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Handel tuners with plain buttons on a pre-1910 Flower & Groeshl "Mayflower" guitar Handel Tuners with inlaid buttons Image Cre...

Handel Tuning Machine Origins

Handel tuners with
plain buttons on a
pre-1910 Flower
& Groeshl "Mayflower"
Handel Tuners with inlaid buttons
Image Credit:

Handel (meaning "trade" in German) tuning machines appeared on early Gibson mandolins until about 1918 (when they mysteriously disappeared) and included pearl and silver wire inlaid into an faux-ivory celluloid button [1]. These tuners also appeared on Vega cylinder-back mandolins and similarly inlaid buttons appeared on some Joseph Bohmann instruments from earlier in the century. The tuning machines with plain buttons also appeared on select other instruments from the era.

These tuning machines are incredibly difficult to find information about and a lot of the information out there relies on circular referencing without any solid paper trail to back any of the sources up. I am seeking to answer a few questions and put together a solid explanation as to the origin of these tuning machines.

I've found that genuine Handel tuners have two outer "nubs" and three smaller "teeth" that look like the teeth of a saw.

Does "Handel" refer to the designer of the buttons or the tuning machines as a whole?

Were Handel tuners actually made in Germany? Who made them?

Why did they disappear from Gibson instruments after 1918?

"Saxony" Theory

This particular origin story comes from a 2003 page by Vince Brennan on the now defunct It claims that there was a village in Saxony, Germany that was home to the Handelstein family that carved bone buttons by hand up until the Great War took most of their laborers and made it un-American for Gibson to import their materials

The first issue is that these buttons are not bone but are an early plastic made to resemble ivory or bone which would be the first, major, flaw in that theory. Secondly, I realize the limitations of searching for an obscure German village via English Google but even commenters, as far back as 2006, seemed to realize that no references to such a village exist. Now, in 2020, the only references I can find are from commenters on MandolinCafe referring to the tuning machines. Thirdly, the tuning machines disappeared from Gibson instruments in 1918 (the end of WWI) and the war started four years earlier and I doubt Gibson had 4 years worth of buttons lying around. The timeline doesn't seem to make much sense
The tuners alone are worth $250.00 a set.  These were made in Germany in ONE little village in Saxony,  Handelstein.  The industrious Handelsteiners had done inlaying and carving of bone and ivory for at least 200 years,  thus the pegs are commonly referred to as "Handel Tuners" . Christian Martin made sure (another saxon, he) that he imported the ivory and bone tuners from there to fit his more expensive guitars (actual cost 1860 for a CF Martin top-of-the-line parlour guitar? $45.00!)
It was a cottage industry for someone to shape the bone thumb-pegs and then someone else would engrave the bone thumb-pegs and then someone else would inlay the flowers on the bone thumb-pegs  and someone else would..... you get the idea. 

Well,  a complication arose....called WW1.  Being experts in engraving bone, most of Handelstein's young men went and started engraving French and Belgian skulls with lead, and the industry died.  When the US entered the war, it was now un-patriotic to use these and so Gibson sent all it's stock back to the importer and went to plain bone thumb-peg tuners from then on in.  Until then, these Handel tuners were a premium feature on not only mandolins, but guitars, mandolas, mandocellos, etc. [2]

"German Buttons" Theory

This theory originated from the famous Roger Siminoff in a 1981 issue of Frets and comes from a website that cites him. The website notes that after 1918, the buttons switched from the ornate style to a plain "ivory-colored" button and I believe the author also realizes that the buttons are not bone

 The 'Handel' machines featured bone knobs that were fancily inlaid with mother-of-pearl, abalone, and fine wire.... Because the knobs were cemented onto the shafts, they are very difficult to remove; so you have to think of the knobs and their attached gears as a unit.  It was originally believed that the gears and backstraps were made in this country, then sent to Germany for the Handel firm to install the inlaid knobs; but Handel actually did the entire job overseas....  They were quite beautiful, and the workmanship was excellent.

"Handel Lamp Co" Theory

The Handel Company from Connecticut existed from 1885 to 1936 and made glass lamps which are desirable [5]. MandolinCafe users attempted to draw a connection between the two but were unable to definitively say that the company produced such a product [3]. 

"Waverly" Theory

I also stumbled across a few references both on the internet and through communication with other vintage instrument repairman and specialists that attributed the tuning machines to the Waverly company. The Waverly company was established in 1918 which again would be post WWI and after Gibson had ceased to use the buttons. Perhaps Waverly produced copies later on? I do not know.

"Japanese Buttons" Theory

Paul Hostetter of claimed to have seen a jar of new old stock Handel inlaid buttons by an anonymous New York music dealer. The dealer claimed they came from Japan. This was quickly debunked by user thistle3585 who said that Japan didn't become a big source for celluloid until the 1920s.
An instrument dealer from NYC, whose name shall not be uttered, once showed me a quart jar full of Händel buttons, new-old stock, so to speak - never used - and swore they came from Japan, and were pressed onto gears by various makers in the US. I'm not sure how he knew they were from Japan. This guy also loves to call rosewood Circassian walnut.

[3 p.4]


Louis Handel Company of New York

The Louis Handel Company was founded in 1911 according to New York business records. The company is fairly enigmatic and it was difficult to find references to it until I stumbled upon a case from the 1923 that came before the New York Supreme Court and thus was digitized by Google Books. The case involved some sort of payment dispute and business relation between Louis Handel and Ferdinand Suren (who also founded his own manufacturing company for musical instrument parts). 

I read the entire transcript (so you don't have to) and picked out any important details and mentions of the company's operations. The company was located at No. 138 Centre Street in Manhattan, New York and had been valued at $45,000 in the 1920s so they weren't a small operation. 

Louis (b.1853) was a little more difficult to track down as there were a number of folks sharing his name in New York during that time period including a duck farmer/innkeeper, and a grocer. But I was able to discern through his daughter's name, which appeared in both the court case and his obituary, that he died on July 3rd, 1933 [8]. I am not sure of to what extent the company continued after his death but his daughter, Anna C. Thomas (b.1883, d.1946), held stock in the company during its existence.

Transcript from the court case that definitively ties
the Handel company to making "patent heads" (tuning machines)
for guitars and banjos as well as other metal parts [7]

Court transcript noting the difficulty in
acquiring labor in August of 1918. Later mentions
desired wages of $100 per week [7]

Finally with a confirmation of a company and the name in my mind, I went searching for more information and found out that folks on the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum were familiar with the company and knew them as being pearl inlay manufacturers. Forum users were not convinced that Handel made the tuning machines themselves citing "no evidence" of metalworking but I believe my research confirms that the Louis Handel company produced all parts of the tuning machines

1972 Letter from C. F. Martin III to an anonymous researcher
that attributed pearl inlay production to the Louis Handel company [9]

Previous Questions

Does "Handel" refer to the designer of the buttons or the tuning machines as a whole?

Handel refers to the entire tuning machine assembly including the buttons. The buttons were not made by "Handel" and installed on domestic tuners, rather they were all made by a single company.

Were Handel tuners actually made in Germany? Who made them?

No, from my research it is likely that Louis Handel came from an Austrian immigrant family but his company was based solely in the United States.

The tuners were made by The Louis Handel Company of New York which constructed parts for musical instruments. We can confirm that they were involved with the production of pearl inlays as well as metal working and fabrication which would set them up to construct tuning machines from scratch. I would also say with certainty that they would've had the tooling to produce celluloid buttons 

Why did they disappear from Gibson instruments after 1918?

Given evidence from the court case above, I would say that a shortage of skilled workers and an increase in product costs would've driven Gibson away from the inlaid buttons (assuming Handel was continuing to produce them). 

Similarly Styled Machines

These tuners are not made by Handel but have a similar style and are worth noting
Unknown Tuners
One center "tooth"
1915 Washburn Tuners
Two "teeth"
Lyon and Healy made their own tuners for years so these are likely from them
 Fancy inlaid buttons on a Joseph Bohmann mandolin
Image Credit: Unknown




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