Pianos: Like pulling teeth

The Elephants' Union finally got its shit together, eh? This complete set of keys on a keyframe has been made to order. The original keyframe (with the beginning and end keys and wippens of each section of the keyboard) was sent to the maker for reference. White keytops could have been made part of the order, but the client is adamant that old ivory will be fitted. It is his prerogative.

Pianos have myriad moving parts. Little axles (centre pins) are surrounded by finely-woven cloth bushings. Steinway New York infamously pioneered Teflon bushings in 1962. The idea was sound enough, it seemed. Teflon was (and is) much more dimensionally stable and (unlike traditional bushing cloth) not subject to the effect of humidity variations. The Hamburg factory stuck with traditional cloth.

The Teflon bushings performed as desired, staying stable without swelling. But problems developed after a few years because the Teflon bushings were still housed in a wooden machine part. The latter would swell and shrink through the seasons. The inert bushings became clicky and rattly as unwanted play developed between them and the wood. Ultimately, rigorous damage-control and a reversion to the traditional method was the company's course of action.

Synthetic bushings are now produced by Wessell, Nickel and Gross who manufacture revolutionary carbon fibre composite piano action components. The Caped Regulators have fitted a few pianos with Ninja parts. The issues that developed with Steinway's Teflon bushings will not befall the WNG parts because there is no marriage of a 'hard bushing' with the fluctuations inherent in a wooden part.

Another Woodford Folk Festival memory. If Sandy did have a clicky 'Teflon era' Steinway to offer you, your best option (many decades on) would be to replace the affected parts, rather than the much more laborious notion of rebushing the entire action (and back-action) with cloth.

The Blue Lotus venue at Woodford. The sail sculptures (I don't even know what to call them, but that'll do) and other details that made each venue distinct were a wonder to behold. I didn't feel the urge to attend any event in this tent, I admit. I might be too much of an inner-city skeptic. I just couldn't make time for...

...'Chinese Face Reading' although that could be a handy skill to have in Sydney.

This sign was backstage in our venue: 'Will you shoosh your bloody chakras?'

Back in the piano lair the Caped Regulators (piano pamperers to the stars... and you) repair a hairline crack in the treble bridge of a Baldwin concert grand. Strings in this section are de-tensioned, unhooked from hitch pins and bridge pins and secured out of the way. A few bridge pins directly along the 'fault line' are removed. It's just like pulling teeth. Masking tape on the pliers protects the pins and surroundings.

Bamboo skewers are inserted to protect the holes from the glue.

The crack is carefully prised open a little further ready to receive the glue.

Injecting marine glue into the crack.

A series of wedges inserted between two thin pieces of rock maple supports the bridge as the glue dries. The gap between the frame and the bridge is not uniform, so quite a bit of experimenting with the custom wedges (their position and order) was required.

Later the bridge pin holes were lightly cleaned with a drill bit in a small hand vise. The removed bridge pins were then re-inserted. The string loops (which had remained on their tuning pins) were relocated and pulled back up to pitch.

I'm only ever idly browsing such displays at airports. Yes, I remember when I learned to tell the time. But seriously, I don't anticipate that I will brandish a watch that has an 'airplane mode' any time soon.

In memory of my mother's (and indeed her mother's) Ibach piano. This is the soft (left) pedal mechanism. It moves the hammer line closer to the strings. Its beauty lies in it being a series of wooden parts with cloth bushings around centre pins. It's just like the parts in the action itself, but larger. I had never seen anything like it when I first spied it. Now I've seen good, bad, ugly, old, new, borrowed, blue - but few as lovely.

Not a week goes by when I am not challenging folks' emotional attachment to pianos - or more particularly - educating about the machinery inside and the nature of odd and ageing materials. My mother had heard plenty of my rants and anecdotes, mostly not directed specifically at her piano. At a certain point she up and replaced it with a lesser but newer instrument. I admit I had not wanted the burden of potentially feeling I had to restore the Ibach to honour any family memories. I felt unsure about its possible destiny, if it were to one day 'rightfully' come to me as not only the professional musician, but the piano technician of the family, no less! I'm not particularly sentimental about items, yet I can't believe how emotional I felt when I saw the photos of its departure from the house. 

An elegant frame element in a Grotrian Steinweg upright. Sometimes a family piano deserves to live on, but not as the main instrument for a young or ambitious player. Other times the memories would be best served in alternative forms. 'Creative re-purposing' is phrase I've used often.

Let sleeping composers lie. An extra pair of holes in that plate bearing smacks of 'Friday afternoon'. This piano could barely hold a tuning. Careful communication ensued about the precarious situation. Although this piano was local enough to (almost) provide a 'walk to work' day, I'd happily never see it again. 

Business cards inside pianos are nothing unusual. I think it was the 'Late of Palings Beale Pianos' that charmed, or amused. There is nothing untoward about the language used, but my head still takes 'late' and imagines someone crafting their business card from beyond the grave. Although I usually quip that the average age of piano tuners is 'deceased',  A. A. is still tuning. But I'm not sure he's answering that phone number.

This old dear presented an abnormal annoyance. In a part of the piano where the tuning pin layout is already cramped to maximise length in the strings themselves (the lowest plain wire strings on the treble bridge) the drilling of the holes into the pin block had also been a little bit 'Friday afternoon'.

As a result, two pairs of pins were close enough to prevent a tuning tool fitting in. On first encounter, the offending inoperable pins had their strings muted off. If this piano were to be able to be tuned with less frustration, a cunning plan was called for.

Another surprise. It's rare that the whole action, keys and keyframe come out as one. In the large majority of uprights, one takes the action out and leaves the keyboard behind.

This one comes out as a unit, cheek blocks and all. I've seen just one other piano along these lines since this encounter. But now that the action is out of the way, let's get on with the determined amelioration.

This wide shot shows where we are in the piano's range. The two lowest notes on this pianos's treble bridge are C3 (one octave below Middle C) and its neighbour one semitone higher, C#3. That's quite low for plain wire notes. The 'break' between bridges (and also between plain wire strings and wound strings) varies from piano to piano.

Cazzbo, did you choose monochrome to emphasise your little red arrow pointing to the relevant part of the pin field, or because you were sick of the peachy-pink decor in this room? Well, a little from Column A, a little from Column B.

The string coil is prised off and the first of two tuning pins is removed.

For two notes, we'll remove the centre tuning pin and wire, and plug the hole with some simple pluggy things available from Bunnings. 

This piano is too much of a clunker to warrant superbly-made hardwood plugs, but some sort of plug is recommended to keep this area of the pin block as stable as possible after the two pins' removal.

A very slight drill treatment of the holes is performed, to clean them and expose just a few fresh 100-year-old wood fibres.

The second plug (with a little Titebond glue) is inserted.

There's one nifty thing about this unusual action-and-keyboard-come-out-as-one. We have a convenient workbench for tools (with care and clean-up, of course).

Three strings are now two. There was a bit of dicking around with the wires down underneath (at the hitch pins). Wires are either one loop per two tuning pins, or sometimes each is individually tied off at the hitch pin with what we call an 'eye'. I don't remember what went on in the nether regions, since master stringer Superhero Tech took charge of all that, making me feel entirely like a kept woman.  

Now to see what it takes to make the dampers work. Again, as we move lower in the piano's range, the flat dampers found in the mid-to-high range graduate to W-shaped dampers (looking like M-shapes here). 

With deft spacing of the strings and the barest tickle, the W dampers masqueraded as V dampers brilliantly. 

I've been powering away producing bloggy bits in my separate back office in lieu of my it's-hot-upstairs-in-high-summer upstairs office. I'm fortunate that I have choices. As breezes eddied through my space I reached for the nearest object that would serve reliably as a paperweight. A series of exotic piano wheels languish waiting for me to tell their stories. This is the closest I've come so far. 

A mate sojourning in Asia spied this Steinway in the National Museum of Singapore. Its debut saw Lang Lang play it for Sing50, celebrating 50 years of Singapore music. 

A new concert series will see students perform original compositions or popular Singaporean songs. No unpopular songs, you hear!

A couple of local banks have donated the piano. I'm no bank, but I'd happily donate a Skype lesson on how to select the correct locator cup when the piano lid is open on full stick. Clue: This is wrong! The long stick belongs on the inner of the two locator cups. The outer cup is for the short stick. The angle between the prop stick and the open lid should be 90 degrees. Any dumbo knows that...

Stampy says: A 90 degree angle between open lid and prop stick, people!

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