check prices both locally and online. In my area, foam from local vendors is more expensive than sold by handbell vendors, but less expensive when you factor in shipping costs, because it’s an oversized parcel. I once ordered foam from a handbell vendor and asked that it be delivered to me at a handbell event the vendor was attending. I used it at the event and took it home. This is a good tactic for any large piece of handbell equipment.

Understanding foam specifications: When talking to the foam vendor, you want to know the specifications for the type of foam you’re seeking. This is common to all manufacturers and has two components: density and firmness. People often confuse the two, but they aren’t the same thing.

Density (3 digits) is a measure of the foam’s durability, expressed as weight of the foam itself divided by volume (i.e. length x width x height). If the 3 digit number is 120, that means the density is 1.2 pounds per cubic foot. The higher the density number, the more durable (and expensive) the foam. You might consider foam with a density ranging from 1.1 pounds per cubic foot ( or 110) to 1.8 pounds per cubic foot (or 180).

Firmness (2 digits) is measured in the external weight required to compress foam by a certain amount, usually 25%. So foam with ILD (Indentation Load Deflection) of “30” would require 30 pounds of pressure to compress a 4” thick piece to 3” (that is, 1” or 25%). The higher the ILD number, the firmer the foam. Handbell musicians use foam in the range of 12 to 30. Many handbell musicians prefer soft foam so the bell will sink easily into it and damp immediately, to avoid dissonance in a choir. This especially helps with damping bass bells, as more of the casting comes in contact with the foam. As a soloist, I want a) a slight delay in damping, b) to pick up bells quickly with just my fingertips, and c) to ring bells from the table, so I prefer firmer foam than a handbell choir might.

Manufacturers also offer different types of foam. For handbell applications, favor polyurethane foam. Memory foam springs back into shape after indentation, which is great for a mattress but not necessarily for a handbell table. Closed cell foam is made of polypropylene, which floats. It’s used in marine applications, but doesn’t compress easily. Polyurethane foam may be white, gray, or another color, but color doesn’t matter: you’re going to cover it with fabric anyway. Exposure to sunlight will turn foam yellow, as will age, but the color change alone doesn’t affect performance. The color and type designation may have different codes for different foam manufacturers. In addition, foam can be ordered with fire retardant. If you’re ordering for a school (or certain other applications), this is required by law.

I’ve been unable to find specifications for foam sold by handbell vendors.  For my solo table, I ordered F-180-18N7 (1” thick, 30” wide, 108” long) for $75. Let’s parse this:

F – fire retardant – I don’t recall asking for this; it just came that way
180 – 1.8# – density
18 – ILD – firmness (the number just happens to be the same as density, like 40th Avenue and 40th Street can intersect in a city)
N7 – color and type of foam for that particular manufacturer – mine is white flexible polyurethane

I’ve been very happy with this foam. I took several different bells and a piece of corduroy to the foam store and tested foam samples, with the store’s help. When you ring a bell and set it down on the covered foam, you want the bell to continue to sound very slightly and briefly, for solo work. This supports the legato line.  My foam was a special order and nonreturnable.   If you order from any source but a handbell vendor, it’s a good idea to test a sample before committing to foam for your entire setup. Also double check the dimensions you need, and the number of pieces. Ask the foam store to confirm the density and ILD on your order form, so you don’t accidentally get them backwards. Your foam vendor may group the elements of the stock number in a different order, for example, F-N7-18-180, or exclude the dashes.

If you already have foam and want to continue using it, but like the idea of a single piece covering it, you can order a 1/4” thick piece the dimensions of your table. That’s sufficient to bridge the gap between blocks of foam, and isn’t expensive. I did this for years before ordering my 1” foam, and it worked fine. For a 9’ long piece of foam, I was told to expect a glue seam, because the maximum length available was 8’. The glue seam hasn’t interfered with performance.

Foam prices: Handbell websites list foam pads under accessories (except Jeffers, which lists them under table equipment). Be sure to compare total costs including shipping to your location. Costs below are for foam only.

Schulmerich – 3’ x 30’ x 4” – $50
I use these on my solo practice table, and like them very much. I especially appreciate that the edges are cut perfectly square and straight, so you can put any two pieces of foam flush against each other, minimizing cracks. (This wasn’t true of foam I ordered from another source.) Crescents and triangles are also available.

Malmark – 3’ x 30” x 4” – $48 (regular) or $44 supersoft (for bells F#3 and lower)
3’ x 30” x 3” regular – $37

Jeffers – 3’ x 30” x 4” – $54, 3’ x 30” x 3” – $41
4’ x 30” x 4” – $68, 4’ x 30” x 3” – $54
3’ x 30” x 2” – $27 – for chime choirs
Jeffers also supplies trapezoid shapes, or will cut 48” foam into 24” widths, or will cut other custom configurations.

More foam thoughts:

If you want your foam to remain flat, it’s best to store it that way, not on end.

If your budget is really limited, you can buy camping pads at “big box” stores. Since they’re usually 3” thick, you need to stack two of them for bass bells. This may bring the ringing height too high for shorter ringers.

Some handbell musicians are starting to experiment with “egg crate” packing foam. This has the advantage of nesting for travel. You play on the flat side. Since I haven’t tried it myself, I don’t know how well it works, or how durable it will prove. It seems like a development worth watching.

If foam tends to slide on the table, place “no-skid” under it. You can buy this in rolls from any store that carries shelf paper, like a closet store or large drugstore. You don’t need it along the whole length of the table. Cut it into shorter lengths that (in total) approximate half the table length. Carry the no-skid along with the foam.

I carry my foam in a nylon bag. If you have 3’ x 30” (or 4’ x 30”) pieces that stack, you can buy foam bags ($40-50) from various handbell vendors. I made my own bag, because I roll up my 1” thick foam, like a bedroll. My bag is zippered, but you could make a drawstring stuff sack. Use slippery fabric the foam won’t stick to, and make the bag dimensions generous, so you don’t struggle to stuff the foam in. I’ve heard that light and air cause foam to deteriorate, so you might store your foam in a large, dark plastic bag, like a yard waste bag, if you don’t have a foam-specific bag. You can also make wide fabric bands with Velcro closures to wrap around the rolls. Avoid narrow bands that dig into the foam and leave dents.

Speaking of dents, if you leave your bells out between practice sessions, stand them on end. That avoids dents in the foam and also helps the bells tarnish evenly. Some soloists prefer to let their bells dent the foam and form landmarks in home position. Personally, I prefer the freedom to set my bells slightly to one side of “home” position, to facilitate certain traveling four-in-hand pairs. If you want to experiment with letting dents form, you can see if they help your precision in replacing bells on the table. If not, you can always turn the foam over and start again with another flat side.

You may find some slight variation in foam size, or imprecise cuts. This is most troublesome for soloists, who want a snug fit without breaks. Try lining up your foam in various combinations to see which results in the most level surface with the narrowest breaks. Put the biggest break in the bass where it interferes with the fewest bells. Then mark your foam (left, right, center, as well as ringer side) and set it up the same way every time. (This also matters if you plan to use dents as landmarks.) For a bell choir, mark the treble section and bass section, especially if you ordered different thicknesses or types of foam for different parts of the choir. While you have the felt tip pen out, also write your name on the foam, or on the muslin underside of the table covers.

Avoid muslin covers for solo work. When covered with your performance table dressing, the extra layer muffles resonance. Use bare foam under your performance covers.

I do use a muslin cover on an extra piece of 4” thick foam I bought for teaching handbell classes and doing lecture-demonstrations in the community. I want thick foam so I can demonstrate martellato and set a good example. The muslin cover allows me to carry that single piece of foam loose in the car, then cover it at the venue with the performance cover from my extras table, or a plain piece of hemmed corduroy. That allows me the flexibility to use whatever table the venue provides.

If buying foam specifically for an extras table at a concert, 1/2” thickness is sufficient.

Odd foam shapes, such as crescents and triangles, are available from Schulmerich. If you find yourself cutting foam, you’ll get best results with an electric carving knife. Given the learning curve, you’re better off paying the small foam cutting fee some vendors charge, and have it done by a professional.

When you arrange to borrow foam at a venue, ask for a) handbell foam and b) measurements (even if the venue has a resident bell choir). I’ve heard of a soloist arriving to find a pew cushion, complete with buttons, as padding for her solo table. I once arrived at a venue expecting 30” wide foam promised by the handbell director, only to find it was 24”. These details matter.

Don’t ever place your bells on bare foam. The chemicals in foam rubber can tarnish bronze, and tiny bits can gum up the clappers. Although I’ll write more another time about table covers, I’ll mention here that, at a minimum, your foam should be covered with muslin or another soft cotton fabric. (Covering your foam also extends its useful life.) If you lend your bells for a handbell event, insist that they use covered foam (sometimes they don’t). It would be worth buying a length of muslin to send along with your bells, if your local handbell guild is in the habit of using bare foam at events.

Bell choirs with large aluminum bells can buy foam cradles from the Raleigh Ringers. These support large castings and minimize rolling when the bell is set on the table.

Instead of buying foam, chime-only choirs can buy chime mats, which are less expensive, take up less room, and offer more flexible setup options.

I’ll write about table coverings another time.

Thanks to Karen Gordon Eastburn for her input to this article. I also drew from comments posted to Handbell-L by Charm Peterman.

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner,