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.