Pianos: Leading lady

My monogram inside a piano stamped into a key lead. I'm no leading lady - but the perfect partner, foil or sidekick in many a group situation. We're talking lead weights which are found in piano keys. They can oxidise and disintegrate. They can expand to the point where they interfere with neighbouring keys causing sticking notes. That is often the first sign of a problem. The leads can expand to the point where the wood of the key is pushed apart and splits.

When a new lead weight is inserted into its hole (in a key or action part) it is then stamped with a punch to spread it slightly so that it is held tightly in the key and will not rattle.  

Speaking of heavy metal here's Sidney Nolan's First-class Marksman.* I presume no irony on the artist's behalf with that title. The work depicts shooting practice. 'I'll fill you full of lead,' Ned allegedly said, his words swirling 'round in the helmet on his head. The words dribbled down and were strained through his beard. They came out near his knees where his accent sounded weird. Simple silhouettes bring out my Seussy side.** I tune often for events at the Art Gallery. I always try to peek at something on my way out.

An older piano presents with oxidised swollen leads. There is no proper fix except removing and replacing the leads. Pianos of a moderate age (not geriatric) can be affected. The degradation is influenced by the purity of the initial lead as well as environment. Theories about pianists' sweat circulate (when the degradation is found to be more in the middle of the keyboard). Batch quality can be implicated when you witness that leads of a certain size have all oxidised while those of another size (within the same piano) remain unaffected.

Oxidising lead is horrible. There will often be extensive powdered lead deposits in the keybed and elsewhere. The trick is to clean it out without causing it to billow. Yuck. 

It's good (well, sort of) when oxidised leads can be carefully pushed out using a punch in a drill press (not running). It is almost inevitable that there will be some wood damage. This piano's key wood is in good condition and the lead problem is being addressed before expansion has got severe. Mostly they push out well. Sometimes they don't come out neatly (especially with older wood). It's not for the faint-hearted any of this.

It's worth mentioning that almost every piano keyboard will have some leads that go only halfway through the key (visible on one side only). These cannot be pushed out, they must be drilled out. It's messy work. I don't cope well with mess.

The Caped Regulators (us) in the piano lair. That's my 'I don't cope well with mess' face while my partner is calm, focussed and in control. It was mercury that sent hatters mad. Putting the horror in horoscope, eh? In the scene above Lisa Simpson has entered a library. Literary characters in her imagination tempt her to drop her attempt to re-brand herself as a 'cool kid'. It involves the use of the term 'microfiche'. Those were the days. Which days? The days of classic Simpsons episodes? Of libraries with reference sections? Hmmm, a little from Column A, a little from Column B. 

Where expanding leads have split the key and entered the crack, they will need to be drilled out. The approach should be different to what you see above (where an attempt was made with a regular drill by someone else). A forstner bit should be used to remove the lead with minimal loss of wood. Who would readily opt to work extensively with lead? Not me.

Let's honour the Caped Regulators - because we can.

How is it done? With these nifty workshop items.

I think I'll start my own newspaper...

...using these smaller letters for apologies and retractions.

Upper case and baby upper case.

In the hallowed halls of my old workplace the stenciled signs sport superfluous umlauts. It's so you never forget how snooty the opera is.

Back in the piano lair these weights (made by my partner in piano pampering) measure how many grams it takes for a piano key to be moved downward. Downweight and upweight are 'things' as are equations for blending the two measurements. It's important to ensure that there is not excessive friction in the keys at the balance rail before taking touchweight measurements.

In a frail jalopy clunker of a piano one might just put replacement leads into the old holes. In a decent piano it is much better to plug the old holes by glueing in bespoke wooden plugs then drill new holes to position the new leads where they will provide the desired touchweights. Above we see potential lead positions being explored.

Whew! Let's put the billy on. Hey, 'damper' is both a bread and a brake (to stop a string sounding in a piano). I'm astounded and hungry.

OK, we're not making a cuppa. This is my esteemed partner's method of making new leads for these jobs. He uses building grade flashing lead manufactured to Australian Standard 2804-1976. You find it at Bunnings.

This is NOT a tutorial of any sort but rather a vignetty glimpse for general entertainment. My partner has created molds from solid aluminium stock. Molten lead is poured into the holes in the channel in the lid. It enters chambers with cyclindrical profiles of the appropriate diameter. The lid section of the mold is held on with Allen screws. Lead diameters range from 8mm to 13mm (sometimes 14mm). Of course many piano manufacturers used imperial sizes like half an inch and 3/8ths of an inch. The weight difference between a half-inch piece and a 13mm piece is 3 grams. Sometimes it is necessary to nibble a bit of lead off a weight with a forstner bit or chisel.

The lid comes off the mold when the lead has cooled.

The leads are extracted from the mold and their little tops are trimmed off.

VoilĂ .


Accustomed as I am to wrangling heavy metal.

In the earliest days workshop wenches stirred all molten metal soups with flutes. With her recipe book on her knee and her gossamer garment having already slipped from her shoulder, she was centuries ahead of her time in predicting that Facebook be apoplectic should she reveal a nipple. Hang on a fluting minute, is that what I think it is??

"Music-making and musical accompaniment were frequently taken as alluding to amorous activity."

'Unboxings' are all the rage.

A special lead melter is procured.

It's curtains for the crumpled crucible.

Pensioned-off pots.

An impressionistic snap of the instructions. It all reads like...

...this license plate. This car lives in the next street.

The new pot is primed.

These strange metalic cubes with minute details thereon were not cooked up in the piano lair.

Instead they form an intriguing artwork beside me as I tune. 

* As of 2018, First-class Marksman is the most expensive painting ever sold at auction in Australia.

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