Category Archives: Music

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

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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

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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.

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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!

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    Whew. February 15

    Each year, my quartet, Sound Accord, delivers singing Valentines. It’s always a joy! This year since Valentines Day was Saturday, we sang on both Friday and Saturday. We delivered songs to 21 sweethearts on Friday and to 11 on Saturday. It was two days of tears, laughter, and kisses. What a love fest! We sang for teenage sweethearts and for octogenarian sweethearts. We sang before hundreds, and to just one. Each of the 32 events was unique, but each was a clear expression of love. I just plain love being in the middle of it.

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    Singing Valentines in Utah County

    Sound Accord Quartet Singing Valentine

    Once again my quartet, Sound Accord, will be delivering singing Valentines for the big day. We will schedule our biggest day on Feb 13, so that we can deliver to schools and businesses. We will also be available mid-day on Feb 14.

    If you are a man who would like us to sing to your girl friend, wife, or other female significant other, please call Duane at 801-830-5858. If you are a woman, who would like us to sing to a man, well … NO. We did that a couple of times early in our career. It just doesn’t work! (At least not for us!) We will be singing in Utah County only. (Provo UT, Orem UT, Lindon UT, Pleasant Grove UT, American Fork UT, Lehi UT, etc.)

    We deliver 2 love songs and a long stemmed rose as your Valentine for a fee of just $45.

    More about the quartet is here: SoundAccord.com

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    Musical Desire Meets Taskmaster

    I play the piano. And have played for 50 years on again and off again. The last couple of years have been on again, and it has been a joy. But for someone who likes the jazz medium, its too bad that I’m tied to notes on the page. I haven’t developed skill at improvisation.

    I’ve approached it many times. Whether it is a teacher or a book, the set is the same: There are 5 variations of the 7-chord. For each chord, there is a root position and 3 inversions to learn. Learn the 5 variations and 4 voicings in all 12 keys. Do that in both the right hand and the left hand. After you have that done, you are ready for lesson two! Talk about hitting a wall at lesson one! I’ve hit that wall several times.

    The most recent book I’ve acquired is Bill Dobbins, “A Creative Approach to Jazz Piano Harmony”. I’ve been working at lesson one for about a month. I’ve learned major-7 and dominant-7 in 12 keys. I’m working at the minor. I will still have half-diminished and diminished to work on! This is not exactly what you call instant gratification! But I think I’ll hang in there.

    Yesterday, I read, or perhaps re-read, Mr. Dobbins introduction to the book. What he had to say was profound. At least it was at that reading.

    The question may be asked, whether or not it is really necessary to practice all material in all inversions and in all keys. The answer, of course, is that it is not really necessary for any of us to do most of the things we do. If we are really interested in developing our bodies we submit to endlessly repetititve exercise regimins with little complaining, as long as we eventually see some positive result. If I wish to have a richer harmonic vocabulary than I do now, and to use that vocabulary with both greater effectiveness and spontaneity, it seems only logical that I will need to practice differently than I do now. Unfortunately, contemporary society and the media strongly condition us to expect to be able to have anything we want almost immediately, and with the investment of as little time or money as possible. No one seems to notice that most things which can be so easily obtained are not worth having to begin with.

    So Mr. Dobbins sent me that message loud and clear. Since I’ve already bought the book, I might as well hang in there and do the work. Unless I don’t want to. I think I do!

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    A minor victory for the aspiring pianist

    I can’t say how long I’ve been practicing Marian McPartland’s Twilight World. Months and months! The transcription is 8 pages long. For some time now, I’ve had pages 6,7, and 8 memorized. But I’ve been stuck on page 5 for quite some time. I suspect that practice technique (or lack thereof) are to blame, but I have been stuck! Finally yesterday morning was breakthrough. The bottom 3/4 of Page 5 works without referring to the transcription.

    I have a lot to learn about memorization, and I still find it somewhat frightening … because honestly, once it is done, the playing of the song is some kind of miracle.

    I wish I could get into another musicians head, and see how he or she thinks!

    Despite it all, my memorized repertoire is growing. I need to tackle the top bit of page five with rigor, and see if I can speed the process along. Twilight world is such a beautiful tune, I’m not bored with it, but it would be nice to grow the repertoire faster!

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    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.

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