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A whale of a tale

  • 1.  A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-10-2019 22:10
      |   view attached
    I serviced an old Bechstein grand today, from about 1900, and found a couple of interesting things.

    First, the ends of the hammer shanks were held in place by metal pins, rendering them non-adjustable. Anyone seen this?
    While the owner will likely not pay for any work on it, theoretically the hammers do need alignment. My first impulse would be to cut the pins off with a Dremel or hacksaw if needed. Any other ideas?

    Also, the owner told me that his great-grandfather had told him that he had purchased the piano new, and that it had come with a bottle of sperm whale oil as a lubricant. It doesn't seem to have caused any verdigris. I believe, though, that the owner may have actually used WD-40 on it.

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    Scott Cole, RPT
    rvpianotuner.com
    Talent, OR
    (541-601-9033
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  • 2.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-10-2019 22:39
    Hi Scott

    Use an alcohol lamp or a butane lighter to heat the hammer shanks.  Once heated they can be bent.  I have heated up a hammer shank bending pliers to do this.  I'd suggest not cutting off the pins. A while back you could purchase a hammer shank bending pliers that actually had built in electrical heating elements in the jaws.  I have two sets.  One works, the other doesn't.  You can still purchase the pliers but they eliminated the heating elements.  I'd suspect the lack of UL approval for that move.  Heating up the jaws of the current production pliers will accomplish the same thing.

    Hammond Organ Co. supplied their organ owners with a tube of oil to lubricate the tone wheels in their organs.  Each wheel was a wafer of Bakelite and it's edge was the shape of a sine wave.  Each wheel had a different sine wave on it hence each tone produced on the organ.  Small threads directed the oil to each wheel's axis from a trough.  Ordinary petroleum oil would get gummy with age.  I was told that the oil in the tube mentioned earlier was Sperm Whale oil.  It wouldn't surprise me to hear that this same oil was used on piano actions.  Now that you've told me this, I might keep a tube of the stuff in the car and try it on the next sticky action center.

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    Larry Fisher
    Owner, Chief Grunt, Head Hosehead
    Vancouver WA
    503-310-6965
    Working the gravy zone for the rest of my days.
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  • 3.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-11-2019 11:31
    This system for keeping the hammers aligned with the strings is actually much better than the more common strip of sandpaper under the flanges.  The pins are installed after the hammers are aligned to the strings the factory and there is little opportunity for the hammers to drift even after the inevitable loosening of the flange screws.   If the hammers on the piano are still original, I would think there would be very little need to align them.  If you do find some correction is necessary, you could either bend the pin slightly by tapping it at the top (with the flange removed) or widen the hole in the flange.   Or, if it's in the capo section, just move the strings instead.

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    Cecil Snyder
    Torrance CA
    310-542-7108
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  • 4.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-11-2019 12:13
    I have a ~1906 Kimball grand with the same type of flange with metal pins. I need to replace the hammers soon, and have already gotten the go-ahead from the owners. It's scheduled for next month.

    I don't know if any of the suppliers sell that type of flange, which probably means I'll need to repin. Does anyone know anywhere that sells these types of flanges?

    Also, any other advice? (I like getting my hammers pre-hung, which is why I need the flanges...).

    Thanks,

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    Benjamin Sanchez
    Professional Piano Services
    (805)315-8050
    www.professional-piano-services.com
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  • 5.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-11-2019 15:19
    Scott, if you decide to align the hammers using heat (which I think would be a lot better than cutting off the pins) I've had excellent luck using the heated bending pliers (with a rheostat, they get too hot!) after swabbing the shank with vodka. Since it's a grand, put something under the shanks so you don't drop vodka onto the wippens.

    A foam brush can apply the vodka. The brush soaks up a lot, so be miserly loading it in. My experience has been that when the heated poliers touch the shank wet with vodka, there is a small hiss, and the wood gets as flexible as a stick of licorice. You can repeat the process too, moving the shank in either direction, and fixing any twist in it. The alcohol must flare off, after the water soaks into the shank. I wondered if it might be flabbable, but it's not.

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    Susan Kline
    Philomath, Oregon
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  • 6.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-11-2019 15:23
    P.S. explain to the owner that WD-40 has a lot of oil in it, which will turn gummy within a year or so. It should not be allowed in the same ROOM as a piano! Explain that repinning is far preferable to any form of lubrication, over time. I hate it when center bushings have been fouled by grease.

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    Susan Kline
    Philomath, Oregon
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  • 7.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-11-2019 23:41
    Just earlier this week I was pointing out some string corrosion to a customer, who suggested he could go get a can of WD-40 to clean it up. I think the horrified look on my face scared him more than a little...  Maybe whale oil would be a better solution! ;-)


  • 8.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-12-2019 11:03
    Another harmless way to improve alignability with this type of flange is to enlarge the screw hole slightly with a bit just one size up from the existing hole. The leverage allows you to move the hammer quite a bit without messing with the rear pin.

    Susan:

    You really love that vodka! 😎 I must try this.  Is this straight from the bottle or cut 50/50 with water?  What made you think of it?

    Pwg

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    Peter Grey
    Stratham NH
    603-686-2395
    pianodoctor57@gmail.com
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  • 9.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-12-2019 13:41

    Hi, Peter

    "Vodka" is just my code name for 100 proof ethanol, which I make by diluting 190 proof Clear Spring from the liquor store roughly half and half with tap water. Some states don't allow the sale of 190 proof ethanol -- the generic Everclear in states forbidding 190 proof will probably be about 100 proof, fine for piano work. Consider it pre-diluted for you.

    I had a big upright action from the South which I was trying to get working again. The wood was dark brown, it must have been in extremely humid conditions, and it had been sprayed a lot with lubricants, and also the leather was ruined from someone applying alcohol. I put an absolutely ridiculous amount of work in on it. Okay, it was a neat old upright, great big one, I like those, but taking on an action in this condition, hammers standing in air, everything totally gummy, and the shanks warped, twisted and out of space from the humidity swings was frankly crazy.

    I replaced the hardened and shrunken butt leathers. I repinned. Can't remember if I also rebushed. The shanks were not only warped but incredibly brittle. I had the action at home, and I needed to space the hammers with the hot bending pliers. I remembered from my course days working on Ted's 1926 Pleyel, where the action used continuous center pins so that the shanks had to be spaced using heat. They also were brittle, and with the alcohol lamp I broke eight of them. Luckily they could be replaced like upright shanks.

    I had no stomach for the number of broken hammer shanks I was likely to produce. I thought about getting some steam into the shanks, and vodka swabbed on them seemed the easiest way to do it, so I used the little throwaway foam brush, which also isn't ruined by vodka, by the way, and can be used for this over and over again. It holds a lot and you don't want it dripping down, so fill it carefully in a miserly way, from a dropper bottle or a little pipette.

    I was afraid the heat might make it flare up, but the alcohol portion seems to have gassed off, leaving the shanks with water deep inside them. Touched by the hot pliers, they gave a little hiss and became incredibly flexible. If I bent any too far, I just swabbed on some more, used the pliers again, and moved them back again. They were totally docile, and I could space them back and forth as many times as I wished. I worried that they might warp again as they dried, but they didn't.

    Try it, tell me how it goes. Don't get any vodka into the grand action, please. A plastic bag under the shanks with a shop towel on top of it (also under the shanks) might be a good idea.



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    Susan Kline
    Philomath, Oregon
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  • 10.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-12-2019 14:24
    Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the replies. Good to know these techniques--I'll file them away in my mind. Unfortunately, while this piano is in surprisingly good condition considering its age, it is likely to slowly slide into the same sad state of disrepair that I see so often.

    Just a side note: the reason the customer gave for using WD-40 (which may be what has cause the discoloration) is that, according to him, he got the advice from an East coast piano technician that he randomly contacted by looking at websites.

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    Scott Cole, RPT
    rvpianotuner.com
    Talent, OR
    (541-601-9033
    ------------------------------



  • 11.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-12-2019 18:51
    Susan,

    I'm definitely going to try it. So obviously the alcohol is the surfactant allowing the water to get to the business area. Alcohol evaporates quickly (quicker) leaving the water to do its thing.

    I'm into it. I wish I'd known this a while back while working on a bunch of Steinway upright shanks 😢. At least I can go back now with a new tool in my doctor's bag.

    Thanks!

    Pwg


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    Peter Grey
    Stratham NH
    603-686-2395
    pianodoctor57@gmail.com
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  • 12.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-13-2019 01:10
    I'll be very interested in how it works for you, Peter. I assume you have those bending pliers with an electrical connection to heat them? Do you also have a rheostat? I've found that my hot bending pliers run too hot without one, and I had to keep unplugging them or smoke would come up and they'd leave char on the shanks. (I got to see a Joel and Pris Rappaport workshop in Washington State a few years ago. When discussing burning the shanks, he said, "you don't BURN the shanks!")

    I don't see why vodka with an alcohol lamp wouldn't work but my experience has been with the bending pliers.

    If you can find some old hulk of an also-ran piano to try it on first, that might be reassuring before starting in on something good. But I don't see how you could go seriously wrong with it, especially if the shanks are really brittle so normal dry bending is a pain.

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    Susan Kline
    Philomath, Oregon
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  • 13.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-12-2019 19:58
    Wasn't going to comment, but can't hold it in.  A few years ago, first visit to a home with a fairly new Yamaha upright.  Previous "tech", attempting to deal with sluggish action, generously sprayed entire action with wd40.  Without removing action from piano.  Made sure to get plenty on tuning pins.  I ran.

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    Sid Blum
    Middlesex VT
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  • 14.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-22-2019 21:41
    Scott,
    This is a little late, but I can relay to you some personal experiences from working in the Bechstein factory in Berlin in the early 1970's for a number of years. They are (or were at the time) pretty careful about gluing on the hammers "burning" (minor adjustments at the end - and thanks, Susan, for the call-out) and traveling of the shanks. The thinking as I understood it was that the work was done so well, they did not want the flanges to be moved around by subsequent technicians. The pins are brass pins with a point on the bottom and after we went through our two regulations in the action department, we hammered in the pins to "set" the flange in place. Then a fine file was run over the tops of the pins to level them all with the tops of the flanges. If a flange were removed, you could simply grab the pin with a pliers and pull it out. However, I think if the flange screw were loosened, the hammer can be slightly spaced. Then tighten up the flange screw. Side note: we had a contest in that we would pour out a quantity of pins from the bucket into our own container on our bench, trying to get as close to 88 as possible. If we poured out exactly 88 (I did it once), everyone else in the department would buy that worker a beer. Side side note: this was before bottled water and bottles of beer were the beverage to "wet your whistle" during the work day. For some, whistle-wetting began around 7am and went on through the work day -- a different work atmosphere over there.
    Cecil mentioned spacing the strings in the capo section. If this is a typical Bechstein of the period, there will be no capo section. Bechstein grands had agraffes all the way up to the top of the scale. It dictated a slightly different hammer bore angle, tilting the treble hammers back one degree so the top hammers would not hit the plate (needed close to the hammer line to receive the agraffe.)
    The other thing I wanted to mention with all the talk of shank warping with heat and traveling by inserting strips of paper under the flange, is that warping the shank corrects defects in hammer gluing and traveling addresses imperfections in the flange/shank pinning. Only after both of those things are done is hammer spacing fine tuned. Another point: we paid attention to the spaces between flanges before they were set with the pins. So #28 seems to have been moved. Wouldn't it be funny if the flanges were spaced, you checked the "burning" and the traveling and the hammer spacing went back to perfect?
    Did the customer's great-grandfather buy the piano in Germany? That would have been quite a bit before my time, but I do not recall mention of sperm oil (different from whale oil, see Wikipedia) used as a lubricant.
    OK Scott - thanks for the chance to reminisce.
    Joel

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    Joel Rappaport
    Rappaport's Piano Workshop
    Round Rock TX
    512-255-0440
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  • 15.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-23-2019 14:04
    Great to hear your stories, Joel, and to review the points you made in the Washington State seminar.

    Best to you and Pris.

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    Susan Kline
    Philomath, Oregon
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  • 16.  RE: A whale of a tale

    Posted 04-24-2019 08:43
    Joel,

    I wonder if Carl and his cohorts were "wetting their whistle" a little too much when they came up with that crazy pinblock design?

    Pwg

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    Peter Grey
    Stratham NH
    603-686-2395
    pianodoctor57@gmail.com
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