Friday, May 29, 2009

Piano Lessons

I am learning to play
"It Might As Well Be Spring"
but my left hand would rather be jingling
the change in the darkness of my pocket
or taking a nap on an armrest.
I have to drag him into the music
like a difficult and neglected child.
This is the revenge of the one who never gets
to hold the pen or wave good-bye,
and now, who never gets to play the melody.

- Billy Collins, from the poem Piano Lessons

Related website:
The Music Lovers Poetry Anthology

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Plastic Piano #1 - PVC

I went to my customer's house prepared to tune her piano.  She had warned me that some notes weren't working, usually not a big deal.  As soon as I opened the piano and looked inside, I could see the problem.  There were shards of a yellowish white plastic all over the place.  Oh no, plastic action parts!

To be fair, there's nothing wrong with plastic action parts if they're made correctly - the same can be said of wooden parts.  This piano, a beautiful console made in 1957, had action parts made of PVC, and I'm sure the parts worked well for a time.  Now the plastic had begun to disintegrate, and the parts would have to be replaced.

PVC, polyvinyl chloride, is usually referred to simply as vinyl.  It is one of the most widely used plastics.  It can be molded into things like pipes, it can be made into shiny cloth, and it can be bonded to fabric for use in upholstery, mimicking leather.  The properties of vinyl chloride had been investigated as early as the late 19th century, but it wasn't until the 1930's that a commercially viable plastic was developed.  PVC is quite rigid and brittle, and requires the addition of various plasticizers and stabilizers.  Vinyl combined with cellulose acetate (another plastic) as a plasticizer is what replaced lacquer for making phonograph records, starting in the 40's.  Vinyl without plasticizers is what is molded into rigid shapes, like pipes for plumbing, and siding and flooring for houses.

Rigid PVC should have been perfect for replacing wooden parts in a piano action.  The plastic parts were molded in the same shape as the wooden ones, and installed the same way.  The most common plastic parts were flanges, which are the hinged ends of many action parts and are attached with screws to various rails.  In some actions, backchecks, jacks, and damper levers were also made of PVC.  The only parts that were not made of plastic were the parts that are glued to each other.  PVC parts can be bonded together (using the solvent methylethylketone, or MEK, often called PVC glue), but I guess this was not viable for the action manufacturers.  I did see a Lindner piano, made in Ireland, probably in the 60's, whose action was entirely of plastic.  Even the keys were plastic, made of sheets of PVC glued into long hollow rectangles.

The problem with PVC, as with many other plastics, is outgassing.  The various additives that give vinyl its different characteristics slowly evaporate out of the plastic.  Over time, some plastic becomes more brittle, or shrinks, or becomes discolored, or, in the case of PVC, spontaneously disintegrates.  The technology behind the additives is almost more important than the technology behind the plastic resin itself.  When PVC was used for piano actions, the technology for stabilizing rigid PVC must have been in its infancy.  It was not foreseen that the outgassing would proceed so quickly, that the actions would start to fall apart in a couple of decades.  Modern PVC could be used with no problem, but now the piano industry won't go anywhere near it, and modern plastic action parts are made of other plastics.

The solution is simple, but costly.  The parts must be replaced.  PVC spinet elbows are replaced with acrylic ones, but other parts are replaced with wooden ones.  The parts are readily available because of the demand.  Sometimes not all of the PVC is falling apart, so apparently the outgassing varies from batch to batch.  For instance, in the case of the console I'm working on, the jacks and backchecks are completely shot, they crumble at a touch, but the hammer flanges and damper levers are fine.  They're not the least bit brittle.  I won't replace them for now, but I have warned the owner about the possible need for replacement in the future.

There has been one other use of vinyl in pianos.  Some of the more crazy and delightful console and spinet case designs from the 40's and 50's used vinyl upholstery fabric in addition to the more traditional wooden veneer.  It's found on the sides and top, and Wurlitzer was the main culprit.  The vinyl is usually embossed with the classic leather grain, and my favorite example used a white-with-brown-spots cowhide pattern.

Vinyl imitation leather has also been used to replace the leather on the ends of bridle straps, the straps that connect upright hammers to the wippens.  Over time, the leather disintegrates (not to mention the strap itself), but the vinyl holds up for much longer.  The only disadvantage is that it stiffens up over time and can rattle against the bridle wire.  It also becomes harder to remove from the wire.  I'll have more to say about the use of artificial leather and suede in pianos in a later post.

Related website:
The Plastics Historical Society

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Plastic Piano - Introduction

The piano manufacturing industry is quite progressive, eager to embrace any new material or manufacturing process.  The goal is usually to save money, to keep the price of a new piano down, but sometimes an innovation can add value to a piano, improve it in some way that can be reflected in a higher price or a more competitive product.

Plastic has always been one of those new materials, ever since the industry started using celluloid in the 1870's.  The chemistry behind various plastics was not well understood then, and innovation relied on experimentation, sometimes with terrible results.  There were three prominent plastics disasters in piano manufacturing history.  The first was with PVC, used in the 1940's and 50's to make action parts.  Molded PVC parts were successful at first, but as the plastic aged, it tended to spontaneously disintegrate.  This effect would take several decades to manifest, so that left a lot of time to build plenty of pianos with PVC action parts, all falling apart now.

The second was with Steinway's Teflon action center bushings.  These were tiny inserts made of Teflon, hundreds per piano, that Steinway used in the 70's.  They worked well at first, but after a few years they became quite noisy and needed replacing.  Steinway tried again with a different size insert, and they did work better, but Steinway eventually abandoned the effort and went back to felt bushings.

The third was less disastrous, but still annoying, and it involved Yamaha's Ivorite, a plastic for keytops developed in the 80's.  This plastic is porous, and thus does not feel as slick and slippery as other plastic keytops.  It soon became evident that it was a bit too porous.  As the plastic soaked up finger oils, it stained in a way that looked, frankly, disgusting.  Yamaha reformulated the plastic, and offered to replace all the unsightly keyboards.  Now the Ivorite works fine.

These negative experiences with plastic has made the industry wary of introducing more plastic into pianos.  Pianos are sold, after all, on their 19th century charm, and nothing screams "modern" (not to mention "cheap") like plastic.  The word itself is avoided like the plague, and replaced with phrases like "thermoset composite material," or trademarks like "Ivorite."  Often plastic is introduced in small ways, in parts of the piano not visible, or crucial to its function as an instrument.  When plastic is obviously employed in a significant way, a whole public-relations blitz is rolled out to carefully explain how the new plastic parts are a huge improvement over the old parts, whether or not that is true.  When Kawai used its first plastic action part in the 90's, a plastic jack, I was asked by the local dealer to sign a statement in support that would be used for advertising.  I was more than happy to help until I read the statement.  It was asking me to agree that the new plastic part was superior to the old wooden part, which was ridiculous, and not true in this case.  I refused, much to the dealer's anger.

Nothing has changed the piano in the 20th century as much as plastic has, and I am going to post a number of articles about the plastics used in pianos, all under this heading of The Plastic Piano.  I'll keep the series as a permanent link in the sidebar.  Glues and wood finishes are forms of plastic, and I will include them.

Modern plastics, and modern chemistry, is a whole different world from eighty years ago, and I am glad to report that current uses of plastic are much better engineered.  Some of these parts are not only cheaper, but they really are an improvement over the old parts, taking advantage of the qualities of different plastics as materials.  Manufacturers are beginning to be less furtive, less scared of the older disasters.  Having tiptoed through the plastics revolution of the late 20th century, maybe the industry can enter the 21st more boldly.

Related website:
The Plastics Historical Society

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Steinway Square Grand

Grand pianos come in two shapes:  the familiar wing shape, and a rectangular shape referred to as square.  Square grands are no longer made, which is why you don't see them often, but they were made as often as their wing-shaped cousins for more than half of the piano's 300 years of existence.  If you do see a square grand, it is likely to be pretty old.

This is one of many squares that I have maintained over the years.  It was made by Steinway in 1864, and it is in splendid condition.  It is not quite seven feet across, with a rosewood case, 88 keys, and two pedals.  The left pedal is a moderator pedal; it moves a rail with a thick strip of felt between the hammers and the strings to soften the sound.  It has two bass bridges, a tenor bridge, and a long, tightly curved treble bridge.  The tuning pins have oblong rather than square ends.

The regular wing-shaped grand has its strings more or less parallel with the keys, running from the keyboard back to the tail.  The square grand has its strings more or less transverse to the keys, running from left to right.  The wing shape evolved from the harpsichord.  There were also square harpsichords (called virginals), but the square grand evolved from the rectangular clavichord.  Wing grands stand on three legs, square grands on four.  The lid of a wing grand is hinged on the straight left side, and on a square is hinged along the back.

As did the wing grands, square grands became bigger and bigger over time.  Unlike the wing grands, square grands did not scale up well.  The transverse string pattern had to be fanned out such that the bass strings run left to right, but the extreme treble strings run parallel to the keys.  This requires a similar fanning of the hammerhead angles, key length, and damper felts, making regulation a nightmare.  More and more of the tuning pins were placed at the far back side of the piano, making tuning a nightmare.  Three or more bridges were needed to accomodate the stringing pattern, and the treble bridge developed a tight curve just at the point where the fanned strings all come together, creating a deadly weakness in the bridge.

What people liked about the square grand was that it was less expensive, and fit more easily in a small space - you could tuck it right into a corner.  When upright pianos finally became serious instruments, they took this advantage away from square grands, and by the late 19th century, manufacturers stopped making squares.  Or they wished they could stop making squares, because uprights were more profitable, yet demand for squares lingered.  The manufacturers made a statement:  in 1904, at a professional meeting in Atlantic City, they built a giant bonfire of square grands.  Even at that, I have come across a 1930's square grand made by Mathushek, an attempt at modernizing the square.

Square grands are not common, but they are not rare, either.  Many were made, and there is nothing particularly valuable about them.  You can get them easily for free, so don't get suckered by an antiques dealer.  They do not and will never feel or sound like modern pianos.  It can cost a fortune to fix or rebuild them because nothing about them is standard, everything has to be custom made or jury-rigged, the work is very labor-intensive, and therefore expensive.  Many technicians refuse to go near them.  There will be no return on your investment.

They are sometimes very pretty, always awesome, and make great conversation pieces.  They are often turned into desks and tables.  I've seen the legs turned into pedestals or small side tables.  If a square grand is in good condition, and you can find a willing technician, and can afford the repair, it can be a lovely and satisfying instrument.

Technician tips, click here . . .

Friday, May 8, 2009

Chickering & Sons

Ah, Chickering - at turns eccentric, maddening, brilliant, heart-breaking!  Being a Boston Chickering fan is a lot like being a Boston Red Sox fan.  There's even the rivalry with a New York team named Steinway.  In the great Paris Exhibition of 1867, both Chickering and Steinway claimed top prizes (and fought over who had "won"), but even then, Steinway was in the lead technologically, and never looked back.

It wasn't that Chickering was not innovative.  Their penchant for tinkering was such that it is said that no two Chickerings were made alike.  Their innovations, however, did not often lead to an actual evolution of piano design and manufacture.  When the last Chickering brother passed away, in 1896, their pianos were charming, but obsolete by the time they rolled out the factory door.

The administration of George Chickering had been a disaster for the company, which had had to wait until he died to begin modernizing their designs.  Until the company was finally bought by the American Piano Company, twelve years later, it produced a run of more modern grand pianos.  Some of these "transitional" pianos are a nightmare, some are fantastic, and all are targets of eager rebuilders wanting to restore the glory and beauty of a Chickering grand.  This task has been the undoing of countless technicians who had no idea what they were getting into, and who did not have the skill to deal with the eccentricities and unconventionalities of these old Chickerings.  But the pianos sure are pretty refinished.

In Newport there is a lovely old bed & breakfast called Sanford-Covell Villa Marina.  The owner has her grandmother's and great-grandmother's 6'5" Chickering rosewood grands installed in the Victorian parlor.  The older one was built in 1892, and the other one is a transitional grand from 1903.  The description and close-up photos are of the older piano, on the left.

This grand, made in the waning years of George Chickering's tenure, has a pieced case of four parts:  the left straight side; a broad, curved tail; the curve of the right bent side; and the cheek, or straight portion, of the bent side.  Modern piano cases, in contrast, are made of a continous, molded rim.  The bass bridge is also pieced, in three parts, rather than shaped into a continuous curve (though the cap is continuous).  There is a separate bridge for the tenor section.  There are 88 notes, and all 88 are agraffed, an unusual feature.  Finally, the portion of the plate covering the slanted pinblock is a separate piece on top of which the rest of the plate is bolted.

It would take days to detail the arcana of the action.  It suffices to say that the function of the various parts resembles a modern action, but the specifics of their manufacture and assembly are entirely exotic.

Though apparently vexing for the countless technicians of the past century, this is a sweet, lovable, old-fashioned instrument, somewhat frail and rickety, but still pleasing to play.