Sometime around 1959, in Raymond Washington, I had my first piano lesson. It was on this piano: Schilling and Sons #93032!
Schilling and Sons Upright Piano made in 1926
My mother acquired the piano sometime in the 1940s. My sister Carol, my sister Nadine, and I all learned to play on the Schilling and Sons. Then in 1972, Mom thought she should have a smaller piano for her dining room. So she bought a spinet piano, and as part of the purchase, she arranged free delivery of the Schilling and Sons from Raymond to Carol’s new home in Vancouver, Washington. Carol’s three girls: Angela, Heather, and Tiffany all learned to play on this piano too.
In 2008, at the age of 91, Mom left the Raymond home to live in a senior apartment near Carol’s home in Vancouver. Carol selflessly provided near daily care and support during Mom’s time there. In 2011, with gratitude (and a bit of showmanship), I gave Carol a modern baby grand piano for her birthday. I made the surprise piano delivery, from Utah to Washington, while Carol was on the East Coast for a week. Then I spirited the Schilling and Sons off to Utah to be rebuilt. As it worked out, procrastination and the lack of a plan for that piano meant that it has just been waiting on me these past eight or nine years.
But then, in 2019, the very house we knew as home in Raymond came on the market, and Carol surprised us all by buying it as a family vacation home! It was then obvious what the next stopping point for the Schilling and Sons piano would be!
COVID is upsetting travel plans for this Summer, but today I was pleased to note the completion of work on this family piano.
Dad was someone who was known as a practical man. He could get things done, and was always looking for the better way to do whatever needed to be done. That better way generally involved Yankee ingenuity, and machines.
1960s: Harvey McGuire (Dad) in the meter shop at Pacific County PUD ( Public Utility District)
This morning I was particularly missing Dad, as he would have enjoyed my project of the morning. I’m not much of a machinist, but my capabilities have been growing, since I acquired and rehabilitated a 1950’s Atlas metal lathe. I bought it out of interest, and also because it could occasionally be useful in piano rebuilding. But why an old Atlas lathe that needed some fix up instead of something new? Because that’s what Dad would have done. As a matter of fact, he once acquired a small fixer-upper Atlas lathe. Unfortunately that fix-up never happened. He just didn’t get around to it. So when I bought the lathe it was for the both of us!
I’m becoming more familiar with the lathe, and this morning I enjoyed a new project making adjustable pedal rods for the 1918 Knabe grand piano I’m working on. The commercial versions weren’t quite right, and … well … I had the lathe!
A custom, adjustable pedal rod. Top post and nut are fabricated from 1/2″ hexagonal stock. 5/16″ brass rod.
If Dad had been here, it would have been fun, and I know exactly what he would have said. He’d gently turn that rod in his massive hands, nod his head and say, “Well, that’s just like downtown.”
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!
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.
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.
I recently decided to upgrade from the crude key leveling blocks I had been using, and enjoyed making these blocks.
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.
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.
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.
Preparing 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.