The Clunker Chronicles

The term 'clunker' in the world of pianos is possibly used similarly to the way it may be used in reference to cars. I can't remember the last time I heard an utterance about Grandmother's car, but I hear numerous about Grandmother's piano. Now insert the word 'Great' preceding 'Grandmother'... but rarely (if ever) preceding the word 'piano'. To be fair, not every piano below warrants complete 'clunker' certification, many are very respectable and serviceable instruments that deserve to be maintained and kept going. But some are realistically seeking redeployment. 

My credo: 'I trust, it rust.' I developed it while typing inaccurately. 

Found objects: broken tenor strings from an upright piano. They have all failed at the hitch pin (bottom) rather than at the top near or at the coil or its nearest bearing-point. That's a little unusual, but all the rust was down there. The neglect, however, was evenly distributed. But seriously: old strings, unmoved, coupled with humidity and climatic changes result in build-ups of surface rust and impurities on the strings' surfaces. This, coupled with fatigue, age, wear, results in strings that may be past their use-by date. Pianos are not restrung nearly as regularly as guitars and fiddles, but they are very periodically restrung. Here, replacement copper-wound strings (five in all) have been made by the specialist string-maker and will be installed.

Humidity and climatic changes (again) contribute to this quite common occurrence. An 'exploding hammer' is a piano problem that is difficult to discuss at airports. Fortunately, when I'm on tour tour as a performer, I can forget about exploding hammers for a while.

Repair methods (if replacement is not sought) are usually along these lines. Reglue, clamp then truss the hammer, so that it is almost immediately playable. The yarn binding can be removed next time, or left, no biggie. This would not happen in the finest pianos, but this blog entry is largely not about the finest pianos! I took the above snap to document my (legitimate) McGyvering, and only later did I notice that the bass hammer at the very right of the shot has the same story to tell... evidence of removed yarn-trussing. I've once seen someone do this so neatly that the yarn created diagonals and triangles befitting an Argyle sock - but whatever gets the job suitably and functionally achieved is legitimate.

A 'Concord' piano - definitely not living up to its name.

Steampunk, before that term existed. An intact player piano mechanism, quite the wonder. However my task, for this appraisal, is to reach past all the OLA and get to the PIAN... 'Pianola' is a brand-name in common use as a descriptor. Hoover, Biro, Xerox - now guess which eponym annoys a tuner (when tuning) the most? 

I found the piano was calibrated exactly to my pre-coffee morning state. Actually, that's not true - anyone who knows me knows I never dip below Allegretto, even when asleep.

Meanwhile, I had a go at adjusting my mood via this knob - still not quite right - what a problem piano!

Clunker piano (and player piano) bits are stalking me at every turn. Perhaps I can persuade clients with condemnables that their pianos (in pieces) might aspire to grace the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an exhibit.

Curious. Here the last two notes at the bottom (left) of the treble bridge are bichords (with two wound strings per note) yet the tuning pin layout matches the remaining plain wire trichords (three strings per note) which continue up to the top of the piano's range. In the very dull light afforded this piano inspection, I belatedly notice either placebo pins (which do nothing when turned, because they are not attached to strings) or pins I can turn, magically, to take me straight through the looking (or listening) glass to Narnia's Seventh-and-a-half Floor. Is this a sweet bit of low-rent Ronny O-style rescaling? No Sir, not Ronny O, Sir. But who Sir? We'll never know, Madam!  


A fine and shiny little piano for me to help. I enter the house on a too-warm day to delight in the refreshing indoor climate. I find that the the source of my pleasurable relief is also cause for (mild) dismay as the air-conditioning unit pours its luxuriant coolth straight into the open piano. I advise the client to adjust the blades on the unit so that the dry, icy jet stream travels (as much as possible) over the piano. Lid closed until the first party guests arrive, until the first canap├ęs are served, or as much as possible - is my other mantra.

Arty lines and grainy blur... we have lift-off, evidenced by a strange click-on-release sound on an upper-register note. Dutiful sleuthing reveals many keytops lifting off at the top or (with almost no persuasion) entirely. The sound: one loosening keytop making contact with the fallboard. The client had fun sharing in finding similarly affected keys as we explored. OK, glue time. 

Client dislodges F9.

 Repair method: First, eat a popsicle. Nah, 'tis a paddle that has never known the inside of an ice creamery. I don't like popsicles.

 A short stroll down Condemnable Avenue - 'Ave a new piano... 

Here an overdamper piano fails to dampen anything but my mood. If you lift a piano's lid and cannot readily, easily, see the hammers, you are probably gazing into a piano that technicians will almost universally walk away from, if not run (or proactively eliminate with pertinent phone questions). Invariably these pianos are not within cooee of concert pitch. Such visits are disappointing, but I don't mind having left the house for a small service call fee, because there is the chance to communicate and educate.

The client quite readily accepts that this member of the family is beyond reasonable resurrection as a musical instrument. It is not really possible to support investment in the repairs and replacements required. The action's multiple parts and mechanisms are severely degraded. Swollen damper leads and other disintegration mean that attempting to operate one lever saw ten move. 'Yes, I see, they're fused.' said the client, evoking ready medical analogies aptly. Yet there is much beauty, for those who open their eyes (but not their ears!) The keys you see missing have just been removed as ideas flow... 

I assist the client to re-imagine some of the piano's beautiful bits as a way that the instrument's memory may be honoured. I hope to elicit something positive from the call-out (other than bloggable tales). Many pianos from this era have gorgeous cabinets and trimmings. The drawcard above: the aesthetic allure of the signatures and annotations of tuners-gone-by on the rear of the keysticks.

Another rather pretty cabinet, shame about the guts. Note the overdamper mechanism: the horizontal beam above the hammer line, and the vertical damper wires - 'birdcage' is a common term. This action was less 'fused', but this piano is still rightly a walk-away for a technician in any reasonable circumstance. 

The string coils are very near the plate, but the pins are still quite loose. The number of coil wraps is large. Often, when there is little or no clearance between the string coils and the plate, pins may have been driven in further as a legitimate method of garnering a little more torque to hold the strings at pitch. The tensions on the strings are massive, tuning pins lacking the necessary torque are quite a problem. When sound comes out, folk think tuning will be no problem. Sometimes tuning will be impossible.

On this occasion failure to damp is caused by the general technical inefficiency of the overdamper design (there is good reason that this method of damping is obsolete), crusty, worn, degraded damper felts which no longer have the supple-yet-firm softness to silence agitating strings - AND this misalignment takes the cake. No that is the not icing (frosting) on the right end damper, but some icky mouldy residue that I'd rather not inhale. There was delicious pod coffee, but no cake.

Fortunately, I have the opportunity to tend a broad range of instruments, I don't claim clunker exclusivity. But hey, perhaps I should diversify further and apply below...

"In natural daylight"! Now there's something that was not afforded me in the Opera Theatre Pit!

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