"It's over" (overdamper pianos)

I'm in the clink with a clunker. But my escape plan is clear. I'll tunnel out with one of my delicately dental piano tools. This might take some time.

This is an overdamper piano. The long vertical wires caused Americans to dub them 'birdcage' pianos. Not recommended. Obsolete. Inefficient. In any reputable text, overdamper pianos sit squarely within lists of 'pianos to avoid'. If I could spell out 'red flag' in semaphore, I'd make real that metaphor.

Homer suggests he wants to shake things up, cause controversy, rattle a few cages. In a cutaway visual gag the idiomatic becomes actual. He torments the office bird and is reprimanded.

I bring you the pertinent page from the book Choosing a Piano.

The caption reads: The front view of the inside of a cross-strung, over-damped piano, around 1900. The vertical wires connecting the dampers to the piano action resemble a birdcage. This type of piano should be avoided.

This page (alone) deserves to be blog-famous.

Unfortunately, however quaint an intriguing design or rare piano can be, pianos fitted with obsolete actions or unique stringing styles, or made with unusual materials, should on the whole be avoided by most pianists, since replacement parts may be difficult to obtain and hence serious maintenance problems may result. In fact, many upright pianos of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including some made by the most illustrious makers, can pose a potential risk.

Old upright pianos with dampers that work above the hammer head, rather than below, known as “birdcage” actions, should be avoided, because their inefficient design cannot be accurately serviced, leaving the damping of strings poor. Many technicians also advise against buying “minipianos” of the mid-1930s; although their Bauhaus designs are collectible, their short keys and pulling action create an unusual touch and their tone is not complete.

My gift to the internet, and piano lovers worldwide, has been to transcribe one page of this book.

In the briefest stroll up the 'minipiano' cul-de-sac, I bring you a mate's mates' minipiano.

How cute, I hear some cry. For us piano technicians the only relevant word in the previous sentence is 'cry'. This piano has a drop-action, referred to as a 'pulling action' in the big bumper book of pianos to avoid.

Wikipedia on spinets. Scroll down to Spinets as pianos. Buggered if I can make a link to halfway down a page work. Ne'er mind. All you need to know is 'no'. 

'The bane of piano technicians.' - a nerd on the internet

The mate's mates had the right idea. Their teeny pieeny does duty as a desk. But back to birdcage pianos.

Would I rattle the cage of this piano, or would it rattle mine? Neither. It's a clear 'no' from the judges. I refused to service this disreputable specimen (with clear information as to why). What now for the client? Return it to the street nature strip hard rubbish pile you dragged it in from. This piano had a gorgeous cabinet, but housed horror inside. Its flaws reached the ceiling.

By contrast, let's look at a regular upright piano that is underdamped. The hammers are clearly visible, with the dampers tucked in behind.

Occasionally one will service an overdamper piano. It will depend on the general condition of all the working parts, including the tuning system, and whether or not this will give false hope to the client. This Blüthner piano had an unusually elegant overdamper rail (that part with various countries listed on it). The piano just limped over the line as to whether or not I'd service it.

The rail in the Blüthner overdamper piano was of similar construction to the action rails found in Steinway pianos. Steinway action rails are wood inside brass, enabling them to be very compact and strong. Here we look up the skirt of a Steinway D concert grand. Nerd it up, Cazzbo.

Overdampers. Here I touched up the middle for the price of an inspection/walk-away... a hopeless joke of a situation and an inappropriate instrument for a child to begin their musical learning on. Too many jobs like this in any week makes you feel like your career is in the toilet. Beware of free pianos.

Beware of toilets. This is an actual client's toilet, where I had no intention of risking any of the bizarre offerings on this remote. The regular flush button atop the cistern was enough for me. These piano folk were devout Japanophiles, or should I say shinnichi. Mr Sparkle is disrespectful to dirt.

The trouble is that unless a piano looks like this, folk have no notion that it could have serious problems. That goes for all pianos, not just overdamper pianos.

Oooh, a fluke-flower from my garden. Now, where were we? Oh, yes.

Another client has procured a free piano. As is the tradition, she paid the moving fees. She swaddled it in coverings in readiness for a surprise unveiling for her son's fifth birthday. On my arrival she told of how her son and his little mate had played hide-and-seek under the coverings, still without having registered a new giant piece of furniture in the room. A new giant piece of furniture covering a doorway, no less. It's adults' business, furniture, I offer. We discuss domestic blindness.

Unwrapping the surprise for me means taking the cabinet parts off. I knew already that this piano was a behated overdamper. I was referred to this job by a fellow technician who had run screaming from the room.

The view from above. If you cannot clearly see the hammer line (imagine you lifted the lid to take a peek) you must not walk away... you must RUN. I had already prepared the client for the fact that in the long (possibly medium- or short-) term she would not be banking on this piano for her son.

We can just see the dampers against the strings above that giant obstructive rail that underdamped pianos do not have. The dampers (in any piano) are the brakes. They must silence the vibrating string completely. As we ascend (or move from left to right) the point along the string at which the damper is supposed to silence it gets closer and closer to the end of the string. Aside from being 100-year-old crusty felt, the low-quality, simplified system of the overdamper was compromised and inefficient even when brand new. Putting the brakes on the string right near when it ends can only mean musically skidding off the road and smashing into a tree. Higher up the dampers are teensy, which even further hampers their ability to try to silence the strings when you take your finger off a key.

Where are my red flags? Chalk markings (and other annotations) are how technicians note problems. Marked tuning pins are invariably too loose to hold. Many other pins will also be too loose. It is very common in old pianos, and sometimes in much younger pianos that have been climatically abused. The pin block which holds the tuning pins is wood. It ages, shrinks and can develop cracks.

A wide shot. The hammers (usually very obvious) cower behind the bars of the birdcage wires. In the UK overdamper actions were made to create budget-end instruments which were able to be conveniently assembled by the inexpert. Furniture salesmen, rather than piano factory workers. In Germany overdamper pianos were made by several esteemed manufacturers, but these makers moved away from such systems by World War 1. The budgetty Brits, however, kept on, and on, and on. Keep calm and produce shit.

The beam (red) has damper levers attached to it from which the overdamper wires extend downwards to connect to strange widgetty connectors that hook onto the front of the wippens. Pianos have many strange joints and connectors. But only a trained technician can tell the difference between good and evil (as far as weird widgets go).

The entire overdamper system below the rail.

Oooh, It's a note, perched on the overdamper rail. A love letter?

And now, 40 years later here I am, farewelling a piano whose presence has always been a comfort. A reminder of reveries of music, when the notes sat easily under my fingers and time itself was a tune which ebbed and flowed, rushed and slowed...

The piano is so much older now, and stiff in her bones. I suspect she’ll come to life again under young fingers, and I’d like that. To know she danced again for a time. Three generations of Abernathys have played her, and she is yours, to bring music to your own young bones. Rhythm, melody – percussion and tune – the piano is a perfect instrument with which to dance.

Sail well, old girl, and those who go with you.

With love,
Eleanor Abernathy*
July 2020

I don't mean to mock Eleanor's heartfelt and poetic send-off... well, maybe I do a little. It makes me feel like a heel for essentially condemning the piano. But we really need to close up the patient.

Let's return to the chalked pins in the Ibach overdamper piano. Come closer...

Cracks have developed in the pin block. Tuning pins have been dragged down by the pull of the strings. The red arrows show the most extreme examples. The tensions on piano strings are massive. Note the huge gaps above the tuning pins. The blue arrows are moderate cases by comparison, but still not viable. The pink arrows show what we can see of the actual cracked pin block. In most pianos the wooden pin block is hidden behind the cast-iron frame. Here the wood (painted gold) is visible. One can determine at a glance that these tuning pins will not hold the strings stably at pitch.

Lamentably (or not) Eleanor's sentiments and memories cannot get this piano over the line. All the wishing and whimsy in the world cannot save this wretched wreck.

On a shared tour of duty, my partner in piano pampering repeatedly drew the short straw. Or was he being the perfect gentleman, offering to throw his cape over puddles to protect my dainty hooves from dampness? Above, Superhero Tech tests no fewer than eight tuning tips to find the perfect snug fit for the tuning pins of this Thürmer overdamper.

Muting off strings in the manner one normally does to tune is additionally challenging on birdcage pianos. Here Superhero Tech deploys the technique of tilting the action away from the strings to insert temperament strips behind. Tricky, and a right pain in the arse. Inserting these felt lengths is straightforward in 'normal' pianos, but not here.

Pulling the temperament strips out string by string from their position obscured behind the overdamper action is quite the art. It really is like taking your undies off with your jeans still on.

A Vogel & Sohn birdcage. Behind the candelabra, myriad challenges.

Elderly and frail. The tuning pins lack torque and cannot hold a tuning at Concert Pitch. The client is uninspired by her piano, yet resists replacing it.

The disintegrating Vogel boasts an array of bridge cracks.

The Vogel overdamper piano with its fallboard back in. I really only took this photo so that I could say, 'Fly, fly, my pretty... out of my life forever'.

It's over and out (for this instalment).


* My tradition with names is to honour a random or obscure character from popular culture whose name has a similar general tone and flavour to the name I have excised to protect the anonymity of the author.

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