Secret Piano Business

The intrepid Caped Regulators piano pamperers to the stars (and you...) operate out of two secret lairs buried deep within the heart of outer suburgatory, bordering ruefully rural. I provide for you a series of non-procedural whimsical workshop vignettes.

In a Bechstein piano we find rusty screws set to the time zones of the great world cities, if imagined as clock faces. Sidekick, you're not staring at the wall in an inner city cafe now - get those arcane artifacts off those keys pronto! This annoying oddball system is overdue for extinction. The double-screw 'rocking' flanges offer no discernible benefit, but make servicing a pain(o). Normal capstans are simple smooth-headed screws, operated neatly from the sides of the head. The pinned ends of these flanges attach to tiny pursed-lipped duck-faced stickers that ensure that separating the action from the keys is tortuous.

When action and keys are connected, it takes a home-baked right-angled cockamamie screwdriver, or similar kinky ratchety device to (attempt to) access these capstan screws to adjust them. Aaargh. It is worth converting to a more efficient capstan system as part of the job.

Swollen key leads protruding and splitting the key wood. Piano keys contain lead weights. In older pianos the leads will often oxidize and begin to disintegrate. They swell causing neighbouring keys to interfere with each other. This might be the first sign that something is wrong, when a key doesn't operate reliably. But there are myriad other possible causes of a sticky key - the lead might be the least of your worries. I digress...

Legitimate palliation includes shaving off the excess lead and possibly sealing the offending surface. This will buy some time, but inevitably (like the rust in my car) it will re-emerge.

Note (above) a side view of the Bechstein (off your) rocker capstans.

Swollen leads are replaced. Leads are carefully pushed out of the keys. How cleanly they come out depends on their condition and how damaged the surrounding wood may be. It is satisfying when they push out neatly. Other complications are that some leads only go halfway through the key (in blind holes). These leads must be drilled out. 

Inserting new leads into the existing holes is legitimate, but sometimes the holes are filled or plugged and measurements for new lead positions that will provide appropriate touch-weights are determined. Some plugging of damaged holes may already be required, further driving the campaign for new lead positioning. 

Plugs and new holes. 

Exploring potential lead positions.

New leads are cast in aluminium moulds. Lead is melted in saucepans that never grace the kitchen, crumpled pots that I might have thrown out if I'd been tidying. I abhor clutter. 

But back to the battered-pot baking. Batter is not recommended, eye of newt is optional, cowering with clasped hands (while the melting is in progress) is compulsory.

A piano is restrung. Wooden bushings (collars) are inserted into the plate holes. Not all pianos have these bushings, but the large majority do. 

The cast iron frame (plate) goes back into the piano after repairs to a compromised part of the pin block. You would never normally see these screws loosened. The dome-head screws to the left are sometimes re-chromed, or at least buffed, before the plate is re-installed. 

Wooden bushing insertion. I like these sorts of jobs. Felt pieces, sometimes covering contoured wood or other packing, are newly cut and crafted to form 'stringing pillows'. There are traditions about colours associated with certain brands and eras, or there's the chance to reinvent the 'look' and have that Prince-style* purple piano you always dreamed of. That has never happened in the piano lair - only in my head.

With no strings attached, we can treat the bearing surfaces. The surface under my left thumb is being sanded as I pull the sandpaper strip to my right. The capo d'astro bar** is another area treated at this time. Treatments for the capo bar range from sanding or filing, to reshaping and heat-hardening.

Nothing has ever made my skin crawl like the buffing wheel's tiny fibres (sticky with buffing compound). I'm less accustomed to dirty jobs than folk who've had to do... dirty jobs. After an earlier buffing session had left me feeling like I was coming off the type of drugs I've never taken, my partner in grime provided adequate protection.

Now I have another outfit for the next time we journey to the moon for vital frame gilding supplies. If the piano scene suffers a downturn we'll audition for roles in the sperm scene remake of Woody Allen's film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*** 

This bit goes back between the hitch pins and the bridge pins. It locates with small pins into small holes. There are sometimes complex individually adjustable systems for this role in the piano. 

Let's start at the very beginning (of the bass strings). All the plain treble wire is installed already. Strings at the ends of each section are done first to stabilise the position of the stringing pillow (a fetching Yamaha red). 

The spruced up piano leaves the lair.

Ninja Numbers. It is necessary to pencil numbers on parts when dismantling actions. Otherwise mantling is one hell of a nightmare. Some action parts are identical, but the wear they exhibit, and the way they have been regulated (adjusted) is not. So, number!

Composite action components are the way of the future - and the future is now. But they are black, so the pencil ain't going to cut it. I was convinced an art supply paint-pen would do the trick.

March of the Ninja Wippens. Precision action parts manufactured out of Essence of Ninja out-perform their traditional counterparts for resilience and consistency. Unlike wooden action parts, they are impervious to humidity variations. When was the last time you saw a tennis player using a wooden racquet? Slowly but surely, we're moving on, people. Slowly, that's for sure.

The wippens are upside down. You can see their heels with rectangles of white cloth (a non-traditional cloth). The position of the heels is highly customisable for different pianos. There are fourteen positions that each differ by a mere half-millimetre.

A frame has been gilded in traditional moon dust. The screw holes for the agraffes have been masked off with paper punchings (washers). Now it's time to remove the masking with a Steinway & Sons repetition lever spring tickler, which may also be used for DIY dental work.

Workshop jigs. In a sub-department I might call Getting Jiggy With It, behold...

Two pieces of wood joined at one point. The top of the two pieces can rotate so that a controlled arc can be made as the each hammer's wooden tail is further shaped using the belt sander. The very small top pieces hold the hammer (obviously) and ensure a consistent position for each hammer. Hammers in the treble and middle do not have angled heads, so the jig position is simple. Bass hammers have angled heads, so the jig would be mounted on an angle - or we'd reach for another jig. The size of the arc can be adjusted by means not visible in this shot, nor my mind's eye.  

There is a great tradition of jig-making and customising of tools in any workshop. You see, back then (when?) people made stuff. They made stuff out of stuff. They repurposed stuff, for the purpose of making or servicing other stuff. But you tell that to the kids of today...

A Bechstein wippen assembly is visible on the left, with its new curved wooden heel (replacing the duck-face clip) awaiting a tiny cloth attachment. The wippen heels were created in the workshop then glued in.

This guillotine is the gear stick from a Volkswagen Kombi, coupled with various bits from a Morris Mini Minor. Both of those vehicles hold strong childhood memories for me. The blade is from a Stanley knife. Cutting fabric? Let the women's work commence.

Precise cutting of felt and cloth is a big part of piano work.

These cloth rectangles are to attach to replacement wippen heels on a Bechstein piano.

Box cloth is a woven laminate, a sandwich. Cloth is prevalent where there is friction involved within the piano. Felt is found elsewhere, where silent operation is sought. Confuse them at your peril.

The patented Bechstein Duck-Faced Capstan-to-Wippen Coupling System. Crazy cloth-beaked critters clip onto the pins of the flange-style capstans.

The beak clips onto the pin (axle). Imagine detaching (or more worryingly re-attaching) 88 of those. Usually there is no such attachment and it is much easier to take the action stack off the keys. The pouty wippen heels extend up at right angles from the (off your) rocker capstans. Whew! Are you still reading? Well done, I'm very proud of you.

Here in a Bl├╝thner piano we see a similar capstan system. Those spidery wires are yet another exotic (cumbersome) method of linking the keys with the action mechanism. Any time I see weird wires that aren't 'normally' there, it triggers my arachnophobia!

Building another jig of sorts. We use the thicknesser to profile a board into an angled wedge shape. Our classy skirting-board-in-the-making is attached to a sturdy base board with 'wooden nails' which can be cut as the piece is cut. Upright hammer shanks make the perfect 'wooden nails'. I wonder what the poor non-technicians of the world use for their general Amish ark-building needs. The angled board will locate a router to customise a wippen rail to receive Ninja Wippens (whose underneath profile differs from the removed wippens). Very little is standard in pianos.

This post has resulted in several gold coin donations to the Jargon Jar. But I still think my Swear Jar has had a larger investment.

* Prince Roger Nelson, not Prince Charlie.

** The area under which the strings pass, where the back of the sandpaper is passing. It is critical for the strings to terminate cleanly on the capo bar for quality sound.

*** (But Were Afraid to Ask)