La table d’harmonie d’un piano ressemble à une immense feuille de bois disposée en dessous des cordes pour l’oeil nu . Pour les fabricants de pianos, elle est l’un des éléments les plus critiques de la science derrière la confection de l’instrument. Pourquoi? Le rôle de la table d’harmonie est d’amplifier le son des vibrations des cordes du piano en une série de fréquences audibles qui constitueront la couleur du timbre du piano. La table d’harmonie est donc insérable de la voix d’un piano.
Après m’être quelque peu renseigné, 😀 (Wood for Sound by Wegst, 2006, American Journal of Botany) j’ai compris que ce qui fait une bonne table d’harmonie est la balance subtile entre élasticité et rigidité. Le diagramme montre bien qu’il y a une corrélation entre la densité du bois et son élasticité (Théorie de Young). De manière générale, la structure moléculaire et la densité du bois sont les caractéristiques recherchées pour assurer une bonne transmission du son. Cependant, le bois doit également être rigide afin de supporter la pression des cordes sur la table d’harmonie. Le défi de réaliser une bonne table d’harmonie est donc d’arriver à marier rigidité ou résistance à la pression avec une élasticité suffisante pour permettre la transmission des vibrations et une tenue du son plus grande.
Mais alors quelles sont les caractéristiques d’une bonne table d’harmonie ? Nous sommes retournés à la source et avons rencontré les Bolduc, qui font partie des derniers fabricants indépendants de tables d’harmonie au monde. Leur usine se trouve au Québec (Canada) et fournit aussi bien les fabricants de pianos que les réparateurs indépendants. Nous avons eu la chance de parler avec Christian Bolduc, le surintendant de l’usine.
Glen Barkman: Pourquoi utilisez-vous l’épinette blanche? Est-ce que la raison est structurelle, est-ce que ça a à voir avec la densité ou la masse? Pourquoi ce bois est-il idéal pour la fabrication de tables d’harmonies?
Christian Bolduc: L’épinette blanche d’Amérique du Nord est utilisée depuis plus d’un siècle pour la confection de tables d’harmonie, mais aussi de violons et autres instruments à cordes. Ses propriétés tonales exceptionnelles ne sont plus à prouver. Le climat froid et vigoureux nord-américain renforce la solidité de l’épinette, dont la structure et l’élasticité correspondent déjà aux critères nécessaires à la création d’une table d’harmonie résistante et de qualité.
GB: Qu’est-ce que vous recherchez lorsque vous choisissez les billes? Quel diamètre, quelle longueur et quelle partie du tronc sont les morceaux de choix?
CB: Nous avons besoin de la meilleure section du tronc d’épinette. La plupart du temps nous n’utilisons que le bas de l’arbre et coupons la bille juste en dessous des premières branches. La longueur des billes que nous pouvons utiliser peut aller de 2.5 à 5 mètres (8 à 16 pieds). L’arbre doit avoir poussé lentement et graduellement, et ne doit comporter aucune torsion, aucune marque bleue ou autres impuretés. Une fois que nous avons choisi les meilleures billes, seulement 20 à 25% de la totalité de l’arbre sera utilisé pour fabriquer les meilleures tables d’harmonie. Le reste du bois est utilisé pour faire des tables d’harmonie pour pianos droits. Leur couleur est moins importante puisqu’elles se trouvent face à un mur de manière générale. Les dernières pièces de bois sont récupérées et peuvent servir à beaucoup d’autres choses comme la fabrication de moulure résidentielle ou la construction de bois de charpente.
GB:Êtes-vous toujours informés de l’âge des arbres que vous coupez? Quel est le meilleur moment dans la vie d’un arbre pour le couper et pourquoi?
CB:Les arbres doivent être coupés pendant l’hiver afin d’éviter que la production de sève affecte la stabilité du bois. L’arbre doit également avoir un diamètre d’au moins 50 cm (15 pouces) à son extrémité la plus petite pour que nous soyons en mesure de le scier en quartiers. La plupart du temps les arbres que nous utilisons ont au moins 100 ans.
GB:Est-ce que les différentes sortes d’épinettes, et les différentes sortes de bois ont une influence sur la qualité du piano et la couleur de sa tonalité?
CB:Les fabricants de pianos ont fait beaucoup d’expériences ces 100 dernières années avec différentes essences de bois afin de déceler lequel était le meilleur pour des tables d’harmonie. Il en est ressorti que l’épinette est indéniablement le meilleur bois en termes de son, de stabilité et de durabilité.
GB: Pouvez-vous nous expliquer quelle est la chronologie de la fabrication d’une table d’harmonie en repartant de la coupe du bois?
CB: L’épinette doit être minutieusement traitée avant de partir en production. Le critère le plus important est le moment de coupe du bois : ce doit absolument être en hiver afin qu’il y ait le moins de sève possible. Les billes sont d’abord coupées en planches dans notre scierie. Elles sont ensuite lattées et empilées à l’extérieur pendant des mois afin que le bois sèche et se stabilise lentement. Après cela elles sont séchées au four et empilées à nouveau pendant plusieurs mois. Le bois a au moins un an de mûrissement lorsque nous commençons à l’utiliser.
GB: Quel est le temps de séchage d’une table d’harmonie et quel est son taux d’humidité idéal pour le montage?
CB: La table d’harmonie passe par différentes étapes de séchage pendant le processus de production. Lors de la dernière étape qui consiste à coller la table d’harmonie au piano, celle-ci doit avoir un taux d’humidité de 4 ou 5%.
GB: Est-ce que les tables d’harmonies sont rabotées puis poncées ou sont-elles d’abord grossièrement montées puis polies?
CB: Les morceaux d’épinette sont d’abord coupés en planches surdimensionnées. Celles-ci sont choisies et agencées afin que la couleur et la qualité du grain soient semblables d’une planche à l’autre. Nous procédons ensuite au collage des planches. Le rabotage final se fait dans un planeur abrasif surdimensionné de 190 cm (74 pouces) de large.
GB: Est-ce que vous prenez des commandes spéciales pour des compagnies spécifiques?
CB: Nous fournissions beaucoup de fabricants de pianos en tables d’harmonie. Chaque entreprise a des spécifications différentes concernant l’épaisseur, la forme et l’orientation du grain du bois.
GB: Quelle est l’épaisseur moyenne d’une table d’harmonie ?
CB: L’épaisseur moyenne peut varier de 6,5mm (1/4″) pour un petit piano, à 9,5mm (3/8″) pour un piano à queue de concert. Dans certains modèles de pianos, il existe des variations d’épaisseurs à partir de 6,5 mm jusqu’à 9 mm entre la section des hautes et celle des basses.
GB: Pourquoi la coupe du bois se fait-elle en quartiers? Pourquoi cherchez-vous un grain vertical?
CB: Ce type de coupe nous permet d’obtenir une meilleur stabilité, une meilleure résistance et une meilleure transmission du son. La table d’harmonie est vigoureusement collée dans le piano, mais elle doit quand même pouvoir s’étendre et se rétracter sans se fissurer au rythme des variations d’humidités et de conditions ambiantes. Le fait que les anneaux soient maintenus verticalement et combinés avec la cambrure permet à la table de changer de dimensions sans se craquer. La coupe en quartiers renforce aussi la capacité de la table à supporter la tension descendante provenant des cordes qui peut atteindre jusqu’à 275 kg (600 livres).
GB: Quel est l’intérêt d’ajouter des côtes à la table d’harmonie ? Comment faites-vous pour légèrement archer les tables?
CB: Les côtes permettent de soutenir la cambrure de la table et offrent un meilleur support à la pression ascendante des cordes. Les côtes peuvent être soit préalablement arquées pour s’accorder avec le degré de cambrure, soit être collées sous la tension dans une presse concave afin de créer la cambrure.
GB: Quel est le type de colle que vous utilisez pour maintenir les planches ensemble?
CB: La plupart des fabricants des 19ième et 20ième utilisaient de la colle animale chaude pour coller les tables d’harmonie, les sommiers et les placages. Ce type de colle ne permettait pas simplement de maintenir les éléments ensemble de manière durable, elle était également réputée pour ses qualités de transmetteur de son. Aujourd’hui nous utilisons une colle qui a été développée dans cette même philosophie de transmission de son puisqu’elle devient aussi dure que du verre tout en étant extrêmement résistante à tout type d’environnement.
GB: Avec une tension de cordes équivalente à 19 tonnes, on imagine que la table d’harmonie doit être assez stable pour pouvoir soutenir cette pression. Est-ce que vous mesurez la pression à laquelle la table se fissure lorsque vous assemblez les planches, ou avez-vous un type de mesure qui détermine le degré d’adhésion des planches et par conséquent la rigidité de la table?
CB: La colle utilisée pour l’assemblage de la table d’harmonie est en fait plus résistante que le bois lui-même.
GB: Est-ce que vos tables sont laissées à l’état naturel ou effectuez-vous une forme de finition à la résine ou à la laque? Ou bien sont-elles finies par les fabricants qui les achètent?
CB: La finition est faite par le fabriquant une fois la table insérée dans le piano. Elle doit être laquée pour que le bois soit protégé et scellé.
GB:Comment est-ce que la table d’harmonie adhère à la ceinture intérieure du piano?
La table est collée à plat sur la ceinture. Il y a des encoches dans la ceinture intérieure du piano qui permettent aux extrémités des côtes de la table de s’y loger afin de renforcer l’adhésion entre les deux parties.
Je tiens à remercier toute l’équipe des Pianos Bolduc qui a répondu à mes questions et qui a fournit la plupart des photos de cet article. Étant donné le grand gaspillage de matériau que peut entraîner la coupe en quartiers, j’ai été heureux de voir que les Pianos Bolduc sont soucieux de l’environnement et font attention à ce que toutes les chutes de bois soient réutilisées. Ils ne travaillent qu’avec des fournisseurs qui participent à des efforts de reforestation. Les chutes qui ne peuvent pas être utilisées pour la fabrication de pianos sont revendues à des luthiers de guitares, les sciures sont utilisées par des fermiers locaux qui les utilisent comme litières, et les écorces permettent de chauffer les chalets et les cabanes à sucre. Génial! Si vous souhaitez en savoir plus sur les Pianos Bolduc vous pouvez aller voir le magnifique site internet. Il y a beaucoup plus d’informations sur leur entreprise, sur les tables d’harmonie, des sommiers ainsi que tous les outils qu’ils vendent.
The soundboard of a piano ~ to the naked eye, it looks like a giant sheet of wood located under the strings. To piano makers, this is one of the most critical elements of science in the instrument. Why? The job of the soundboard is to transform tone of the vibrating piano strings into audible waves which also color the tone. Truly, it is inseparable from the voice of the piano.
Doing some light reading 😀 (Wood for Sound by Wegst, 2006, American Journal of Botany) it becomes apparent that soundboards are this careful balance of elasticity and stiffness or rigidity. In the diagram, it reveals that there is a correlation between density of wood and elasticity (Young’s Modulus). Generally the lower the density, the greater the vibrational properties. Balancing this concept is stiffness required to resist what is called the down bearing of the strings – the pressure of piano strings pressing down on the soundboard. So the soundboard makeup is this marriage between rigidity (resistance) to pressure while maintaining elasticity for vibration allowing optimal dynamic range and sound radiation.
What then makes for a good soundboard? We thought it would be appropriate to go to the source. Bolduc, one of the few independent piano soundboard makers in the world allowed us a glimpse at what is involved in the making of a soundboard. Situated in bucolic Quebec, Canada, they supply both to piano makers as well as independent piano rebuilders. So without further, adieu, let’s talk to Christian Bolduc, factory superintendent.
Glen Barkman: Tone wood – why white spruce? Is it structural, is it the density or mass? What makes it ideal for piano soundboards?
Christian Bolduc: The North American White spruce has been used for over a century for the making of piano soundboards, as well as violins and other stringed instruments. It has proven its outstanding tonal properties with the most prestigious North-American piano manufacturers. The cold and vigorous North American climate contributes to the strength of the spruce which offers appropriate structure and elasticity required for making a good and resistant soundboard.
GB: When choosing a great log for tonal purposes, what characteristics are you looking for when you view a log in its natural state? Ie. What diameter, length, areas without branches, bark etc.
CB: We need the nicest spruce logs available for making piano soundboards. Most of the time, we use only the base of the tree and cut just under the first branches. The length of the logs we use can vary from 2.5 meters long up to 5 meters (8-16 ft). The tree needs to have grown slowly, gradually, without any twisting, blue marks or other impurities. After having selected the best logs, only 20 to 25% of the tree will be selected for making a 1st grade grand piano soundboard. The rest of the wood will be used for making upright soundboards because the colour is less important because they face the wall. The remaining wood can also be used for other products such as house mouldings and lumber.
GB:Do you happen to know usually how old the trees are when they are logged and when it is the best time to harvest these trees and why?
CB:The tree needs to be cut in the winter time to prevent any sap that would affect the stability of the wood. We need at least 15” diameter at the small end of the log in order to be able to make the quarter-sawn cut. Most of the time, the trees are at least 100 years old.
GB:Do different types of spruce or other woods exhibit different fundamentals in the piano as well as overtones?
CB:There have been many experiments made by piano manufacturers in the last century using different species of woods for soundboards. The spruce tree is definitely the best material as far as tone is concerned.
GB: What is the rough timeline from logging to soundboard? Logging, drying, cutting, curing, shaping, sanding…
CB: The spruce needs to be cured slowly before moving into production. The most important criteria is that the tree needs to be cut during the winter time when moisture is at its lowest. The logs will first be cut into lumber at our saw-mill and stacked outside for months for a slow drying process. The wood will then be kiln dried a few weeks and stacked again for many additional months. The spruce is at least a year old when we start making the soundboard panels.
GB: What is the ideal “curing” humidity or moisture content in the wood?
CB: The soundboard will need different drying periods during the process of production. In the final step, while gluing it into the piano, the soundboard can reach as low as 4-5% humidity content.
GB: Are soundboards planed and then sanded or rough cut and then thickness sanded?
CB: The spruce lumber is cut into oversized planks. The pieces are color and grain matched and then glued together. The soundboards are sanded to their final thickness in a 74″ wide abrasive wood planer.
GB: Do you customize pianos for specific companies and how do you go about doing that?
CB: We manufacture all types of soundboards based on the piano manufacturers’ specifications. Thickness, shape and grain alignment vary from one piano to the other.
GB: How thick on average is a piano soundboard?
CB: A regular piano soundboard can vary from ¼”(6.5mm) for a small model up to 3/8”(9.5mm) for a concert grand piano.
GB: Why quarter sawn? Why vertical grain?
CB: The main reasons are for stability, strength and sound transmission. The soundboard is firmly glued into the piano but still needs to expand and retract without splitting, depending on the ambient conditions and humidity variations. Maintaining the annual rings in a vertical position guarantees that the wood will change dimensions without cracking. The quarter sawn cut makes it also stronger to support the downward force applied to the soundboard by the strings which can reach over 600lbs.
GB: What is the purpose of ribs to a soundboard? How do you incorporate crown (slight arc) into your soundboards?
CB: The ribs help maintain the crown of the soundboard and also counterbalance for the down force exercised by the strings. The ribs can be pre-shaped to match the crown or glued under tension in a press.
GB: What types of glues hold the planks together?
CB: Most manufacturers from the 19th and 20th centuries have been using the hot-hide glue for gluing soundboard panels, pinblocks, veneers, etc. The hot-hide glue was not only good to fix the parts together but also a very good sound transmitter. Today, we use a glue which was developed with the same philosophy of “sound transmission” as it becomes as hard as glass but with a superior resistance to any type of environment.
GB: Obviously with 19 tons of string tension on a piano bearing down onto a soundboard, the soundboard needs to be stable enough to withstand that pressure. Do you measure clamping pressure when joining planks or have other measurements to determine adhesion and subsequent rigidity and stiffness?
CB: The glue used for laminating the soundboard panels is actually stronger than the wood itself. We may think having maximum force is better, but too much pressure with the clamps is not good. There must still be room left for the glue itself.
GB: Are soundboards finished with resins or lacquers or left in their natural state? Or are they finished by the piano manufacturers who purchase them?
CB: The finishing of the soundboard is done by the manufacturer after its installation into the piano. The soundboard needs to be lacquered in order to seal and protect the wood.’’
GB:How is the soundboard adhered to the inner rim of the piano?
The soundboard is glued to the inner rim as a flat glue joint. There are notches in the inner rim to allow room for the ends of the ribs to fit within.’’
I just want to express my thanks to everyone at Pianos Bolduc for answering questions and also supplying most of the images. Due to the wasteful nature of quarter sawn lumber, it makes me happy to see that Bolduc is also concerned with the environment and not letting any scraps go to waste. They only work with suppliers involved in reforestation. The shorter pieces unusable for pianos are sold to guitar luthiers and the sawdust is used by local farmers for litter while the bark for heating sugar shacks and cottages. Excellent!
For more information about Bolduc, visit their beautifully designed website. There’s lots more information on their company, soundboards and pinblocks as well as an array of tools that they also sell.
One final note ~ if you’re anything like me, you’re curious as to their inscription on their logo “Je veux, Je peux”. Translated from French it literally reads “I want, I can” and the insinuation is that we can really make things happen if the desire is strong enough to succeed. Congrats to Bolduc for nearly 40 years of this pursuit!
There’s a church in Dresden called Frauenkirche (translated “Church of our Lady”) which was bombed on February 15th, 1945 during WWII. The church sat in ruins for 50 years until the reunification of Germany. But in 1989, a 14 member group under the leadership of a musician named Ludwig Güttler formed the Citizen’s Initiative for the reconstruction of the church. This grew into more than 5000 members, spanning more than 20 countries. The church was finally completed in 2005 and stands as a memorial to the world as a collaborative project of art, archaeology, faith and unification.
One of the teams involved in some of the more detailed aspects of carvings within the church were employed recently by Bechstein in a spectacular million dollar piano reproduction of another kind. In 1886, Bechstein had made a one-of-a-kind piano for an exhibition in London called the Sphinx. Similar to the story of the Dresden church where the reproduction was based on photographs, all that remained of the Bechstein instrument was a single image. Bechstein decided to remake a present day version of this 130 year old original.
The features of the grand are similar to any world class C.Bechstein: the cabinet contains the feathered lines of pyramid mahogany, ciresa spruce soundboard, beech and mahogany rim, Renner action and hammers, with a traditional sand-cast iron plate. But what sets apart this piano is the cabinetry finesse involving a process called “lost wax”. This is more specifically where the team from the Frauenkirche comes in. Decorative elements are first carved out of wood and “dry-fit” meaning that they ensure that the parts will fit correctly after they become cast in bronze. The sculptured wooden parts then become the model from which a master mould is made. Wax is used to make models of the various pieces and when the bronze is cast, the wax evaporates through a process called metal-chasing.
The once carved wooden pieces are now identical replications in bronze. But Bechstein didn’t stop here. The pieces were then fire gilded with gold. Once they are heat-treated, the gold pieces turn a dull yellow. The vibrant gold only reappears through polishing by hand and through the use of polishing stones. After 32 months and 1800 work hours later, the Sphinx was unveiled.
Appropriately named, the Sphinx is a Greek mythical creature that represents mystery and wisdom. Truly, this piece by Bechstein reveals their manufacturing prowess, their wisdom of 163 years (est. in 1853) and their ability to continue to amaze the world with their artistic flair.
The Price for this magical piece? 1 Million Euro (Approximately $1.12 million US dollars)
For more information on the piano, you can download the full pdf.
To see the Sphinx being played, watch the video on YouTube.
The full line of C.Bechstein pianos can be viewed on Piano Price Point
The NAMM show is always an exciting show. NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants) contains everything related to the business of music. If you’re a music teacher, musician, technician, sound man… every imaginable product is represented. Above and beyond the displays, there are workshops, concerts, demonstrations and specials happening for the full 4 days. It’s hard not to be excited with the buzz of almost 100,000 visitors all interested in something musical. Invariably there’s always one piece that stands out in the crowd. Without question this year’s prize went to Bosendorfer for the remarkable vision combining piano making with bronze sculpting at the hands of Franco Castelluccio. Better images can be found on the Bösendorfer website and you can also see the making of this extraordinary piece. In keeping with the theme on visuals, Pearl River has come out with a clever way of customizing upright pianos. The Panda upright pictured is actually a type of almost vinyl application on top of the white backdrop. Discussing this great idea with one of the Pearl River representatives, the overlays and background colors can both be customized ~ a simple yet effective concept. The possibilities are limitless for interior designers. The Panda, one of China’s national treasures, is featured in the zoo at Guangzhou, the same location as the Pearl River Piano Company.
I couldn’t help but take notice to the small display of Charles Walter pianos. Their furniture pianos are detailed meticulously and show the hand rubbed lacquer beautifully. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet Mr. & Mrs. Walter before and we chatted for quite some time. I asked them to reminisce of their early days starting a piano company and it wasn’t long before we heard stories of the challenges raising both a family and building this piano manufacturing business. They truly are living legends and build very fine American-made pianos.
NAMM is a fantastic event to discover the piano. It’s a place to sit down and try out different instruments – to put aside pre-conceived ideas about brands, companies or country of origin and simply… play. You can try various uprights and grand pianos and feel how the keys respond – what tones are pleasing to your ears and view examples of fine cabinetry. This year on Piano Price Point, I decided to give the virtual tour version of the NAMM show. You can try looking around for yourself. While you can’t play the pianos on the virtual tour, it will give you a glimpse of what’s available. Below is a picture of the NAMM entrance at the Anaheim Convention Center. Simply click and hold your mouse button anywhere on the background of the picture (or on touch screen, press down anywhere) and then move the pointer in the direction you would like to see (while holding down). You should be able to see the scene move as if you are standing there. Click the location arrows (found just above descriptives) to move to the next location. The purpose of this tour is to give a brief glimpse into what it’s like being at the show. Although I included a few scenes from the main floor, the pianos are located on the 2nd and 3rd floors. The main floor exhibits go on for miles. Some of the images aren’t clear due to constant traffic movement and close quarters but it will give you the perception of what the show is like.
In attendance this year were Baldwin, Bösendorfer, Brodmann, Charles Walter, Geyer, Hallet Davis, Hailun, Hardman, JF Hessen, Kawai, Kingsburg, Mason & Hamlin, Ottomeister, Pearl River, Perzina, Pramberger, Ravenscroft, Rönisch, Samick, Schultze Pollmann, Seiler, Story & Clark, Yamaha and Young Chang.
Did you like the VIRTUAL TOUR? You can now visit INSIDE a piano factory. Hailun was the first to open the doors for Piano Price Point. You can visit that HERE. Petrof, from Czech Republic will be the next tour released (within weeks) followed by Sauter, in Germany so stay tuned to be able to see these virtual tours to see how pianos are made behind the scenes. Enjoy!
I wandered through the halls of the Vienna Music Museum the day after visiting Sauter Piano in Germany. It seemed incredible to me to view keyboard instruments from as old as 1750. By the early 1800’s, the piano had already undergone dramatic improvements. Two famous builders ~ Nanette Stein (earliest known female piano builder and company owner) married Johann Streicher (famous Viennese piano builder) and together they became a formidable force manufacturing pianos of excellence, having clients and becoming friends with both Beethoven and Mozart. In 1813, a young carpenter from Germany named Johann Grimm joined the Streicher business as an apprentice. For 6 years he worked and studied the art of piano making until the political climate changed in Vienna in 1819 whereupon he returned to Spaichingen to begin building pianos on his own. Having no heir, the company was inherited by his nephew Carl Sauter and thus the lineage of Sauter pianos began. Six generations later, Carl Ulrich Sauter together with economist Otto Hott continue to lead this nealy 200 year old company. In fact, it is the oldest continuously running family-operated piano company in the world.
The company remained in its original location adding on to the buildings from 1819 until 1974 (the earliest building located in lower right). Moving literally 500 meters up the road, Sauter built a state-of-the-art location between 1974-1983 and is presently located there.
“Have you heard of Sauter?” I’ve asked several people over the years. Most people I know haven’t had the privilege of seeing or playing a Sauter piano. Nestled in the Black Forest in Germany, Sauter remains a well kept secret, manufacturing pianos of excellence.
Sauter is one of the few companies that are truly 100% made in Germany. What does that mean? Traditionally, Germany has the highest grades of materials in the world. Sauter’s materials are locally sourced, their labour is local, their manufacturing has occured in the same location for just shy of 200 years. When I sat to play a few of the pianos in the Sauter factory, the tone was very soft and velvety at lower volumes. Not muffled by any means ~ instead, it was focused, clear but never offensive. This continues up until forte (loud) dynamic levels and then when you really play into the piano at fortissimo (very loud), the tone blossoms into this bold sound filled with an array of beautiful overtones. The control is extremely balanced and lovely to the touch ~ incredibly silky. My perceptions of the piano were that of “comfortable to the ears” and I truly enjoyed the fact that you could play the piano with lots of color and control. Voicing a melody line is a beautiful experience. Sauter has some unique and interesting design concepts: Historically they were the first company to introduce steel as a reinforcement into piano actions, providing rigidity and excellent transference of energy to the soundboard. Renner action parts are used throughout. Solid, low altitude spruce is used for their soundboards and they even manufacture their own cast iron plates. Titanium parts are used extensively for termination string points on their larger instruments.
As a company, I have to say that in keeping with German stereotypes, Sauter is efficient in production flow, innovative in their tools and beautiful in their designs. Refined over almost 200 years, their scale designs are well thought through. If you have spent any time in a woodworking shop, you’ll know that jigs are vital to consistency. What I enjoyed seeing on the walls are jigs that look like bobsleds – heavily worn with decades of use. Jigs are simply custom made tools that resemble patterns. They might show where to cut out a soundboard or pinblock. Sometimes they’re used for tracing around while at other times, they show where to drill precision holes so that each piano turns out uniformly. What is also interesting is the fact that being a smaller production facility (hundreds of pianos not thousands annually), the Sauter factory workers will often fill the shoes of more than one production station showing them to be a truly multi-skilled workforce. Where efficiency is required, Sauter is ingenius in developing tools for precision and accuracy and yet fully retain hand crafted involvement and finishing. Specialists work laboriously as they continually refine the pianos to achieve what I would deem near perfection in both touch and tone. At the end of the work week, the entire facility shuts down for an intensive cleanup time to make ready for the following week. Sauter is earmarked by cleanliness and organization. Some of the polishing guys (who I jokingly called “the men in white”) wear cleansuits. Wood piles are neatly stacked, floors are immaculately swept and high quality tools are placed at their respective benches.
My tour of Sauter ended up in the showroom. Sauter pianos are visually stunning, incorporating European designs from Peter Maly. Their lines are smooth, clear and sparse. The pianos are modern and incredibly well proportioned. Even their showroom seems more like an art gallery – small, intimate and well planned. If you’ve never played one of these pianos, you should search one out. If nothing else, it will impress you with how beautifully designed, built and well crafted these timeless instruments are.
To view the complete lineup of Sauter pianos, click HERE
Czech Republic, November 18th, 2015
I walk up the stairs of the bell tower in the town of Hradec Králové (“City of the Queen”). The stone steps are worn because many have visited this monument built nearly 450 years ago. Massive beams are used to support the bell that appears to be about 5 feet tall. I think about the challenge of building a tower out of stone and then raising this 8 ton bell to a height of almost 200 feet without modern equipment. I’m sometimes baffled by the human spirit. It must’ve been a struggle to survive back then in everyday life. But what is more interesting to me is that there’s this determination not only to survive, but to build objects of beauty and to express creatively despite seemingly monumental obstacles. Such is the case also with PETROF pianos. Located in the same town, PETROF has been building pianos since 1864. When you think about building pianos back then – milling trees into lumber, casting iron, making thousands of intricate action parts by hand without modern tools, I must say I’m amazed at the human spirit again to feel compelled to build instruments of such rare beauty.
Today PETROF is very different. It quickly becomes apparent that PETROF, the largest European piano manufacturer, is this wonderful mixture of old-world charm and state-of-the-art advancements. Their facilities replicate their ideas. Out of these rough cut stones of old buildings come polished diamonds of beauty – transformations of wood and iron into dazzling pianos that are not only aesthetically pleasing but musically beautiful and expressive.
I started the tour in the milling room where they cut wood into usable lengths and sizes. Adjacent to that is their cabinet making shop. It brings a smile to my face when I smell sawdust. I enjoy wood shops. The mixture of rugged machinery from yesteryear is situated right beside sleek computerized lathes which are accurately notching and drilling piano cabinets. My absolute favourite room in the whole factory though was the next area where grand rims are pressed together. Two workers were preparing layers of the rim as well as beautiful veneers by hand but again, this massive press of brute force joins the layers of the rim together. Without seeing the magnitude of the machine in person, it’s hard to grasp. It looks like it weighs about the same as a tank! Thousands of pounds of pressure are used to push the grand rims efficiently and effortlessly together. The technical savvy to build the machine is staggering to me let alone the grand rims that come out of it.
Moving to the metal shop, we see the cast frames being sanded and finished, again by hand. If you’ve ever been in a machine shop, this smells identical. Concrete and brick with metal filings give this room such a distinct feel. Here the wet sand cast plates are prepared to be sprayed smooth with gold.
We then moved to the assembly area and that’s when I noticed one thing right away: Plants. Yes you read correctly. I was just not expecting to see greenery in the piano factory. Why? It’s a highly technical reason… just kidding. It’s not actually. Here’s what I love about PETROF ~ Each of the assembly stations has been personalized by the workers. So at each station I saw something different that reflected the workers who go there every day – I saw plants, lots of pictures of their kids, memorabilia and collectables, pictures of cars and even sporting events. To others, the inspiration was not visual but audible. Some areas had obvious Czech cultural music playing while other areas were playing popular songs on the radio. Does this detract from the professionalism of the company? Absolutely not. Conversely, I find it telling that many of the workers have made piano manufacturing their vocation and have stayed for years. It speaks volumes to me about employee satisfaction. And with longevity comes proficiency. According to Jan Prostředník, the production manager, he said ‘we actually have people who have been working here for decades. We even have some married couples or other sons and daughters that have joined operations here as well”. So in the midst of the work at PETROF, there’s also a sense of family. I respect that. How I digress.
Back to piano making: It’s interesting to me how companies who have been making a product for the last 150 years choose to modernize some aspects of manufacturing and yet retain other areas by hand. For example, ten years ago, they installed a giant computerized buffing machine to make their finishes PERFECT. And I mean mirror finish. Yet when it comes to things like intuition – feeling how the keys respond as the new bushings are being tested for friction, it’s hands-on labour. There’s no replacement for intuition. Again, there’s a machine that plays keys repetitively hundreds of times (or possibly even thousands) to break in or settle the piano but when it comes to voicing – listening to the newly installed voice of each hammer, it’s all done one note at a time. And just watching the master carver with beautiful chisels carve decorative panels is absolutely fascinating to me.
Stepping into the furthest reaches of technology, PETROF is very sophisticated. Aside from computerized advancements in manufacturing, PETROF physically models and designs pianos through software called “Menzurix”. How does it work? Well pianos all have strings of various lengths correct? Low notes have really long strings while the top notes in any piano are really short. How do you know what thickness or gauge of wire to use on any note? This is where the Menzurix software comes in. Providing the length you require and then typing in a hypothetical gauge of wire, it will mathematically compute and graph out the potential sound for that string. Rather than installing one string after another and listening, the engineers at PETROF can mathematically compute and optimize the strings before a single wire goes into the piano. This is cutting edge technology. PETROF can pre-determine body of the tone and harmonics. But it doesn’t stop there. PETROF also has a very large an-echoic chamber (meaning there is almost no echo in this room. You can almost hear your own heart beat it’s so close). It’s large enough to house a grand piano and test their results. Also in the facility is a Feutron machine. The Feutron tests materials that go into a piano and pushes the envelope for both temperature and humidity. According to Jan Prostředník, every substance from glues, adhesives to finishes get tested at extreme temperatures and humidity. Practically what does this mean? It means that if they’ve tested materials in such an extreme way, there’s very little chance of it going wrong elsewhere in the world. They know all of their materials and how they will react. That translates into confidence knowing that they’ve done environmental “stress tests” with everything that goes into the instrument.
But what about the music? Ahhhh this is the enjoyable part. At PETROF you see almost every stage of construction. (Everything is made locally with the exception of German Renner actions and German hammers). Everything comes together in this one factory and when you finally put your fingers on the keys, it translates into the most wonderful tone. Their pianos truly feel like an extension of your fingers. The keys are responsive and quick, and the tone contains a gradual crossover from soft and felty with a tinge of sparkle to bold brazen power.
At the end of the tour, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Zuzana Petrofova (English ~ Susana Petrof). What a delight to meet a living legend – CEO of this company 5 generations later! That evening we drove through the town and passed the old bell tower. Across the street from this church is the family PETROF home. As central as PETROF is to this town, I believe musically, they have become central to the world stage over the last 150 years and I suspect will continue to strive to build pianos of excellence and serve the musical community at large.
Coming soon – the dynamic virtual PETROF tour. If you haven’t yet seen our piano factory tour chapter, you can see it HERE
Today’s topic is piano dampers. When your finger depresses a key on the piano, the string vibrates allowing us to hear the wonderful tone of the piano. But what happens when we lift that same key? The key returns to its upright position and the tone stops resonating. Why? The piano mechanism called the dampers simply press felt blocks on the vibrating strings to terminate the singing tone.
To understand a bit more about dampers, we brought in Marc Venet from world renowned felt maker Laoureux in France!
But before we delve into piano dampers, we need to take a brief look at the piano strings. On any modern piano there are usually 3 sets of strings: tri-chord, bi-chord and mono-chord. The prefixes of tri- bi- and mono- give away the fact that there are notes on the piano that contain 3, 2 and 1 string. This is significant because as we’ll soon hear, damping 3 strings at a time is very different than damping 1 string. The largest strings on the piano are the bass strings. They are copper-wound strings and produce the lowest notes of the piano where you can actually see the vibration of the string. Conversly, as you move higher in the piano, the frequency of the waveform gets faster and we can’t see the vibration. Piano strings can be called “sinusoidal” from where we get the root “sine” wave. The purpose of the damper then is to stop the wave and subsequently, the sound. The damping techniques and felt types are really different to mute different thicknesses of strings and their varying degrees of energy.
Without further adieu, and knowing a bit more of the background of dampers, let’s talk to Marc Venet from Laoureux.
Glen Barkman: The history of Laoureux, it’s been going a long time and is one of the largest piano felt makers in the world. Can you tell us a brief history of the company and how you got involved?
Marc Venet: Laoureux was founded in 1923 by Mr. Laoureux and after 3 generations of Laoureux’ leading the company until 1976, it wasn’t doing well financially. It was purchased by SCAPA group who bought the company in order to build a conglomerate in European felt business (Naish felts, Royal Georges felt, Laoureux, etc.)
My father was hired at this time in order to restore the profitability of the company Laoureux, which he succeeded to do above their expectations and quite possibly be the reason why Laoureux is now the only felt maker from this group that survived and producing today. The choice he made was to concentrate on high quality, hand made felts and avoid mass market felts like those found in the automotive industry, for example, which have bigger profits, yes but also involve big risks and large turnovers. It was a good choice. My father finally bought the company in 1988 and I joined the company in 1998.
GB: There are 3 types of strings and yet 4 types of dampers (mono,bi,tri and treble), can you tell us how each of those work?
MV: The shape and the types of dampers depend on the string they are supposed to damp.
A – The “Mono” or “One string” looks like a square with a V shape inside in order to envelop the large string on bass section of the piano.
B – The “Bi” or the “Two strings” looks like a V shape in order to get inside the space between the two strings on the tenor section of the piano.
C – The “Tri” or “Tri strings” looks the same as the “two strings” wedge shape but contains a split in the middle to act as a double wedge. These are for the lowest plain wire strings.
D – the “Flat damper” looks like a cushion of low density felt and are used for the highest notes on the piano.
For all dampers the target is to damp the sound, that means that they are in charge of absorbing the vibrations of the strings. Those vibrations are in fact frequencies like sinusoid signals (pictured above). The bass notes have low frequencies which mean long and spaced sinusoidal waves, and on the contrary, the treble or high notes have high frequencies which mean shorts but repeated sinusoidal waves.
Of course, for playing the piano, it is interesting to have more or less the same time to dampen the sounds when you release the keys, wherever you play on the keyboard (bass, tenor, or treble) and yet the frequencies and subsequent energies are quite different. For achieving that, we use different dampers with different properties adapted for the frequency of the sound. On the treble section, frequencies increase drastically when you play more to the extreme treble section. So for this section, even if there are 3 strings for each note, we have to change the method of damping from the double wedge to the flat block dampers.
GB: Is there a certain density of felt that is ideal for piano dampers?
MV: Yes of course there are optimal densities for dampers. And there are also certain densities depending on the placement inside the piano (density for bass and for treble felt are different). Ideally the density should be as low as possible. You could find on the market bass dampers with densities from 0.23 up to 0.35 and for treble dampers ranging from 0.14 up to 0.25. Physically, density is weight over volume (D = W/V). For the felt manufacturer the challenge is to make low density felt because it has superior damping properties however it is much, much more difficult to produce. In order to be able to cut them with a high degree of precision (1/10 a millimetre) the felt should be perfectly consistent otherwise it is impossible to cut. The challenge is also for piano technicians, it is much easier to work with “hard” dampers when you do not have the correct know-how and experience. A soft felt is difficult to make on several levels: First, achieving the felting process for low density is very difficult, because if you are under the good “felting point” (felting being the intertwining of fibres), the middle of the felt will remain as only wool if it is not felted. And if you are over the optimal felting point you are too hard on the surfaces and soft in the center and thus, the felt is not consistent.
The job consists of making felt the same from top to bottom. This is not easy. It takes much more time, involving more hands-on processes and also involves a lot of waste. That is why it is more expensive than denser felt. Ironically, you pay more even if there is less wool inside because it is much softer but contains greater damping properties.
GB: In the cullinary world, it’s kind of like baking the cake right? Too hot and you burn the outside, too cold an oven and the center doesn’t get cooked. Interesting. Speaking of damping properties, what makes for great dampers? And can you take us through the manufacturing process a little?
MV: Wool is the first and natural technical fiber with a “form memory”. The felt pressed against the strings absorbs string vibration. If you leave the felt released, the impression will erase. This is what makes great dampers. The softer the felt, the better the form memory. Making great felt requires technical know-how but also great raw materials. Normally felt is graded by 2 criteria: the quality of the wool used and the density. We buy the wool taking into consideration the length of the fibers (told in millimetres), diameter of the fibers (told in microns), and ability to felt more or less (the curving of the fibers). Of course the thinner and the longest fibers are much more expensive than the shortest and the biggest fibers.
A – Wool opening and Blending: we make a blend of wool with different single lots in order to have something always the same. With blended wine for example, you assemble different qualities with more or less the same proportions to create consistency. If we were using only one type of wool for each production, we would have different results from one production run to another and so good blending allows consistency in production.
B – Carding: the blend goes into the carding lines in order to create wool layers. With our machines we can adjust the weight by square meters of the layers, and also the fiber direction (crossed or not).
C – Composition: It is a hand made process consisting of assembling and cutting several wool layers depending on the final result we want to achieve. In short, we know the final dimension and density we want. We will use the right weight of wool at the right dimension taking in consideration the shrinking coefficient we will apply.
D – Felting: The transformation between wool to textile. It is a natural process (no chemicals involved) where the fibers are matted together via friction.
E – Fulling: Once we transformed the wool layers to felt, we have to shrink it to it’s final dimension in order to give it it’s right density. This is again a hand-made process, one piece at a time. Dimensions of the felt should be controlled because we need to keep consistency in the shrinking. The right density is obtained when the felt is at the right dimension, not before, not after.
F – Drying. The previous process of felting and fulling require moisture and so the felt must be dried.
G – Pressing: Here we calibrate the thickness of the felt, for example 10.2 mm thick. We use hot presses to achieve this.
H – Finishing: Depending the product we make it goes to the dedicated workshop in order to be cut or assembled to its finished purpose.
GB: Aside from piano felt, what other applications do you make felt for?
MV: There are many many different applications for felt. Felt is used for its natural properties of absorbing, transferring and sealing. Some industrial fields using felts: writing instruments, railway, automotive, nuclear, tools, bakery, design and of course, piano making.
Glen Barkman: Wow that was a fantastic glimpse inside the world of felt making by Laoureux. They are located in Normandy, France and operate in 7,000 m2 facility (about 75,000 ft2 factory). A special thanks to Marc for his expertise and continued dedication in providing the world with quality felt.
Having been to several trade shows, you start to quickly realize that the world has become a very small place. The chart above contains the approximately 60 piano brands featured on Piano Price Point. Why present this? I believe it is always helpful to know who the significant players are at a glance. It doesn’t need to be overwhelming to find out what brands are connected. I was speaking with someone this last week who had most certainly heard of Steinway but had never heard the name Essex before. If you look on the chart, you’ll see that Steinway has 3 levels of price points having Essex as their most affordable. The goal is to simply educate and to inform. If you’re a teacher and your student mentions that they’re interested in a piano you’ve never heard of before and they’re looking for advice, this chart should hopefully shed some light on who’s who. If you’re a technician, these will all be familiar names and will again hopefully act as a quick reminder of piano connections.
Historically, the Pierce Piano Atlas names 12,000 names of pianos. Twelve Thousand!! On Piano Price Point you’ll find approximately 60 brands which represents an estimated 95% of piano brands sold in North America. What has happened over the last 150 years? I’ve often said that the piano was the entertainment center for families in the early 1900’s. Instead of gathering around television or radio and now even computer or mobile devices, the piano was one of the major focal points in every home. It seems that everyone had to have one. Subsequently, there was a great demand for piano builders. With limited transportation, pianos were sourced locally and in every medium sized city, there were quite often several piano makers. As the focus of the piano shifted to more media driven activities within the home, this myriad of makers decimated. Over the last half century, we’ve seen globalization and consolidation to the point where now we have both mega piano manufacturers and niche boutique makers. With the advent of computerization for accuracy working together with designers, we’re now experiencing the best era of pianos in tone and touch with remarkable consistency. Mass produced pianos even within the last decade have seen extensive changes while the boutique makers continue to offer artisan pianos with even more refined features. These are exciting times in new piano manufacturing.
Just a word about groupings: the size of the circles do not indicate size of the company but rather (pragmatically) one needs a bit more space to fit in 5 names rather than 2 and so the circles are adjusted accordingly. They are not listed by importance or quality but simply alphabetically by ownership. And finally, wherever possible, where there are multiple names in one circle they are ordered by price top to bottom. These piano connections, by the way, are publicly available. Simply look on each of their websites and you’ll be able to see their brands located there. Their models can also be found HERE on our website. Piano Price Point is dedicated to bringing the news in NEW piano manufacturing. It is dynamic in nature and new brands are being updated and added continuously. Enjoy!
In the late 1980’s, I was completing high school and thought it would be interesting to try out the new computer program called “Choices”. Our guidance counsellor had this brand new hot-off-the-press system to help determine ideal career options based on a series of questions. You would sit in this tiny little cubicle and fill in little circles with a dull pencil that marked answers to questions like “Would you rather be in the garden or work on a science experiment?” After what seemed like an eternity the computer card filled with answers was then scanned into the computer and VOILA! out would come all of your potential career options. Even back then I was a bit of a computer geek but also completing my Classical piano diploma and so I thought this would be fascinating and hoped this might shed some light on my future. And so the much anticipated result? Career options for Glen Barkman: 0. Laughing it off I remarked “Does this mean I’m a good-for-nothing?” The new young guidance counsellor was both apologetic and appalled at the results. Having answered questions with an affinity towards both math and music, the computer couldn’t reconcile these differences because when I was growing up music was considered part of language skills and not mathematics. It wasn’t until the decade of 1990’s when studies clearly revealed the correlation between math and music. It’s almost humorous now because everyone sees that the ‘world of course is round’ and that mathematics and patterns are intrinsically linked to music.
When it came time to celebrate Steinway’s 600,000th piano, the company turned to furniture/interior designer Frank Pollaro (pollaro.com) who also designed the limited edition “Rhapsody in Blue” for Steinway (circa 1996). His thoughts as he was asked for the challenge: “Designing Steinway & Sons’ 600,000th piano was an honor and a challenge. To me, knowing that this piano would become part of history meant that it had to be more than just a beautiful design, but also needed to visually convey a deeper message. As I considered the number 600,000, the Fibonacci spiral came to mind. The way in which it continues to grow but stay true to its form is very much like Steinway & Sons over these many years. Combining the universal languages of music and mathematics suddenly made perfect sense.”
Fibonacci or Leonardo Bonacci (c. 1170 – c. 1250) is credited with 2 math concepts: one is the widespread use of Arabic numbers instead of Roman numerals and the other, the Fibonacci spiral. If you’re like me, there’s this vague recollection of studying something about Fibonacci way back in the distant past. Investigating it a bit further, I remember now both the math and the subsequent pattern it makes. It starts like this:
1+1=2. Then you take the sum (2) and the last number in the equation (1) and add them together. So the new pattern is 1+2=3… 2+3=5… 3+5=8 and so on. The complete pattern is then:
1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377 etc
If you then turn these into blocks (see graph paper), each block having an arc within, a pattern begins to formulate similar to that of a spiral shell. This design can be found throughout nature but it’s interesting as Frank Pollaro mentioned that it’s a perfect design for the serial number 600,000 from Steinway pulling together math and music.
Some facts about the Steinway Fibonacci:
It’s based on the structure of a Steinway Model D – Concert 274cm long or 8’11 ¾”
From start to finish it required nearly 6000 hours of production over a 4 year time span
The cabinet veneer is made from macassar ebony wood outlined by synthetic ivory
It is priced at 2.4 million USD
Six Model B Steinways based on a similar design will be made available for sale (for less than 2.4M)
Finished in high gloss, the look of the wood is further enhanced. Notice the details on the rim ~ the design echoed once more and instead of having legs, the entire base is also one large spiral!
Other famous Steinway designs are serial #100,000 presented to the White House in 1903 gilded with gold leaf.
A second design, serial #300,000 was given to the White House in 1938.
Steinway #500,000 was designed by Wendell Castle and has the names of 832 pianists and 90 ensembles on the Steinway Artist roster of 1987.
Where do piano companies like Steinway go now that mega piano companies are building more affordable and competitive pianos? Symbolically like New York City itself, if there’s no place to build, you build up. According to Paulson who purchased Steinway Company in 2013, “The Steinway brand is both opulent and bulletproof.” Steinway, although still supplying the world with concert level pianos is pursuing yet still higher levels in art cases appealing to exotic and affluent buyers. Similar to Fibonacci’s spiral, I expect we’ll see the concept of artistically designed pianos blossom and unfold in the years to come.
“World War II – July, 1944 ~ 71 years ago almost to the day, 85% of the Renner factory was destroyed. Wilhelm Megenhardt, then 70 years of age simply replied ‘We’ll just build it up again’. He continued working until 85 years of age after Renner had become a leading producer of piano parts. He was my grandfather.”
Glen Barkman: It was a delight and privilege to sit with Clemens von Arnim (pictured left) and ask him about his connection to Renner. I had no idea that it was his grandfather, Megenhardt who partnered with Renner in the early days of this business and eventually became sole owner.
Established in 1882, Louis Renner opened a small workshop in Stuttgart. Operating with 25-40 workers, he built a successful business around making piano parts (also known as action parts). Twenty years later, as he began to struggle with his health, his son Oskar Renner assumed position as technical head of production. Shortly thereafter in 1906, in partnership with Wilhelm Megenhardt, they opened a modern factory manufacturing action parts as well as piano hammerheads.
Why is Renner important? Aren’t there other makers of action parts? The answer is yes, there are many makers of parts, it’s just that none of them have the reputation of Renner. Throughout the pages of Piano Price Point you’ll come across this phrase “Renner option available” or “Renner hammers”. When I’ve asked consumers, pianists and even aficionados about Renner, I usually hear a similar response: “I’ve heard of Renner but don’t really know what it’s all about.”
In short, Renner builds the finest action parts money can buy. The most prestigious, exotic piano makers in the world use Renner parts. Take a look at the chart below of piano companies that Renner supplies to. If you know some of the names on this list you’ll know that they produce the finest instruments in the world. And so why use parts from a company like Renner? Listen to the words of Clemens von Arnim to hear more:
Clemins von Arnim: Our philosophy is based on 4 words: Quality, Reliability, Precision and Durability. How we accomplish that comes from the original mandate set out by Louis Renner himself. A standard grand action has more than 4000 parts. He set out to meet the demand for consistent quality. When you play a piano, all 88 notes need to respond precisely in the same manner and each of those keys has a minimum of 45 action parts. How does one manage to meet the stringent criteria for the highest level of quality? The answer is multi-faceted but let me start off by telling you a simple example that is decades old in the Renner factory about planing wood – one that set Renner apart. You see, to make piano parts, you must plane or cut wood to specific shapes and sizes. Cutting with the grain of wood is easy. Cutting across the grain at 90 degrees requires the correct tools. If the machinery is not extremely rigid, the edges of the cutting machine will ‘jitter’ against the wood and you will end up with course or substandard parts. In my grandfather’s era, at the Renner factory they over-built, over-constructed these planing machines to almost 2 ½ times the specifications so that cutting the smallest pieces would be accurate and smooth.
CvA: That original machine existed in our factory for decades. And it got replaced not because we had outgrown its usefulness, but rather automation in manufacturing prevailed. But it was this commitment to quality – to engineer and have machines that could produce the finest parts of the highest quality that set Renner apart more than a century ago.
GB:That story sounds like one where they call the inventor crazy until they see the end result. Tell me about your parts and how they are made.
CvA: Our parts are made of hornbeam wood. Trees need to be cut between November and March when growth is slow and not so wet. Boards are then cut and air dried for one full year. This is very important because if you dry it too quickly, it has too much tension. It is then kiln dried until it reaches uniformity at around 8-9% humidity. After that, boards are sorted by our specialist for usage (see diagram). Vertical grain is used for hammer shanks while horizontal and diagonal grain wood is used for other action parts. In the end, 60% of our production lumber we deem as firewood and only use about 40% due to our stringent quality controls.”
GB: How has Renner managed to stay on top of the industry for so many years?
CvA: Aside from the commitment to quality, Renner has over 100 years of technical experience. There is a balance between modern automation and know-how when it comes to natural products. You cannot simply rely on machinery to have intuition regarding natural materials of wood and felt. And so 50% of our processes are automated and 50% involve hand-made personal touch. We have two facilities – one at Gärtringen (near Stuttgart) and one at Meuselwitz (near Leipzig). What has kept Renner going is that we can deliver and have met the demand without comprimise. Renner is the largest purely piano action manufacturer in the world. Over 3 million piano actions have left our production facilities.
GB: Somebody please do the math… conservatively 4,000 piano parts per action x 3 million actions… anyone? 12 BILLION parts. I think it’s safe to say that Renner can deliver.
CvA: In 1952, we expanded yet again to offer not only parts for new fabrication but also for repair and rebuilding. We manufacture over 1000 types of piano hammer heads. One of the reasons Renner continues to exist is the fact that we can supply not only volume but also make hammers with custom requirements. Clients tell us how firm the felt should be, how much felt is required around the wood and what sound they’re trying to achieve. We can troubleshoot and even offer suggestions to those wanting to customize action parts. Now, in the age of computer assisted design, the diversity is even greater. Over the years we have gained so much knowledge in working with wood and fibres of felt that we can control variances to very small percentages. Our tolerances at Renner are less than 1/10th of 1 millimetre which is sporty if you know what it’s like to work with natural products of wood and felt.
GB: This was one of those moments that made me smile .. “sporty” (I thought to myself) was the perfect word that describes the healthy pride in accomplishment and ownership but also denotes great satisfaction.
The Renner Advantage
CvA: Because of such tight tolerances in product manufacturing, our long standing knowledge base, combined with our hands-on technical team, we are capable of not only making beautifully crafted actions for today but also ones that will remain consistent for long periods of time. Our actions need little adjustment.
GB: If you’ve ever sat down at a piano with a Renner action, you’ll know that the touch and feel is superb. They play as smooth as silk and feel as rich as chocolate.
Many thanks to Clemens von Arnim. It was fantastic to meet face to face and to learn about Renner and the history of not only your family but the heritage that Renner has made. Renner has changed the world in creating music with the most prominent piano makers in history. The greatest concert pianists have played on piano actions created by Renner.
Renner has its own Academy for training purposes on piano actions. Below are some links to Renner around the world. Enjoy!
Renner Germany ~ Renner USA ~ Renner Academy
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