Buying bells: new vs. used (for sellers, too)

Though I’m not a professional appraiser or broker, I’ve been contacted for advice by many people interested in buying or selling bells. Here’s some information you may find helpful, whether as a buyer or a seller. In all cases, I’m talking about handbells commonly played as a musical instrument, not rare or antique bells you may collect for other reasons.

The market

Used English handbells come on the market infrequently, perhaps 10-20 times a year. Churches are reluctant to admit that a bell choir has permanently disbanded, so they hang onto their bells. When they do put them up for sale, especially on eBay, buyers tend to bid up the price. If someone nearby suspects an excellent set is about to come on the market, they may approach the owner to make an offer before the bells are even listed.

Used bells in good condition command one-half to two-thirds (or even more) of the cost to buy them new today. (The buyer usually pays shipping, just as s/he would for new bells.) You can find current price lists for both Schulmerich and Malmark online, and search eBay history for what similar sets have sold for recently. The high percentage of resale value reflects the shortage of well-cared-for secondhand bells (compared to demand), as well as the significant percentage of value in parts that appreciate (bronze castings) rather than depreciate (rubber or plastic components). If used bells have to be refurbished, you lose much of the savings from buying secondhand. Refurbishing is very expensive, and is discussed more below.

The market for handbells is a national market. When you sell used bells, you may not generate interest nearby, but you can bet that, somewhere in the country, someone will take your bells at the right price. The most likely prospects are within driving distance, possibly a radius of several hundred miles. A serious buyer usually wants to inspect the bells in person, make a deal, and take them home. This ensures they know exactly what they’re getting, and saves them the cost of shipping.

Some buyers do buy used bells sight unseen. If you put bells up for auction on eBay, prepare in advance to ship them to the winning bidder. Ask the bell manufacturer if you can order shipping boxes to fit the bell cases you have. The factory sells empty boxes to people who send bells in for refurbishment. However, bell case configurations have changed over the years, so the bell manufacturer may or may not have empty boxes to accommodate yours. Compare whether it’s more cost-effective to have boxes shipped to you or to obtain them locally through U-Haul, Mailboxes Etc., or a similar company. Hold off on actually buying boxes until you know if you have a winning bidder and whether that person intends to pick up the bells. The shipping fee you charge the buyer could legitimately include the cost of buying suitable boxes.

If you want to buy used bells, do your homework and be ready to buy when a suitable set appears. Know what you want, know what it’s worth, have your funding lined up, make an offer immediately, and stay in touch with the seller. When I recently sold a set of bells, I heard from people who wanted an extremely well-maintained set, less than 10 years old, at a convenient location, for a low price, maybe with extended payment terms, and plenty of time to think about it. It’s a seller’s market: you can have one or two of those things, but the bells will be snatched up by the person willing to pay the most with the fewest contingencies, just like real estate. You won’t have time to persuade the church council that a handbell choir would be a great addition to the music program.

Some people asked me what they should offer for my set. I had stated a minimum bid and current selling price for the bells. The difference between the two is the area for negotiation. The more you can offer above the minimum, the greater your chance of success, if you feel the bells are worth it. In an online auction, you can watch the progression of bids.

Pros and cons of new vs. used

Someone who buys new bells will get:

• A lifetime warranty that isn’t transferrable to a future owner. That’s valuable if you have problems with, say, the tone of a casting.
• A choice of brands. Because Schulmerich has been in business so much longer than Malmark, most of the bells available secondhand are from Schulmerich.
• The ability to configure the set exactly as you’d like. As a soloist, you want to skew the range of bells upward from a typical church or community choir set (e.g. G4-G7, or C5-G7, instead of C4-C7). As a group, you may want a larger or smaller set than offered secondhand. You can buy add-on octaves, but the bells will be different ages, which may or may not be noticeable.
• The opportunity to choose clapperheads and handles (or handle inscriptions). This was discussed in the article about Buying bells: choosing a brand.
• The opportunity to choose cases, such as rolling or half-octave cases. Older bells often group each octave in a single case. That means you can’t carry just the upper second and upper third octaves (which you’re most likely to transport as a soloist) without buying separate half-octave cases. Evaluate whether the configuration of cases offered will work for you. If you end up with bells you don’t need, you can resell them, but there’s no resale value in standard bell cases (the type you’re most likely to find offered with second-hand bells).

Someone who buys used bells may get:

• A well-cared for, like new, set of bells at a discount from full price.
• A discount on shipping charges by picking up the bells (this may be a wash, depending on driving distance).
• Immediate order fulfillment; the factories sometimes have an order backlog.
• Extras like mallets, sheet music, or table covers thrown in by the seller to sweeten the deal.
• A transaction exempt from sales tax. Check the laws in your state. In many states, someone who buys merchandise without paying sales tax is required to file a “use tax” return and pay the equivalent amount.
• A new friend who’s a valuable source of advice and support.


If used bells require refurbishment, little savings remain after buying the bells and paying to have them refurbished. (You can look up refurbishment costs on the manufacturer’s website. Remember to factor in shipping to and from the factory.) It would be better for most buyers to purchase a new set instead. An exception is a professional refurbisher or someone associated with the respective bell company, who can buy parts at a discount and do the refurbishment labor. Because this possibility exists, it seldom makes sense for the seller to pay to have bells refurbished before putting them on the market. However, research the cost to replace parts (at a minimum, springs and clapperheads for the whole range) on the manufacturer’s website. The buyer will factor that into the total cost of buying the set. Springs and clapperheads deteriorate over time, and can harden from lack of use. Other parts need to be replaced only if they’re defective, like a broken handle.

Speaking of handles, replacing all the handles in a set of handbells is a major expense, and one of the key differences in the levels of refurbishment services offered. If you buy Schulmerich bells with old-style handles (all black), you may not be able to match them. You’ll either have to replace all the natural notes with the new gold braid handles, or have a mismatched set.

Bells are designed to be serviced by the user, and most parts are fairly easy to replace. It’s just time-consuming for a large set, which drives up labor costs when you hire someone to refurbish your bells, not to mention the need to ship the bells somewhere for service. (Though the expense, hassle, and turnaround time involved in shipping bells for refurbishment can often be avoided by flying a qualified technician to your location.) If you do hire someone, check references to ensure s/he is qualified. Ask around the handbell grapevine to root out unhappy former customers. Call the factory and ask whether the person has gone through training with the bell manufacturer, and whether s/he uses any methods not advised by the manufacturer, such as putting bells in the dishwasher or using power tools to polish them. (If you’re the original owner, these actions could void the warranty.)

Note that handbell sales reps are not necessarily authorized handbell repair centers. If you want the manufacturer to stand behind the refurbishment, you must deal directly with the factory or an authorized repair center. If in doubt, call the factory and ask.

Researching the set

Whether you’re buying or selling, call the bell manufacturer and ask about the history of the set. Because of turnover in church staff positions, it’s common for a music director to inherit a set of bells s/he knows nothing about, and has no paperwork for. Both U.S. bell manufacturers keep records of the original purchaser, including the date. They also record the date of refurbishment, if done by the factory, and may know about parts replaced (a clue to refurbishment done outside the factory). This is valuable information for the seller and the buyer, not only in setting a price, but because some bells put up for sale are stolen. The handbell community keeps a sharp eye out for this, and people using online handbell forums tend to remember that bells were stolen in, say, Texas, and will sound the alarm if a pawnshop in Texas puts handbells on eBay, even months later. The manufacturers can provide assurance to the buyer that the seller is the original owner (if that’s true), and the handbells aren’t “hot.” If you buy used bells, keep documentation of the transaction (like a bill of sale) and ask the manufacturer to register the transaction in their records, preparing for the day when you, in turn, want to sell the bells.

Buying bells from another country

In the U.S., imported musical instruments are exempt from customs duty. However, you’ll need to research cross-border purchases of related equipment, as well as bringing bells into a country other than the U.S. You might need to pay not only import duty, but a fee for a customs broker to handle the paperwork.

Listing bells for sale

Bells are often sold on eBay, where they get the widest exposure possible and, in theory, should result in the highest possible price for the seller. When listing bells for sale, indicate:
• Number and octave range of bells, and whether chromatic (including sharps and flats) or diatonic (naturals only)
• Brand
• Condition
• Purchase date, and whether the seller is the original owner
• Options, like type of handles or clapperheads – Someone buying Schulmerich bells wants to know if the clapperheads are Select-a-Strike (flat, slotted screw in the middle) or Quick-Adjust (locknut fastener). A buyer also wants to know if the handles are all black, or black with gold braid. Some very old handles have the sharp designated on one side, and the flat on the other. They’re meant to be placed on the table so the side facing up reflects the key signature of the current piece.
• Any refurbishment (when, to what extent, and by whom)
• What else is included in the sale (cases, sheet music, mallets, gloves, etc.)

Sample listing: 2 chromatic octaves (25 bells) of Schulmerich English handbells.  Excellent condition.  Purchased new in 1998. 100% refurbished by the factory, including handles (gold braid) and handguards (black and gold disks) in 2010.  Select-A-Strike clappers.  With tool kit and original cases.  As is, where is; buyer pays shipping.

Be sure to mention any special selling points. For example, “the bells were owned and handled only by one person,” or “only by adults,” or “with gloves at all times. “ (Bells are often played by children, sometimes without gloves, and may have been permanently marked with fingerprints.) Or “no chips in the rims,” which sometimes result from bell collisions.

Consider selling your set in multiple lots. I sold a 3 octave set separate from the upper fourth octave, because I correctly anticipated that the first set would attract offers from groups, while the second attracted offers from soloists. I was also approached about splitting the 3 octave set, which I agreed to do provided all the bells were sold. I put buyers who inquired about partial sets in touch with each other, encouraging them to coordinate bids.

Photos: An online seller should provide photos of the following (if not, the buyer should ask for them):

• All bells in their cases – the exact bells for sale, not the manufacturer’s publicity photos. This will also show the octave configuration in each case.
• Close-up of a bell handle and handguard (round disk) on a bell – or picture of the entire bell if it has a good view of these parts
• Inside of a large bell – to show the amount of corrosion (spots) inside the bronze casting
• Clapperhead (part that strikes the bell to make it ring) – this shows the buyer the type of clappers and their general condition
• Outside of castings (the metal part) of a few bells – this shows the general condition of the most expensive part of the bells
• Outside of cases – preferably showing condition of locks and amount of scuffing
• Anything else included in the sale, like mallets or table covers

Besides listing bells on eBay, post a notice (or have a friend post something for you) on the online handbell forums, both in GoogleGroups and on Facebook. People reading these forums (and their friends) are a significant part of your potential market, and you want them to know you’ve offered your set for sale. Also see if you can get the word out to the handbell guild locally, which may require placing an ad in their newsletter.

Miscellaneous notes for sellers

Just as a buyer needs to evaluate whether to buy bells, I believe a seller should also carefully consider whether to sell. If you lead music at a church that’s adopted contemporary worship, you may not realize praise music is available for handbells. If your bell choir has shrunk, much more music for smaller groups has been published recently. You may want to explore this on a site like Jeffers ( before making your decision.

If you do decide to sell your bells, look for and dispose of all the remaining equipment while you’re at it. If you’re going to get out of handbells, you may as well reclaim as much closet space as you can. Remember that, by selling your bells and paraphernalia, you’ll probably net less than half what it would cost you to reestablish a bell program in the future. Selling the bells and related equipment should be considered a permanent decision.

Here are some things you’re likely to have:

Bell tools – Usually included with bells as part of the sale, especially when new.

Mallets – These have minimal value second-hand, though that depends on condition and the number you have. Best for sweetening the deal with a buyer.

Tables and carts – Expensive to ship; find another use for them locally.

Foam – Expensive to ship, and probably worthless unless purchased new, as handbell foam, in the last few years. Find another use locally, or dispose of it. If you do want to sell it, the buyer will want to know how many total linear feet you have (and possibly the split – e.g. 3 or 4 foot lengths), thickness, width, whether it’s covered, with what fabric and color, and where and when you bought it.

Table covers – Value depends heavily on age and condition. The buyer will want to see the color and type of fabric. Indicate the dimensions, including configuration and total linear feet (for example, 3 each of 9 foot covers, for a total of 27 feet, 30 inches wide, and 28 inches from top of foam to floor). Also indicate whether you bought the covers or someone made them.

Music stands – Tabletop music stands may interest to your buyer, depending on condition. Metal ones would be expensive to ship, and plastic ones may break in transit. You may want to donate them to another local handbell choir. Floor music stands are useful for any type of music group, so you’ll probably find a home for them.

Stand lights – Offer them to the choir or another music group.

Sheet music – Estimate how many pieces of sheet music you have (example:  12 copies each of 25 pieces). See if you can tell the typical difficulty level on the AGEHR scale of 1 (easy) to 6 (advanced), usually listed on the cover. The buyer will want to know the type of repertoire – was it a church? an auditioned community choir? an elementary school? Depending on what you have, and the condition, you may be able to list sheet music on one of the handbell forums, or sell it to a vendor of second-hand music like Young’s. No one wants sheet music that’s torn, heavily marked in pencil, marked in pen or highlighter, or illegally photocopied.

Folding binders – Unless brand new, worth little. Use them to sweeten the deal with a buyer, use them for other filing, or toss them.

Handbell gloves and polishing supplies – Unless brand new, these have no market value. Use them to sweeten the deal with a buyer, or give them to the altar guild for polishing silver.

Chimes – Consider keeping them to use in worship, or to teach music to children, or for “ring and sing” activities. They take up a lot less space, and need fewer accessories, than handbells. If you decide to sell, you can probably get about half what they would cost new. Sell these separately from the handbells, to attract more potential buyers.

Also read my article Small stuff and look at my photos to see if you have other handbell-specific equipment you want to dispose of at the same time. If your handbell program has been dormant for some time, you may not recognize something like a bell tree stand, and wonder about that strange hatrack in the choir room.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,