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