Pianos: Shadowy figures

I'm being followed by a hammer shadow.

Nothing up my sleeve. Here's how it's done.

That pensioned-off piano action is quite like a car that I spied en route to Hill End for The End Festival. I don't think anyone is hoping to get it back on the road. I could be wrong. But, at a glance, you'd imagine that such a goal would be nigh on impossible to achieve. It would involve the rejuvenation (or fabrication) of every component. So it is with pianos.

 I will persist in posting pictures of rusty cars to hint at pertinent points that need to be made about some of the degraded pianos I encounter. Folk often think they are fine because the degradation is not so obvious. The way a piano must operate (as a precision machine of the weirdest order) is not well understood. Such demands are not made of other classic pieces of furniture. It is true that the lifespan of a decent piano may exceed the lifespan of a car, but it is not infinite.  That car might just moulder into its paddock surrounds, but if it were in the city someone would open the bonnet and start a succulent garden where the engine used to be.

Pianos are full of wooden components. The action that opened this blog instalment awaits a wippen fire fate. This is how piano technicians get cosy. Mmmm, cosy!

The car again. It's missing some vital bits. Is it arseless or arseful? 'Tis in the eye of the beholder.

To paraphrase Homer Simpson when he's one-upped (then haunted) by the svelte form of Ned Flanders on the ski field, 'stupid sexy car'.

It's a bit, erm, cheeky to take stealth photographs of an acquaintance's arse. But I was intrigued as to how he'd ended up with his pocket flaps protruding.

Charles Pocketty-Flappington (Esquire) is a bigwig in certain piano-related echelons, but as long as I don't discuss his performance credentials right here and right now, I'll be OK.

Here a busy piano has had new hammers and shanks fitted. Not my work. At first it seems reasonable, but the incompleteness of the job has become problematic. The wood of grand hammer tails needs to be both arc-ed (the top curve radius made) and 'tailed' or tapered. It is the latter job that has not been performed on this piano. There is little margin should a hammer shank ever so slightly twist or if other aspects of the hammers' spacing should change. Notice that the tail of the elevated hammer is making contact with its neighbour to the right. It has created a pre-performance emergency. Gah.

By contrast, view a grand piano's hammer tails tapered. This is a smaller older instrument, but you get the idea. The intricacies of piano rebuilding and regulating are extreme. The quality of work varies widely. Terms like 'fully rebuilt' and 'fully restored' are bandied around indiscriminately and with great ignorance. Only a detailed inspection can determine what may or may not have been done, and whether the work is of quality.

Mild-mannered piano technician by day, I'm still a muso too-zo, a gun for hire for all manner of gigs and circumstances. There's plenty of diversity in my professional activities. Of that I am glad.

I recorded on tuba, jug and multi-tracked slide whistle for The Vegetable Plot.


What have we here? It was no mean feat to drive this toy sports car along to the end of the action. You can see many weird spidery springs already dislodged (before I've even moved the vehicle). The springs will need to be coaxed back into their correct positions (if they're not broken).

I donated four hours' tuning and repairs to this inauspicious little upright in a community centre. Me and the piano were shunted off into a tiny storeroom because the main hall was beset by the after-school care program. Indoor rowdy ball sports were the order of the day. I 'did time' in the cell executing a massive pitch-raise and several repairs.

At last. At least that fixed about five unplayable notes fairly simply. But we're not out of the woods yet.

Look at that keystick just to the right of the 'break' (where the rear of the key levers must angle to reach around the action 'standards' or supports). The poor key has a break of its own. 

Sometimes you might be able to inject glue into a hairline crack and clamp or truss, but more often you'll be completing the break. Often such breaks are along joins in the series of boards from which the whole keyboard was originally cut.

It is important to keep glue well away from cloth bushings and the balance rail hole at the bottom of the key lever.

I didn't have the ideal clamps for the job, but you have to work with what you've got to hand. A neighbouring key makes a handy reference point to ensure that the lateral angle of the key is correct. 

A wide shot of the deplorable scene...

...and a series of convenient paper flashcards from which I can select a mood.

When it comes to my response to these indelible annotations, I might choose a few more sweary options. Orpheus. Awfulus. The puns write themselves but I'll have to ration the swearwords.

At least the piano's loose pedal was unusually easy to improve. To find stripped screw holes or rusted-in and inoperable screws is common. There are generally leather or cloth linings which separate metal parts from each other in piano pedal systems. Unsurprisingly, these degrade and fail in older instruments.

The lid and hinge have been torn off. I won't be fixing that today. The lid of this upright opens boomgate style. If possible, it's better to convert the lid to a more conventional method of opening (to the rear). Such 'boomgate' lids often have to be completely removed for tuning and service access (either via a long pin in the hinge, or by removing several screws). Such lids are often put under additional inappropriate stress when operated. Any wonder their hinges fail. Behated.

I'm feeling disgrutled (sic). See what I did there?

In my tool kit I have the means for yet another repair.

I spent many years performing in the Opera House, y'know.

What a folly. I drive one block away from a regular route to find this odd installation. Any wonder Jørn Utzon left never to return.

That's my mother's mitt caressing the real thing. We were off to attend a show in the very theatre where I ostensibly spent the first two decades of my Sydney working life. But wow. I had no idea Utzon's replacement 'the Government Architect' had sanctioned the use of chewing gum as an adhesive.

This is a piano. It's being put to good use. No one needs to open the lid and play it. When not festooned for Christmas, it operates as a desk. This piano is too short to ride even the most unadventurous fairground rides. It is what's known as a drop-action piano. The dwarfish design is achieved by slinging the action down below and behind the key levers, connected by way of extra rods and ligatures. There are ways to herd the extra 88 'sticker' rods but rarely would one be inclined to do any such thing.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'd rather organise the Crazy Cat Lady's cats by colour (in the manner of clothing racks in an op shop) and persuade them to high-step march to a Son Clave rhythm at 140bpm - than remove a drop-action from a piano.

I'm determined to celebrate (or commemorate) my garden. Here we see a random over-the-top collection of succulent flowers going off amid my straggly gangly (because I never learned to prune it) poinsettia in Christmas mode. Did you know that nurseries falsify (shorten) the daylight hours to force the little plants to produce red bracts in time for Christmas? Then as they shrivel under the blazing sun they're sold off for threepence a piece to folk like me who buy way too many because they seem like a bargain at the time.

What might possess a person to brutally bastardise a screwdriver in this manner, you might ask? Let's dip briefly into a wee workshop wonder.

Pray tell? The steady supply of these types of screws in the piano world. My partner in piano pampering has made and modified many a tool. He's made and modified many a jig. It's another world.

Gallery tunings in abundance. Make what you may of this work.

I'm still getting my head around it.

I'm none the wiser about this work. Good thing I can make sense of the piano.