Pianos: Kablammo!

A posy from my garden. Hammer flowers are not meant to explode into bloom at this time of year, or at any time. In the trade we call this predicament a case of 'exploding hammers'. [Cue dramatic sting] They can never be discussed at the airport. Kablammo! But how did we get from here... 

...to here? Here's my client's photo on completion of my servicing (stalkily snaffled from 'the socials'). I quote her: "One fire, one kitty, one glass of wine and one well-tuned piano. Who said COVID iso was anything but bliss?" 

Her feedback to me after I'd resurrected and revolutionised the poor wee pieeny: "This little piano has never, ever, ever sounded the way it does now. You have performed a miracle. I can't believe it!"

Back to the beginning. Words that can fill a piano technician with dread, the client described a 'compact' piano from the USA that had spent time in Hawaii. Three red flags right there. Well at least two. I feared a justifiably-detested drop-action (so-called 'spinet') piano. During our training at Piano School we learned that drop-action pianos feature only on lists of 'pianos to avoid'.

Watching Seinfeld with my housemate. Ooh, the very type of piano I'm toiling with. They're much more common in the USA where it seems the spindly-legged homesteader look has never gone out of style. Who has spindly legs, the piano or the homesteader? George (above) dips his chip, takes a bite, and dips again. He is challenged, "That's like putting your whole mouth in the dip." In our happy little COVID lockdown household we're not averse to a dose of the flawed self-obsessed character creations that epitomise Seinfeld. I digress.

Meeting successive condemnable clunkers, as a piano technician, can wear you down. It elicits in me intense cautionary rants to cold-callers. I might scare a few off. It's OK (I believe) to broach the subject that a piano might not be serviceable. It is a reality. Pianos are beautiful beasts that can have very long lives, but the same emotional attachment (and desire to have it functioning) is not afforded your grandmother's washing machine. Every case is unique. Professional inspections of second-hand finds are essential.

Here is a drop-action, or 'spinet' (above) on a colleague's workbench. Note (red arrow) the 88 extra spindlywires-with-widgets (called rods or stickers) which must each be connected to the keys to sling the action down behind the keyboard. In a conventional upright the bottom of the action essentially sits on the rear of the keys, thus there are not 88 cats to herd in order to remove or return the action. See the blue arrow? Yes, exploded hammers here too. I'm glad I'm not the only one 'doing time'.

The 'good news' (ahem) is that although the Hawaiian Baldwin is a teeny pieeny, it is not a drop-action piano. Instead (praise Gough) my potential prey is the next size up, termed a console piano. Yup, it (and the client) sure needed some consoling. Are you still with me? Please say 'yes'.

In these COVID-19 times, I enter folks' houses alone through gates and doors left ajar minutes before my arrival. I close the door quickly (kitties, you see). Clients relocate elsewhere in the house. The sticky notes were hammers whose felt wraps have detached from their wooden cores downward. They interfere with the dampers. Myriad exploded hammers, and a semitone flat.

Although it's a shortarse, the action can be removed normally. Perhaps there is hope. I snap a few more photographs and text them to my client, who is writing her novel in the rear courtyard.

I continue to send photos. Many hammers (24 in total) have exploded upward, downward, bothward, with intact hammers so worn that they sound like jagged shards of crockery colliding with the strings...

...and rust. Those protruding beckets (the short end bit of the wire, which should not protrude) would cost you points in Stringing School. Too nerdy? Perhaps a little.

... 'a rust fest' I text to her. It's just so we know! Pitch-raising rusty-stringed pianos is a regular part of the job, but of course we sometimes wish it weren't. The pin block is healthy. The tuning pins are tight enough to hold a tuning at pitch.  Good. 

Only on the rarest occasion (extreme frailty of the piano, or extreme tightarsery of the client) might I consent to tune a piano under pitch. A piano is designed to be at Concert Pitch A440hz. Neglect and nostalgia (seasoned with a pinch of internet misinformation) can lead to a kind of "mung-bean madness" that sees folk requesting other slack-stringed pseudo-science under-pitch quackery that I dub Cletus-chromaticism. Such notions get short shrift. The same folk tend to posit that 5G causes Coronavirus. I am not talking about historical temperaments on early instruments, they are valid.

I pull back (for now) from addressing a few other playability impediments once I find that you can barely look sideways at these shitty cloth key bushings at the balance rail. Thin and crusty would be positives if one sought a pizza base, but not so much here.

But these, I like. Nice numbers. Middle C is 40.

Here's a purple patch extending upward from D42 (in keystick notation), D4 to an educated musician. Nobody every says 'Middle D', but I sometimes do just to see if I can get it to catch on. Here I have the action out of the piano, lying on its back on the client's coffee table. I abandon the dream of getting the middle playable on this visit. I negotiate to take the action away and embark on a disproportionately depressing number of hours' toil, of which only a tiny percentage can be charged to the client.

I demonstrate the 'sticky note' interference between the hammer and the damper. Just one of multitudinous reasons why notes might be sluggish, non-responsive, or completely unplayable. There are so many potential causes. It could be one simple thing that is fixed in seconds, or cumulative serious failures and defects. If I had a dollar for every time I'd explained that a piano is a sensitive and complex crazy precision machine... come to think of it, I probably do (have a dollar for every time... yada, yada).

A wee COVID iso-stint secreted in the rural Piano Lair, I plan a few things to do. I design what's known to the Caped Regulators as a 'weird specific jig'. I fashion my dreamed-up scheme of kind-of-cauls to affix to a vise to tackle the foolhardy exploded hammer job. There are plenty of hammers floating around to be my templates. I'm dealing with the middle and the bass so I made two pairs and called it a night. Mistress woodworker I ain't.

Back in town in my office/workshop I list the exploded hammers. I am a vociferous fan of lists, and lists of lists. This type of list helps manage my levels of whelm. 

Oh, Mister Hart, what a mess! Remember that you can't see the hammers that have exploded downward from this angle.

Of course I have the perfect scream-meme locked and loaded. It's only that I can muster a modicum of restraint that this 'un isn't deployed every blog instalment.

At least I have my 'jungle' to look at.

Why did I take on these hammer repairs? In a weak and optimistic moment I took on the task in the spirit of a COVID-19 lockdown activity. Foolhardy perhaps. I may have been better off using the days to embroider an heirloom quilt. Suffice it to say that I don't like the piano, but I like the client.

(A direct quote from my condition report and list of repairs.)

'Trussed up like a chook,' as my mother used to say. If you're working with many similar piano parts, it pays to number them (if they're not already numbered). Anything that helps make mantling less mysterious.

I deploy my mountains-made moulds and experiment with a variation on the trussing as the hammers get larger (heading from middle to bass). The larger hammers require enormous force to push them back together. Even if I'd made 88 pairs of moulds, the bloody shape would never be quite right. But it's also about where the most force is required. It's ridiculous work to do en masse. It is a legitimate technique to rescue notes in a clunker or mid-range instrument. It's not fitting for any classy situation.

These hammers have been subject to abuse (extreme weather and neglect) and it is likely that many have been detached for some considerable time.

With every stitch I'm reminded of when Ned Flanders was given the 'game ball' and kindly gave it to Homer. Homer was awed then besotted. "Now I have four children. You will be called 'Stitchface'."

As I descended into both madness and the large, muscular hammers of the bass, the folly of such work was reinforced. 

More from my report: Such hammer repairs are a very compromised option. Ideally such work whould never be undertaken en masse. Replacement hammers would be a far more elegant option. New hammers would still be many, many hours' work, but would yield an result that would not have the wounds and lumpy 'scar tissue' of reglueing, trussing and clamping exploded hammers. Extensive investment in this piano exceeds its merit.  

These hammers are 'intact', but for how long? I can't go trussing all 88. Just document then monitor the situation. There is a strong likelihood that any intact hammer (in this piano) may fail and 'explode'. These hammers are low-quality, poorly-made and old. They have no staples to assist the glue to hold the tightly-wrapped felt to the core.

Deviations to repair other broken parts. The hammer flange (blue arrow) has split into two parts.

Glue and clamp.

A wippen flange has split into two parts (red arrows) and must be repaired. All manner of cracks and splits in wooden parts can befall any piano, but especially older pianos and any that have been subject to wide-ranging humidity variations. The fire pounding on one end of this piano (see photo 2 in this blog instalment) is making matters worse. It has been discussed with the client.

Older pianos often sport beautiful labels inside, seen only by the tuner. Some trumpet accolades, others detail care and maintenance tips. On completion of the kablammo job, I'm keen to evict the action from my back room. But I had to wait until the client was back in town. Meanwhile Ferdinand Thürmer could never have fathomed being honoured as a Wikipedia stub, nor in this very blog.

I indulge another daydream. I fashion a label. My whimsy knows no satiety.

Here we go!

That was fun. I may develop a taste for crafting snide asides to insert inside pianos.

 I award a certificate to the client, along with a pensioned-off well-made hammer as a souvenir (and lesson). The rapport made it all seem appropriate, and she was delighted. I quote: 'Straight to the pool room'.

The certificate was a variation on many a meme theme. I've made my share of memes during isolation. 

Here's another client's piano. These hammers have staples, but the staples don't extend very far into the wooden cores. Kablammo. This is why the less climate and humidity variation your piano is exposed to, the better. Think of the lifespan of your indoor wooden furniture (if you have any) versus your outdoor wooden furniture (ditto). The more extreme range of expansion and contraction the woods go through, the quicker the degradation.

Hippo hammers. I roll my eyes (at least internally) and bang on yet again about how often the non-performance of piano parts is directly caused by piss-poor positioning of the instrument within the home. Few have unlimited room nor options, but, by Gough, I've seen the sofa get the cushier spot and the piano cry itself to sleep more times than I can count.

Here's Homer with a hippo.

I only had to scroll back through half a dozen of my client's recent photographs to find a curled-up kitty on the teeny pieeny. Gorgeous!

* A441 and A442 are occasionally called for, and that's fine-diddly-ine BUT ONLY 
(1) if the client is a professional of note, and 
(2) if the piano is in decent condition and able to handle it.


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