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Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

  • 1.  Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-15-2014 22:10
    I was called to evaluate an old George Russell "birdcage" style piano for possible tuning and repairs. I found the inside to be in need of substantial work - several broken hammers, several damper felts missing, at least half of the damper weights missing (found in the bottom of the piano). The plate was corroded, and the strings and pins were rusted and very corroded. If the client's son belched loud enough, I am sure strings would have started popping.

    Funny thing was, the outside of this piano was ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS. Glossy burled wood finish and very ornate carving. Not near as many character marks (scratches and dings) as you might imagine for a piano that is more than a century old. 

    I have looked around at the various parts houses and found none that carry birdcage action parts. My initial reaction to the client was that repairs necessary to bring it to the condition she wanted it to be would be way more costly than she is able to afford. I told her of some of the prices I have seen recently for very nice used pianos.  So. My questions are:

    1. Are there parts houses that carry these parts? I checked International Piano Supply and PianoTek. Their online catalog has none. I also sent emails asking them just in case these are under the counter parts.

    2. Has anyone ever tried to retrofit one of these pianos with modern actions?

    3. Would most of you run from this type job as the Arthur Reblitz and Mario Igrec books seem to indicate?

    4. I also gave her the idea of converting this gorgeous piece of furniture (that has been in the family for years) into a nice desk / shelf unit.  This idea seemed to appeal to her somewhat, though my initial research has led me to believe that these conversions are pretty expensive as well.

    I would appreciate your ruminations. 

    Arlin Hall
    Austin TX

  • 2.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-15-2014 22:42

    Supply house don't carry parts for birdcage pianos, but several of our members on this list, (Joe Garrett, for one), might have enough parts laying around, or are able to make the parts, to be able to put the piano back in playing condition. 

    Art and  Mario are very wise people, and walking away from this project might be your best course of action. But don't underestimate the family heirloom value. One mistake you might have made was telling the customer that the repairs are "more costly than she is able to afford". How do you know she can't afford it? That's her decision to make, not yours. Who knows, in addition to inheriting the piano, maybe she inherited a ton of money to pay to have the piano repaired. You never know.

    Now, having said that, before giving her a figure, first make sure the parts are available. Then give her an estimate that you are comfortable with. If she accepts, then you're in business. If she doesn't, contact a furniture repair guy and ask how much he would charge to do the work, under your supervision. You will have help him dismantle the piano.

    As far as retrofitting a modern action, I'm not saying it can't be done, but imagine retrofitting a V8 engine into a VW. 

    --------------------------------- ---------
    Willem "Wim" Blees, RPT
    Mililani, HI 96789

  • 3.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-15-2014 23:08
    I should have mentioned that when I told her the cost of of a re-stringing job, she said she could not afford that.

    Arlin Hall
    Austin TX

  • 4.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-17-2014 00:45
    I was fortunate to live in England for 4 years prior to retiring from my Aerospace career and whilst there, I began to "advertise" to my fellow American workers tuning for £10, understanding they get what they paid for.  It was great, for I got a lot of those, "boy that was a stupid thing to do" out of the way when we all first get started.  As you might guess, I met more than one birdcage piano there.  The first time I saw one to tune, I said I could not tune this and left.  The second time I did the same thing.  By the time I got to the third one I decided if I was going to live in that country, I'd better learn how to tune a birdcage piano, and with papp's mutes in hand, did just that.

    In London, I visited the piano supply place and talked with the fellow about servicing a birdcage piano.  He offered two items, first is they don't like it called birdcage, it is an overdamper thank you.  Second, he pulled out what he thought was the best tool for the job.

    and was quite serious about it!

    Here is my take on these birdcage, excuse me, overdamper pianos, they look wonderful as furniture but unless there is sentimental value (and I mean STRONG sentimental value), they were poor pianos to begin with much less spending money to restore them.  Now the statement made that these are not our pianos and it is not our decision who can afford what is very ture, if someone wants their pride and joy returned to its former glory, great!  If you are confident taking on something that will probably require you creating replacement parts, have the shop/facilities to do that and have restored pianos before, then you're golden.

    Personally, I'm not at that level but working towards it, currently restoring a 1914 Ivers & Pond grand and have a few uprights under my belt.  Someday, I plan to be able to tackle such pianos as a square grand or overdamper but not now.  If I was faced with restoring one like you are Arlin, I would be referring them to my local rebuilder whom I have confidence in doing the work and would probably offer to help with the restoration.

    Jim Fariss, RPT
    Black Forest Piano
    Black Forest, Colorado
    (719) 425-8845

  • 5.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-18-2014 04:34
    Yes, there's more than one frightful over-damper piano in this country.... Thanks for your most enjoyable anecdote. I wonder which supply house offered that well used solution? My particular bug-bear is the ancient Broadwood over-damper with two horrid marks against it. One is that the wrest pins are oblong which means you can only put the lever on in one arc - or 180deg to that arc - and the other is that awful action with loops for bridle-straps and an inclined plane for the jack to negotiate set-off. And they have wood frames as well. All of which means they really would burn well.  Michael  (UK)

    Michael Gamble
    semi retired

  • 6.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-15-2014 22:43
    Hi Arlin,

    My mentor (former member of N.A.P.T. and A.S.P.T.) relayed a story to me about how a great many of these pianos wound up in Vancouver BC in the 1960's or early 1970s.

    He mentioned that someone bought each piano for about $25.00 in Britain, landed them in our country for about $75.00. The person sold the pair of candles (on the front) for $100.00, then sold each piano for about $500.00. Quite a profit by any standard. When I first met my mentor, the first words out of his mouth were - "Never tune a birdcage piano". Then he showed me a 1/2 page article from a local newspaper from about 1978.

    Apparently, a client put a down payment on one of these pianos (they look absolutely spectacular on the outside. That is what draws people to them.). My mentor went to court on behalf of his client stating that the "birdcage piano" was not suitable for our climate, wouldn't hold its tune, won't dampen the sounds properly, etc, etc. The judge agreed and ordered the down payment returned.

    I have to look for the article (It shows my mentor pointing to the birdcage action).
    Paul Brown
    Vancouver BC

  • 7.  RE: Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-16-2014 00:39
    How about stuffing a nice keyboard in there?
    Paul McCloud
    SAn Diego

  • 8.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-16-2014 08:20
    That beautiful veneer is likely a clever faux finish. Don't try to refinish! If they really want it restored, refer them to a specialist in 19th century pianos. ------------------------------------------- Ed Sutton Editor Piano Technicians Journal ed440@me.com 704-536-7926 -------------------------------------------

  • 9.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-16-2014 14:55

    Some of those pianos actually have real burl veneer.  However, not all case parts are veneered - the legs etc may have a faux finish as Ed states.  Some of those painted finishes are quite astounding.

    The British overdamper pianos, straight strung, were very poor musical instruments when they were new.  Now, 100+ years later, they are perhaps interesting pieces of furniture with a bit of history, but nothing more.

    It sounds like this piano would need complete restoration.  You could easily invest thousands of dollars into a piano like that, and in the the end the value of the musical instrument  would be close to zero.  You can get a better musical instrument for free off CL.  It is only fair to make this clear to the owner, in a respectful way of course.  Taking on a restoration job of such a piano because the owner expects an instrument  to play on is unethical, in my books.  In the past, I re-strung one of these for a client with full disclosure of all the above.  The piano had come over from England with the family over 100 years ago and was an important heirloom for the family and they insisted on the work. That is something different.  They realized it would not be a real and usable musical instrument.

    But not all ovedampers were bad. There were a lot of German companies that produced overdamper pianos as well.  Some of these had excellent scalings (overstrung) and were of very high musical quality. The actions were responsive, and yes, the dampers actually worked!  I am speaking of overdamper pianos built by Ibach and especially  Blüthner.   They were built like tanks, had a marvelous responsive touch with that sweet Blüthner tone and damped perfectly.

    Jurgen Goering


  • 10.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-17-2014 09:30
    hi all,

    Actually, the burled finish is very likely real.  Many of these pianos were built with what was then considered a normal upright action and beautiful exteriors. Depending upon the frailty of the parts, it is often possible to repair them, or make new parts yourself. They aren't all that complex.

    The sad truth though is that it is not inexpensive, and yes, it is often people with small budgets who want it done. I have a friend who was given a real beauty who wants me to fix it up, but I know she can't afford it yet, and maybe never will be able to.   


    Anne Acker
    Anne Acker Early Keyboards


  • 11.  RE:Overdamper / Birdcage Piano

    Posted 03-18-2014 04:44
    Many (many) years ago I came across an advertisement 'New Pianos for Old' - or words implying that. Not a scam, not Ali Baba either but marketing an electronic keyboard to replace the old keyboard and action. The strings stay in place - but they must make a horrendous noise sympathetically unless they're damped off in some way. That might be worth investigating?  Michael (UK)

    Michael Gamble
    semi retired