Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Creativity or Incompetence?

This is the first part of a two-part post.  The second part is here.

The line between creative problem-solving and hack-work is blurry.  A solution acceptable to one may be unacceptable to another.  There is room for disagreement, and circumstances are never so clear as to make the best solution obvious.  Budgets need to be adhered to, piano usage differs, pianos vary in quality, time is an ingredient.  The main difference between hack-work and creative problem-solving is in the use of judgement.  Was a repair made hastily with little thinking about the full effects?  Was a repair executed poorly for lack of insight about materials or mechanisms?  Were money and time not spent out of mere stinginess?

When I was working in a rebuilding shop, the movers one day rolled in a small upright which we promptly took apart and examined.  One look at the bass bridge, and we all began laughing and pointing.  Some poor soul had attempted to repair the bridge with hilariously disastrous results.  Later, one of the crew admitted to having done the work years before, and insisted that it had been a creative solution.  It sure looked like hack-work to the rest of us, though.

What this technician had encountered was a bass bridge that had split along the pin line - a common occurrence.  Apparently many of the bridge pins had actually fallen out, the rest had shifted well out of place, and the unmoored bass strings were buzzing like crazy.  Some people might have said forget it, the piano is junk - it was of mediocre quality to begin with, and the split bridge could have been indicative of many other problems throughout the piano.

The "proper" way to fix the bridge would have been to move the piano to a shop, flip it on its back, remove the trap and pedalwork, loosen the bass strings and move them aside, remove the bass bridge and make and install a replacement.  But the sort of owners who have a piano like this are usually the sort who cannot afford such a procedure.  Is there a creative solution between these extremes?

Our beleaguered technician tried this:  he would fill the crack with epoxy, and then drive in new pins.  It wasn't the best idea, and executed poorly it could be a disaster, and without the proper setup it would be cumbersome work, but that's what he did.  And he ran into difficulties.

Epoxy does have gap-filling ability, but there is a limit.  A narrow crack can be sealed, but this was a canyon he was trying to fill.  I'm sure he discovered that you can't draw a cracked bridge back together by clamping, either.  And a bridge pin driven into epoxy is not going to hold the way it does in wood.  At best this would be an impermanent repair that would perhaps alter the scaling of the bass section and not allow the bass strings to correctly sit on the bridge.  But it might eliminate the buzzing and allow for tuning, however temporary, and at little cost.  It's potentially a creative solution for the conditions, even given the limitations.

Here's where it all went wrong:  the technician had no extra bridge pins, and he hadn't given himself the time to order them and wait for the shipment.  He tried making his own by cutting the ends off of small common nails.  Even this is creative and not entirely incorrect.  A bridge pin does look like the end of a nail.  If you did it correctly and carefully you could make a batch of bridge pins this way.  But the technician was running out of time, and time is money.

Bridge pins might look like small nails, but they are not installed the way nails are.  They are not driven into the bridge, and if you try it you'll see why.  Holes of the proper diameter and angle must be drilled first, and the pins are then tapped in.  There should be enough friction to hold the pins securely.  Our intrepid technician overlooked this detail, and with bridge pins/nails in hand, proceeded to hammer away.  The pins ended up angled every which way, some mashed and bent, and not exactly lined up properly.  The epoxy set, and for good or ill our man was done.

To his credit, he had eliminated the buzzing, and the piano could be tuned well enough for his customer, who was happy to have not been billed a lot of money for the work.  Over time, the epoxy had held, though I'm sure the pins had drifted, and maybe the buzzing had started to come back.  I'm sure it was more work and hassle for the technician than it was worth, and ultimately embarrassing.

Next:  my turn.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Nice Piece of Trapwork

I found a design flaw in a Boston grand.  Boston is the brand designed by Steinway and built by the Kawai factory in Japan.  They're really beautiful pianos.

The notes were making a clanking sound, and I guessed the problem right away.  I could feel it - the dampers were jumping up too high at the end of the keystroke, and instead of being stopped by the stop rail, they were hitting the metal sostenuto rail.

So the damper stop rail was positioned too high.  That's easy enough to fix, but I had to find out first why the rail was out of position.  The usual culprit is that the damper pedal isn't being properly stopped.  As a result, every time the pedal is depressed, the damper tray pushes all the dampers hard into the stop rail.  Over time this succeeds in pushing the damper stop rail up out of the way.  Hence, clanking.

The usual way to stop the damper pedal is by stopping the damper trap lever, which the pedal moves by pushing up on the pedal rod.  I got under the piano and took a look.  The stop consisted of a capstan screwed into the case underside.  Whenever the pedal was depressed, a piece of felt glued to the top of the lever contacted the capstan, stopping the lever.  The capstan made it adjustable, the felt reduced noise.  The felt, though, was soft - it was the kind of woven felt used for the hammer rail in an upright.  The capstan was quite small, and it had driven a divot into the soft felt, rendering the stop useless.

I thought of simply adjusting the capstan, but I would have had to adjust it quite a bit, which is not a lot of fun to do lying on one's back.  The possibilities also existed that the capstan might not have been long enough to fill the gap, and that the felt was now too thin at the contact point to provide any padding.  I also thought of simply adding more felt, but the misshapen felt really needed replacing, so I removed the trap lever from the piano.

If there's anyplace where a manufacturer is going to try to save money, it's the trapwork.  But this was the most beautifully made trap lever I had ever seen.  The coil spring sat in a lovely felt-lined cup, and had a piece of felt carefully woven through it to avoid creaking.  The pitman sat on a buckskin/felt cushion inlay, and there was a generous piece of hard leather where the pedal rod made contact.  There even was a piece of buckskin wrapped across the bottom and up the side of the lever to protect it from contact with the guide hook.  The only flaw was the soft stop felt.  What was needed was a chunk of hard felt, like the kind used for hammer heads, and that's what I installed.

The design error was that the felt was too soft for the capstan.  If the capstan had been much larger in diameter, and therefore exerting less pressure (pressure = force/surface area), it might have worked.  I was actually tempted to remove the capstan and install the traditional stop: a piece of wood glued to the underside of the case, with the hard felt attached to it, and no felt on the lever itself.  This works well, and eliminates the possibility of a divot, but it's not as easy to adjust.  So I'll have to keep an eye on my new stop felt; this piano gets a lot of use.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

How Pianos Are Stolen

Let's say you're the principal of a junior high school, and in your auditorium is a Steinway grand that was probably bought during the Truman Administration.  Let's say it hasn't been maintained in a long time, and no one much uses it.  Several generations of kids have carved their names in it, ivories are missing, some notes don't work.

One of your faculty is very excited about putting on a musical production, so, of course, the piano needs tuning, to say the least.  You look in the Yellow Pages, and a piano dealer has a big, impressive ad, so you call.  They send over a tuner who, it turns out, is a sales rep as well.

The tuner tries his best, snaps a couple of strings, and then announces that the piano really needs a lot of work, which you don't doubt.  You're afraid to ask, but you go ahead; "How much work?"  "Well, quite a bit," he says, "in fact, it needs a complete rebuilding."  "How much will that cost?" you ask nervously.  Maybe he tells you right there, or maybe he writes up an appraisal and estimate, but either way the number is uncomfortably close to $12,000.  Of course it is out of the question.  What will you do?

"Well it just so happens," says the tuner, reading your mind, "we've just finished rebuilding a lovely little grand piano, it's quite nice, and everything works and it's in tune already.  Tell you what, we'll make an even trade, the freshly rebuilt grand for this old, run-down grand you have here."

If you say yes, it's a deal, you've just had your piano stolen.

Here's how it works.  First, if your piano is a highly valued piano, like a Steinway or a Mason & Hamlin, or even a second-tier piano, like a Baldwin or something unheard of, like a Gabler or a Henry F Miller, then it is pretty valuable, even beat up and needing a ton of work.  In other words, it is worth it to have the work done, because the piano will be that much more valuable.  A beat-up Steinway can be worth $10,000 because after having another $10,000 of rebuilding work done, it'll be worth more than $20,000.  You certainly wouldn't know this by looking at or playing that beat-up piano.

Second, if, as is likely, you couldn't afford $10,000 of rebuilding, chances are you could easily afford a couple of hundred dollars of repair, and that would probably put the piano in perfectly good shape for your musical.  But the tuner didn't give you that option, so how would you know?

Third, what do you know about that recently-rebuilt grand? It probably wasn't really rebuilt, just reconditioned, with a few felts replaced, the hammers reshaped, and the pitch raised.  Big deal, it's probably a no-name piano worth $3,000 tops.

Get that second opinion before making a decision!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Moving Pianos

I've moved a lot of pianos.  For years I worked with a guy, a big guy, who was brilliant at getting pianos up and down stairs, around corners, through windows and doors.  You don't have to be Atlas, but being tall helps.  Mostly you have to be smart - there is A Way To Do It, and you go step by step.  Patience is a virtue.

Moving a piano does not require a lot of people, as everyone imagines - three people at most, with a fourth to set dollies and open doors.  Any more, and they just get in the way.  It's also incredibly important that one person give the commands and the others follow.  This has to be agreed upon before going any further.  Everyone going his own way is a recipe for injury and disaster.

I get asked a lot to help with or supervise a moving, and it's always a tricky matter.  It can go like this:  twelve guys with bulging muscles show up, prepared to do battle with the piano.  I'm a little guy, so they take one look at me, and that's the end of listening to anything I have to say.  Then they proceed to argue loudly over how to do this.  At this point I walk out, leaving them to their ignorance.  Usually, though, because I'm older now and can assert some authority, the helpers will eventually listen, aware that they can really hurt themselves, and then everything goes well.  Most of them end up standing around drinking the congratulatory end-of-the-move beer while three of us do the actual moving.

Years ago I helped a friend move a grand piano to his house from the other side of the city.  He rounded up an impressive collection of enthusiastic helpers who had really psyched themselves up.  I showed up with a moving truck, a couple of ramps, a skid, assorted dollies, blankets, and tools for dismantling the piano.  No one had ever seen this done before.  They seemed to have a picture in mind that they were going to surround the piano, mightily heave ho, and walk it all the way across Providence.  They were fascinated with my approach, but a little disappointed with the lack of drama and sweat.  No one refused the beer afterwards, though.