Sunday, March 27, 2011

Piano Action Specifications:Rare Herrburger- Schwander Piano Action

 I came across this Victorian era Mason & Risch piano in 1991. I had never come across a piano action such as this one so I purchased the instrument and brought it to my shop.

The plate had no markings of any kind that I could locate; completely blank without even any casting numbers. This was a ¾ plate instrument with the open pin block and a small Victorian sounding board.

Doing research on the Mason & Risch Piano Co. I found that previous to manufacturing their own line of pianos Mason & Risch sold pianos for mainly American piano manufacturers in 1871. By the year 1877 Mason & Risch had developed several design patents and were manufacturing their own pianos.

This piano  is Mason & Risch # 668 which is an early instrument for them. The piano action has a hand written date of 03/11/68. This would indicate the 6th piano built in the year 1868.

I believe this was one that could have been an early prototype, with parts manufactured by other companies and Mason & Risch being the assembly point for all of the different components.

The piano action in this one is a rare one indeed; here is the photo album for the action. It is called a Brevet; I have not been able to find much information about this action. I sent the patent numbers to France and have someone there investigating the history of the Brevet piano action.

Here are the photos of a rare Herrburger- Schwander piano action.

Herrburger Schwander Rare Action

Also included here is a link to an old forum thread from Piano World Piano Technicians forum where technicians were discussing this rare action.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Bell ILLimitable Piano Action

Along with being one of the top Canadian piano makers, Bell Piano & Organ was known also for several interesting design ideas. One is the Illimitable upright piano action that has 3 springs instead of the usual two.

In most upright piano actions, there is the hammer return spring, and the coil jack spring; both ensure the return of parts to the correct position, after play. In the Bell illimitable piano action, there is an extra spring that travels through a mortised hole on the jack face and attaches to a silk tassel located underneath the hammer butt felt.
This idea was also incorporated into several other companies’ piano designs; Bechstein and Sohmer also had models with the same 3 spring piano action.

Along with the illimitable piano action from the Bell Piano Co. they also made an upright piano with two metal plates; one inside the instrument holding the strings in place and one outside the instrument at the back, instead of the usual six wooden posts that can be found at the back of the large old upright.

Both of these plates were bolted together through the instrument so the pin block and upper planks of construction were “sandwiched” together. This creates tremendous stability in the instruments design quality.
Nicknamed the Bell “steelback”I have come across many of these instruments over 45 years of restorative work.

Bell Piano Co was also well known for intricate and detailed cabinet designs on many of its models.
Here is an instrument I came across that had all three of these things. Along with that the serial number for this instrument is listed as the first entry for the year 1913.

Found in a church attic where it had been standing for more than 20 years, no one could recall how it got there.  I purchased the piano and brought it home for restoration.

So here is a photo album of a Bell steeback that has the illimitable piano action, the two plates, a very decorative cabinet, and is listed as an entry in the Pierce Piano Atlas.

Happy viewing…
Bell Illimitable Action

Monday, March 14, 2011

Obsolete Piano Decal Restoration

Sometimes when doing a restoration of a piano, I have come across an obsolete piano decal that is no longer made. Many of these are piano decals that are not visible until the cabinet is opened or dismantled.

Here is a piano decal that can be found under the top board of a Heintzman & Co full size upright. At one time this decal was unavailable; I can obtain a new replacement, but the cost of the new replacement, plus installation, amounts to the same cost or more of restoring the old decal.

This is a tricky process, it only works with some decals, sometimes the process damages the decal too much, sometimes especially with thick old varnish it does not work at all. Here is the link for the photo album and the text below each photo........

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Date My Piano; Serial Numbers and Pianos

Please consider the following facts;

-Tens of millions of pianos have been manufactured world-wide during the past 200 years.

- Global production for 1911 was estimated at 650,000 units or more.

- In 1970 the Global output was 756,000 units; the majority coming from Japan.

- In the US alone, more than 5000 individual brand-name pianos have been marketed since 1880.

- In Canada 240 different company brand and stencil name pianos have been made since 1816.

- With only a few exceptions, the piano manufacturers of Canada were not compelled to hire record keepers or required to keep statisticians.

- Factory fires, floods, disasters of other kinds, the paper and metal drives of the Second War, the fact that most industry people have been businessmen rather than historians have led to a lamentable lack of documentation on pianos.

Many people have a desire to find out the age of their piano. For most of the older instruments, this is simply a point of interest. For others, serial number dating can be the confirmation to purchase the item, or steer clear of it and purchase something else.

 At times, this can be a simple process for the popular brands of instruments that many purchase; one can obtain a reference book called a Piano Atlas. These books are printed on a yearly basis with the previous year’s information updated or corrected as the publisher re-prints from year to year. The sources of information for the publishers of these books are the manufacturers of pianos or other sources like museums or historical piano collections.

With an atlas in hand, one looks up the brand name and then finds the correct year for the serial number provided.

The Piano atlas can be a minefield at times, especially when one is using a North American publication in an attempt to date a European instrument or a piano from Britain. This is why there are several atlas publications one can purchase. Some cover the serial numbers of instruments from other continents in a more complete way than the domestic publication. This is not so much the case any longer in modern times with the internet, but for the early instruments this can be especially problematic.

There can be other problems with this type of age dating too. In the early days of piano making some companies switched to a different series of serial numbers every year and did not keep the same sequence.  Some did this to keep the competition confused as to unit output; pianos were as competitive then as computers are today.

Let us look at a few examples;

 Craig Piano Co. of Montréal Canada:

Serial numbers for this company from 1913-1919 range from 23,000-29,000. A good example of how number series were often chosen to correspond to year numbers. What I mean is that the 2nd digit of the serial number corresponds to the 4th digit of the year. Even if only 2 or 300 instruments were made in a particular year the number would jump by 1000.

This method can be systematically observed for many piano manufacturers although numerous exceptions occur.

Mason & Risch Classic:

This was a piano name used by Mason & Risch from 1909-25. The serial numbers in 1919 were 15,000 and by 1925 were at 93,000. This is a classic example of how piano serial numbers seemingly indicated large volume sales. A more accurate estimate of the number of instruments sold during this period would be closer to 500 or less…

Zimmermann Piano Co Leipzig Germany:

I just received one of these instruments in my shop. The serial number in the North American atlas tells me that  #4264 was made in 1887. However, I know this instrument came here during the 1960’s. In the European atlas, I discover that the serial number for Zimmermann grand pianos ran a different sequence, and Serial number 4264 was 1969. This is another example of how manufacturers kept track of the units built. One can find many examples of this type of separation from grand to uprights.

Other types of dating occur too. Sometimes the instrument has been made by one factory and then modified by another company.

Take the Schultz & Sons Piano Co. of New York. This company has an exclusive arrangement with several piano manufacturers to make upgraded versions of their instruments that are then modified in the Schultz factory.  These instruments carry two identifiable serial numbers; one from the original company who built the instrument and then one from Schultz.

I have also worked on instruments from the early 1800’s that have been modified. Sometimes they have two serial numbers; one from the original build and one from the upgrade.

Here is an example of that type of dating in a Collard & Collard piano from 1849. When I was contracted by the owner to make improvements on this instrument, I found the original date from the factory and then another serial I suspect relates to the upgrades this instrument has received to the  action/keyboard and framework. The two different serial numbers can be seen in photos 2 and 3 of this photo album.

Collard & Collard 2.2m

The best guide for finding the age of your instrument is your piano tuner.  The tradition of leaving personal marks or initials developed very early in the piano industry; often it is possible to come close to the year of manufacture by examining these “hidden” marks that are no doubt inscribed on your piano somewhere. Some of these marks will be easy for the untrained eye to locate; others will require the skill of a trained eye or the skilled hand of an experienced technician.

Often times efforts are made to determine age by cabinet style or case design. This may allow generalized dating but could not be considered a guide to specific production years. Many of the piano makers were furniture makers; entire departments of the factories were devoted to making benches and legs only. Cabinet styles would come and go on a regular basis, some styles appearing decades later in the same way as previously.

So remember…if you don’t know your piano, know your piano technician.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Refinishing Pianos

There are a lot of things to realize when one goes about refinishing a piano; the many corners you discover, if the instrument has any cabinet detail to consider, the key set that has to be covered or removed, the plate and string area to protect. There is also the hardware attachments, hinges, music desk brackets, bench hardware, brass trim, etc.

A typical grand piano is approximately 5ft. wide (1.5 m) and for the most part 5 ft long, or longer. While that is only 25 square feet, (7.6m) the cabinet has thickness too; the depth is usually 15 to 18 inches. (38-40cm) Most of the removable boards are finished on both sides too.

Now we are talking about considerably more surface area to deal with; perhaps some 50 feet or more.
Sometimes when you have an older piano to refinish, you discover  previous damage.
 Long-time exposure to sunlight UV will fade out the natural patina in the wood cabinet, water or heat damage will cause the veneer to lift.

Perhaps you will discover an attempt at refinishing by someone who did not have a full understanding of the products or the procedure.

Here is a piano that came in for refinishing. The residence had been rented by the owner with the piano included.
Aside from the damage done to the instrument, I discovered that this one had been refinished improperly and also had long term light exposure. 
 This is a good photo album to view about refinishing pianos and the colour tinting process. It demonstrates some of the problems you have to solve to get the instrument looking good once again.

 Photo set available at the link below. Once at the photo album location left click on any photo to enlarge On the right side of the photos I have written some text about how some of the problems are overcome.
Here is the link and happy viewing

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Voicing Piano Hammers

Here is a page from my web site regarding this issue;
Voicing pianos

To continue;

Simply put, think of the hammer set this way; this is a felted object thrown at a set of strings in a controlled manner. Upon contact the hammer compresses slightly, then rebounds away from the string set and is “caught” by the mechanism.

One can make the choice of having the hammer rebound immediately off that string set OR one can choose to lengthen the time the hammer remains in contact with that string.

Here are some photos of a concert voicing seminar held here in Vancouver BC in July 2008 with the internationally renowned André Oorbeek.

The grand being worked on is a Yamaha equipped with brand new set of Renner AA Wurzen felt hammers.

After viewing these photos and reading the text for each photo there may be further questions; please do not hesitate to ask. Hammer voicing is something that is often misunderstood and overlooked.

Andre Oorebeek Seminar

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Restoration And Rebuilding #2

Sometimes one can come across an instrument that is unique in many ways. Here is a Canadian made grand piano with some unique cabinet and other features that I found in my travels.

In today’s world with restorative work on pianos and other vintage items being so expensive, most of the restorers are doing brand name instruments; Steinway, Bosendorfer, Heintzman, Bechstein, Blüthner, these kinds of makers. Most of the instruments manufactured by the smaller makers are discarded; this is somewhat disappointing, but it is difficult to justify the cost of restoration if the instrument will not be recognized as having any financial value in the end. Sometimes though, if I discover an instrument that has some unique features, I try to purchase the instrument for restoration purposes.

Many of the Canadian piano makers were only popular in Canada. At the turn of 1900 we had 250 companies that were manufacturing pianos. Most of these were two or three man shops, making one or two instruments a day; since 1816 there have been better than 240 different brand name pianos made in more than 150 companies. At one time in Canada, almost every third house had a piano.

Mason & Risch:

In the 1860’sThomas Gabriel Mason was an accountant for the Nordheimer Piano Co. Together with the assistance of two friends, Vincent Risch and Octavious Newcombe, these three men opened the Mason & Risch Piano Co. in 1871.

Some of the early Mason & Risch instruments were of exceptional quality. Much of the technology from European makers of that time period is evident in their construction.

Of particular note is the fact that this instrument was constructed using the old style of pin block construction; the block is open on the front side where the tuning pins are located. This required an extra layer of veneer over this area because the pin block is visible. In modern construction the pin block is hidden by what is called a full plate design; the metal plate covers the wooden block as in today’s instruments. Full plate became quite popular by the turn of 1900, so this instrument constructed some years later using the old technology, makes this one somewhat interesting.

Canadian piano history and early development is littered with the history of European immigrants that brought all of their technical knowledge and supplier locations with them. Many of the Canadian pianos that I have restored have original German made parts. So one has to be careful of how and what parts to purchase.
While the sounding board and bridgework were all intact, the string, tuning pins, hammer set and most of the keyboard components were replaced; except the original ivories.

This instrument has a very interesting cabinet style in the leg and lyre; I have not been able to determine just what furniture style this is. Also this type of mahogany cut was covered over and could not be seen through the old finish.

Some of the history of this instrument is from 1989 when the owner called me for  tuning service  and subsequently became a permanent client. She had purchased this instrument for use in her ballet school.
About 1997 she retired and contacted me to see if I was interested in this one as a restorative project. I purchased the instrument and had it transported to my shop.

Just as another point of interest, the lady who purchased the restored instrument was, in her early years, a student of the very same ballet school. This came out in conversation while she was purchasing the instrument; I was asked if I knew any of the history.
 Please left click once on this link below and that will take you to the photo album location. Then once there left click once on the first photo, top left, and this will open up the album so that you can read the text below each frame.

Mason and Risch