…buy a real piano. I have recently been tracking down suitable instruments for clients, taking the guesswork and risk out of purchasing a secondhand piano. As I have spent more time doing this lately I’ve found that the consistency of quality in 60’s 70’s and 80’s instruments means that good secondhand pianos are, with the right knowledge, still to be found. Many pianos were being made in the UK in these decades and there are quite a few good instruments which are barely half way through their lives. These pianos were built at a time when quality of construction mattered greatly to most British makers. So who are the makers? Makers such as Challen, Broadwood, Danemann and Welmar were market leaders, with Danemann and Welmar producing pianos that, if they were made today would command a price far in excess of many of the best pianos the far east has to offer. Combined with this one could easily expect a piano from the 70’s to give up to 30 years service (on top of the 40 they have done so far) before requiring any major work, it would be lucky to have a digital piano last more than 20 years! At a risk of becoming too ‘advertorial’, why not get in touch with your preferences and see what might be found at a fraction of the price of a new piano and how you can have a truly impressive real, quality checked and guaranteed piano for the price of the decidedly average digital alternative. I’ve included some pictures here of pianos I have found for clients in previous months.
Barrel pianos present new challenges and this month sees me creating new hammers for this 120 year old keyframe. Odd though it may seem, despite there being no keys, the hammers are mounted in a piece of mechanism known as the ‘keyframe’. The original hammers are lost and the replacements previously fitted are of beech. Beech might be a reasonably hard wood but it doesn’t compare to ebony. So in summary, this month’s project is to create a new set in ebony. It’s a delightful wood to work with although somewhat expensive and good sharp tools/blades are essential. Looking forward to regulating and hearing this lovely old instrument in about 2 weeks time! First picture shows a hammer, second picture shows me cutting ebony and third cleaning the hammer bodies of their coating of graphite, which is used (somewhat too liberally) as a lubricant.
With so many pianos being restrung you’d be forgiven for thinking that new strings bring new life to a piano and will make everything sound wonderful again. Whilst this is partly true, the condition and voicing of the hammers plays an equally important role. The average life expectancy for a set of hammers will be around 60 years, with heavy use this reduces considerably. In the uppermost picture of a recently reconditioned piano, an old set of hammers has been reshaped (refaced), probably for a second time, there is hardly any felt left! I recommended recovering. In the lower picture is a section of hammers from a recovered set, these are from the same area of the scale in a piano (around the second ‘e’ above middle C). Quite a difference! When having a reconditioning job carried out or when buying a piano you’ll know what to look for.
By far the heaviest and cumbersome part of the restoration process is the removal and refitting of the frame in a grand piano. This Broadwood has various soundboard repairs including refitting of a detached bridge and the fitting of around 15 shims to properly fill the cracks that have opened up over the years. Restringing has now started and the next piano for stringing arrives shortly; a large and decorative Bluthner upright. The workshop doesn’t get much busier than this.
Click on the checklist for a closer view.
I meet many people who, for one reason or another have chosen to live with a digital (or electronic piano) finding that it best suits their needs. There are, maybe predictably advantages and disadvantages. Whenever one chooses a synthetic recreation of a product over the traditionally made type there are bound to be shortcomings. So what are these advantages and disadvantages, what are the most important things to consider when making a choice? The list above details 14 of the more common considerations. The points covered are a result of discussions with piano buyers, tuners, restorers, performers, teachers and retailers. I hope to find time to write a buying guide at some point soon, it will feature the above checklist alongside detailed information on all types of pianos. In the meantime feel free to contact me through the contact page with any questions, if I can help, I will!
Grubby and time consuming would be the best way to describe workshop chores for the last few weeks. We take the rough with the smooth as a matter of course in the world of piano restoration, this month we have been dealing largely with rough! Aside from the regular work I do restringing my customers pianos I’ve had one of the dirtiest sets of keys to renovate and one of the most uneven looking grand piano frames to try to make presentable. Who’d have thought it would take a razor sharp chisel just to clean some piano keys? I remember my mum using a bit of spray polish and a duster! This month I’ve managed to fit in a little white collar work on the website too so check out the ‘New Look’ stock list!
It’s a question often asked, I guess we are not nearly as numerous as plumbers or builders so maybe an explanation is a fair thing to ask for, after all one doesn’t meet a piano tuner every day. The question is one I wrestle with as it’s not really clear to me whether there was a ‘eureka moment’ or whether a slowly evolving connection led me gently into the world of the piano. One definite landmark is the commencement of an apprenticeship in a piano workshop in 1988 where I learned from some great technicians and tuners. Without the break who knows? I may have become a plumber, like a good friend from my school days.
This week a new addition has been made to the stock. Pictured above is a 14 year old Weber grand. At 5’5″ the piano is best categorised as a boudoir grand. The tone is medium bright and the action is good. Having only been used as a beginner’s instrument the mechanism is barely ‘worn in’ meaning that it plays as if brand new. Available for sale now,
The Helpinstill Roadmaster was built from around 1976 to 1980 in the USA. They didn’t sell in the UK so this is an import and seems to have had a hard life. The piano is undergoing restringing work and will be given new hammers too. Helpinstills are largely unheard of in the UK and we are treating this as a very special restoration, I’m looking forward to the finished job; not least because this is my own instrument and will be used in performances with my bands. So what about the ‘electric’ bit in the description? The piano is fitted with pickups behind the strings and has a volume knob and choice of output sockets! The keyboard also folds away leaving nothing to see but a big black flight case… I restore some beautiful instruments but in this case the beauty is fairly well hidden!
After around a year of painstaking work the Bechstein Model V grand is finished and ready to go back. I first thought that the sound would be on the mellow side I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once the setting up was done the sound came alive in the most amazing way. This piano is everything a good piano should be, full-sounding, mellow when played lightly, bright and loud when pushed hard. If I’ve ever wanted to keep a piano after reconditioning work then this is the one! The work represents the most in depth restoration so far and boy has it all paid off. Oh and I nearly forgot (but you’ll see in the picture), the case is in Rio rosewood, now an endangered tree and almost impossible to source. In the quantities needed for a piano you’d need a second mortgage to buy a new one in this finish.
click on the image for a closer look.
So how do you like it? Well, how you describe it is more to the point. What sounds bright to one ear may be heard as ‘Hard’ by another. What sounds soft to Mrs Smith could be described as ‘Mellow’ by Mr Jones. One thing is certain, nothing has a greater bearing on the tonal quality of a piano than the quality and type of hammer used. When we deal with an old piano that has had many years of play it is often possible (if not too worn) to reshape the hammers to remove the grooves and regain their original ‘pear-like’ profile. When executed carefully some of the original tonal qualities of an old instrument can be brought out. Reshaping improves consistency and enhances harmonic content. In this months show and tell picture I have shown the before and after condition of a few hammers from a c.1938 minipiano as it undergoes preparation for it’s new home. As usual we can’t wait to hear the finished article. (Also as usual – click the picture for a closer look)