Western Electric 15a “solid wood”

November 2017 : Some 70km North of Copenhagen during the ETF meeting of 2017 my good friend « B » decided to host a small lecture on Western Electric and some of their amazing technology and testing gear at Bell Laboratories. Amazing stuff indeed! During this small lecture we watched a short film in which you can see a Western Electric horn being rolled into the test room, see here https://youtu.be/fyMaqS_rN3s go to minute 2:48.

B is fully aware of my passionate endeavours to recreate the large western electric horns….he faced me, smiled, and said: « You see Tim, this is how they tested the we12a horn, the very same one you make today.’’ Immediately I spotted that this was no we12a! Handcrafting we12a, as I do, makes me very familiar with every detail of that horn.   So with total confidence, I said to B, “No that’s no we12a.” B knows how well I know these horns so he didn’t doubt me one second. We watched the film frame by frame, time and time again….indeed no we12a at all…so we agreed this was a remarkable discovery. We ascertained very quickly that it was in fact a solid wood WE15a!

Later research led us to images of this never heard of horn taken by Western Electric for their documentation purposes. Detailed plans helped us understand the history of this very special horn. This is the very 1st 15a made by the same company that made the we12a and the 13a the very same construction method : the joinery work, the wood finish, the wooden brackets. That company is the Talking Machine Company renowned for its gramophones and the all famous credenza. Now these guys actually used the brackets cast for the 12a they made for Western Electric as the serial numbers confirm! It’s pretty certain that only one solid wood 15a is know to have been built, yes, one! Okay the we12a were made in small numbers, but were actually installed in theatres, but only one! And one that we can bet was never installed in any theatre. So actually the only ears that ever heard it were at Bell Labs…the greater public heard the plywood version. A prototype horn indeed!  

So what happened ? Why did they revert to making the we15a in flimsy plywood given that the solid wood has far better acoustical properties? You know… ”money”, cost, the never fading focus on the profit and loss account. But also the daunting perspective of mass production. Yes the cinema industry with the talkies was rapidly expanding. Production capacities were central to the commercial success, fail to supply would leave a void. And that void would be filled by the competitors. So the talking machine company just couldn’t pump them out fast enough. This was most certainly the thing that crossed the minds at Western Electric. Yes making this horn in plywood costs much less and makes total sense in that world. Material come off the shelf, no planing planks straight and squared, ply can be pre-cut to shape at a rapid rate, no hand made individual small pieces of wood all individually matched…and so on. To build we15a in plywood will take me about 2 days but in solid wood ? More time than that!

I don’t make the plywood we15a simply because it vibrates too much as does its sister we16a. I know that any we555 compression driver deserves only the very best built horn. Indeed flimsy plywood with no bracing just fixed at ends on steam shaped ash wood supports doesn’t cut it in my world. Some replicas of the we15a fore-fit the ash wood and cut profiles out of plywood, easier indeed. Take any 3/8” (circa 9mm) pine 3 ply cut to a length of about 1m40cm and see how it wobbles…take a one inch (25,4mm) thick plank and?…you know the answer! That’s why the we12a and 13a just don’t vibrate when being played and the plywood 15a does, simple and basic to understand.
I’ve been tempted to make solid wood 15a. I’ve always thought that it is probably a superior horn design. It was designed by some of the best designers ever and they obviously built on their previous horns the We12a and we13a. But I never set about building any simply due to the fact that my focus is on making the very closest replicas possible. Anyone that knows my work or reads my articles  understands this. So that cancelled any ambition to ahead with the idea.
So? you’ve probably understood that as soon as I became aware the the very 1st 15a was in solid  wood it was a no brainer: “Just do it!”  The fact that the last time anyone heard the solid wood 15a was almost 90 years ago got me very focused! Easier said than done! So I got back into research mode and mapped the way to reincarnating this dinosaur from the early  20th  into this 21st century. Templates, models, jigs….all fun work for me. I quickly noticed that they had actually rethought some of the building methods. On the 12a and 13a there are some very awkward details on the build. They take time and I see many ways of doing them differently. I don’t because that just wouldn’t be true to my objectives to be as close as possible to original. I smiled when I saw that the very ideas I had they put into effect in the solid wood 15a build! Not unusual, I guess, as woodworking hasn’t really changed that much over the centuries, at least traditional woodworking done by hand. Yet they introduced some more complex curved sections on the sides. These even with all my experience presented new challenges. I had to repeat over and over again the working methods until I managed to master these shapes, and this took days. So here you can see the result of my work, focus and dedication. A solid wood 15a replica. The very 1st one since 90 years. The we12a like the 13a are rare indeed and building a sound system with them can be considered as something exceptional. This solid wood 15a is like rarity within rarity….I am very happy to have made this happen. try to guess what it sounds like….15a that doesn’t resonate!
This is the 1st one of a limited series of 10 pieces I am making. They will be referenced « WE15-SW » from 01 to 10. The 001 and 002 are mine!
All fun…

4 thoughts on “Western Electric 15a “solid wood”

  1. Wow, this takes my breath away. Simply stunning. If I would have known earlier that one day you are going to build solid wood 15A horns, I never would have ordered a pair 12A horns but the 15A´s instead.

    Absolutely fantastic, Tim.

    Sincerely,

    Maurice.

  2. I know it’s not historically correct and wouldn’t be a complete replica, but the wood is absolutely stunningly beautiful as it is. A light oil finish would look amazing. But yeah, I know…
    Wonderful stuff Tim!

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