Posted by A Shackleford on May 03, 2016
There’s nothing nicer than seeing a busy workshop full of artisans using traditional methods to produce items of intrinsic beauty. Glass blowers, potters, wood carvers, coopers – all demand the respect and admiration for keeping their craft alive. A good piano workshop demands the presence of equally skilled craftsmen who use their skills to produce or repair modern and antique pianos and in the process create a very interesting and dynamic work environment to be part of.
At Shackleford Pianos we are very proud to have as a major part of our business a complete and well-staffed piano workshop that is able to produce and reproduce a range of products and services dedicated to our specialty - pianos. From the ground up we can rebuild a piano to restore it to it’s former glory. Our process is always sympathetic to the original production methods, as it is this process that can either add or diminish value to a piano. The piano restoration process can be broken down into areas of expertise and indeed we have an assigned highly trained specialist to cover all aspects of the piano making craft. In this blog we will discuss cabinet making and repairs.
The piano is basically nothing more than a big wooden cabinet fitted with strings and other parts that transform it from being a piece of furniture into a beautiful musical instrument. The soundboard, the heart and soul of a piano, the item that more than any other gives the piano its individual tonal character is also made from wood. To repair this part alone requires an understanding of fine woodworking and acoustics that only a master wood joiner can deliver. Often we find when restoring a piano that the soundboard has many fissures or cracks caused by years of expansion and contraction, years of downward pressure from the strings, or over exposure to environmental extremes. Unrepaired these cracks can buzz, and the tonal quality of the soundboard is compromised as the speaking plain is incomplete. To repair these cracks they need to be removed by an exacting process called flipotage. This procedure involves enlarging the crack using special tools and then inserting a shim of similar timber to fill in the crack. Successfully done the soundboard is returned to one complete speaking plain, and the newly introduced wood is barely noticeable.
The bridge is the part of the piano that connects the strings to the soundboard. These are often cracked and need replacing. Again this is a task that should only be approached by a very experienced woodworker as the grain in the replacement timber needs to be selected to be able to maintain strength, shape, and to transduce vibration from the strings to the soundboard. The incorrect selection of timber will see the bridge split open under the stress of the pressure of the strings, giving it poor acoustic properties and in extreme cases causing damage to the soundboard. A well-designed bridge will have a carved top, where the bridge is notched to allow the string greater movement. That in turn creates longer sustain, or resonance of the string. Carving a bridge is an extremely difficult task but done properly is beauty to behold.
The strings of a piano are held in place and adjusted in tension by tuning pins. These tuning pins are held by thread inside what is known as the wrest plank, or tuning pin block. This block is made of several laminations of different density timbers, such as maple, hornbeam and beech. Some pin blocks have up to 20 layers of lamination. This part of the piano can split due to the amount of tension the piano strings place on it over time. Environmental issues may also contribute to the pin block losing a certain amount of friction on the tuning pins, resulting in the piano not holding tune. The wrest plank or pin block can be replaced, but this often requires the piano’s cabinet to be disassembled to allow access to where the wrest plank is attached to the main wooden frame. The replacement pin block needs to be accurately reproduced so that the strings realign with how the piano was created. Failure to get this right can be catastrophic to the piano as nothing will work properly unless the piano playing action and keys are made to line up with the strings.
The piano cabinet itself is an intricately joined and functional piece of furniture. A piano is usually made up of the main cabinet, comprising the soundboard, back posts, and wrest plank, (the piano bridges are attached to the soundboard.) Different panels and components complete the piano – the lid, the fallboard, front and bottom panels, key rails, legs, lyre… all made from wood. These must all fit together perfectly for the piano to function as a usable item and this can only be achieved by a dedicated and skilled cabinet maker or wood joiner.
Andy Mayo is our dedicated cabinetmaker and repairer. Andy has over 35 years of experience in the trade and has worked with antique and modern furniture. Many times during the restoration process we find pianos missing pieces of moldings (the decorative trim found on cabinet parts), badly chipped or dented parts needing remaking or repairing, cracked wooden parts needing gluing, shimming (filling the crack with another piece of wood). Andy skillfully repairs, remakes, replaces any of these parts. In fact, he does such a good job it’s difficult to tell there’s ever been anything wrong with the piano. Andy has repaired fire damage, water damage, impact damage and these repairs are always perfect!
We are also very lucky should we need anything remaking out of iron or steel, as one of Andy’s hobbies is metallurgy. He can make beautiful jewelry or even armour! This armour is for one of Andy’s other hobbies – medieval battle reenactments.
Please feel free to call in to our workshop at any time to visit Andy and view his work.