Campanology Word of the Day: Canon

There are many parts to a bell and each is given a name steeped in the craft of bellfounding and campanology. For instance, a bell has both a waist and a shoulder, a lip and a mouth. It’s even crowned with a…well, crown. But above the crown is that part of a bell by which it is suspended from a beam or truss: the canons.

Canons are loops of bronze equally distanced from each other, encircling the top of the bell. They are cast together with the bell itself, giving strength as one single piece of continuous metal (as opposed to being welded or riveted as a separate component). Since bells were first suspended in towers, canons have held them in place, often strapped to headstocks that allow the bells to rotate on pins.

The shape of a bell, in large part, dictates the sound, so bellfounders won’t stray too far from the mathematical proportions that ensure perfect tones and melodious rings. With the canons, however, they are given artistic freedom, and many a bellmaker has shown his or her artistic flourishes with finely sculpted canons in the shape of hands, coronets, angels, biblical figures, and more.

Do all bells have canons?

Not all bells have canons. Many tower bells cast today and within the last half century have dispensed with bell canons altogether. Instead, these bells are bolted directly to the supporting structure. By eliminating the need for straps that weave through the canons, modern bell installations stay secure over a much longer period.

Speaking of, if a bell in your tower is suspended by canons, it’s important to regularly check the strength and structural integrity of the iron straps, which can become brittle with corrosion and rust. The entire assemblage should be inspected for cracks or signs of fissure. Similarly, the headstock should be free from rot or insect damage (like termites). 

The importance of well-maintained canons is clear: the floors of most bell towers and supporting structures are not meant to sustain the catastrophic impact of thousand-pound bells crashing to the ground. This is especially true for swinging bells. The weight burden on canons is up to four times greater with full-circle swinging bells (versus a stationary bell).

Can you identify the other parts of bell? Challenge yourself and continue discovering the fascinating world of campanology.

Image: Canons atop a church bell, cast in the figures of angels.