Pianos: Beale Street Blues

Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed, 
a poor piano tech, barely kept his family fed...

On this piano-shaped crest - Beale All-Iron Tuning System, or Steel Wrest Plank - it appears that Jed moonlights in a soup kitchen that is too miserly to provide table legs, but at least he's permitted to keep his banjo afoot. These famous and innovative Beales have a chequered reputation. Devised for conditions where conventional wooden pin blocks fared poorly, the alternative system is ingenious. But few (if any) piano technicians relish encountering these notorious beasts - they present abnormal challenges in servicing, and few are in anything but deplorable condition.

This Beale is an exception. Skilfully restored with new strings and action components, this former player piano (with the player mechanism removed) also boasts a finely rejuvenated cabinet. The Caped Regulators stepped in to provide a much-needed piano pedicure and then this piano was ready to roll. 


Nobody told me it was Bealefest... or was it just my week? Have I angered the Piano Gods? Here I find a local Beale player piano* in surprisingly clean and functional order. Even the 'player' bits operate. Boxed up beside the piano were piano rolls, awaiting some sort of fabulous party. Pianola* - I make it perfectly clear that I do not deal with the ola bits, that I will reach around to the pian bits and do what I do with them. Removing the ola bits is not for the faint-hearted. Duodenally dire, such -ectomies are rightly feared. I wouldn't attempt removal without someone to hold my hand. The Caped Regulators removed and returned an operational player mechanism recently to service a troubled Aeolian piano but more technicians will walk away from such a task than embrace it, and with reasonable justification. The brief golden age of the player piano was close to a century ago, but they are amazing machines. 

Note the scalloping on the pressure bar to create room for the tuning hammer (lever) to comfortably fit onto the lowest tuning pins at the bottom of the treble bridge. In this area pins are often more crowded, as piano designers seek to maximize the length of strings within the available space.

Elegant (well, at least, functional) scalloping does nothing to assist this common irritation in these particular pianos. The forelengths of neighbouring strings are very close to the lowest tuning pins in parts of the bichord (two strings per note) tenor range of the piano. The solution is to use a smaller star tip on one's tuning hammer, so that the hammer doesn't go as far onto the tapered pin and can clear these strings. There are all manner of tips sizes, head lengths and angles, external designs, destined to add weight to the tuning kit. I try to travel relatively light (especially if bicycling) but will certainly make a note to travel an extra hammer for this area if I've been caught struggling for ideal purchase, tip-to-pin.

'No oil or grease', simply let the grime build up of its own accord. This piano was not entirely disgraceful. Remarkable. Graphite is quite commonly used in piano tending.

This tiny plaque is inside the chamber where the piano rolls are installed. It epitomises the double-whammy of walk-aways for many a piano technician: Beale Player Piano. Squinting at this micro motif and trying to get my photographic device to focus, I notice that it portrays a damsel in distress grappling with strings... was I looking into a mirror? 

Bealefest continues. The client had snared a Gumtree "bargain", only narrowly dodging a bullet, depending on one's demands of a piano. She was delighted and fascinated to confirm this piano's Australian (and very local) provenance. The Beale Piano Factory building (in Trafalgar Street, Annandale) still stands - transformed into apartments with a stereotypical Body Corporate secretary (no doubt) drafting bylaws forbidding the operation of all acoustic instruments.

Another surprisingly clean and operational piano, but with its fair share of general action noise and subtle failure-to-damp, befitting general degradation of felts and cloths. Observe its shallower scallops for hammer access.

Bothersome Beale backlengths, it's those frustrating forestrings again. But I do love purple inside a piano!

Beale-zebub! Hmmm, perhaps I'm supposed to say it backwards. Hey, I'm good at spelling (and the placement of apostrophes) and it seems to have worked! 

Time to tweak another weeny pieeny in a home office. I was just about to (gently) shove one of my client's desk piles to make saucer space for my gratefully-received cuppa when she showed me a charming and natty feature - an extra slide-out shelf. I gazed appreciatively at the little desk's unassuming yet skillful woodwork, rare to non-existent nowadays. Elegant, functional, and somewhere for the cuppa. Right, back to work.

Fascinatingly, a thylacine has been regenerated in grand piano form, by Stuart and Sons of Newcastle. It's time to tame the tiger!

Patented bridge agraffes below stainless steel-wound bass strings.

Patented Dalek hitch pins.

I was glad I'd snapped the tiger's sleek coat before my second prey-of-the-day was released into the enclosure. Albert Music boasts 50 years' connection with legendary rock band AC/DC. Myriad rock royalty adorn the walls.

Bon Scott: I reflect on my own surreal circumstances as a performer where I may (and do) find myself on the road singing (and contemplating) Bon Scott's concise and frank lyrics every night.  

By Royal Appointment. OK, I'll tune it. Everything is so darn falutin' in pianos, but not necessarily high.

Accept the (trivia) Challen(ge): In 1804 Matthew Flinders wrote a letter to Sir Joseph Banks recommending that the newly-discovered country, New Holland, be renamed "Australia" or "Terra Australis" (from the Latin "australis" meaning "of the south").

Challen. In retrospect, I've no idea what charmed me so. Was it that Omega Works sounds far too grubby a factory to make pianos, or that Hermitage Road sounds like the eponymous location of a novel that would see Jennifer Byrne gush gushingly?  

Here's a trap for the sleepy piano technician. Sleepy? Not me, never! Hung over? Possibly. However, this is an anomaly that took a while to discover. A grand piano action is removed from the piano by sliding it out of the piano like a drawer. This piano had extra screws preventing the keybed from simply sliding out as normal. There was quite a bit of frustrated grappling and tugging before I spied these abnormal attachments. I've never seen such screws before nor since. Generally the keybed needs to be able to be moved sideways by the una corda pedal. This piano clearly did not have that feature. Note the cloth and paper punchings (washers) under the keys... and that these silly screws have made (previous) damage to nearby keyfronts inevitable. 

In older pianos paper punchings (used in regulating keyboards) have often been cut from (punched out of) magazines or books, by the technicians of the day. I find them fascinatingly quaint, because I live in an age where cardboard and paper punchings are produced for this job and available from piano parts suppliers. The green powder is evidence of degradation of the cloth punching which I've lifted to reveal this über-cute Deutch donut. Cleaning is recommended, but it won't be happening today. 

* Player pianos are often labelled with the neat term Pianola but it is worth noting that this is a brand name and akin to using Hoover, Biro and Xerox in similarly eponymous ways. It's no faux pas, but perhaps handy to know that there are other useful keywords to use in your search (see how I didn't say "Google"... until now). 

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