Posts tagged upright
There has never been said any words in the piano industry that are more divisive than “But does it have a middle pedal?” Why are these words divisive? Because the middle pedal on the piano is the least used and yet most focused on in the piano industry. I’ve often told the story about one of the greatest jazz pianists in my city, when he was just signing the papers to purchase a beautiful grand piano, he stopped and turned to me and said, “Glen, I’ve just got to ask… What does the middle pedal do? I get asked because I’m viewed as the professional and yet I don’t even know and I’m too embarrassed to ask! Can you please tell me?” We both had a bit of a laugh because he’s an incredible professional musician who has existed for decades without even knowing what it does. After technically showing him he then said “When would anyone use that?” Precisely my point.
The middle pedal on the piano, if you would break it down into frequency of use might possibly be 98% for the right pedal, 1.9% for the left pedal and maybe (if you’re lucky) 0.01% for the middle pedal. The right pedal, the sustain (also known as the damper pedal) is used with every musician and every player because it lifts the felt dampers and sustains the notes and keeps the strings resonating even after we have lifted our fingers. In essence it “fills in” the sound. The left pedal, the “una corda” pedal changes the dynamic (volume) level of the piano and/or the timbre of the tone – making it the soft pedal. But the middle pedal… ahhh yes the infamous middle pedal has been known to have 5 different usages.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the advantages of the middle pedal and why it’s not the best decision to judge a piano based on this non-standard device.
Pianos equipped with the sostenuto function are what I would call “selective sustain”. While the right pedal sustains all the notes, the sostenuto, in essence holds down selective notes you wish to sustain. I love how this chap in the U.K. both demonstrates and performs on the piano utilizing the sostenuto pedal (video to the right). He beautifully shows both the function and form of the sostenuto.
As you could see in the sostenuto video, most of the time, the sostenuto pedal is used to sustain the bass notes. So why not make a pedal that just sustains the bottom notes? Some manufacturers decided instead of offering a sostenuto pedal (which is more labour intensive in manufacturing) they would offer a type of split sustain. The middle pedal would then act like the a sustain pedal for just the bass notes.
Practice – Mute – Celeste
Herein lies the big departure for the middle pedal as it has absolutely nothing to do with sustain at all and yet can be found in most modern upright pianos today. It is called the practice pedal, the practice mute or the “celeste”. The purpose on this middle pedal is to reduce the volume of the piano by sandwiching a thin layer of felt between the hammers and the strings. Take a look at this 10 second video and you’ll get the idea. This is neither a sostenuto nor a bass damper. It doesn’t function like the above pedals. It simply is meant to mute the entire piano (much more than the soft pedal).
With modern manufacturing, the middle pedal has also been used as the silent pedal while simultaneously engaging an electronic device to allow you to listen to your piano with headphones. Known as “silent” or quiet option, the middle pedal blocks the hammer from striking the strings. What you will hear then is a slight knocking from the hammer shanks (the “handle” of the hammer) against the silencing rail. Underneath each of the keys are infrared sensors that determine what notes are being played and transmit signals to an electronic device which makes the digital piano sound come out of headphones. For night time playing or extreme privacy, these pianos are brilliant.
Novelty or Nothing?
I have to admit (and am thankful to say this) but I haven’t seen a “novelty” brass tack rail for many years. Similar to the practice mute pedal, the novelty rail lowers a series of brass tacks in between the hammers and the strings and makes the piano sound like a honky-tonk piano. Alternatively, I’ve also seen pianos that are connected to… nothing. Nothing? Yes nothing. Why would a piano have a middle pedal connected to nothing? The answer is simply that customers wanted a third pedal. Cosmetically, it may have satisfied some consumers but opening up the piano I have on more than one occasion seen pedals with no function whatsoever. They’re pretty rare though, but provide a bit of a laugh when you’re asked to fix the middle pedal.
Today’s manufacturing world mainly has evolved to having a standard sostenuto pedal on grand pianos and a practice mute pedal on upright pianos. Regardless, it’s probably not the best choice to base a piano decision on the middle pedal. As a friend of mine once said “it’s like buying a car based on the radio antenna”… referring to the obscurity of use.
History of the Sostenuto Pedal
According to Fred Sturm in his paper “The Invention of the Sostenuto Pedal”, he writes that pianos used to have many pedals (upwards of 7!) during the early 1800’s when there was more experimentation around the piano. The sostenuto pedal was patented in France by the Boisselot brothers in 1843-1844. “Sons soutenus” simply translated means “sounds sustained”. After another piano maker, Montal exhibited pianos with this pedal function in the mid 1800’s World Expositions, this invention was given more exposure. Fast forward to 1874, a patent was presented in the U.S.A. by Mr. Waldo Hanchett. In his diary (shown above), William Steinway commented after viewing this invention that it was splendid. After some legal and patent disputes, Steinway re-designed the pedal and forwarded a patent in 1875 for the sostenuto mechanism as we know it today. If you have the time, check out Fred Sturm’s paper – a fascinating read.
Practical Application of the Sostenuto Pedal
As previously mentioned, the main idea is usually to sustain lower notes while changing chords in the upper register. When you depress lower keys and then press the sostenuto pedal, they create a foundation of sound from which you can then superimpose other chords on top of without affecting the selected lower notes. But what happens if you don’t have a sostenuto pedal? What if you have an upright piano with a practice mute? The work around is that you can get a similar effect by half pedalling the sustain (right pedal). Since the lower notes vibrate with greater energy than higher notes, if you half pedal – meaning that after you depress the sustain pedal, you only come up until the dampers slightly touch – you can still keep the energy of the bass strings and clear the top notes. It’s not a true sostenuto but it accomplishes a similar effect for the rare times that it is needed.
To conclude, I’ll leave you with my all-time favourite quote about the middle pedal which comes from the comedian/piano performer Victor Borge who said “You know, some people have asked me why there are three pedals on these grand pianos..Well, the pedal in the middle is there to separate the two other pedals…which might be bad news for people with three feet.”
Last month we looked at why upgrading happens from an electronic keyboard to a real piano. This month, we delve into the concept of why it is sometimes necessary to upgrade from one acoustic piano to another. Having been in sales, I’ve discussed this concept many times with parents shopping for a piano. The teacher has said, “your son/daughter is advancing and you need to consider upgrading your piano to something better”. This begs the question, “Why do we need to upgrade? And what’s inferior about my existing piano that makes it inadequate?”
These are both valid questions. I need to go on record by saying that there is a lot of misinformation about upgrading. Parents are often told they need to upgrade without even really knowing why. In this article, we will address common issues and reasons for upgrading from one piano to a better piano.
The number one reason to upgrade your piano revolves around touch. Let’s face it; if your piano sounds bad, while that’s unfortunate, it’s less critical than inadequate touch. We’ll get to the concept of sound later but let’s first look at the idea of upgrading touch. Piano touch has to do with weight, friction, depth and dynamic response.
Touch weight refers to the resistance you feel when you depress a key on a piano. The focus of upgrading revolves primarily around the development of the student to build dexterity and feel various graduations of dynamic response. What does that mean exactly? It means that there is a certain succinct feeling of having your fingers apply a certain pressure to the keys and have the piano reply with the appropriate volume and tonal colour. The lighter the touch, in my experience, the narrower the volume range which brings about expression. The heavier the feel of the keys, the wider the expression. Too light of a feeling, although easy on the fingers, doesn’t produce strength required to play on most pianos and unless you’re a very accomplished pianist, it’s difficult to obtain a wider expression range because there is inadequate weight to the action. If a piano touch is too light, playing on any other piano will feel laborious. If the piano touch is too heavy, it can become cumbersome to play loudly or quickly. Recently I had the opportunity to sit at a concert grand with a fellow professional player and it was interesting to talk in these abstract terms and yet know exactly what the other was feeling. It takes time and experience to know what the right weight should be on a piano. When it comes to upgrading, weight of the keys is the primary consideration.
Aye, there’s the rub. Every piano requires it. Why? There are several joints in piano actions. Each joint requires precise movement. If the joints are loose, not only do they work incorrectly, but they are also prone to making noise. Incorrect friction comes from poor materials, worn parts or corrosion. With usually at least 5 bushing points per key and 88 keys, old pianos or poorly built pianos will not be consistent in touch. Most often, if you have a piano that is more than half a century old, friction will be substantially different than a newer piano. This is also a substantial reason for upgrading from one piano to another.
The depth of a piano key speaks to how far down the keys go before they hit the bottom felt. I feel that this has become less of a problem over time as key depth has become more consolidated in manufacturing. It may not sound like a lot, but less than a 1/16″ or 2 millimeters is very apparent in piano key depth. Old pianos and some early pianos had either too shallow or too deep of key dip and subsequently, the piano did not match today’s standard of touch which is generally around 10 millimeters down (about 3/8”+). Modern manufacturing has consolidated key dip and so upgrading for this reason is less critical on newer pianos than on older ones. I’ve seen various levels of key dip especially on older upright pianos.
Remember in last month’s blog we looked at the different balance points between electronic keyboard and traditional piano? Another vital concept with upgrading from one piano to another is the dynamic response created by 2 elements: the hammer shank and the key stick. Here’s the quick rundown: small pianos (shorter than 45” tall or 112cm) usually have shorter key sticks and shorter hammer shanks. By necessity, the parts are smaller to fit inside a smaller cabinet. Larger pianos and grand pianos have longer keys and longer hammer shanks. The difference this size makes is not the weight of the keys but rather the acceleration of the hammer. With shorter, smaller parts, expression is substantially inferior on a shorter piano than on a professional level piano.
In short, upgrading the touch comes from:
Weight of the keys – too light or too heavy
Friction – inadequate or too much
Depth – too shallow or too deep
Size – small pianos have miniaturized parts
These four concepts address dexterity and control on the part of the student without which it is difficult to pursue higher level playing. Upgrading is strongly encouraged if you have one or more of these areas.
The sound of a piano is also one to consider, although I deem it less of a necessity than touch. We discussed the concept of touch, but tone is the other area to consider when upgrading.
This voice of the piano is constantly communicating with every key stroke and in reality, we adjust our playing to match the feedback the piano is giving to us. In essence, we play to the piano. We alter the way we play to match the response we hear from the instrument. But what if the piano is a poor communicator? What if the sound of the piano is brassy and shrill? What if it sounds mushy or muted? You then compensate in your playing. And that’s a problem. If the tool you are using limits this expression, rather than changing your piano technique, it would be better to upgrade the piano.
There’s a magic line in musical expression that I like to call crossover. When playing quietly, I really enjoy a felty tone. I’m not only talking about quiet volume level but a warm timbre as well. When the music denotes small and intimate feeling, I like expressing that with a piano that can achieve those results. As I turn up the heat, when I play louder, I want the sound to cross over into a more strident and bold sound. This can only happen with good quality piano hammers which have a certain elasticity to change tone. With time, however, hammers lose that resilience and become expressionless. You can change volume, yes, but that magic crossover is worth considering. A piano that matches the expression you envision is the icing to the cake. While touch produces the foundational elements for finger dexterity and control, piano tone gives opportunity to express creatively. It’s with the combined effect of both touch and tone that teachers recognize that upgrading your existing instrument is necessary.
I recently changed the tires on my vehicle. Being the curious sort, I started to discuss the wear of tires with the guy doing the installation. There was a massive pile of tires ready to be recycled and it seemed odd to me that many of them looked in good condition. I queried him as we were waiting about what he looks for. “See this here? These tires have a slight arc. They’re cupped – you’ll hear that on the highway. These ones, the walls have cracks. That’s a safety issue. These ones, too close to the tread line here. See this one? There’s a slight bulge.”
To the untrained eye, without close inspection and shown what to look for, the tires all appeared the same. It’s only under more careful examination that you begin to understand the subtleties, which can make all the difference in the world.
As it relates to pianos, it’s the details and the refinement that in both touch and tone that are needed as the years of experience require it. Here are some questions, some of the details that might help determine whether an upgrade is in order:
1. Does your piano feel loose or heavy?
2. Does it play evenly on every key?
3. Do the keys play similarly from the front of the key to the back?
4. Is the experience of playing on other pianos vastly different?
5. Do the keys make noise, not work or otherwise slow to respond?
6. Is the tone of the piano too bright or mellow?
7. Is the sound “thunky”?
8. Is there very little crossover from soft to loud?
If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you may need to consider upgrading. HOWEVER, before you do that, contact your local piano technician. There are times when piano adjustments can be made, and parts can be transformed to improve the quality of your piano playing experience. But ask the technician directly, “Is this piano suitable for advanced playing?”
… which leads me to one final thought. If you enjoy your piano, if you’re not striving for performance at Carnegie Hall any time soon, if it’s the piano you have sentimental attachment to… keep it. Upgrading an instrument is for those students who are pushing towards professionalism and need to feel every graduation of touch and tone under their fingers tips. Upgrading is not always necessary if you simply enjoy making music with the piano you already have.
Check out our other blog on touch with David Stanwood.
I’ve heard this statement many times “I don’t want a concert grand, I’m looking for more of a baby grand”. To many, this is a completely normal statement. For those who have been around pianos, the translation is more like this: I’m not interested in a limousine, I’m looking for a subcompact car”. I believe that there is a lack of knowledge why the former statement is prevalent. People either see a massive piano on a stage or they see a piano in a home. VOILA! 2 sizes of pianos – concert grand and baby grand. When you start to know the business of pianos however, there are actually more like 6 basic sizes of grands and 4 standard sizes for upright pianos (also known as verticals).
But there are so many different sizes of pianos. How do you know what to buy?
First of all, let’s look at basic groupings of sizes that have evolved over time and next, we will take a look at differences between the categories in both grands and upright pianos and why consumers purchase different sized pianos.
It’s true. I got my ruler out and measured the strings of the highest note on several pianos. From the largest piano to the smallest, the top note “speaking length” is only around 2 inches long (5cm). Speaking length is the predominant resonating portion of the piano string. Why are those strings similar on any piano? It has to do with something called scale. There is an optimal length and thickness of string to make the highest notes of the piano resonate. It just so happens that for all pianos, the top strings are all rather short. The lowest notes however are a completely different story. This is why pianos are different lengths (for grands) and heights (for uprights). Starting from the very highest note of a piano, as you proceed down towards the middle and then eventually the bottom bass notes, the strings stretch towards the full length of the instrument. When you measure a grand piano from the tip to tail (front of the keyboard to the end of the piano), they range from 5 feet long (1m50) to well over 9 feet long (2m75) because the bottom bass strings span the distance. Upright pianos range from 40” tall (110cm) to 52” tall (132cm). Take a look at the diagram on speaking lengths. While the bass strings span most of the piano, it’s also important to note that the string lengths are tapered so that even by the middle portion, lengths vary drastically. But what’s the advantage of a long piano over a short one? Conversely, why not just have a short piano? Why have a behemoth of a piano in your space?
“It’s lost on me. I can’t hear the difference between pianos.”
Me: “Really? But can you hear the difference between the quality of a clock radio and large stereo speakers?”
“Well yes of course”
If you haven’t heard the difference in pianos, you MUST hear different sizes with your own ears. Take yourself to a piano store and listen. Have someone play various sizes of instruments. The usual response with those who have never been exposed usually reply “Wow those are really different sounding”. In the decades I’ve been around piano buyers, I’ve never once had a customer say “They sound all the same”. People with no musical experience can easily hear depth of tone.
What is it that is so different? That’s a bit of a loaded question because piano composition is the attention to a 1000 details but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus in on the size of the piano. There are 2 main factors at work here: One is that longer strings bring about depth of tone and the second is a difference in power and output.
All About that Bass – Depth
The foundation, the body of the note, the pitch we hum when we describe a note on the piano is called the fundamental. But there are other vibrations going on in any piano. When the hammer strikes the string, it sets in motion not only the fundamental but other frequencies known as partials or harmonics. These partials also constitute piano tone without which we would not perceive the full body of sound of the instrument. But it is generally agreed that longer stringed pianos (in both grand and upright) deliver better fundamental with more pleasing harmonic structure. Piano tone that is often described as “deep” quite often comes from longer stringed instruments. Does that mean that everyone should be buying huge pianos? HAHAAA YES! I have a saying “You can never have enough piano”. I’m being facetious, of course. But I encourage you to consider different sizes of pianos when making purchasing decisions. When you stretch piano strings across 5 feet (150cm) or 9 feet (275cm), structurally they are very different. Longer pianos, with thousands of pounds more string tension, require more framework and structural integrity. Think about a bridge: To span a short distance, it is critical to build for structure yes but it is more critical if you have to cover a longer distance. Larger instruments are simply more costly to build. They require a greater framework and more iron etc. Subsequently they are pricier instruments.
Piano size then can be reduced in a nutshell to this: Larger instruments are better sounding but need to be married to the physical size restraints of the space and budget of the buyer (because they are more costly). Over time, sizes have standardized to meet requirements. You can search pianos by size on Piano Price Point HERE. In the uprights, there are roughly 4 heights of pianos available today: 42”, 45” 48” and 52”. And yes there are pianos being made in between each of these categories but a large portion of piano sales have evolved to these sizes. Why do people buy smaller more compact pianos? Predominantly it’s due to space and budget. The smallest upright piano many refer to as a console piano. Speaking length in the bass ranges from maker to maker but bottom strings are about 40-44” long. Smaller pianos also have smaller soundboard area and physically don’t output as big a sound as taller pianos. Console pianos are comfortable in any home or living environment. Studio pianos are the next larger piano category (usually about 45” tall). Speaking length can be 43-46” long. Speaking lengths vary depending on the angle of bass strings, how wide the pinblock area is etc. Many choose this size of instrument because it is still comfortable to look over when sitting at the piano. For example, if you’re playing for a choir, you can see over the top of a studio piano. Both 48” and 52” tall pianos I refer to as professional sizes. These pianos have full sized actions (mechanical parts). Console pianos have smaller actions while studio pianos sometimes have full actions and sometimes not – depending on the maker. The professional 48-52” tall pianos have speaking lengths ranging from 44”- 48” for lowest bass strings.
If you are thinking about grand vs. upright for sound, these two pianos are similar in speaking length to the smallest two grand sizes. (See Chart Below) If you’re looking for comparable lengths of bass strings, the 48” and 52” pianos are roughly equivalent to 5’1” grand (150cm) and 5’7” (170cm). These taller upright pianos deliver greater depth of tone than shorter pianos but also demand their presence in a room.
The chart above shows bottom bass string lengths for various piano sizes. The heights and lengths are shown beside the appropriate icon and the center line shows inches of bass string lengths. I didn’t realize until doing some measurements and research just how wide this range is. I find the visual of this both interesting and helpful.
When it comes to grands, there are roughly 6 sizes: Baby grand (5’0 or 1.50m), Medium Grand (5’7” or 1.75m), Large Grand (6’1” or 1.90m), Extra Large Grand (6’8” or 2.00m), Semi-Concert (7’4” or 2.25m) and Concert Grand (9’ or 2.75m). Baby grands, being the smallest of any grand fit comfortably into any home. They also have the shortest strings. They are usually priced competitively and many, many houses have baby grands. Medium and Large grands traditionally have been the most sold, most sought after for household grand because they strike the balance between budget, size and sound. Medium and Large grands also work well for institutional small to medium sized venues. Extra Large grands and Semi-Concert grands are perfect for larger venues or people like myself who say “you can never have enough piano” 😀 In reality, they output substantial dynamic range but usually too much for most people’s liking in a home environment. The Concert grand size is appropriately named to fit in a concert hall. They are grandiose. If you have never played one, you should.
If you’re thinking about buying a piano, first things first – listen. Don’t start with the tape measure. Go to a store and do some listening. THEN determine what is pleasing to you in tone but also in budget and size. Like never before, you can find a piano that fits your needs. There are pianos at every price point. Don’t be in a hurry but spend some time familiarizing yourself with not only different brands but different sizes from the same maker. They’re quite different from top to bottom. After all, you’re the one who will end up with the instrument in your space for years to come.
Meet Mr. Charles Walter, CEO of the company which bears his name. I had the privilege of speaking with him both at the last music trade show (NAMM 2016) and also a few days ago. I enjoy meeting those who are directly involved not only in piano make-up and design but those who are living legends. The Walter Piano Company is the oldest family run American piano company in existence today. And when I say family run, I mean that each of the Charles Walter pianos that come out of the production facility has been manufactured in part by members of the Walter family. Since the founding of their company they’ve had more than 25 family members spanning 3 generations working at Walter Piano.
Never heard of the Charles Walter piano? In the masses of pianos produced each year, there is a handful of what I would call “boutique” manufacturers that produce hundreds of pianos instead of tens of thousands. The Walter piano company is one such maker. They are completely hand built instruments and require sometimes months to complete each piece. But rather than telling you about Walter Piano, let’s hear the words from Charles himself and how this company came into existence.
Glen Barkman: How did you get into the piano making business?
Charles Walter: Well, I graduated with a degree in engineering physics from the University of Illinois and some years later I was hired by a company called C.G. Conn. Many people know them as an organ maker and my first job with the company wasn’t actually working with pianos. I was hired to work under Dr. Earle Kent, who was a true inventor for Conn. They had asked me to build something called a “beat counter” – an electronic frequency device. Back in that day, Dr. Kent was given the opportunity to have a research facility.
GB: I did some background reading on Dr. Earle Kent and was surprised to find out that he held over 28 patents relating to sound and music! He seemed passionate about exploration and development as well as the science of sound.
CW: Yes and it was while I was working for him that I was transferred to piano research with soundboards. In 1964, Conn had purchased the Janssen piano company in New York. But to make a long story short, Conn hadn’t been doing well financially and the opportunity presented itself to purchase the piano division in 1970. And those were the beginnings of the Walter Piano Company.
GB: And so how does one go about establishing a piano company?
CW: We moved into a 102 year old building in Elkhart, Indiana. The building was previously used for making the Elkhart Automobile. Starting out the company meant long hours. There was a lot of work to be done and at the same time we were raising a family.
GB: Rachel, you were born and raised with full knowledge of the factory and now are Vice President for Walter Piano correct?
Rachel DeMercurio (nee Walter): Yes, I grew up spending a lot of time at the factory and remember many a night when my parents were working those long hours, they would put us to bed on the showroom floor.
CW: And that old building had many hallways. You used to practice your basketball dribbling there. Haha
GB: I remember speaking with your wife, Barbara asking why you didn’t just carry on with the Janssen name and she said “Well you [Charles] just about re-designed the entire piano so you might as well put your name on the front”
CW: Yes it was actually her idea. We started out on one floor of that old building making only spinet, console and studio pianos and then gradually took on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors.
GB: Your reputation must’ve preceded you because you were the only piano to be sold along side of Steinway in the Steinway Showroom in the 80’s.
CW: I remember getting the call when they placed their first order for 26 pianos.
GB: So what is it about your pianos that make them unique? What makes them such high quality instruments?
CW: Back when I was working for Conn, we were striving for what is called “smooth inharmonicity”. A gentleman by the name of Paul Bert calculated string scale design and as mentioned, I was working in soundboard experimentation. The research facility at Conn allowed us to approach sound from a scientific means as well as one that is musical. Many years later with the help of designer Del Fandrich, we added 2 models of grand pianos to the line as well.
GB: In piano tone, the fundamental is the “base” of the note that one would describe as the pitch of a given note and the harmonics are the other “overtones” which are the frequencies singing above that. When you say smooth inharmonicity, are you speaking about making the harmonic ring of the piano more pleasing to the ear?
CW: Yes, correct and we also worked at uniformity in the piano so that as you transition from note to note, section to section, it was also smooth.
GB: I’ve played your pianos and they are truly lovely to listen to.
RD: You achieve a high quality instrument by design (which my father had lots to do with obviously) but also the combined effect of high grade, top quality parts. For example, we have our cast iron frames made here in the USA at OS Kelly in Ohio. We use Delignit pinblocks. When it comes to soundboard material, we only order top grade. Most components of our pianos have solid wood core instead of pressboard or MDF. Our bass strings are the top Gold series from Mapes. Each piano has individually weighted keys meaning that it’s not just formula, we actually go through and weigh each key to balance it correctly. And speaking of keys, our uprights have longer keys than most, which allows for greater control with regards to piano touch.
GB: Looking at your pianos, there’s something else that sets them apart.
RD: Yes, that’s because they’re finished in lacquer. Our hand-rubbed lacquer is durable and looks less “glassy” and more natural on wood. One of the advantages of working with lacquer is that it’s much easier to touch up or repair which just means that our pianos can look better over the long period of time.
GB: And your designs are very natural looking American designs. Who did those?
RD: Well actually those again were my parents’ designs. My mother, Barbara had a lot to do with designing music stands and it’s all been developed in-house.
GB: The combination of natural looking finishes and American cabinetry makes the Charles Walter pianos look like they could fit so comfortably into any home.
GB: Tell us about the touch of your pianos.
CW: We offer 2 options – We have our Walter action as well as the option of a Renner action.
GB: We did an interview with Renner some time ago and they’re known to be the best actions in the world.
GB: And hammers?
CW: We mainly use Abel and for an even softer tone we turn to Ronsen (an American hammer maker) upon request.
GB: You have different facilities than the old Elkhart building correct?
CW: Oh yes. In 1995 we moved to another building here in Elkhart. Hard to believe that’s already over 20 years ago.
GB: And what has changed over the decades with the advancement of computers and technology?
RD: Well… nothing really. We still build pianos by hand like we always have. We added a stringing machine because our guy here who was putting the strings on was getting a sore arm.
GB: Hah that’s great. It’s wonderful to know that piano manufacturing still functions like it has for over 150 years in a workshop making each component by hand.
RD: It’s been the Walter way of life really – earmarked by hard work. When I was growing up, my first job was as a floor sweeper. There was none of that “oh you must be the boss’ daughter” privilege. There were no favours here, let me tell you. And each summer, we had a new summer job in a different department of the factory. As family members we’ve all had parts to play in the business. Currently 11 family members – a mix of full and part time workers still work at the factory and we have 3 generations represented here.
GB: Well thank you for taking the time especially at Thanksgiving when it’s a busy time of year.
RD: Yes, it was our pleasure. My parents are having no less than 70 people over for Thanksgiving.
GB: WOW! That’s a big ordeal… especially considering that Mr. & Mrs. Walter are in their 80’s! That’s fabulous.
It was truly a pleasure speaking with both Rachel and Charles Walter. They’re honest, hard-working Americans who take pride in their work. They are wonderful people who build lovely pianos and in my talks with them over the past few weeks I have found that they have a deep commitment to faith, family, community and the art of building pianos of excellence… and it shows.
Every piano has one. It is the backbone to structural integrity. It’s also what gives a piano most of its weight. What is it? Commonly called the frame, harp or plate, this iron mass in the piano withstands the 19+ tons of string tension.
While iron reinforcement pieces were introduced into the piano by the year 1799, it wasn’t until 1825 that a full cast iron frame was patented by a man named Alpheus Babcock (The Piano: An Encyclopedia. Palmieri). All of the piano manufacturing world then saw the great advantage of the implementation of iron, and have incorporated iron frames into their instruments ever since. The addition of metal to the piano all of a sudden meant that the string design could have greater tension, making the resonance, far greater and the power, magnified. It is this frame that turned the page away from predeccesors of harpsichords and clavichords and established the piano more akin to the instrument we know today. It also meant that tuning stability was finally possible.
I’ve been wanting to feature cast iron making in the piano for some time and found that Doug Atkins (Registered Piano Technician from Dayton, Ohio) had visited the OS Kelly Foundry in Springfield, Ohio where they cast Steinway, Grotrian and Charles Walter piano plates. His photo tour was perfect and he has graciously allowed us to use these pictures. Shown above is exciting process of pouring molten iron to form a piano frame. But before we get to that, let’s step back and take a look at how this method of sand casting works.
To begin with, it is helpful to understand the basics process of casting. In its simplest form, casting starts with a pattern, a master template to be reproduced in metal. The pattern can be made from anything ~ wood, styrofoam, plaster ~ anything that can be carved to make the shape that is desired. While there are 2 major types of casting processes for pianos (sand cast and vacuum processed), we are going to examine green sand casting (also known as wet sand casting). After the desired shape has been made, it is then pressed into the sand to make a mold. Once the pattern has been removed from the sand, the negative imprint remains. The compressed sand form impression is filled with molten iron and within seconds, the mold cavity is filled. The iron cools, the sand is broken away and reclaimed, leaving behind the iron shape, the exact representation in metal.
If you’re interested in casting on a small scale, here are 2 excellent explanatory videos seeing this process in action (Sand Casting Tutorial & Aluminum Sign Casting). They walk through everything from filling forms to pressing sand and show the iron being poured into the forms. They are an excellent resource in understanding the finer details of casting.
At the OS Kelly Foundry (now owned by Steinway), casting piano frames happens on a much larger production scale. They’re not casting small pieces but frames that weigh hundreds of pounds.
Like books on a shelf, the cast iron molds stand vertically in a row; each one, a pattern to become the next iron frame of a piano. Notice both the brand and model for each model are written on the side of the template. These are life size patterns that stand sometimes greater than 6 feet tall.
The Model: Echoing the aforementioned process, all casting starts with a master model. Shown (right) is a model of a grand piano ready to be pressed into the sand.
The Impression: Pressing the cast into the sand. Pictured are the detailed lines left in the sand of an upright piano after removing the model. Each of those lines will become a supportive bar in the frame of the piano. Details such as lettering and decorative elements will also transfer effectively from the master model to the sand. Pictured below is the a 30 second clip of the moment when they pour the molten iron into the mold.
Casting: Pouring the molten iron into the mold, the frames quickly fill the cavity and harden. After cooling, the sand is then removed from the form.
Finishing: Cooled and cleaned, the frames are ready for sanding, finishing and spraying. Extensive time must be taken to process each frame, making it ready for the piano. CNC (Computer controlled lathes) are often used by larger companies after casting to more accurately smooth out the details of the plate and with precision, accurately process each frame to be uniform. Once the grinding and sanding have been completed, the piano plate is then painted with primer. Traditionally, the frames are sprayed in bronze powder mixed with lacquer, gold metallic paint or occasionally silver and then clear coated to appear smooth as glass. Pictured is a cast iron frame installed inside the rim of the grand piano.
Thanks again to Doug Atkins for supplying pictures from his tour. If you want to see the entire tour, click HERE. There are over 100 photos and videos to look at more closely. Enjoy.
“George… hands”. I was 22 at the time and this seasoned piano mover was a man of few words. When things at the local piano store were slow, they would send me as a swamper, a helping hand to move pianos. Cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, tanned and etched lines in his face, I always found it amusing that he called any young guy “George”. I mean, why bother trying to learn someone’s real name? He would always say it with a smirk pretending as if he didn’t know. If we were delivering to a small town three hours outside the big city, that meant 6 hours driving there and back. Most of the time we rode happily in silence.
“George… hands”. Again I was admonished. When moving pianos, you always place your hands on the outside edges so you can feel if you come close to a wall rather than scraping the piano. He would then quote what has become my favourite piano moving line, “Remember, fingers grow back, pianos do not”. Slightly horrified at the thought of having my fingers pinched between the wall and a piano, I would look up to see him give one of the few chuckles at my expense knowing I was a piano player. “You’ll learn quicker this way.”
Although I only worked with him a short while, he was the most deliberate, cautious and yet efficient piano mover I’ve ever had the opportunity to work alongside with. Seeing me try and muscle pianos he would stop me and simply say “Let the piano do the work”. What did he mean by that? You need to be able to feel the balance and work carefully to tilt, lift and roll these massive instruments.
Want to move your own piano? Before you weigh out this decision (literally and figuratively), let me offer a few facts about moving to help think this through.
1. Safety first. Last month’s blog we looked at string tension and that there are roughly 19 tons (conservatively) of string pressure on any piano. To keep the piano from buckling under such strain, cast iron was introduced into the piano over 150 years ago. This cast iron plate or frame results in pianos weighing so much. The SMALLEST piano weighs in more than twice to three TIMES the weight of an adult. While average adults weigh anywhere from 130 lbs to 210 lbs, the smallest pianos weigh nearly 400 – 450lbs. A mid sized grand (6’) weighs in at 700lbs. Baby grands and tall old upright pianos, 550lbs. Semi-concert grands come in at about 800-900 while full concert grands that you would see on stage, 1000 lbs – 1200lbs! Before you consider moving a piano, think through the concept that these pianos weigh much more than you do. A tipping piano or one that is moving down a staircase is a force that should not be taken lightly.
2. Piano wheels. To be clear, piano wheels are only designed to move away from the wall 6 inches when you need to do seasonal vacuuming. They were NEVER designed for piano moving (the exception being concert grand casters for rolling on a stage but they are still not meant for moving locations). You will never see a piano mover utilising the small 1 or 2 inch wheels of a piano. A rubber wheel piano dolly is the only way to move a piano. Back to point 1, this instrument that weighs 400-1200 pounds must first be lifted on to a dolly and then wheeled around. The wheels of a piano provide enough force to damage ANY floor. It will crush wood fibers and you will have a difficult if not impossible time getting rid of any dents or roller marks. Even doing the 6 inch move for vacuuming will show marks in the floor if you’re not careful. The dents are subtle but noticeable. See the picture on the left.
3. Protection. Piano finishes are durable… relatively. But when faced with rope or strap burns, walls, concrete edges, piano finishes are incredibly soft. Polyurethane finishes (as in black shiny look) are a little like glass ~ they look great until you damage them. Sit them in a room and they can look like new for decades. Dent, scrape or scar them and they are tricky (sometimes impossible) to touch up. Professional movers have thick blankets that protect these finishes. They have straps that are cinched snugly over these pads to protect any movement of the piano against any sharp surface.
4. Transportation. You wouldn’t think it but even moving a 600 lb piano over 2 stairs can be a very difficult task without a ramp. The right equipment makes all the difference in the world. Ramps and skid plates are essentials to the professional mover to roll over surfaces or stairs. Getting a piano onto a truck is another obstacle. The deck of a truck is quite often 3 feet off the ground. All professionals either roll up a ramp or they have a power tailgate that gently lifts it into place.
5. Technique. As previously mentioned, the piano needs to “do the work”. After having moved many a piano, you get a feel for the balance of pianos. While they are cumbersome, I’ve seen many slight-framed movers lift and transport pianos because they understand the balance of the instrument. There are 2 common moving techniques for upright pianos and 1 method for grands.
A. Did you know that there’s a handle on the back of a piano? It’s built into the back frame. Most movers will position themselves on the end of a piano and then grab under the keybed nearest the front leg of the piano. Lifting the piano on one end, another helper places the 4 wheel dolly under the bottom skid plate of the piano while it is on an angle. Simply by putting the piano down, the piano will then land on the dolly instead of its own wheels.
B. The second method involves having a lifter on each end of the piano who will then lift the piano straight up while a third person places the 4 wheel dolly underneath. It is then easy to roll the piano around the room.
One word of advice: if a piano is on a dolly, it is wise to always have one person with at least one hand on the piano. Leaving a piano unattended on a roll-able surface can be cause for tipping or rolling away on an inclined surface.
Grands must first be tilted onto a grand skid. To do this, professional movers do what is called “dropping a leg”. The pedals are first removed. On the keyboard side, the left corner must first be lifted up while a second mover removes the leg. The piano will, on its own accord want to angle towards the floor. With two movers, the piano can then be safely angled downwards onto the protective (and blanketed) skid. With the full weight of the piano on the corner, the left flat side of the grand can be tilted so that the piano is standing up vertically. And yes, it’s completely fine to have a piano angled in such a direction. It’s how all grand pianos are moved. With the piano safely in an upright position, the other 2 legs can be removed.
The piano is then securely strapped and blanketed to the skid, which is an L-shaped protective layer of wood and carpet (or other softer material). Once the grand piano and the skid have become essentially one movable piece, it can then be tilted (from the round end of the grand) and a dolly can be positioned underneath.
Placing a piano is only the beginning stage of piano moving. A clear path must be chosen to move the piano out of the room with the least amount of corners, turns and stairs. Ramps are used to bridge over any stairs or ledges. Outside, most ground can be handled by the 4 wheel dolly but at times, on uneven ground, gravel or grass, the ramps (or plywood) can be used to roll over. Once at the truck, it’s simply a matter of pushing the piano carefully to the top of the truck deck. This is much easier said than done. Most amateurs have no idea how heavy a piano can be with its full weight bearing down on an angle.
Remember the days before ratchet straps? People use to use rope. Cinching a piano to the truck is relatively easy so long as the tie-downs are secure and the piano is generously blanketed. The rule of thumb is: No movement. Parts only rub when there is movement to rub. If the piano is secured to the wall or bed of the truck, the piano will not move and subsequently, the theory is that there will be no damage. And ultimately, piano moving is all about safely moving an instrument without getting hurt.
Hire a professional. But how do you know if the professionals have experience with pianos? One day I just happened to show up to a technician’s shop just as a piano was being moved out. I asked him “Who’s moving?” The technician replied “I don’t know. The customer already had it arranged.” We waited for awhile and two young guys show up with a dolly. While the company truck was a well-established name, it was apparent that they had substantial turnover in staff and these two had not been on the job long. “Sooooo how do you lift one of these things anyway?”, said the one mover to the other. “They sure look heavy”. RED FLAG. Needless to say, that same piano was brought back the same day as it fell off of the ramp at the customer’s home only this time with substantial damage. How do you know who to hire? There are trucks everywhere saying that they move houses and pianos etc. and quite often, big companies don’t necessarily have trained movers for pianos. In a word, ask those who are in the business. Ask a piano tuner or call a store. They handle pianos every day. They also know who they have entrusted their pianos to for safe delivery.
Disclaimer: I feel strongly about not moving an instrument that puts people into danger. While professional piano movers have moved literally thousands of pianos, doing a one-off to save the few dollars is not worth the risk of injury to yourself or to your piano.
More Thoughts on Piano Moving
Moving across the country? Here’s a few thoughts: have you considered factoring in the piano move with your household belongings? If you’re driving with a U-Haul or some other rental truck, you can always hire movers just to get the piano safely on the truck. It’s a small price to pay but then you don’t have to worry about it.
Shipping the piano a long distance? Have you considered freight instead of moving? Freight involves crating a piano so that a forklift can put it onto a semi-truck. For long distance moves, it might be worth investigating that cost. Word to the wise: if you live in sub-freezing temperatures, get a heated truck as well. Pianos don’t particularly like crazy cold climates.
How do I save my floors from a piano? Pianos have casters (small wheels) and so to protect your floors, place the wheels into caster cups – small dishes that prevent the piano from rolling and save your floors.
Does my floor need reinforcing before moving a piano in? I have a couch that weighs 100lbs and has a similar “footprint” to an upright piano. Add 3 adult males each at 200lbs and the total would be 700lbs. Where most household pianos weigh 400-600lbs, I’m going to venture and say that structurally your house should be fine to handle any piano without reinforcement. That said, I’ve been in a mobile home once where it appeared that the section where the piano was sitting seemed to sag.
Finally, the piano that won’t fit: I’ve only been involved twice with pianos that literally can’t fit into a space where it was intended. Either the staircases were too tight or doorways and landings too impossible or the piano was simply too big. Although this sounds crazy, pianos can also be positioned by crane. Since I don’t live in New York, I imagine pianos are moved more often by crane than my location. Cranes have a fee attached (obviously) but are more reasonable than you imagine.
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!
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
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.
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