Monday, May 30, 2011

Days 88 and 89 – Saturday and Sunday, May 28 and 29 – Looks like a piano!

Goals: Finish with the leather on the hammers and install the keys

Music: Shelley Manne and His Men’s “Complete Live at the Blackhawk” (all four discs).

With the keys inserted back in the piano, it again looks like a piano and the temptation to chop it into a desk or a bar is reduced. As has been the case throughout this project, however, the piano continues to beset me with “good news, bad news” scenarios:

-Good news: I successfully manufactured a replacement hammer from scrap hammers purchased online. Bad news: I wasn’t actually missing a hammer. The space on the hammer assembly is for something else. (Wish I knew what.) At least that explained why I ended up one piece of leather short when I was adding leather to the hammers.

-Good news: I successfully rebuilt the pivot arm end of a broken hammer. Bad news: The difference in shape and size is just enough that the wippen didn’t pick it up and project the hammer correctly. Hard to believe when you look at the photo – we’re talking a fraction of a millimeter difference! (I ended up shimming the whole assembly to make it work; it still joined the ranks of dead keys after the first go around.)
Top is the replacement, bottom is an original. Yeah, they're different, but...

-Good news: I finished putting the leather on all the hammers. Bad news: Even with careful and thorough trimming, the tiny size differential makes many of the keys stick, both against each other and against parts of the piano when the keys are reinserted.
Hammers all covered in leather and ready to go.
The pile of leather chunks that took be two days to trim from the heads - and they still don't work right.

-Good news: I was able to insert the keys and a number of them actually hit on the strings they were supposed to and made a passable sound. Bad news: After playing once through the keyboard, any number of keys went dead, or took some jiggling to get playing again, or didn’t sound at all in the first place.

-Good news: The rough tuning of the piano means I have actually gotten a reasonable facsimile of harmonic sound from the strings. Bad news: Not realizing that some of the “single” bass strings were actually “double” bass strings, I’ve got the piano tuned to play more notes than there are keys.

Good news: At the lower end of the keyboard, all the keys work. Bad news: The ones that are supposed to be hitting double strings are only hitting one string. (Maybe it doesn’t matter if I tune them or not.

Memorial Day will be filled with tuning work and key adjustment. I’m even going to have to get my piano repair manual out and see what my options are with the wippens that aren’t triggering the keys right after I just fixed them. (I mean, of course I made sure all the keys were working before I reinserted them, but I didn’t think so many would go dead right out of the gate!)

One more: Good news: The soft pedal actually moves the damper assembly into position and deadens the hammer strike on the strings. Bad news: It doesn’t go back on its own. More adjustment! 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Days 86 and 87 – Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22 – Devil in the Details

Goals: Put the leather on the hammers, install the keyboard assembly after checking that everything works

Music: Humphrey Lyttelton’s “The Parlophones” (all four discs); Bud Powell’s “The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume Three”; Buddy Rich’s “The Best of Buddy Rich”; Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite”.

Delicate, boring work. Boring and delicate. That’s all that separates me from a completely refurbished antique square grand piano: boredom and delicacy.

All I did on Saturday was cut the leather strips for the hammers and glue them to the hammerheads. That’s “all”. As I recounted in my last entry, I did not want to do this in stages because I was afraid of mixing the lengths. And, because I was using contact cement, I wanted them to be done all in one fell swoop. I was a little non-committal about whether I should put glue on the entire head and strip or just glue the ends with the body of the strip stretched over the hammerhead. I opted to leave the middle glue-less to give me some land to handle the strips with. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision, as I will relate in a moment.

One I got to cutting and placing the strips, I noticed they were all just about the right width, but most of them were too long (not sure why). Some I cut, some I used the extra surface for stronger adhesion. This, too, turned out to be fortuitous. Anyway, it took about four hours, but I managed to glue all the strips to the hammerheads.

On Sunday, I reviewed my work and naturally, all the strips were jamming into each other, causing all the keys to stick, pull multiple hammers, and not return to the down position properly. I expected this, and was sure they’d have to be cut. Here’s where not gluing the entire strip to the hammerhead paid off: I could trim the leather strip without having to trim a fat portion of the felt head. Nearly all them went smoothly. Some I could get just with the small pointy cosmetic scissors, but the majority required being held with tweezers while cutting with a razor. Due to placement issues, some I ended up cutting close to only about an eighth of their original width. That’s where the extra land for adhesion came in handy (for those strips that had it). Unfortunately, with my poor eyesight and inexperience, some of the strips I cut right through, releasing one end of the hammer. I used super glue to reattach these, not wanting to fuss with the contact cement any further. At the end of the session on Sunday, I was about twenty keys from the end, but that’s actually much closer to the end of this stage, because the high keys, which sit almost directly perpendicular to the strings and parallel to each other will not need any trimming. (Hooray!)

I have at least two wippens that will need adjusting before I can install the keys. Then, the sound of hammer hitting string and generating music will again emanate from my piano, almost one year to the day since the last note was heard from it.

I bought some clear acrylic resin that I’m planning to use to fix up the mother of pearl inlaid board. If I can get that to look pretty decent and the piano to play, I will have 99% succeeded in the refurbishing of this piano.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Days 84 and 85 – Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15 –!

Goals: Finish the piano

Music: Gerry Mulligan’s “Original Quartet with Chet Baker” (both discs); Bennie Moten’s “Band Box Shuffle” (both discs); Paul Motian’s “The Sound of Love”, Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron’s “Complete Blue Note Recordings” (both discs).

With jazz improvisation class finally over, I have nothing but time for working on the piano. And after my trip to Memphis where I saw Francis Scott Key’s square grand piano and the non-functional shape it was in, I’ve been feeling a little inspired to get my piano back into operation. So I set to work.

Needless to say, there’s nothing left but a lot of little jobs, most everything cosmetic. I just take each job as I think of it and in whatever order necessary to complete the work properly. I obviously needed to get the key and hammer assembly back in, which meant repairing the one broken hammer and fabricating the missing one. Using spare parts that I bought on e-bay, I started with repairing the one broken hammer. It just needed a new pivot head (I’m calling it – I don’t know what it’s called). Not knowing how much of the shank goes into the pivot head, I decided to split the old one to see for sure. Here’s what that looked like: 
Bottom shows pivot head in mount assembly. Those pieces are the old pivot head. Uppermost is the original hammer and shank.

After that, it was an easy enough job to remove one of the old pivot heads from the spare parts, drill and scrape out the old shank bits, and sand and shorten the actual shank to fit into the hole. Wood glue and a little eyeball measuring next to the other hammers, and it was ready to install:
Repaired hammer ready for installation.

Manufacturing the replacement hammer for the one that was missing was a bit trickier and time consuming. Because the hammer has to fit between a bunch of other hammers, it needed to be sized correctly, but all of the parts I got off the internet were for the larger hammers at the other end of keyboard. I thought about sliding all of the hammers down one, but I was worried doing so might create fit issues down the line, especially with the felt pads that catch on the wippens. I didn’t want to deal with that , so I decided to see if it was possible to use my Dremel tool to whittle down the size of the felt on one of the big replacement part hammers to make a small felt head hammer. 
What I started with (left), and what I hoped to finish with, approximately (right)

I found that it was an easy enough process with the only drawback being that it generated a lot of dust, and so I set to manufacturing a replacement hammer, doing most of the felt trimming outside. That was a two day process due to the amount of sanding needed and also having to glue the felt, using contact cement to hold it and super glue to harden it. When all was said and done, I had my replacement hammer:
Left: What I started with; Middle: What I ended with; Right: What I was trying to get to

It fit adequately in the spot that had been missing a hammer for almost forever. (I could tell by the wear on the felt underneath the hammer housings.)
Here you can see how light the felt is where I removed the hammer, but how dark where the missing hammer was. That hammer was missing for a long time, telling me this piano has probably been unplayable - and unplayed - for 50 or more years.

I reattached the wippen stoppers and hammer assembly to the keyboard frame, holding the wippens in place with string when I fitted the hammers back in place. Upon releasing the string, I found all the keys and hammers in working order. (Thank God!) I wanted to slide the keys in to see and hear them hit the strings and hear what it sounded like, but I still had to put some leather over the worn surface of the hammers. What’s next is next, so I set to it.

I marked up the thicker portion of the lamb leather that I will be using to cover the hammer heads with, having measured and calculated that some time ago. 

The leather, ready to be cut (pencil for scale)
I didn’t start cutting up the individual strips, though, because I’m going to cut and glue and cut and glue those individually so that I don’t have to mark them up or anything. I’m not really sure which would be more tedious, cutting all then gluing, or cutting and then gluing as I go, and although I think splitting the jobs would be faster, cutting and gluing in tandem should be easier and make it easier to avoid mistakes.

So, without having enough time to tackle the leather gluing job, including the fact that the outside temperature was too low to open the windows, I moved to some other minor finishing jobs. So finally, I cut a few pieces of felt and threaded them through the strings, working from photos of the original state of the piano (always an inspiration).

I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do about the missing damper arm. Hopefully I’ll get lucky one of these days and come across some damper arms on the internet. Until then, I’m going to have one low, long-ringing F note.

When I finish the piano, that is.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Eight hours driving, forty minutes of violin music, and a brief tour of Memphis Tennessee

Readers of this blog will be well familiar with Mrs. S’s passion for the playing and boyish good looks of the world class violinist, Joshua Bell. And in the past, I had told her that any time he came within a reasonable driving distance, I would be willing to escort her to any concert of his. (He’s good enough that even I, a jazz musician, enjoy and appreciate his superb playing. He’s remarkable.) Several months ago, she unilaterally decided that four hours one way was within “reasonable driving distance” (okay, she did ask me) and so it was that last Thursday we traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to hear the Memphis symphony and Mr. Bell play.

The drive was actually quite easy except for the part in and around Memphis. As we followed the printed directions from the internet, we came off the highway right in front of the Marriott where we were staying. I said, “There it is,” but Mrs. S said, “No, that’s not it.” So we drove around looking for the hotel we just passed but eventually found our way back there, no problem.

Since we were really in town just for the JB concert, we didn’t really do much sightseeing. We did take a walk down Main Street and Beale Street:

A mediocre shot of me in the "French Quarter" of Memphis
And we saw Francis Scott Key’s square grand piano on the mezzanine of the Peabody hotel:

Sorry, FSK, but my square grand will soon be playable, and yours won't!
It has some very nice mother-of-pearl inlay inside on the top and very elaborate carving on the front, back and sides, but the wood finish needs redoing and the inside was in complete disrepair. (Not surprisingly, as seems to be the case with these older square grands, the damper pads and arms were all in pieces. That piano would definitely take some serious work to restore to functionality again.)

We ate a light dinner at the hotel, together with a number of other people who, it turned out, would also be at the concert later that evening. The MSO was a smallish but very efficient orchestra, doing a nice Schubert piece and a Beethoven symphony under the confident and enthusiastic baton of conductor, Mei-Ann Chen. After intermission, Josh came out and lit up the place with Tchaikovsky, and for an encore, Yankee Doodle. He signed autographs (3 CD’s) and took a couple pics with Mrs. S. 

Getting to be very familiar with this shot...
When I noted that Memphis is a lot farther from Huntsville than Birmingham was, he thanked us for our long drive. He then kind of remembered us, but not really. (He gets around, you know.) We also negotiated with a symphony rep for the JB banner hanging in the foyer.

We visited the Memphis Zoo and the Brooks Museum the next day so that it really wasn’t eight hours of driving for forty minutes of music. It was a nice trip to Memphis and another great Joshua Bell concert. Sure beats working.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

No piano and no piano

I find myself all of a sudden briskly stomping through the month of May, no closer on the completion of my antique piano refurbishing project due to having spent the last three weeks mastering my transcribed solo and three songs that I’m not very good at playing, along with a host of melodic minor scales and modes, all for jazz improv class. And this is not to make light of what is a devastatingly serious topic, but the tornadoes that ripped through Alabama last week left us without power for four days, which not only made it impossible for me to practice (digital piano only), but ended up wiping out my last two classes in any event. It left me with a piano not yet refurbished and some performance ready pieces that have gone as stale as the ground meat in our freezer prior to power being restored. No piano, and, no piano.

At least with class over, I can get back to devoting some time to the refurbishing job, and would have over the weekend if it wasn’t so dark in the house. If I can finish it this month, it will get done in one year, start to finish.

And, not to overemphasize the point, but if you’ve never seen the destructive force of a tornado up close, either during the storm or after, count yourself lucky and offer a prayer to your deity of choice that you never do. The raw power of nature is as terrifying as it is humbling and is better marveled at from a distance. Trust me on this one.