Pianos: A leg-up

Oooh, free piano. Do I need to show you another rusty truck? Do I need to come to your house and condemn your free piano personally? Maybe. Wow, look! Isn't that the blog-famous 'trailer trash' piano? Yes. Would you like its autograph, or a piece to take home? Just please don't be thinking that all it needs is a leg-up.

How's this natty invention for the pianos that do need a leg-up? It is a hydraulic car jack mounted on a grand piano leg.

The Caped Regulators team up for serious legwork. A church piano's leg has been compromised. The piano may kneel in prayer without notice. What we've learned is that 'Do not move this piano' signs are ignored by parishioners. Chucking in a few oversized screws might fix your sagging garden gate, but it will not be a suitable repair for a grand piano leg. What will be required is bespoke hardwood inserts then new threads will be created for the screws. There are several different systems of attachment for grand piano legs. Some do not involve screws at all.

Pretty pedals.


A client demonstrates fancy footwork for an iPage-turner thingie. I feel like I've travelled to the future. None of my gigging scenes involve any music-reading, so I couldn't be more out of touch with these trends.

I can see the benefit of an iSlab for this application.

Controllable backlighting with the ability to annotate.

Another go-go-gadget under the piano ai piedi to cue multimedia.

Let me browse the catalogue. Here's Paul (next door cat) back when he got comfortable almost anywhere he liked in my house and yard. Does my back room office look a little less like a storeroom in monochrome?

 Reminders in a music teacher's house. It's due to the frailty of the dwelling and the teacher. Fare le scale lentamente. Andante is too risky.

Supply your own illumination, it's dingy.

If you can't clearly see the hammers when you look inside an upright, it is a piano you should avoid. Here we see a Blüthner overdamper piano. The overdamper system is inefficient, obsolete and onerous. The design means the dampers are trying to silence the strings very near where the speaking lengths terminate. Muting a string to stop its sound near its end will never be effective. In an underdamper piano the dampers are positioned more optimally for their job of shutting the strings up when a key is released. Overdamper = red flag.

I did pitch-raise and tune this Blüthner because its condition was a notch or two up from many. The damper rail (that thing with the words on it) was the most elegant design I'd seen in an overdamper piano. Normally they are much more chunky. This rail was metal with a wooden core, a signature feature of all Steinway grands and all but their oldest uprights. 

The Grand Prize of 1897 certainly put Guatemala on the map. And without the aid of Google, who could verify this claim? My association with Guatemala goes way back to the Simpsons (Season 8, Episode 9) where the family visits the Great Chilli Cook-off.

Chief (and Chef) Wiggum: I've added an extra ingredient just for you. The merciless peppers of Quetzlzacatenango! Grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum.

Here we see a more conventional (much chunkier) overdamper rail. Looking from above it conceals our view of the hammer line. Pianos to avoid. All that is gold does not glitter.

Americans call these pianos 'birdcage' pianos. This view shows why.

My pain is eased by a fair-to-middling underdamper piano, and a client-delivered coffee.

The top end of an 85-key piano. To be compact, the design has the topmost key levers tapering in so that the action and all its components can be squeezed into the cabinet, tiny house-style.

Contrast that with a respectable Yamaha U3's standard 88 keys. The rear sections of the topmost keys actually flare out a little. There is ample room for a well-proportioned action.

This fern so charmed me. The mission has been to fill the gaps in my 'jungle' (the L-shaped planter box bordering the larger of my two decks). I have been able to create a display that visitors have described as 'lush'. It's getting there.

I planted the fern. The level of surrounding leafiness is such that I didn't notice when this addition turned up its toes. So, I'm doing something right and something wrong. I have vowed to be a more attentive gardener.

Late afternoon sun alights on a box of rusty tools at the second hand market. I wonder if he has an extractor for errant apostrophes.

This is an early image of the hot hide glue area in the Beale piano factory in Annandale, Sydney. It is part of a collection held by Ray Green who worked in the factory and is still active as a tuner and Guild member today. A tale I recall is that it was young Ray's job to get in early and turn on the glue pots to heat so that the glue would be ready for the day's assembly work.

I found Ray's card in a piano a while back and was charmed by the use of the term 'bonafide'.

Mr Largo: Miss Simpson, do you find something funny about the word tromboner?
Lisa: No, sir. I was laughing about something outside.

Workshop wonders: a heated glue pot containing hide glue. The glue comprises hide, hair and hooves, the 'three aitches'. To know how to heat it and control the ratios of glue to water requires at least one more Michelin Star (or Chef Hat) than I possess. I'm suggesting it's a chef-like pursuit. Old-school skill and experience is required. The tin (above) covers a lightbulb which has a dimmer switch so its intensity can be moderated. The glue and water go in the little glass jar mounted in the top of the tin. The whole thing is able to be taken on the road if desired. 

What's in there? It's mostly snouts and entrails. That is not strictly true, but it's a delicious Simpsons reference. 'Mmmm, snouts', says Homer as he groaks the dog's food. It's the three aitches* people, if you want to pass your exams in a reputable Piano School.

Hide glue comes in pearls. It has occurred to me that it is impossible for a pianist to be vegan. Well, not every piano contains traditional glue or leather, but most do.

Who else would take the trouble to bring you the pearls in detail? Hide glue has excellent properties. It is quick to dry to a functional strength. It is easy (compared with many modern glues) to deliberately weaken it to dismantle piano parts in preparation for replacement. Different levels of strength can be achieved by controlling the glue pot temperature. It can be made to be impressively strong.

Taking heated hide glue to domestic jobs is not so common. But here's a way my partner in piano pampering has made it happen with more convenience. A double-saucepan idea using a glass jar in a thing designed for melting wax for the removal of culturally-unacceptable hair. The gadget was bought expressly for hide glue on piano jobs.

Bridle tapes and wires in good condition in a Yamaha upright. The main purpose of the tapes is to contain the action parts when the entire action is being lifted in and out of the piano. Most folk think that the function of the tapes is to emulate gravity. They do assist action movement marginally, but it is not their primary function.

This action will fuel a wippen fire. The bridle tapes have been cut for ease of dismantling the action. In old pianos these tapes become degraded, the wires that the little red leather tabs hook onto become rusty. To separate the hammer assembly from the wippen assembly in an upright you must unhook the bridle tape. Often the tapes cannot be unhooked without them falling apart. You will find tapes broken, torn off their tabs and generally too frail to be serviceable.

Bridle tape replacement is quite common in clunkers because it is relatively easy (compared with all the other cloth, felt and leather replacement techniques) and it presents a facade of obvious new bits. 'Wow, it's been fully restored', a bit of Arthur Daley bling for the client. There's nothing wrong with any of this as such, but blingy bridle tapes do not mean an old piano has been extensively rejuvenated.

 The Caped Regulators don't specialise in bridle tape replacements on troubled clunkers. But here several torn tapes are being replaced, along with many other repairs to get a goanna going. This is not an instructional document but rather a series of vignettes that I hope give readers greater insight into the myriad mysteries inside pianos.

A tiny centre pin tapped into a tiny drilled hole forms a neat piano-room jig for preparing several new bridle tapes of an appropriate length for this piano. Examine an old tape to determine length.

Bridle tapes cut to length. The teensy pin (a centre pin) that they're hanging on will be removed, the teensy hole will be concealed by the keyslip rail (cabinet part) when it is returned to the piano. 

The baby glue pot in action.** The new bridle tapes are glued on underneath the catchers. As pianos are manufactured the tapes are inserted as each catcher is joined to its little dowel. Few would detatch catchers from their dowels to fit new tapes. Shed-types might if they had untold hobbyist-tinkerer hours to donate to something trivial. It ain't happening in any real world I know of. Replacements glued on somehow neatly and sensibly are fine. An orthodox glueing technique is demonstrated above.

Here's an unorthodox (ill-advised) method of fitting bridle tapes. This piano has received the first-aid it deserved (not our work). Donate generously so the little bandaged piano may make music again. Strike up St James Infirmary Blues, with the emphasis on infirmary.

* Hide, hair and hooves.

** Please don't glue babies.


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