Posts tagged hammers
The World Fair became The World Exposition which became Expo as we know it. I stumbled upon a book about the musical instruments from the world fair in the late 1800’s. It was said of Grotrian “There is no effort to produce them in great numbers, but rather to create in every one, as it passes through the factory, an instrument fit for the inspiration of great artists who have long accorded to its makers the highest place.” Of their experience, “It is said that nowhere in the world are there more veteran employees than in the factory of Grotrian.” Grotrian has been, and continues to be a piano manufacturer where 80 percent of the manufacturing is still hand made. (Grotrian Website FAQ)
Who is Grotrian? Grotrian has always been a luxury piano manufacturer based in Braunschweig/Germany. Founded in 1835, Grotrian bought in with Theodor Steinweg (Son of Heinrich Steinweg, Americanized Henry Steinway). The company was then known as Grotrian-Steinweg. Less than a decade later, Theodor was called to help with operations at Steinway, New York. In 1865 Grotrian eventually acquired all remaining shares and the company has continued building high quality pianos to this day. They are part of BVK (Bundesverband Klavier = German Association of Piano Manufacturers).
Fast forward to this century, I have had the delight to sit down and play these pianos at the NAMM show and speak personally with Burkhard Stein (former CEO and now Senior Associate). I’m always curious to know what’s happening behind the scenes in companies. Recently, the Grotrian Company was sold out of family hands to Parsons in China. And while many could view this as detrimental, I see this as an opportunity to secure the future for this German company.
What does Parsons have to offer? Parsons is a piano manufacturer and retail giant in China. They have 100 of their own stores and partner with over 500 more retailers of pianos in mainland China. They employ over 5000 people and export to over 24 countries of the world. I recently found out that they own their own soundboard forest of Alaskan spruce in northern Canada, they own their own sawmills and cast iron foundries for building pianos. With a dozen manufacturing facilities, Parsons Music has been propelled to the world stage. They manufacture pianos and piano parts for many companies globally. But their interest isn’t simply in manufacturing. Believe it or not, Parsons had humble beginnings as a piano teaching studio that soon became a piano retailer and eventually a manufacturer. Those roots in music subsequently have led to annual education of 35,000 students, master classes, multiple music festivals and even the Hong Kong Music Teachers Union. They have established a music foundation and scholarships for musical education. They are substantially invested in the advancement of music.
And so what does this acquisition mean for Grotrian? Firstly, they are committed to continuing with German manufacturing. So often people believe that if a piano company gets sold, it is in name only. Not so with Grotrian. They are continuing to blossom with this new-found partner. Parsons also connects maker to market – having a direct audience and buyers in China, who, I might add appreciate the fine craftsmanship of German piano making, Grotrian is a perfect fit for their retail outlets. Like most piano companies today, they also have started releasing sub-lines of pianos that are more cost effective. In the 21st century, there is a theme: fill in all of the price points and provide something for everyone. At the NAMM show in 2017, they released the Friedrich Grotrian piano and coming this fall will be the Wilhelm Grotrian (named after the first two generations of Grotrians). Pianos designs are fully Grotrian with sub lines made more cost effective in the areas listed below.
Grotrian: 100% Made in Germany. Renner action parts, Renner or Abel hammers, Roslau wire, Kluge or Laukhuff keys
Friedrich Grotrian: Rim, cast iron plate and Alaskan spruce soundboard made in China. Assembly, action and finishing are in Germany. Still meets requirements for Made in Germany because so much of the piano is manufactured in Braunschweig.
Wilhelm Grotrian: Completely made in China with Renner hammers, Roslau strings
In 1954, Grotrian established a piano competition in Germany to foster piano performance and excellence. Now over 60 years later, this competition is still thriving. Perhaps it was this love of music that was a common thread to their new found partner, Parsons. Regardless, it is good to know that strategic alliances like Parsons with Grotrian will solidify the future for such a high end niche company. If you can spend a few moments, watch their company video below and you will be able to more closely see and hear what goes into making a Grotrian piano.
A few months ago we examined the mechanical and musical basics of the damper pedal. This month we’re going to look at how the una corda, also known as the soft pedal, works.
I was speaking with an older gentleman recently who used to be a typesetter for a newspaper, meaning that he would manually place letters in rows each day for the daily newspaper (pre-computer and pre-typewriter). Each of the letters in the alphabet was grouped together and were called “sorts”.
As the day progressed, depending on what the typesetting would require, you might run out of a certain letter, like a letter E or letter A, for example. And so if you were “out of sorts”, meaning that you had run out of that particular letter, you would go into the storage room of letters and get more sorts, another container of that character. The insinuation is that if you’re “out of sorts”, all production stops until you remove yourself from your work, restock and regroup and then continue on. I love these kinds of stories that reveal the story behind the phrase.
The soft pedal on the piano also has not-so-quaint a story but interesting nonetheless. Cristofori, credited with the invention of the earliest pianos in the 1700’s also installed the “una corda” pedal into his pianos. Being Italian, the phrase “una corda” can be translated “one string”. How does “one string” translate into a pedal we also know as the soft pedal? We’ll look at that in just a moment but first, let’s take a look at the structure of the left pedal on the piano called the soft pedal or una corda.
First of all, grand pianos and upright pianos have very different functioning soft pedals. The grand piano shifts all of the keys from left to right slightly. As you can see in the top picture, the keys move away from the rim at the left. This, in turn makes the hammers off center from the strings they are striking. What’s happening below the surface is that the soft pedal (the left pedal on any piano) is connected to a rod which eventually joins to a lever that swivels. This swivel piece sits under the entire keyboard frame and moves all of the keys from left to right. Why shift all of the keys? On the majority of the keys on the piano there are 3 strings. When you shift the keys using the soft pedal, the piano hammers strike only 2 strings (pictured in the second frame) instead of 3 and thus, the piano becomes softer. But what is also simultaneously happening is that the hammers, being shifted out of their usual strike pattern, are also hitting on fresh felt. When the hammers are aligned to strike at the normal position, they will, over time, have small grooves in the felt. When the soft pedal is engaged, shifting from left to right, the hammer is no longer striking those same grooves. The effect then is that the tone is usually quieter but also softer and warmer in timbre.
Mechanically, upright pianos operate very differently and the soft pedal on any upright is not really any kind of “una corda” since it does not shift the keys. Rather, it pushes the hammers on a single rail forward towards the strings (pictured below). How do closer hammers make the piano softer? It simply gives you a bit more control bridging the smaller gap between the hammers and strings. Hammers on an upright piano travel the full distance to the strings under normal conditions. When they are moved closer, the idea is that with less distance to travel, it will be easier to control. Try this as an example: if you wanted to clap your hands loudly, it is our natural inclination to first separate our hands a fair distance to make the impact greater.
What happens if you move your hands only a foot apart and aren’t allowed to move back before you clap? The result is that the lower distance only allows for lower impact and thus lower volume. Upright pianos work the same way. When the pedal is depressed, a rod simply engages a rail that moves all of the hammers closer to the strings in hopes of limiting the loud playing and making a closer strike distance. The result is quite often negligible and the tone, unaffected compared to a grand piano moving the hammers onto fresh felt.
So where does the term “una corda” come from? Back in the day of Cristofori (early 1700’s), each note on this primitive piano had only 2 strings. Using the “una corda” shifted the keys so that they would only strike 1 string. How different the piano would sound if you would only strike one string at a time. It would sound not only quieter but also thinner. Our ears are so accustomed to hearing 3 strings simultaneously, it would actually be odd to hear a single string resonate at a time. It would be more akin to a guitar. Over the years, however, the term “una corda” has become an anachronism. Although it’s outdated, the term implies quiet and more intimate playing. I guess we could start a quiet revolution and call it Due Corde (2 strings)… but then again, the initials DC are already taken meaning Da Cappo. Piano nerd humour. Hahaa.
As an aside, if you ever get a chance to visit the keyboard museum in Vienna, Austria (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), the instruments dating from the 1700’s are completely fascinating and being able to see the historical developments up close is incredible. I highly recommend it!
If you live in North America, you’ll surely be aware that Baldwin is a household name. In fact, my first job involving pianos was in the local Baldwin dealership. They have been around since 1862 and were at one point the largest piano manufacturer in North America. At the NAMM trade show this year, I caught up with Tom Dorn (pictured on the right) as I was curious how Baldwin has changed over the last few years knowing that they had been sold to Gibson Guitar Corporation in 2001 and in 2008, moved manufacturing to China. But I was equally curious to know what elements have stayed the same. As I approached the Baldwin booth, I couldn’t believe how the cabinets were identical looking on some of the models from decades ago. Baldwin, in my opinion has always captured the essence of American décor.
Glen Barkman: Tom, they look identical to pianos I used to sell. Are they using similar cabinet designs?
Tom Dorn: These furniture models (B342 & B442) are updated versions of the old Acrosonic pianos and have identical cabinets. The Hamilton studio piano (B243) is the latest version of our institutional vertical, and the model B252 is the updated version of the Concert Vertical (Model 6000). The new Baldwin Professional Series Grands have cabinets that were modeled after the most recent version of Baldwin Artist Grands (M1, R1, L1) that received that cosmetic makeover in the year 2000.
GB: What are some of the features that are unique to Baldwin that are implemented into current designs?
TD: The new BP (Baldwin Professional) Series Grands are done with the same “level” of materials that we traditionally used in Baldwin Artist Grands. The grands feature all-maple inner and outer rims, wet sand cast plates as well as solid Sitka spruce soundboards, Abel hammers, duplex scaling, and real ebony sharp keys. Baldwin verticals have a strong 5 post backframe, wet-sand cast plates, complete with Baldwin full blow action, and are now using Accu-just hitchpins ~ a way to accurately apply downbearing to the bridge from the string hitch. All Baldwin verticals are equipped with a functional middle pedal that is a bass sustain.
GB: What are some new upgrades that the old Baldwins didn’t have?
TD: Baldwin Verticals now have added the felt-strip mute rail or quiet play feature on a small lever on the lower part of the cabinet. This allows us to offer that capability without sacrificing the middle pedal.
The BP178, BP190, and the coming BP211 Grand models all feature the new slow close Magic Lid. This is a hydraulic system that allows you to lift the heavy grand lid with 2 fingers and makes opening and closing the lid on these pianos much easier and safer.
GB: Are there some features like hammers or strings that are the same brand 20 years ago that are still used on today’s pianos?
TD: We still use all maple parts in our actions, and the last change in the vertical action design came in 2002 when we altered the balance rail for faster repetition. We may have different suppliers for some parts, but they are all built to Baldwin specifications.
GB: What prompted the change to build pianos in China?
TD: The global piano market has changed dramatically. The Chinese domestic piano market is approximately 350,000 pianos annually – which accounts for 80% of the world’s new piano market. The USA only sells about 35,000 pianos per year. China simply is where the market is. When I started in the piano business back (way back) in the 1970s, there were many US manufacturers because the US market was selling upwards of 200,000 pianos annually. It made sense to make pianos here because it was the largest market.
GB: What are some of the new models released now? I remember the Artist series grands were M, R, L, SF and SD. That line has been expanded slightly to meet the needs of today’s consumers. What are the sizes of grands now? And uprights? What are the latest models?
TD: There was a 5’2” Artist Grand, the Model M (probably my personal favorite, one of the best small grands ever built). The new grand models are the Baldwin Professional Series (BP) and have a number designation that indicates the size in centimeters. They are BP148 (4’10”), BP152 (5’), BP165 (5’5”), BP178 (5’10”), BP190 (6’3”), and coming soon the BP211 (6’11”). I would suggest that someone who liked the M should try the BP165, the R the BP178, the L the BP190, and the SF10 the BP211.
For verticals we still make 2 Acrosonic 43” consoles (B442, B342). Everything else follows today’s demand for taller uprights. The new BP1 and the B243 are 47”, the BP3 is 48”, and the BP5 is 49”. The B252 is 52” as it is exactly like the model 6000 Concert Vertical.
GB: What makes the new Baldwins sound “warm”?
TD: The ‘warm’ Baldwin tone is a result of using similar materials to the ones that we always have (such as Abel hammers), and by having a product manager at the factory who has worked with Baldwin pianos for many years. Barnabas Fekete inspects each Baldwin Grand as it comes off the line and makes sure it is voiced to sound like a Baldwin.
GB: What’s the advantage of having a mega corporation like Gibson at the helm?
TD: Gibson is obviously no stranger to the music industry. Established in 1902, they have grown to become one of the largest music names globally. Purchasing Baldwin back in 2001 has given Baldwin presence and the stability of a major American corporation. One of the biggest advantages is the Gibson Entertainment Relations Division. Gibson has dozens of offices around the world that are working to promote their brand names. In the case of pianos this can be seen in terms of highly visible placements on TV Shows such as “Glee” or “Arrested Development” and movies such as “Behind the Candelabra” on HBO not long ago. Gibson also maintains the Trumann factory as a parts facility should technicians require parts for older Baldwin USA pianos.
Thanks so much Tom for taking the time to give us some insights into Baldwin then and now. Having been with the company for years, no one would better know than you how this company has transformed into the newly emerged Baldwin Piano Company we’re seeing today. For more information about Baldwin and their products, you can visit their website here: Baldwin Piano
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
“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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