Posts tagged keys

Piano Signatures

The other day i was pulling apart an old Heintzman grand piano – arguably the best make of piano ever built in Canada.  Rarely do the strings come off on an old piano.  In fact, there was evidence that this one had never had new strings since new.  I’m the first person to touch the strings in almost 90 years.  I find that fascinating – not that the strings haven’t been changed but that this piano has not been touched since new.  On the back of one of the understringing slats however i didn’t expect to find the signatures that you see in the pics.  There were initials were MCR and he dated one of them August 27, 1923.  As well, it reads “R. Sill” or “R.Gill” and the production number 394.  I find it not only interesting but also humbling to be part of the life of a piano.  I remember lifting the cast iron plate with a large engine hoist out of a piano and underneath it had a signature.  What fascinates me is that we touch history, it comes to life.  We get transported back in time to when piano makers were building these one at a time and some technician in the factory signed his name on a piece of a piano that will never see the light of day.  It’s just interesting to me… it’s a piece of history that we get to see for a brief moment.  But not only that, to make this piano function again, I need to re-install these same wooden slats back into the piano.  That means then, that this signature was buried for 90 years, i’m potentially the only one to view it and then it gets concealed possibly for either another 100 years… or possibly never if the piano doesn’t get rebuilt again.  Just thot i’d share someone’s work from nearly a century ago and bring to light that which was in the darkness. Below is a picture of piano keys, each one signed by the technician who tuned it… check out the dates.

Lost Motion in Pianos

If you own an upright piano and it hasn’t been maintained other than tuning, it’s time to do a simple test.  Ever so gently, press some keys down on your piano.  The first 1-2 millimeters (1/16″) does it feel kinda loose? If so, you may have a case of something called ‘lost motion’.  What is lost motion anyway?  Well before we discuss it, take a moment to look at the two videos below.  The one on the left has gaps in the parts.  Notice how the one green part is moving significantly before engaging the assembly? The one on the right is a snug fit – I just finished adjusting the same piano.  So what actually is happening here? Glad you asked.  Over time, parts wear and compress and create spaces or gaps between parts.  And instead of moving smoothly together, the parts start travel at different times.  At the keyboard i would describe it as feeling ‘loose’.  It’s called lost motion because the green backcheck is moving without pushing the hammer towards the strings.  In essence, the hammer has lost some of it’s power or force due to the gaps between parts – thus the name.  And the fix? Easy – there’s an adjustment screw to take out that lost motion.  A technician can have that fixed in no time at all.  So if you’re feeling like you’d your piano isn’t quite right, do this little check and ask your tech the next time they come to tune because is probably the quickest fix with the most drastic results on a piano that i know of.



Piano Trivia

Tri-Chord Piano Strings


Ok time to do the math.  Here’s the question of the day: How many pounds of string tension are there on one piano, meaning… each string is tightened to produce tone – how many pounds of tension are the combined strings?  Well to answer that, you need some data.  First of all, how many pounds are pulling on one wire? The answer – on average, about 160 lbs.  Next question – how many wires are on a piano?  Well this varies greatly from piano to piano.  “IT DOES?”, you ask.  Yes – it all depends on the design or “scale” of the piano, the length, and the amount of bass strings there are.  “Well aren’t there the same notes on each piano?” 

Bi-Chord Piano Strings


Yes, of course there are 88 notes on each instrument but if you’ve ever looked inside you’ll see that there are Monochord, Bichord and Trichord strings.  (Think: Monocycle, Bicycle and Tricycle – need i say more?)  Some notes have one string, some two and others three.  Depending on the manufacturer, the length of the piano (usually longer has fewer bass strings), string amounts will vary considerably.  All pianos have “crossover” meaning that the copper bass strings cross over the steel wire strings.  Sometimes that crossover point is quite high on the piano, sometimes it’s lower.  Having said ALL that… on average there are about 225 wires on a piano (45 bass strings and about 180 treble strings).  

Mono-Chord Piano Strings


 So whipping out my handy dandy calculator… 160 pounds of pressure on 225 strings (on average) = 36,000 pounds! or about 18 tons of string tension.  This necessitates having a cast iron frame (which in turn makes the piano REALLY heavy). There…. small piece of trivia you can talk about at the next cocktail party. Enjoy!

Hey That’s No Sweat…

Ivory keytops

Ivory keytops

Ok maybe i’m a product of the 60’s… but the saying “no sweat” was a common one.  Well in pianos, hand moisture IS a problem! When you’re feeling nervous and performing in front of others the last thing you need is to slip and slide around on the keytops.  Enter ivory.  Ivory is a very interesting substance in that it actually is porous.  It absorbs hand moisture.  I asked someone the other day if they had ivory keys – the answer “i dunno… how can you tell?” Well, that’s the simple part – 2 ways – one is that every piano i’ve seen made out of ivory has a very faint seam line where the whites meet the blacks and second, you’ll usually be able to see the grain of the ivory, much like you would with wood.

Due to the necessary ivory ban in 1970, piano makers have made their keytops out of plastic.  Only problem is… there’s no accounting for the hand moisture.  Innovative companies have actually made realistic simulations – called ivorine.  As well, Kawai builds an antiseptic into the makeup of their keys.  Both of these substances look and feel more like the real McCoy.  Unfortunately, they only make these keytops on their very high end models.  Subsequently, plastic has become the benchmark for pianos.  Now don’t get me wrong, i don’t condone the killing of innocent elephants for their ivory but i must say that ivory is a very interesting substance and part of piano manufacturing history.  If you ever get a chance to, feel the keys on some old upright piano.  It’s unmistakable.

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