Three weeks ago I was in a discussion with Basilios Strmec of Vienna International (North American distributers for Hailun, Petrof & Sauter) regarding the creation of virtual piano factory tours on Piano Price Point.
After a slight pause his first response was, “Glen, how flexible are you?”
“Pertaining to what exactly?” was my reply not having any clue where he was headed.
“I’m leaving for China in 10 days and if you can clear your schedule, I’d like to invite you to Hailun Piano Company to do your first tour”.
Knowing I was planning a trip to Toronto for that week I said “Let me call you within 24 hours”. I managed to shuffle some dates to make this happen as I deemed it an exciting new adventure and opportunity.
With new-to-me technology of panoramic photography I started to explain to Basilios during the shuttle from Shanghai what it is I hope to achieve. “I want to bring the masses to the factory” I said, knowing that it is an impossibility in reality but plausible with virtual technology. “I would like to give people the opportunity to look around – to see the stuff of every day life – to see the sawdust and the chisel shavings, to see the rough cast iron frames before they get sprayed beautifully in gold, silver and rose. I’d like consumers to begin with lumber and iron, leather, cloth and felt and end with a finished product ~ to show from inception to creation this process of making the piano.” OK I wasn’t quite that poetic but… you get the point.
In usual enthusiastic manner Basilios replied “Well let’s make this happen! Hailun is transparent and I’d like you to feel at home – to photograph and walk around as you would like.” It wasn’t until I started shooting panoramic images that his eyes lit up. “Wow this is fantastic! It really shows the factory as if you’re standing right here.” That was my intention precisely. The new chapter called Piano Factory Tours is in editing stage and will be released August 2015.
5 Days Later
Debriefing this whirlwind, it’s simply overwhelming the stature and size of the Hailun Piano Company. They manufacture roughly 38,000 pianos per year. Now if you do the math, that’s just over 3,150 pianos per month in 4.2 MILLION square feet of factory space. The construction of the piano is divided up into stations where each employee is trained in specific tasks. Some work on tone wood – the sound producing elements of bridges and soundboards while others work on action parts and how the piano plays. Some produce beautiful finishes and others are involved in the construction of the frames. At the end of the assembly there are usually at least 3 levels of refinement ~ rough tuning and regulation (making all the parts function evenly), then 2nd tuning and voicing (making all of the notes sound consistent) and then 3rd regulation and tuning. All pianos are inspected along the way at various levels. Oh and when you walk into the factory, the sounds – you can’t even begin to describe this one machine – up until this point I had only seen pictures – The piano gets sent into an extremely well insulated booth where this machine strikes the keys to ‘break in’ the piano. The sound of all 88 keys hitting in rapid succession settles the entire piano; the tuning of the strings settle, the hammers find their strike point and the tone begins to really blossom and not sound so ‘green’. All pianos roll through the factory on what look like train tracks. They move from one section or station to another. There are some areas in the factory with tools not dissimilar to my own wood shop having the reminiscent smell of sawdust and conversely, there are multimillion dollar polishing machines working with exacting precision to achieve that mirror gloss many refer to as “piano black finish” or ebony polish. In order to create a piano however, it’s not simply the sum of the parts – it’s the design team of piano visionaries and engineers working at computers and CNC machines (computerized cutting tools precisely notch and cut down to 1/1000th of an inch). It’s also logistics – transporting parts from one area to another and not get bottle necked at any stage along the way. Imagine if there would be a problem in one section, pianos would just start piling up at over 100 per day! So the entire process needs to flow from one section to another. And don’t forget about packaging – the creation of boxes, pallets and air tight packaging. At the helm of this giant ship is Mr. Hailun Chen – an absolute larger than life personality who despite cultural and language barriers makes everyone feel welcome. The few interactions over dinner and meetings, there were great laughs but you also recognize that he’s a remarkable leader who would be first to tell you that it takes a team to build a piano. Hah… and I thought my 5 day trip to China was a whirlwind – try building an entire line of pianos, manufacturing facilities, installing giant machinery, with hundreds of workers, an entire sales force with global presence, achieving publically traded stock status all in just 15 years. Wow.
Special thanks Mr. Hailun Chen & Basilios Strmec (Vienna Piano) and the entire staff at Hailun Piano for accommodating this photo shoot and for facilitating and sponsoring this entire trip from start to finish. Thank you so much for the tour – halfway around the world and back within 5 days. Cheers to Hailun Piano and may you see continued success and growth in the coming years.
Oh and one last thing… in between meetings, I had the opportunity to sit at a Hailun grand piano ~ model 218 (7’3” long) in a performance venue built within the factory. (You’ll be able to see it on the virtual tour). It was lovely not only to catch my breath for a moment but to also sit at this FANTASTIC piano and remember that it’s the inspiration of music that moves mankind to create and build instruments of beauty for the indulgent purpose of expressing what our hearts feel.
They appear in every city ~ tall old upright pianos from yesteryear. They seem massive compared to today’s standard. In fact, it would be an anomaly to find small pianos that were made before 1930. Why? For 2 reasons: First, the technology of making small piano actions was not widely developed; and second, there seemed to be this idea of making elaborate and spectacular cabinets with grand-like tones. The only way to accomplish that was through the use of long strings and a large soundboard necessitating a taller piano.
The wheels of trends move slowly in pianos. From a cosmetic perspective, it took nearly 75 years for elaborately carved pianos (circa 1850) to turn the corner to have more simple lines (circa 1920). In fact, I’ve seen many pianos in my lifetime where ornately carved grand and upright legs have been swapped out for modern square legs. Why? Fanciful detail simply fell out of vogue by the 1920’s. You didn’t want to be seen with intricate woodworking on a piano. By the end of the Second World War and into the 1950’s and 60’s, making pianos ‘compact and convenient’ became the mandate. Having a ‘big old upright’ became unfashionable. At the same time, rising labour costs gave way to efficient manufacturing and attention to detail was replaced by utilitarian designs. There weren’t many embellishments or carvings to speak of. Finishing resins also began in the late 60’s and early 70’s to usher in an era of black glossy pianos. Pianos kept declining in height until the industry hit a new low of 36” tall pianos – called drop action pianos, where the actions of pianos were recessed inside the body of the piano. For anyone who has worked on these, you’ll know exactly how difficult they were to service. It was near this time that something switched – something that would affect the piano industry forever.
I remember pulling it out of the box in 1981. My brother, who was a local rock musician and eventually became a television, movie and IMAX composer, bought one of the first digital keyboards in the city. Being almost a decade younger than him, he invited me over to his house for the unveiling and we plugged in this Yamaha DX7 for the first time to listen to sounds that we had never heard before. We look back now and have a good laugh but it was the inception of the digital era. By late 80’s and 90’s digital pianos and keyboards became the new experiment for parents with budding musicians. “Let’s just buy this $299 keyboard for the kids and see what happens”. Having lived on the sales floor during this time, I’ve heard that line more times than I can remember. As the digital age emerged, some people argued that these would NEVER replace acoustic pianos. And they were correct. However, that is not to say that digital pianos and keyboards didn’t alter the industry. With time and technology, digital pianos have become more authentic sounding and feeling. So have they finally become a replacement? Well, that depends on your expectation. If you’re used to the subtleties of felt striking strings, and the nuances and shading of color in music, as well as the ability to truly ‘feel’ sound then the answer is no. If you want portability, decent tone, volume control with no maintenance, they might be the solution you’re looking for. (Just a plug for my friends who are piano technicians… when people tell me excitedly that they don’t need to tune their digital pianos in order to save money, I’m quick to remind them that what they save in maintenance they heavily lose in depreciation of electronics but that’s another story).
The bigger question however is “How has the electronic age affected the present day piano industry?” Well it’s time for some big broad brush strokes – ones that create generalities but also may shed some light on what is up and coming in the world of piano sales for the future.
1. Christmas is over. I remember hearing of stories (before my time unfortunately) when piano store owners would relish the fall season. It was a time when all of the new upstart piano students would come in to purchase a piano. It was like Christmas! With no other options (pre-keyboard era), parents were forced to look at only traditional pianos. Quite often, the lion’s share of the yearly sales in a retail outlet happened in the fall season. This has now been replaced largely with a 2-step process of either the purchase of a portable keyboard or a used piano followed at some point with a more ‘serious instrument’. Unfortunately in my opinion, many children never learn to fall in love with the tone of a real piano if their first experience is an unweighted, 61 key keyboard that vaguely resembles the sound of a piano. Many also quit the piano before the real instrument is ever purchased and implemented.
2. Price points have changed. Digital pianos touted as the ‘new technology’ have all but plummeted in price. What used to sell for $2,000-$5,000 is now roughly available for $600-$2,000.
3. Entrance of hybrid pianos. What’s a hybrid? It’s a digital piano with a real action. Advantages: a real touch of a piano, portability and no maintenance. Disadvantages: digital tone, longevity of electronics is unknown. The hybrid pianos albeit a great step in the world as far as technology is concerned are hitting the price point of yesterday’s digital pianos $2,000 – $5,000.
4. Digital pianos mainly create tone by replaying recordings of real concert grand pianos. So when you play a note on the keyboard, the digital piano plays the appropriate recorded note at the appropriate volume. But if digital piano tone is a recording of a concert grand, why would consumers upgrade to a small sounding real piano as the next step up? They wouldn’t. If they’re upgrading, the trends are towards bigger sounding acoustic instruments.
Conclusions: Used pianos and electronics have shored up many of the sales of pianos below $3,000. Consumers buying new acoustic traditional pianos are looking to upgrade into something better and so they’re starting to shop bigger. The challenge is to hit the price ratio for today’s economy. The chapter in Piano Price Point that has surprised me over the last 5 years is Upright Piano Chapter 5 ~ pianos priced between $7,000 – $9,000. It’s the largest chapter within Piano Price Point. The prices reflected are Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP) which are often inflated by up to 1/3 of what you would find in local stores. This means then that new piano sales are targeting somewhere between $4,500 – $6,000, consistent with the report published by NAMM this year (read about it in our Piano Market Trends article from November 2014). And if you scroll through the pianos in Chapter 5, take a look at the sizes. They’re averaging 48” tall. Shoppers are moving back to the fact that bigger is better. Also, the cabinetry details are also becoming more significant. Two-tone wood with gloss black are coming of age as well as decorative veneers of exotic woods such as bubinga, macassar and even simple cherry or mahogany. It appears that the cosmetics of pianos are getting a bit of a makeover and the manufacturers are moving towards larger instruments. The giants are once again emerging.
To end, I’d like to point out that there are a few manufacturers moving back towards 138cm or 55” tall pianos (Steingraeber, Bechstein, Bluthner and Heintzman to name a few) and tell of a recent incident that sparked this article. Through a series of events, an old Ronisch piano (still being made today by Bluthner) became available locally. Being the curious sort, I had to go take a look. It was not a 52” tall piano – standard height for tall piano manufacturing today. No, it wasn’t even 55” tall… it was a whopping 58” tall (145cm)!! I had to acquire it mainly for the reason that I’ve never seen an upright piano this large (pictured at the top of this article). To be honest, I don’t even know what I’m doing with it yet because it’s sitting in my hall. When I pass by, I quite often play the lowest notes – sounds that I’ve never encountered on a large upright piano. Finished in burled walnut, this forgotten treasure of yesteryear is an example of how piano makers (this one from 1885) desired to make a grand sound in upright form. As consumers are looking once again for timeless heirlooms and pianos that truly inspire through beautiful cabinetry, amazing tone and responsive touch, I believe that the industry may move back to 55” tall pianos as part of the repertoire of piano making in the future and discontinue smaller instruments. The piano industry is quickly becoming a niche market and makers are just now feeling the effects of 150 years of trends coming full circle.
Have you ever heard of the company called Estonia Piano? Appropriately they are named after the country in which they reside. Haven’t heard of the country of Estonia? They gained independance from Russia in 1991 and eventually became part of the European Union. Situated across the water from both Finland and Sweden, Estonia has been actively making pianos since 1893. This month I had the wonderful pleasure of skyping Dr. Indrek Laul (CEO of Estonia Piano). Although we’ve only met twice in person, he is a pleasure to converse with and if you could only sit where I sit, you’d find that his passion for piano building shines through. But he not only is passionate about piano construction but piano performance, having obtained his doctorate from Juilliard School of Music. You can see his fantastic ability on youtube here. The following is a wonderful illustration of piano design that weaves old concepts into new told by Dr. Laul himself. Enjoy!
“I was on a flight from Houston to New York reading this article from Wall Street Journal about billionaire Larry Ellison regarding his passion for competitive sailing. On these giant catamarans Team Oracle (funded by Ellison) had been failing against Team New Zealand despite having high tech computer sensors generating 3000 variables 10 times per second. The computers predicted the most efficient path for tacking (zig-zagging across the water against the wind). All indicators predicted victory to this high tech team and yet they consistently lost. Watching the video replays of both boats, they found that their competition – team New Zealand was tacking at a much greater angle making them go farther distances but at greater speed. When Team Oracle tried this, in the end it was discovered this “low and fast” method was superior and ultimately led them to victory of the America’s Cup. Although the computers aided much of the efficiency for Team Oracle, the last step towards the finish line, the final stretch came from sailing intuition ~ intuition which had been passed down for generations. Segue.
When it came time to design two new models for Estonia Piano we decided that our starting point should be listening – listening to pianos that really moved us. Invariably the pianos that provided inspiration from the late 1800’s/early 1900’s were the ones that captivated us.
Similar to the sailing example, “the final stretch” came from pianos that didn’t have technological advances. Sometimes we need to set aside what could be deemed most logical in order to ‘experiment with joy’. We wanted to capture anew and to relive the excitement and joy of beautiful tone and in doing so we started with these living examples from yesteryear. We then examined them and found that there was a common theme in soundboard construction which had major ramifications. The soundboard acts as an amplifier to the strings. There has been this movement towards tapered soundboards meaning that they are made thinner as they approach the rim (see diagram).
The reasoning is that this gives the board more flexibility to vibrate. Paradoxically however, the older instruments we listened to and enjoyed didn’t have tapered soundboards at all and yet we enjoyed them more. They were more rigid. This newer movement with tapered soundboards which vibrate freely, can also be problematic in being unwieldy and so to compensate, more perpendicular ‘ribs’ on the under side of the soundboard are used to stiffen it in the center. Well if you have a firmer soundboard like the pianos from last century, it requires fewer ribs. Fewer ribs reduce rigidity and rely more on the soundboard itself. So in simply redesigning the soundboard, automatically it required the spinoff effect of redesigning the amount and configuration of the ribs. I know this is technical, but ‘experimenting with joy’ can be exciting when you hear the results.
So we found that if we made wider and shorter ribs – having the same mass as previous ribs except the older ones were thin and tall – we achieved better control of the soundboard. There is also a movement to placing “pre-crowned” or slightly arced ribs on a crowned soundboard. Makes sense correct to match the arc of the ribs with the arc of the soundboard? On the contrary, we discovered that flat ribs pressed adjacent to a curved soundboard created tension. This tension resulted is in an even livelier yet stable soundboard.
But we didn’t stop there. In these new design changes, we also examined the contact point of the bridges. We found that bevelling the edges were more conducive to sound transference. The ‘less is more’ idea works well here where less contact on the bottom edge of the bridge achieved maximum transference with the least amount of soundboard interference.
Finally, we re-examined the beam structure underneath the piano. With 20 tonnes of compression from the strings, we experimented with the beam structure to match that pull by placing beams in a radiated fashion to create an equal and opposite rigid design. What started with the concept of listening, abandoning any pre-conceived ideas and then re-engineering, it led us down this path of two new pianos which we are really pleased with. We are now actively implementing these concepts to the rest of our models.
Oh and to finish the story about Larry Ellison, shortly after that race he purchased a brand new model 210 Estonia grand.” ~ Dr. Indrek Laul.
This is such an exciting story – one that ties in modern piano construction with artisan design concepts. A special thanks to Dr. Laul for this captivating illustration. You can view all of the current Estonia models on Piano Price Point here.
Stephen Mapes established the Mapes Piano String Company in 1912 and shortly thereafter in 1918 it was purchased by John Adam Schaff. Now 4 generations later and employing 125 people in a space of 200,000 square feet, Mapes produces piano wire for many of the pianos we play on today. This month I had the pleasure of sitting down with Andy Wilson from Mapes to discuss some of the basics of piano string making.
Glen Barkman: Mapes is the oldest piano wire maker in North America. How old is the Mapes company?
Andy Wilson: Mapes is not only the oldest but the ONLY piano wire maker in North America. Established in 1912, our company is 103 years old this year.
What exactly does Mapes manufacture?
Mapes manufactures piano wire, spring wire and specialty wire.
My division looks after piano wire. On any piano you’ll see that there are 2 different kinds of strings. The top 2/3rds of the piano are plain steel wire that we manufacture. Just by looking at them with the naked eye they look the same but there are actually many different sizes of wire on a piano. The bottom 1/3rd contain strings with a steel core wrapped with copper to make the lower tones of a piano. Mapes manufactures both the plain steel wire as well as custom bass strings for pianos.
Both the steel wire and the core of the bass strings are drawn wire correct? Can you tell us a little about the drawing process?
In order to make great sounding strings you need to start with good raw material. There are over 3,500 grades of steel. We have a steel mill that makes high grade steel to our requirements. So to begin with, you need to specify the chemistry – one of our closely guarded secrets. Before getting into drawing wire, it goes through a process called austenitizing where we heat up the steel to 2000 degrees and then “quench” or cool it again. This changes the structure of the steel.
We then press the steel through a funnel which is also called a die. It is pulled or drawn through the die where each time it reduces in diameter by as much as 30%. Think of steel like a piece of wood. Wood has pores or grain. Each time the steel gets reduced, the grain or fibers also get compressed. Heating opens up the “grain” in the steel while the cooling process stabilizes or sets the structure of the steel. So in piano wire making, there are at least 3 heating occurrences and 4 drawing processes to make the finished size.
In your opinion what makes for a great piano string in terms of singing tone?
There are three elements which make great piano strings – First you need great raw material. Chemistry is so important. Second, you need perfectly round wire. And third, when making bass strings, you need correct and consistent tension of the copper wrapped around the steel. Without these 3 necessary components, you could end up with unwanted vibrations which can lead to an inferior tone. Out of shape roundness causes distortions. In order to make a piano string vibrate freely, our job is to manufacture in such a way that it does not interfere by having any anomalies. When the hammer of a piano strikes that string, the vibration moves up and down the wire. Any interference alters that tone. So it’s our goal to make as round and as pure of a string in such a way that it does not obstruct or alter that vibration.
How many sizes of treble piano wire does Mapes offer?
We make sizes from 12-22 in half sizes (12, 12 ½ , 13, 13 ½ etc) and then 23-27 in whole sizes. So we make 25 different sizes of piano wire. Each size is one thousandth of an inch (about 0.025 of a millimetre increments) – approximately one third the thickness of a human hair with tolerances of 3/10ths of one thousandth.
The history of drawn wire seems to have been established in about 1840. With technology, how has the process been refined or made more efficient over the last 175 years?
Over the years, the raw materials have definitely improved. But within our own company, the basic premise is the same but what have changed are the controls. So instead of simply heating up the steel, we have accurate sensors and controls that are indicating more precise measurements of temperatures, tolerances, speed indicators and cooling controls.
Are piano wires ever coated at least to prevent corrosion or does that interfere with tonal properties?
Nickel electroplating is actually the finishing step of piano wire for silver look. That might create some corrosion prevention but electroplating is only microns thick. Some think it’s polishing but it’s actually electroplating. Any piano wire however will rust over time because that’s just the nature of steel. When it comes to copper coatings in the bass, I have not found anything relating to coatings that doesn’t affect tone.
How are bass strings made?
Bass strings are a combination of steel and copper wire. The addition of the copper wire adds mass to the bass string for depth of tone. Correct tension during wrapping stage requires consistent tension. Copper compacts somewhat when wrapping and pulls down in diameter and so uniformity is everything.
When you look closely at bass strings where the copper terminates there is a flat part. What is that?
The flattened portion is called a “swedge”. Since the center steel core wire is completely round, the copper wrapped around it needs a place to attach so that it doesn’t slide up and down the core. If you flatten the steel at each end it gives the copper something to bind to.
Large bass strings are often double wrapped with 2 layers of copper. What is the purpose of double wrapping a piano string?
The purpose of any wrap is to add weight to a string. The weight gives more depth to lower notes. Generally, the shorter the length of a piano, the more you need copper to add weight to a string to get those low vibrations. Conversely, the longer the piano, the less copper you need for lower tones. If you want a lower tone, you can have either a single large copper wound string or 2 smaller copper wraps to achieve the same mass. There’s a lot of debate – some manufacturers would like single wound strings while another might do 2 small wraps. We simply make custom strings to the manufacturer’s specifications. Those decisions regarding double or single wraps are part of the “scale” of a piano that are made at the design level.
I just wanted to thank Andy Wilson for giving us a few insights as to the industry of making piano strings. There are very few companies globally who have the capacity to make the quality with tolerances as fine and consistent for piano making. Congrats to Mapes for continuing this pursuit of excellence for over 100 years.
To learn more about Mapes Piano String Company, you can find their contact and ordering information on their website: Mapes Strings
The Mapes Piano String Company
#1 Wire Mill Road
Elizabethton, TN 37643
Behind the scenes in the piano business it’s a very small world. You won’t last but 10 minutes before you hear something about Abel hammers. Hammer heads – the felt that strikes the strings on a piano are in my mind the most critical foundation of tone. Abel is world reknown specializing in hammer manufacturing. It was my pleasure to meet Norbert Abel last month and have him shed some light on the piano hammer making proccess. Every time I interview someone I learn something new about the piano trade. Although I’ve been in the business for just over 20 years, I only now have heard 2 words which were unknown to me before this interview: Lanolin and Biofelt. Read on to hear the words of Norbert Abel. And by the way… Abel makes about 50,000 sets of hammers per year… multiply by 88 keys on a piano that equals 4.4 MILLION hammers annually. They are arguably one of the greatest authorities on hammer making in the world.
Glen Barkman: The History of Abel – How did you come into this business?
Norbert Abel: My father, Helmut Abel started his own hammer production business in the year 1982 after he had worked for another German manufacturer making piano hammers and action parts for 23 years. His goal was to produce hammers in the ‘old style’ which meant custom making hammers for each manufacturer using high quality materials and advanced techniques.
All pianos are different and have individual requirements and so with this custom approach, he convinced many of the piano makers and technicians with the Abel quality and philosophy; making hammers for many brands to individual specifications.
From the beginning I have been involved in the business side and have seen the continuous growth and development of production. In 1988, my brother Frank started into the business and has taken over production. The third generation, my son Alexander is now learning step by step the difficult procedure of hammer making. Since 1993 the Abel Hammer Company has a factory in Frankenhardt, Germany. In our history, our facilities have increased two times now to 24,000 square feet of manufacturing space with an annual production of over 50,000 sets of piano hammers per year.
What are the steps in making hammers?
Hammer making looks to be very easy: Take some wood, some felt and put both into a hammer press and the hammers are finished. But it is not that easy. The whole procedure is much more complicated.
Everything starts with the felt. Felt is a natural product and based on Merino wool (Merino is a type of sheep with incredibly fine and high curled fibers) from South Africa, New Zealand or Australia. In these countries the Merino wool will be selected into different grades. For making hammer felt only a high grade wool fiber can be used. Then the raw wool comes into a cleaning process to Europe where all dirt, sand, dust, mud, vegetarian parts are washed out. This process is called carbonizing under the use of sulphuric acid. However, this acid is counter productive to hammer making as it has the undesired effect that a lot of natural lanolin will be also washed out (and the acid also is not good for the environment).
Natural lanolin (also called wool wax ) is very important to keep the natural resilience in the hammer felt which greatly affects piano tone. To retain this lanolin, Abel started the BIOFELT PROJECT 2003-2006 (sponsored by the European Union) with the result of a felt called NATURAL FELT which did away with harsh chemicals in the washing stage of felt making. This is a more natural product – not as white in color but incredibly versatile in sound. The use of this new Abel Natural Felt is responsible for great success in the piano business in our company.
Felt sheets will be then cut into strips after the sheets have been carefully controlled. The single wool fiber is still in a curled position. In the hammer press the felt will be pressed around the hammer moulding to stretch the wool fibers and to build up the resilience in the hammer felt. This procedure is the main secret of the hammer production. All hammer makers have a slightly different philosophy with this. Here is where Abel’s 55 years of experience in hammer making from Helmut and Frank come into play. Understanding the whole process from “Sheep to Hammer” is the basis of the high quality Abel hammer production.
Although we have our own brand of felt, we also incorporate other felts from other makers to give a wide range of choice so that each maker can select hammers suited to their needs and guarantee the Abel high quality standard of manufacturing.
What’s the difference between cold and hot pressed hammers? How does that affect the hammer head?
Cold pressed means that the felt in the hammer press form will be pressed with no heat or almost no heat. This guarantees that the natural resilience of the wool fiber will be kept alive. Hot pressed hammers in a heated press stabilize the wool fibers however it means that the natural resilience is gone and the hammer felt has lost its elasticity and the ability to create a maximum range of sound colours. The Abel hammer production is a cold pressed process for this reason.
Why are hammers measured by weight? (for example 16lb hammers)
Hammers need a different weight because the pianos are different in size. The bigger the piano, the more weight is required to bring the long strings into vibration and to create maximum sound. For this reason especially the weight and size of the felt are important. A big hammer has a lot of concentrated resilience in the felt to stimulate the string to maximumize sound producing energy.
How does the wooden moulding material affect the hammer?
Different hammer wood is important for different weight. Especially big pianos need larger felt with light hammer mouldings. The large felt is important to maximumize sound vibration and the light woods like walnut and mahogany keep the total weight on a level which makes piano playing possible. So if you combine large felt hammers with light wooden mouldings, the overall weight is manageable at the keyboard.
What is the purpose of underfelt? Do colours designate manufacturer or something of function to identify a design or a time period?
When the first hammers were built the hammer makers did not have the same size felts available that we have today. It was necessary to make a hammer with different layers of underfelt and a thin top felt outside. Nowadays, we can make the same size of hammers with one layer of underfelt and a midsize topfelt or with no underfelt and a big size topfelt. The quality of the underfelt is always the same. But the underfelt can be dyed with different colours to show different brands.
How does quality of felt affect tone? Within one sheet of felt there might even be discrepancies in tone, correct? What felt does Abel use?
We use various felts from different makers. Different felt manufacturers each have a ‘signature’ in the type of felt they make. The combination of felt and felt making procedures will result in different sounding hammers. In this way hammers can be individualized for customized requirements. Felt is a natural product. There are natural discrepancies within a sheet and from one sheet to the next sheet. It depends on the ability of the hammer maker to realize these discrepancies and to select the felt strips. Abel has skilled people who test all felt strips by hand and with their experience they select the strips in to different grades like soft, medium or hard. We call this the “outside quality”. The inside quality depends on the different raw wool and manufacturing process of felt in the felt factory. That means the inside quality describes different characteristics of felt from different felt makers. At Abel we are always in discussion with our felt suppliers to keep the inside and outside quality of the felt sheets within an acceptable quality range. Abel is in contact with all hammer felt manufacturers worldwide which allows us to always select the right felt for our customers and retain diversity.
Density of felt also produces really different results. Is there a way of determining sound from a certain hammer from density and/or elasticity?
The density can vary from one sheet to the next sheet and also within a sheet. As long as the density is within the tolerance of the Abel specification the felt can be used in the Abel hammer production. Density of felt sheets can be determined with the felting process, the milling process and a pressing process. Most important is the felting and milling which enables the wool fiber to interlock and to build up a system of fibers with a maximum elasticity when the felt becomes pressed around the hammer moulding. This complicated procedure has a big influence on the sound of a piano. A hammer with a lot of resilience and a lot of natural life in the felt can create a wider tonal range. The best felt to reach this goal for our production is the ABEL NATURAL FELT. Hammers with less resilience and stabilized wool fiber do not have the ability to create such a wide variation of tonal colour at the piano.
I just want to say thanks to Norbert for allowing us a small glimpse into the art of hammer making. In addition to manufacturing of hammers, Abel also performs operations related to hammer customization called shaping, coving and tapering. Of interest to some wanting to preserve a vintage instrument, Abel also has the capacity to re-felt hammers on existing mouldings. This keeps the wooden shanks and flanges intact and keeps the authenticity of the instrument. Amazing! Hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did.
I always enjoy the back story – the behind-the-scenes look at why pianos are made and developed the way they are. This year I had the opportunity to have a few minutes with Christian Bluthner. Without question one of the eye-popping pianos was the acrylic Bluthner grand. I did not know that Christian Bluthner is actually Doctor Christian Bluthner ~ a certified physician. When speaking with him about the piano he remarked “It took me back to my medical days in researching the acrylic for this piano (released in 2014). We used to use Petri dishes made of medical grade acrylic which would not distort the light. With this high grade acrylic, it can be buffed and polished and will not turn yellow. That’s what we incorporated into this piano”. Absolutely fascinating.
One of my other favourite moments took place early on Saturday morning in the Pearl River room where I chanced upon Lothar Thomma and Stephen Mohler. I snapped this pic as they were making last minute adjustments to a Ritmuller grand piano. Piano Price Point featured these two (see October 2013 on Kayserburg)
Together they are the designer and builder for Pearl River, Ritmuller and Kayserburg lines. Although they are serious about their work they are actually quite humorous together. We laughed and had a great exchange for quite some time. Stephen Mohler who was raised in Switzerland, lives year round in China and spends his time teaching principles of piano building. He said “You cannot teach piano making on infrequent trips to China. It must be done consistently and daily”.
Also at NAMM: newcomers to the piano land – A.Geyer. Although not an old name, Geyer is an old German brand revisited again and manufactured in China. At the booth is no stranger – Colin Taylor (formerly Bosendorfer and Brodmann). Specs and stats will be on Piano Price Point when they come hot off the press. While many piano companies are raising prices slowly in the industry, Geyer is seizing entry level price points with pianos that present well. Congratulations to Geyer for their launch into what many deem a challenging marketplace for a start-up.
So fast I almost missed it… In fact I did a double take. In the midst of the Young Chang group was this grand named “Fridolin by Schimmel”. When I inquired about this instrument, I was told by Larry Fresch about this interesting and unique collaboration. It’s no secret that many companies build for other makers.
What makes this unique however is that Young Chang builds the piano and also sells it under its own dealer network. Usually if a company builds for someone else, the piano is then marketed and distributed by the commissioning agent. Not so in this case – it is completely built, distributed and marketed by Young Chang.
Introductions – Samick unveiled its Johannes Seiler line. Seiler is an old German name which was purchased from Ursula Seiler in 2008 by Samick. Now available are 3 lines – Still “made in Germany” Seiler – the company is continuing to manufacture there with models marked SE and sport Renner actions. Relative copies also called Seiler are made in Indonesia called the ED line. For the first time this year, the entry level GS series called Johannes Seiler were unveiled which are pianos made in Indonesia with different yet beautiful designs.
Perzina also introduced the Gerhard Steinberg for North American distribution (not to be confused with Wilhelm Steinberg). Under direction of Marti Gordon formerly of Empire Music, both the Perzina and G.Steinberg pianos are hand built instruments from Yantai Perzina factory in China.
I’m not into digital pianos but there’s one piano that I must mention worth noting. Ravenscroft under the direction of Michael Spreeman make 2 models of concert pianos which he meticulously recorded into digital samples. This new division called Ravenworks – a combination of piano sounds and custom built keyboards are made to emulate the real McCoy. When I listen to most keyboard recordings I can spot them a mile away. Not so with Ravenscroft! If you ever need to do serious recording in the studio, I have to go on record by saying this is the most believable piano sample I’ve ever played. And it also takes a technician like Michael Spreeman to deliver a keyboard that has touch response like an acoustic piano.
Finally, Bosendorfer showed a prototype of what will most likely be officially released mid year – the new 280 Concert Grand. Although not at liberty to say anything technical at this point, Ferdinand Braeu (senior technical director for Bosendorfer) said the new design will deliver wider dynamic range and was on display for sampling.
This year was an exciting trip connecting again with friends and contacts. My only regret – not catching Paulo Fazioli to talk about piano design. Hopefully next year.
To view the entire slide show of 140 photos, click HERE.
Present at the show in alphabetical order:
A.Geyer ~ Baldwin ~ Bluthner ~ Bosendorfer ~ Brodmann ~ Cline ~ Fazioli ~ Fridolin ~ Grotrian ~ G. Steinberg ~ Hailun ~ Hallet Davis & Co. ~ Hardman ~ Irmler ~ Johannes Seiler ~ Kawai ~ Knabe ~ Mason & Hamlin ~ Otto Meister ~ Pearl River ~ Perzina ~ Petrof ~ Pramberger ~ Ravenscroft ~ Samick ~ Schumann ~ Shigeru Kawai ~ Seiler ~ Wilh. Steinberg ~ Weber ~ Yamaha ~ Young Chang
Earlier this year at NAMM I interacted with Mr. Hailun Chen – truly a privilege and honour to connect with such a humble visionary who has influenced and supplied more piano parts than we’re probably aware of. I greatly respect individuals who state “I have put my name on my pianos and on my company”. Mr. Hailun Chen is the real McCoy where his name is his guarantee.
Working with a translator, he showed me different concepts in his pianos. What caught my eye was this silver looking gleam under the keys on one of their upright pianos. As seen in the picture, the key “bed” is the horizontal frame that the keys rest on. It’s imperative to have a solid key bed without which the piano touch would be compromised in evenness and functionality. Normally made out of wood, frames will sag or warp over time. It’s a common problem.
Aluminum however, prevents this problem and ensures both structural integrity but also alignment for a life-time. It is completely warp resistant. So if the strings run vertically in an upright piano, the key bed is perpendicular to the frame. If there is any sagging or warping in a wooden key bed, even by a few millimetres (1/16th of an inch), the problem is compounded in the vertical alignment of the strings.
So what are the implications of integrating aluminum? (See? I knew you would be as excited about this innovation as I am. This innovation BTW is exclusive to Hailun pianos and is officially called PAS system – Permanency- Accuracy- Stability). Well to keep any piano completely in ‘check’ and performing optimally, regulation (fine adjustments) are done. Quite often, as pianos age and get worn, piano technicians are making these adjustments to compensate for worn parts but also for a sagging key bed. What happens then if key bed issues were taken out of the equation? Indeed, the regulation would be a much easier task. Speaking with Basilios Strmec, CEO of Hailun Distribution for North America, it gets even better. Let’s say you are an avid pianist working hard on a performance degree and you used one of the Hailun pianos as a workhorse. You would expect to see substantial wear and tear, correct? Over years, when pianos start to feel and sound worn, if you had an aluminum key bed, you could simply swap actions and renew the instrument to its original condition.
That means in essence you would have a mechanically NEW piano – with new joints, hammers and parts. It would feel new but also the fresh felt on the hammers would make it sound new. Historically during construction of a piano, one instrument’s parts were fitted to just one piano – meaning they’re not interchangeable. Even if it’s the same make, same model, same brand, same year, you would usually not be able to change out parts readily. With modern computer based CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled – in other words carving out parts by computer control), the precision is such that you could actually swap out the ‘engine’ of the piano with 4 bolts in a few minutes. In essence then, we’ve reached an age in manufacturing where not only are you investing in the present piano but saving on the rebuilding costs for years to come. That’s amazing! Kudos to Hailun for the innovation in the industry. Special thanks to Basilios Strmec for taking the time to discuss this with me and providing information.
Haven’t heard of Hailun? They have over 430,000 square feet of manufacturing space and employ over 1,100 people and one of only 2 Chinese made piano companies listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange.
Have you walked into any piano store lately? It’s a sea of black and shiny? Why is that? Since the development of polyurethane resins (circa 1970), that mirror piano finish has become synonymous with ‘modern piano’ and has won out in popularity far above any other ‘look’. From a finishing perspective, making that incredible shine requires skill and knowledge and proper facilities. The only problem is… shiny doesn’t necessarily mean good. Consumers however seem to get those two points confused. If that type of finish has been around for almost 50 years, what has transpired in the world of piano making that we CAN’T see? The finishing techniques on the outside are obvious, but what are areas that have changed on the inside of the piano? How do we convince consumers that pianos from the 1980’s have been improved upon for the last 30 years?
I’m always fascinated by the business of piano manufacturing. I’ve witnessed and played so many different types of pianos that all have a similar look and yet are vastly different. Even consider the different prices of pianos today. A grand piano can sell for $10,000 and one right beside it can sell for $150,000! They look similar to the untrained eye but they sound and play really differently. So what has happened in the ‘modern age’ of piano making (1970-2014) if the pianos look almost the same?
Design has definitely changed. And by design I mean the internal workings of the piano and not so much the cabinetry. If we could paint broad brush strokes, I would venture to say that the 70’s and 80’s were marked by the advent of automation. Although boutique makers will always exist specializing in hand-crafted instruments, giants started to appear making tens of thousands of pianos annually. Productivity leads to efficiency and ultimately consistency. By the 1980’s, Japanese and Korean workforces dominated mass produced pianos. It was conceivable for MILLIONS of pianos to be made by a handful of companies. Like it or not, the word for that era is Consistency. Good design or bad, these pianos were consistent. Global marketing meant that many of these instruments became household names. With the exception of a few manufacturers in North America, piano makers all but closed their doors in the early 1980’s financial crash while mass produced pianos mainly from Asia were emerging.
Labour costs were up, profits were down and the diversification of labour, parts as well as cost cutting measures was initiated. The extreme growth of the 70’s and 80’s has declined (compare a high of 275,000 pianos sold in 1979 to 99,000 in 1995). Trying to fill gaps and stay competitive, many piano companies started developing multi-tiered levels of quality giving both choice and price considerations with A,B and often C lines of pianos.
China hit the ground running. While the rest of the world has experienced the piano for almost 200 years, the popularity of the piano has all of a sudden exploded in a country with more than a billion people. USA, Europe and Japan are almost deemed ‘mature’ markets and thus begins a decade of decline. However by the end of the decade, more than 180 piano companies emerged in China alone including many established companies opening up facilities within China.
The big have gotten bigger. There’s this trend where massive companies are establishing all price points and in order to do so, they have purchased many of the ‘godfathers’ as I refer to them… the upper end German boutique makers and conversely either contracting or setting up facilities in China for lower end production. China is now a decade into serious piano making and the game of ‘catch-up’ and consolidation has begun. Unprecedented is the aid of computer assisted design and reverse engineering has all but debunked many old piano making techniques.
And so I return to the question, “If all pianos are starting to look the same, where do we go from here?” Someone asked me recently, “Have inexpensive pianos all but caught up to more expensive ones?” In a word, no. Expensive makers were busy raising the bar at a time when low end makers were simply making pianos viable. In recent years, upper end makers have been pursuing excellence in tone: rather than simply making ‘soft’ hammers, they’re going after versatile hammers through the use of better felt (see interview with Jack Brand on Weickert) – ones that play soft and felty but also loud and percussively. Tonal aspects are also more advanced – with old growth timber gone, boutique makers are pursuing high elevation slow growth wood with tighter more resonant grain for soundboards. Strings and what is called scale is ever increasingly moving towards purer tones with focused harmonics. And actions are (as I like to describe them on high end pianos) like chocolate – rich and beautiful. In my estimation the whole world in piano making has just upped the ante in these last 5 years. But new pianos do come at a cost. Modestly priced piano models from the 70’s and 80’s are now unaffordable by many households. Like never before there are several piano companies that have broken the $100,000 mark for price point. It appears that with the emergence of the nouveau riche in many countries, the boutique makers are reaping the rewards. This has left the bottom arena rallying for market share. Kudos (where credit is due) to the improvements in fledgling companies who have grown from nothing to substantial instrument makers within the span of a decade. If you are in the camp that quickly dismisses Chinese made pianos, you’re in for a surprise – especially in the coming years. Regardless of your budget, however, there’s even more reason and more incentive to look at buying a new piano than ever before.
- China still tops the industry with an estimated 79.6% of sales worldwide. Domestic imports in China are up by 15%
- Consolidation continues and productivity is between 40,000 – 130,000 pianos annually for many of these companies (doing the math, that means some manufacturers are making between 100-350 pianos PER DAY)
- Luxury markets are up and German exports continue to rise
- Viewing 10 year trends, North American sales of acoustic pianos has recovered from 2008 financial crunch and have remained relatively stable but numbers are still down by 42% in retail dollars and 61% lower in units since 2004
- According to NAMM 2013 report, demand for larger grand pianos has increased in recent months to the 6’ size and there is a greater demand for higher quality upright pianos with average price point set at $16,425 and $4,834 respectively
- Last year roughly 32,000 pianos (grands & uprights) were sold in the USA
I was in the office of a metal fabricator recently and admired his collection of vintage wooden golf clubs. Not being a golfer I inquired “Are these rare?” He laughed and replied “Not really… titanium and other alloys have all but replaced traditional clubs like these. I just like the look of them.” Having been around pianos most of my life, I’ve often wondered about the traditional use of wooden parts in the mechanical action of the piano. We somehow have managed to romanticize every aspect of this instrument and when faced with the possibility of making more efficient, versatile, stronger and consistent parts out of composite materials like nylon or carbon fiber there are far too many competitive voices that ignorantly refer to these as ‘plastic’. Plastic has this connotation of cheap grocery bags and kid’s toys. If you’re in that camp, think again about how not only golf clubs have changed but how airplanes also used to be made out of wood. Historically, the first bicycle was made completely out of wood and yet the majority of Tour de France bikes are now made out of carbon fiber… and for the record, I won’t be taking my next flight on any wooden airliner. Why have we embraced certain areas of technology and accepted it as the norm and yet reject it in the piano?
“The piano is made for music. It’s not just a machine.” I agree whole-heartedly however, the moving parts of the action – do they create sound? The joints and levers called the whippen assembly – do they make noise? Are they tuned? Most of these parts are inert and inaudible. If you ever get to see a technician take an action piece out of the piano, flex the joint and listen for any kind of noise. They’re incredibly quiet.
So if the joints (also known as the flanges) have a more tactile application, why not fit them with new composite materials? That’s what has happened with parts inside Mason & Hamlin pianos. Wessell, Nickel & Gross (WNG) is the parts company who manufacture such composite parts (same owners as Mason & Hamlin). Composite literally means ‘combined’. It’s the joining of the aforementioned components – usually nylon, carbon fiber or epoxy materials.
When speaking earlier this year with Kirk Burgett, president of Mason & Hamlin and WNG, we touched on various aspects of their pianos that have been re-designed with ‘outside the box’ thinking. One such concept is hammer shanks. The hammer is the lever (that looks like an actual hammer) which strikes the strings with a felt head. To my knowledge, WNG is the only composite shank maker in the world. So what’s the big deal? Why change what already works well for hundreds of years? In this slow motion video provided by WNG, (which is very compelling I might add) it demonstrates how wooden shanks absorb energy like a spring instead of transferring energy to the string. Ideally in a piano action, you don’t want to lose energy from the moment you touch the key. Piano touch should be an extension of your fingers and ultimate transfer equals maximum output of the instrument. So even if you could get wood that was incredibly rigid to match the strength and resilience of composite shanks, getting 88 shanks to operate in the same manner is challenging.
Mason & Hamlin have all but eliminated that variable of inconsistency by implementing these shanks into their pianos. And I must say, their pianos are suitably impressive. Advantages of new composite materials:
1. Strength and rigidity
3. Resilience to humidity fluctuation
4. Reduced mass
Take a moment to watch the video and if you have the opportunity, try a new Mason & Hamlin piano. If you need confirmation that they’re building quality, you’ll be convinced in short order. WNG also offer a wide variety of aftermarket parts for rebuilders of pianos as well.
A special thanks also to Kirk Burgett for his passion in piano design, creativity and innovation. Pictured above, a whippen assembly made out of composite material ~ welcome to the 21st century.
Pianos look great in showrooms don’t they? Why is it then that even the nicest pianos quite often look tired in private homes? The answer is not to play or touch the piano. Au contraire, pianos are made for music and to be played! Quite frankly, I believe it’s due to the fact that there aren’t parameters set around piano care. Having had a busy household with three of my own children growing up around pianos, I set up three simple rules to prevent piano damage:
1 No toys (I don’t care if it’s fluffy the teddy bear… he still has button eyes)
2 No food or drinks near the piano
3 No acts of aggression
My reasoning? I’ve seen way too many pianos destroyed by small cars (especially on the keytops). Anything that is hard (keys and purses are the worst!) will eventually lead to hairline scratches. Regarding food or drinks, I can’t count how many times people have said “oh I’ll just put that cup down at the end of the keyboard” (referring to the cheek blocks) or “up here on top”. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s an indelible circle left afterwards – usually on beautiful wood veneers such as mahogany or walnut.
Finally, no acts of aggression; Despite the fact that pianos can take quite a beating when played at concert level doing avant garde or prepared piano music, it’s the intention and respect with which I’ve shown my own children to have for an instrument that’s important.
Beyond household rules that establish simple parameters for having an instrument in the home, how do you keep a piano looking new? Dusting with a swiffer or chamois on a regular basis is perfect. (Word to the wise though, don’t let the swiffer handle scratch the piano!) A simple light swipe to keep the dust off keeps it looking presentable. More than that, what’s the protocol for wiping fingerprints or simply cleaning a piano?
Let’s start with the DON’Ts
1. Don’t use standard furniture polish. They build up a sticky residue over time and depending on the piano, sometimes even soften the finish
2. Don’t use water. Although most modern finishes are impermeable to water (such as eurethanes), it will still streak and look terrible
3. Don’t use any type of paper product – not papertowel, no Kleenex or tissue because when you think about it, paper is derived from wood – wood is an abrasive – you’re actually scratching the finish
4. Don’t use harsh cleaners or solvents
1. Always use a soft cloth or chamois
2. Use a cleaner/spray that enhances depth, removes smudges, minor dirt and fingerprints that also doesn’t leave a greasy residue
One product family that I have used for many years is Cory Care Products. They understand pianos. Their products are simple, effective and you really can’t over do them. They make the blacks jet black and sheen incomparable.
One misunderstood finish is satin. By nature of the fact that you’re rubbing a piano to clean it, it becomes shiny – counterintuitive for satin. Cory has developed a ‘polish’ for satin pianos. It retains the satin look very effectively. I’ve kept a bottle of both for years now. So if you want to keep up with appearances, set up some basic house rules, dust regularly and clean occasionally using great products. It’ll keep the wow factor for any piano in your home.
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