Category Archives: Piano Technology

Thoughts on Smoke Stacks

Sometimes I think I was born 70 years too late.  70 years too late to participate first hand in the excitement of the industrial age.  Every day, though,  I touch work that was created decades ago, and have the opportunity to behold the  craftsmanship and industrial techniques of piano manufacturing. The work that I do today, rebuilding old instruments, is the same work that was done by original craftsmen decades ago.

As I work, I frequently run across lithographs of piano manufacturing facilities – sometimes stenciled inside a piano lid, and sometimes in historical marketing materials and ephemera. Always, I find these industrial lithographs to be ironic when viewed against today’s  environmental strictures.  All of the representations of factories show very active smokestacks. It would seem that the smoke, which could have been edited out, was prominent because the smoke implied industrious productivity!

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Sometimes I think I was born 70 years too late!  But I did come along at the back end of the industrial age. From Riverdale elementary school in Raymond, Washington when I attended from 1958 to 1962, the expansive south-facing windows provided a fine view of the Weyerhauser mill across the river. I could freely daydream from my hard wooden desk watching the smoke patterns against the occasionally blue sky.

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Later, when I was in high school, I washed the sidewalks of soot and sawdust in front of The Dennis Company every Saturday morning. One of the old timers in town came by one day and asked if I knew what I was cleaning up! “Sure,” I said, “dirt”.

“No,” he said, “that’s Pay Dirt!”. I learned something about industrial era economics and attitudes from the old guy. He knew, even though I did not, that all that soot and sawdust meant paychecks for everyone in town.

Key Leveling Blocks

I recently decided to upgrade from the crude key leveling blocks I had been using, and enjoyed making these blocks.

Key Leveling Block

Key Leveling Block

Key Leveling Block

Working with small pieces like this can be a wood working challenge.     Here’s the techniques I used:

I selected a a good long piece of stock (I used walnut) and milled it to 9mm X 25mm.  I cut a 4mm X 10 mm slot in each end of the stock with a vertical cut on the tablesaw.  With long stock and a tall fence this can be a comfortable, safe operation.  This could also be done nicely on the bandsaw.  While the stock was still long, I bored the countersinks for the nuts and the concentric through bores for the bolts at the drill press.   I bored the countersink slightly smaller than the cross dimension of the hex bolt, so that it could be tapped in for a snug fit.  I bored the through hole slightly smaller than the threads of the bolt, so that the wood block would act as a locking mechanism on the bolt.   After boring, I cross cut the ends of the long stock to form the 25mm X 30mm blocks.  Finally, I secured the nut in the block with a bit of super glue.  The bolt I used was a #8 machine screw.

A jig for notching piano key tops

Result from keytop notching jig

After having done it the hard way, it is such a delight to find the easy way by virtue of someone else’s good thinking! Such is the case with the wonderful jig described below. When applying new key tops to piano keys, the notches surrounding the black keys present a significant challenge. Except for the notches, the sides of the keys can be trimmed flush with a flush trimming router bit, in much the same manner as one would trim plastic laminate on a counter top. But obviously, a flush trimming bit cannot do the notches. When I did piano rebuilding in the 80’s, this issue was handled with a hand held file. It was very tedious work.

In the June 1991 issue of the Piano Technicians Journal an article by Bill Spurlock describes a router jig for cleaning the notches. The jig below is an implementation of his excellent thinking.

Piano key top notch cutting jig

The jig is used once the sides of the key top have been trimmed flush using a flush trimming bit. When trimming, the notch is left untouched, and a perfect notch is acheived with this jig. The router bit is a 1/2" spiral bit. The stop is 3/16" steel. When I first fabricated the jig I had no steel in the shop and tried a stop made of 1/8" brass. The brass flexed resulting in inaccuracies. The 5/8" hole in the stop was drilled to accept a bench dog for clamping. When I replaced the 1/8" brass stop with the 3/16" steel, I found that clamping was no longer necessary.

Piano key top notching with router jig

Overhead Router Jig for Planing Piano Keys

More photos at FlickrPreparing an old set of piano keys for new key tops is a critical operation. I designed and built this router jig to perform the operation of keytop planing with accuracy and speed. To preserve the geometry of the piano action, 1 mm will be planed from the key to account for the difference in thickness between the old ivory key top and the new plastic key top. This also produces a good flat glue surface for the new key top and a nice square notch at the rear for a professional appearance. The old ivories needed to be replaced because of extensive cracking, chipping, and missing pieces.

More photos at Flickr
The photo to the right shows the key after exiting the jig. Note that the clamping mechanism is a simple, quick lever which holds adequately and keeps the process moving. The loose plate between the key and lever is coated on the lever side with some beads of hot glue, to provide gripping surface that would not be present in the hard maple. The router bit is a 1-1/2 diameter flat cutting bit. Since the key is less than 1 inch across, this diameter provides a cutting surface for both left side and right side of the key. Order of operation is:

1) With jig against right shoulder insert into about 1/4 inch. move to the left to plane the front edge of of the key (and the existing key front).
2) Slide the sled in to plane the left side of the key.
3) Move the sled to the right, forming the nice edge at the back of the key.
4) Pull the sled out to plane the right side of the key.

This order of operation will provide for proper rotation orientation of the cutterhead and produce a splinter free surface.

The objectives of accuracy and speed are met. This set of 52 keys was planed in 45 minutes.

More photos at Flickr

Adjustable height workbench / assembly table

In my early years of woodworking and cabinet building, I spent a lot of time assembling things on the floor. I’d never worked in a professional shop, and I didn’t have the room for an assembly table. When I went to work in the ML Bigelow organ shop, our primary assembly table was a dead flat surface of 10′ X 5′. What a difference! With a dead flat surface, assembling cabinets to square is so much easier. With the work off the floor, assembly requires a lot less expressive language.

For my new shop, and especially for piano action regulation I wanted a nice assembly table, but also I wanted it to be adjustable in height. The pictures below show my creation.

The adjustable height will allow me to do action regulation work comfortably in both sitting and standing positions. The table top is 3′ X 5′ and the surface is dead flat within 0.5 mm. The flat table was constructed in as a torsion box, pretty much as described by the “Wood Whisperer” in this article. It features an oak apron which sits 1/4″ proud of the table top. This allows a 1/4″ piece of masonite to lay inside the apron. When the work surface becomes marred, it can easily be replaced. That’s a nice feature!

I created the adjustable height mechanism by adapting an adjustable height cart sold by Harbor Freight. I removed the wheels and handle from the cart and fitted it to the base. The table top is fastened with lag screws and plenty of construction adhesive. There is a small amount of side play in the mechanism, so the table wouldn’t be suitable for much pounding and hammering, but that’s not what I had in mind. At all heights it is very stable vertically. The table has plenty of mass (about 300 pounds), which enhances its stability.

Adjustable height workbench and assembly table

Adjustable height workbench and assembly table
Minimum working height of the table is 24 inches.

Adjustable height workbench and assembly table
Maximum working height of the table is 48 inches.

On the path to RPT

The Piano Technicians Guild offers the Registered Piano Technician (RPT) to individuals who have passed a series of tests demonstrating professional competence in three areas of piano technology: tuning, regulation, and repair.

Last night at the Salt Lake City chapter meeting, I took the first step to certification. I took and passed the written exam! Ahead of me in the next year are two skills tests:

  • Regulation and repair
  • Tuning

    I’ll be practicing the skills I need for the first of these as I complete the rebuild of the Stieff Grand for Syracuse Arts Academy. The tuning exam, for me, is more intimidating. I hope to have enough aural tuning skill to take and pass the tuning exam next summer.

    On the road!

  • Google Sketchup Meets Piano Man

    I had the good fortune of attending a one day class on Google Sketchup on Thursday of last week. Good fortune, yes, because without some guided instruction, Sketchup was rather intimidating. In six hours, I learned far more than I could have on my own.

    In the new house, I’m certain that pianos will move in and out from time to time. As such, I wanted a ramp from the garage floor to the kitchen. (This is the best route into the home for a piano) Commercially available aluminum and fiberglass ramps are prohibitively expensive, so I decided to build a wooden ramp specifically for this purpose.

    Piano Man Meets Sketchup

    Wow. Designing in 3D is pretty. Pretty intense too. To be fair, I’d already designed the geometry of the ramp using a CAD tool

    The Old-Fashioned Way

    But the sketchup tool makes a pretty picture, and with 3D, I actually got into the details. I was able to specify the specific joints for the plywood, and realized that a tapered hardwood shoe at the base of the point was needed. That was a detail that was going to wait for construction otherwise.

    It was interesting to see that the modeling tool, in fact, improved the product.

    If you install Google Sketchup, you may explore the model itself with this download.

    Another piano: 1916 Chickering

    Partly because I couldn’t resist (I like Chickerings!).
    Partly because the Stieff project has been delayed.
    Partly because I wanted to have a piano placed at Syracuse Arts Academy now … not later.
    Partly because I’m looking forward to my next rebuild project.

    Well all together, I did it!

    I found this nice Chickering 5’4″ baby grand on Craig’s List in Denver. The seller was Steve Norris, a piano technician in the Denver area, who had the piano on consignment. It was a fun to purchase remotely from Steve, because I could understand very clearly what the piano was.

    I drove over to Denver to get the piano. (Check my timing here. January might not be the best time to drive with a trailer to Denver.) With help from friends, the piano was setup in the school last Sunday. It fills the musical space of the school foyer very nicely.

    The piano will be a great rebuild project, but also is quite playable right now. Tuning pins – which appear to be original are tight. Nate Griffith came over to the school on Friday and gave it his expert tuning. It does need some immediate attention also: The key tops were resurfaced with plastic, and the blacks were not raised, so that needs to be done. With the blacks too low, its not very nice to play. In addition there are notes in the mid-treble that need re-regulation. So I’m going to begin my education in grand regulation.

    Duane re-surfaces!

    Hibernation? Death? Disaster? None of the above. Distraction.

    Oh yes, I’ve been distracted. Following an interesting conversation with Terri, my wife, in October, we decided to shop for a suburban home that had a large shop to accomodate my woodworking and piano rebuilding activities. Working out of a storage unit was showing itself to be unfriendly to us both.

    So we bought a house with room to build a shop and we’ve been busy with moving and updating the place at Pleasant View. It’s been hard to leave our beautiful condo on the golf course, but we are both enjoying being close to work. In the summer I expect to be enjoying a new shop!