Posts tagged Beethoven

The History of Piano String Tension

Blah! The title of this sounds to most as exciting as watching paint dry.  Operative words being “to most”… to me however this is one of the more interesting charts i’ve seen in a long time.  Back in 2005, published by Europiano, Juan Más Cabré wrote this article showing the differing string tensions over the last few hundred years. Everything i know about string tension i learned as a child with a bread pan and rubberbands. Hahaaa… i used to make musical instruments when i was a kid. What fascinated me though was the thickness of the rubber band and the sound that would happen at a certain pitch. This is exactly what’s going on in pianos. The graph shows the earliest of pianos from Cristofori (in 1726). That string tension is little more than that of a harpsichord. It became evident that a stronger frame would be neccessary to implement higher tension. With higher tension comes more singing tone. Next on the list is Silbermann who asked Bach for some input. Silbermann contributed the damper device (similar to a damper pedal) to the piano. Shortly thereafter in the Classical era (Beethoven’s time) more and more iron was added to the wooden frame so as to boost the string tension – again with more singing, sustaining sound and also more resonance and power. Enter the famed Steinway and Bosendorfer. Interesting to note is that “more is not always better”. There have been pianos that have had higher string tensions (as in Ibach) but manufacturers decide what sound is pleasing. This is part of the backbone of ‘scale’ – the trade secrets of piano makers. Length of string, thickness of wire and tension of string all add to the sound. To get a mini idea of this, play around with a bread pan. It really is a fascinating exercise in string tension. And after that… just make some fresh bread. Nothing beats music and food together :)

The Broadwood Piano – remaking the silk purse

Recently i was hired to work on a Broadwood grand.  Now for those of you who don’t know, Broadwood has an illustrious place in the world of piano making.  Established (get this) in 1728 (yes you read correctly), this company made pianos for royalty (obtaining the Royal Warrant for manufacturing – see lower left photo) and had probably the most famous historical endorser Beethoven himself.  Upon gifting a grand piano from Broadwood, Beethoven wrote a thankyou letter back in February 1818: ” I shall regard it was an altar upon which I will place the choicest offerings of my mind to the Divine Apollo”.  Think about the fact that this company was established 125 YEARS before Steinway.  Now obviously in the early days they were manufacturing clavichords, harpsichords and square grand pianos.  The Broadwood company became known for their actions (internal mechanisms) and also is credited with the sustain pedal.

The piano i had the opportunity to work on was a “barless” grand meaning that it had no reinforcement bars or ‘struts’ to hold the tension of the almost 18 tonnes of string tension.  Instead, Broadwood made a full perimeter frame which appears to be almost double in thickness – making this an extremely heavy instrument.  (see photo of strings) The major problem with the piano i worked on was that it had a cracked action rail.  If you’ve ever seen the inside of a grand piano, you’ll know that all of the hammers are screwed in place to one long rail called the action rail.  If the action rail is cracked, many things happen – first, you don’t have a solid base to attach the hammers.  That creates ‘travel’ where the hammers will jostle about not hitting squarely the strings.  Second, believe it or not, if a screw is so much as even loose on an action rail, you’ll hear the subsequent ‘click’ of the hammer.  So there were a number of hammers clicking before i attended to it.  And finally, the regulation. Regulation is the process of fine adjustments to streamline the flow from key to hammer.  It’s what makes a piano feel ‘right’ or positive.  With a cracked action rail, the hammers wouldn’t stay in alignment.  After quoting on this job, it then struck me… “what have i got myself into?”  Action rails have nearly 200 screw holes, thickness requirements down to the thousandths and fore and aft placements that need tending to.  Well i’m always up for a challenge.  And so before ripping this piano apart, i went back to the calculations.  There’s a joint near the hammer called the flange.  And for those who are interested, mathematically, you should be able to compute flange height.  Simply, the string height inside the body of the piano minus the length of bore (LOB) – which is the centre of the shank to the tip of the hammer SHOULD equal the bird’s eye.  The what? The bird’s eye is the nickname given to the joint of the flange.  See? It looks like an eye… kinda… ok maybe not… but it’s a steel pin surrounded by cloth inserted into wood.  So after calculating the bird’s eye, i managed to then thickness sand the new rail just under 3 thousandths of an inch (about the thickness of a piece of paper).  So once everything was installed? The moment i had been waiting for… it WORKED! but it just needed a lot of adjustments refitting the old parts.  It was a fun experience and more than that, exciting to bring a tired Broadwood (the silk purse) back to life.

Piano Cosmetics – the Basics of Refinishing Part 1

steinwayLet’s face it, pianos are small elephants.  You put them in the room of a house and they will ALWAYS draw attention – whether good or bad.  If you have a beat up piano, you already know that it makes the room look blah.  On the contrary, a spectacular looking instrument improves the look of a room and makes it more classy.  If you’ve been thinking about refinishing your piano, there are some basics that you need to be aware of.  First of all, the wood on a piano most likely is veneered.  I say most likely because in 20 years, i’ve had 2 solid wood pianos.  Now before you start saying to me “OH NOT MINE… mine is SOLID WOOD”… i have to strongly disagree and say that in 20 years in the business i’ve had only 2 solid wood pianos come into my possession.  Why is that?  I used to employ a french polisher.  French polishing is the art of painstakingly applying shellac by hand.  It’s an INCREDIBLY slow process but worth every hour.  Anyway, he used to own an antique store.  This man was at best abrasive… at worst… rude.  He would tell me about customers coming in his shop “Yes i have solid wood furniture” to which he would reply “oh i’m so sorry to hear that madame”.  They were always taken back by his response.  I think it’s in our nature to want something to be solid and sturdy.  But he educated me and said “the best furniture in the world is all veneered”.  For those who don’t know, veneer is a thin layer of wood glued on to another ‘substrate’ or solid core.  Y’see, cosmetically beautiful wood usually is the WORST choice for construction.  What makes beautiful cuts of wood are quite often rippled pieces or trunks or trees to create ‘flamed’ or ‘ribboned’ effects.  No one in their right mind would think about building out of that.  The other problem is also warpage.  Solid wood will warp whereas veneered wood glued cross grain can be made straight.  And above all that, let’s say you wanted a piano out of rosewood.  Rosewood is so scarce and expensive, even small pieces of veneers will run into the hundreds – let alone solid pieces.  Well at this point, i usually hear the re-buttal “but my piano is older than that…. long before veneers were used”.  Again, not to pick a fight, but the oldest piano i’ve had in my shop was 1855 – brilliant rosewood cabinet on an Broadwood 8 foot grand (30 years newer only than Beethoven’s!)  And guess what? it was VENEERED! In 1855!  So to recap… pianos are built with a solid CORE…they’re made beautiful using lovely cuts of veneer – usually about 1/16th of an inch thick.  Oh and BTW, those 2 pianos i had in that were solid? They were so utterly BORING in the cuts of wood, you would have passed by them without batting an eye.

OK one more story from the french polisher… i love this one.  This lady comes into his antique shop… would like her Louis XV chairs refinished.  She says in a whisper “they’re authentic”…. hoping to get at least a raised eyebrow from him.  He so much as threw her out of the shop stating “no they’re not.  You mean to tell me that you have chairs dating back from the 1700’s – each one worth into the hundreds of thousands? possibly museum worthy? Well if you do, you sure don’t want to be refinishing them now do you? Good day, Madam”… oh he was feisty, i must say…lol.  Anyway… onward to the next part of piano refinishing…

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