Vin Dowd is a man constantly looking for the next big project to get his hands dirty.

From restoring old motorbikes, to building birdbaths and houseboats, a shining star in Mr Dowd’s project collection is his 26-bell travelling carillon.

The pitched percussion instrument is made up of at least 23 bells that are hung in a fixed suspension and played in a similar way to a piano.

Mr Dowd started his journey with a small bell for his backyard.(Supplied: Vin Dowd)

Going into the project in 2020, Mr Dowd started small with a bell installed in his backyard in Ramco West, in South Australia’s Riverland region.

“I always wanted to make a bell for the backyard, you know, a nice bell,” he said.

“To my surprise, it turned out exceptionally well.”

Bell beginnings

In the following two years, Mr Dowd was consumed by the world of bellfounding — the casting and tuning of large bells which dates from about 2000 BC.

He said he spent “hours and hours” researching where to begin.

Traditional methods were used in the casting process, with loam from mud found on the edges of the Murray River, fire clay, and horse hair combined with manure to create inner-bell moulds.

Mr Dowd’s used moulds from the bellfounding process.(ABC Riverland: Julie Kimberley)

Mr Dowd also mixed his own alloys, comprised of 80 per cent copper and 20 per cent tin, which were poured at temperatures of about 1,150 degrees Celsius.

The ongoing process, aided by mathematical changes for mould sizes, resulted in 26 bells with sequential notes that formed the carillon.

Dubbed Carillon on the Park, the mobile musical instalment hangs from a frame atop a car trailer, in what Mr Dowd believes to be Australia’s only travelling carillon.

Made to be played

According to his wife, Mary, Mr Dowd has always been “a maker of things” and is known to underrate himself and his creations.

“[The carillon] is a bit special because he had to do so much research and had no plans,” she said.

“Both of us really had no musical background at all.

“Vin made this delightful instrument and then said, ‘We have to find someone to play it’.”

With basic piano skills and a will to try, Ms Dowd played the carillon upon its completion, using her hands to push down on the levers controlling the wired bells.

The travelling carillon has made its way to several events, including Riverland town markets and the Barossa Medieval Fair.

Mr Dowd admitted he felt envy watching his wife play for crowds.

“I can’t read music at all, and I’m tone deaf — you might as well be hitting tin cans,” he said.

“It sounds a bit strange to make a carillon when that’s how you hear music, but that’s the fact.”

International connections

Notable carillons in Australia are found in towers in Bathurst, Canberra and Sydney, but bellfounder and Australian Bell director Anton Hasell said the instrument was used in many towns across the country.

He said Adelaide was one of the major “bell-loving” cities in Australia, although the connection to bells and carillons was stronger internationally.

Anton Hasell says making a musical bell is a complex process.(Supplied: Anton Hasell)

“Almost every university in America has a carillon … but all of those bells are either 1930s English bells, or with additions from Dutch bell foundries in the 1970s and ’80s,” Dr Hasell said.

“You can’t have a cup of coffee in a little village somewhere in Europe without hearing bells being played musically.”

Dr Hasell said the interest in bells had only recently “fallen away”, but he was focused on bringing bells into the 21st century using 3D printing.

“Bells have an ancient and wonderful pull on the human psyche,” he said.

“For 400 years, European bellfounders have been struggling to design bells by boundary iteration to achieve correctly sounding bells, and we, using computers, managed to invent perfectly musical bells.”

Mr Dowd created different friezes and decals on his carillon of bells.(ABC Riverland: Julie Kimberley)

Bell chimes on another project

For Mr Dowd, the completion of his bells and putting together the carillon is just another feather in his growing cap.

“I admit it’s special in the sense I’d never sell this one ——everything else I’ve ever made in the past I’d sell,” he said.

“The dollars always rule, but I don’t think I’d sell my soul on this one.

“The grandkids can have it if they want it. If they don’t, I don’t know what I’ll do, [maybe] give it to one of the Riverland councils in the long run.”

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