Pianos: The wooden spoon

Beware of free pianos. A sore point. A saw point.

 Many pianos are terminally ill, but it's not obvious... to you. I deliver this message every week. Pianos are precision machines. Internal components weaken and fail. They can be frail and barely limping along. You might say, 'that doesn't bother me', but the piano you're defending may still not be able to be serviced. Excessive humidity variations can prematurely age all woods, metals, felts, leathers and cloths. Yes, cloths.

Not every piano is awarded the wooden spoon, but the odds of health problems go up with age. Let's have a look. I always recommend an inspection by a technician. Don't be wooed by a gorgeous cabinet or a piano's preparedness for power outages.

It's harder when pianos are sort of limping along. Are you emotionally attached? To your grandmother's piano, I mean. What about your grandmother's washing machine? It's easier when there are blatant red flags, but sometimes clients still won't hear my howls. Mostly they hear. Good.

Let's talk wood. This seat sat across from a home piano. It's no doubt quite the feat to hand-carve a hand. But if I issued aesthetic infringement notices, I'd have needed to slap one right in the palm. Of course I only issue such notices in my head (and sometimes in this blog).

The hand-on-your-arse seat reminds me of Homer's famed chilli-tasting spoon. He unsheathes it to gasps of awe from gathered townsfolk. "They say he carved it himself... from a bigger spoon."

I love how this joke both parodies and subverts the usual tropes about magical implements like baseball bats having been carved from some 'special' tree (but not from a bigger bat). Hey, the only wonderbat* I know of is the one that zoonotically gave the world COVID-19. I digress.

A cut above.

In a parody of the 'that's not a knife, this... is a knife'  scene from Crocodile Dundee, a more generic random Aussie stereotype escalates with the brandishing of a spoon. An upright piano has one plate (the cast iron frame) and 69 spoons.

A spoon in a piano. No sense of scale (unless you really know pianos) but it is likely to be 12-15mm tall. Adorable, eh? A grand piano might have many more than 69 spoons depending on the exact design of the action and damper systems. There could be a couple of hundred or more. Fascinating, Cazzbo, I hear you say.

Let's hear it for spoons. Goodnight. There will be no encore.

A piece of pinblock wood (comprising several hardwood laminations) with a couple of tuning pins in it. If the pinblock has begun to shrink or crack, a piano is in serious trouble.

Most pinblocks are concealed by the piano's iron frame. In some pianos the pinblock is visible. Here we see that the tension of the strings is pulling the tuning pins downward, opening up gaps above the tuning pins. The whole kaboodle is beginning to collapse in on itself. Such pianos will be unlikely to be able to hold a tuning. If I had a dollar for every time I had to explain this. Well, come to think of it, I probably do. Ka-ching.

Here's a more extreme example. I condemned this piano without playing a note on it. It had already been moved into the house. Too bad the client had trusted her neighbour who (in good faith, but utter ignorance) had described the piano as 'in good working order'. Inspect, inspect. And there was a third thing... oh, yes, INSPECT.

A piano client's son's incredible woodworking. 

I need not for cute credenzas, but the craftmanship and perfection is without par. 

Meanwhile, a mate decided crystal-cut gin bottles would look good internally lit. She artfully fashioned an excellent plinth, with a mortise to hold the bottle and conceal the lights' batteries.

Some inauspicious wood and woodworking. It's the rear end of a key from a drop-action piano. Surprisingly, the roughness of the end-grain is not a problem to the key's function. The pouty-lip red cloth-lined part attaches to one of the 88 extra connectors that a conventional piano does not have. Drop-action pianos are detested for innumerable reasons. Removing a keystick is usually easy enough, but removing the action is a nightmare.

I can't speak lowly enough of such pianos.

Trouble with your stool? And you didn't even know. I've got the right glue, and the time to add an extra little kindness to this service call.

Not my work, but one cannot begrudge a technician improvising a repair. There is not the time nor budget to be machining up a complete replacement key button. I'm holding the repaired key up so you can see a piece of paddle-pop stick which (most importantly) provides the missing wall for the balance pin mortise and its cloth linings (or bushings). See the little green piece of cloth? It's all functional enough and worthy under the circumstances. When I lower the key, the top of the balance rail pin will again be visible, as you see with all the other keys.

In this piano the desire to make it short and physically unobtrusive means each keystick is two parts, the rear length stepping down from the front. The client regularly has broken keys where the two parts of these double keys have separated. A more permanent solution has been recommended (and no, it wasn't disposal of the piano). Perhaps one day we'll do a job like this one...

Another piano with the same design, but worse. Triple keys. They'd failed many times, and been inaccurately reglued, which caused interference with neighbouring keys. I dreamed up and proposed that small wooden dowels be used to strengthen each join. 176 challenging woodworking tasks, with lots of big tools, and (most importantly) my partner in piano pampering. The perfect team.

Initial reglueing before the big tool work.

Each join was drilled through with a drill press, in preparation for the most perfect wooden dowels (upright hammer shanks) to be inserted and glued in.

What are the odds that near the piano there's a prop that perfectly illustrates the vagaries of wood and its propensity to change and warp?

This elaborate gadget beside the piano is a tennis racquet stringing machine.

What about this spaghetti maker? It's a 3D printer in the piano room.

Two fresh glue collars (still wet) amid the factory originals. Glue collars add strength to the hammer shanks. Not as much strength is needed on the catcher shanks (lower in the shot) thus they are not imbued with such healthy collars in this piano.

It's amazing what you find inside pianos.

An unveiling. This player piano's arty air may or may not get it over the line.
The leadlight panel is unusual, but there is plenty of lead in any piano, and even more lead in a player piano. Invariably the lead pipes that once transported steampunk zephyrs will have disintegrated.

Another player piano. The player mechanism has been removed for conventional tuning and servicing. It's been placed on the back deck where I drop some truth bombs once there's someone around to listen. I sprinkle broken lead tubing pieces into the hands of the client to make my argument that this dysfunctional player mechanism should be decommissioned, and not returned to the piano. 

My plea is heard. Sense prevails. They're not going to invest the considerable funds required to restore the player mechanism. So it needs to go so that the piano can be tuned and serviced normally.

Souvenir (sez I) a few picturesque steampunk cogs and widgets and move on. There's just as much extra weighty obstructive player palaver in the bottom half of the piano, but that can wait... for now.

Here's a healthy lead weight in a keystick from a fine piano.

Here are some very unhealthy key leads. They are oxidising. They've expanded and split the wood of the key. It is a serious problem, a total plumbum bummer, baby.

One of the weirdest (and most COVID-unsafe) music stands I've ever seen. Why does it exist? I'm glad this room has a punching bag lest I need to unleash a few blows to vent. Ventilation is of paramount importance.

The conjoined stand. Banned.

Even when COVID is quelled, the weird unnecessary 'kiss hello' of-bloody-everybody-by-bloody-everybody can bugger off forever. Forever, Goughdammit! There, I said it. There is only one person I kiss, and they know who they are. And it is not you... unless it is, ha!

The 'kiss hello' is banned. Capishe? Don't make me tap the sign.

This card forced me to try to work out why some puns I love, and some I hate. Is it that I love peas but hate pea puns? Possibly. 

* This Simpsons moment is also references the book and film The Natural where a fictional baseballer has a legendary bat dubbed 'wonderboy'.


Perhaps peruse...

Pianos: Cat Me If You Can


I am a cat person. Chance encounters at piano jobs are welcome. Meet a mate's Minchin-esque moggy on my lap. Only a ginger...

The scene just moments earlier.

Working from home is all the rage (except for piano tuners, who must safely negotiate entry into others' domains).

 Sylvester, a piano client's elderly one-eared puss, is long gone...

...and a new little scamp has arrived...

...to supervise the COVID-era Zoom teaching station.

Eminent epidemiologist Mary Louise McLaws features prominently in sensible parts of the media. Every time I hear her surname I imagine she hails from a long line of Scottish cats, the McClaws. Finally an ABC typo confirmed my suspicion.

Spied while out walking. I presume Twinkles was a cat.

If I wear this shirt - will it ward off dogs, or encourage them?

Sure, there's the odd cute pooch, but I have no need to fraternise with your pooches. I'm happiest when doggies are nowhere near me during my service call (especially if they are excitable or loud). Sure, I 'get' that they may just want to meet me, but that (ideally) is carefully managed (by you!). I'm happiest when pooches have calmed down and lost interest... or been placed somewhere else entirely at the outset.

If they're so chilled that I'm almost unaware of them, that may be OK.

Has this working-from-home sniffer dog identified a stash in the bottom of this piano?

Mellow yellow. A labrador length is no longer a suitable physical distance measure.

Pre-COVID, the lady of the house (or was it the cleaner, I never learned) turns up late to find me on the doorstep. She guided me to speak into her her phone. I thought I was on a call with the person who had booked me. No. I was talking into a translation app.

No thanks. Not for me. As established.

My cuppa. As established.

Let's learn something small about pianos. They're crazy precision machines with all sorts of odd materials therein. Here we see a special loop (made of string) which has become fragile and failed. This loop hooks onto a tiny brass spring on each hammer butt in an upright piano. These loops can break, leaving the little springs flapping around and not doing their job. The little springs (too) can fail. Bloody everything can fail in a piano, and that Gumtree bargain is often anything but.

In certain brands of pianos, from certain eras, (or abused or elderly instruments) most or all of these loops may have broken. Today it's just one causing trouble. I've replaced the butt spring loop with a length of beading thread. It worked well. If several of these loops have broken, you can bet that the remainder will fail as soon as they are touched. To replace them all is fiddly time-consuming piecemeal work. It is sometimes done. An alternative is to replace all the hammer flanges (equally fiddly, but you then have new flanges and new flange bushings and centre pins). How long is a piece of string, you might ask?

The cat known as Boule de Niege.

Feline frolics.

Honky Cat.

Love me a highly specific business model. I wonder if they'd stretch to a mousehole.

This regular client periodically tweaks the decor in her home teaching studio. Ooh, a new artwork for me to stare at for the treble half of the tuning.

Notice the brick wall and round-topped green gate. I instantly recognise the setting as being right out the window.

The one-piece lid of this Yamaha T-121 offers the perfect opportunity to view the setting in reflection. Photos don't do it justice, but I must say, these sorts of high-gloss lids are helpful for being aware of folk sneaking up on you as you tune. No one should be breathing down any tradesperson's neck as they work. This was my view before COVID was a twinkle in the poor peeper of a zoonotic snack-bat. It's all the more important now. 

I hasten to add that this client is exemplary in this respect. We greet briefly and safely, then I'm left to work until I conclude and am ready for an efficient final transaction.

The view from the music room window. Do you see the fence and gate?

My tuning appointments are always entertaining and sometimes surreal. The cat seeks to recreate its portrait. A miracle, or just a favourite spot? Life doesn't get better. For the cat, or your humble tuner? Both.

A flashback to my former neighbours' cat reclining in my front yard. At the time, my housemate and I were constantly sharing photos of this cat in various states of contented repose. Would it be churlish to suggest that the best aspect of those particular neighbours was their cat?

This poster is next to a home piano. Click on the picture to enlarge it if you wish to complete your musical homework. Myriad musical terms expressed in three languages, Italian, German and Cat. Sind Katzen musikalische? Ja!


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