Archive for January, 2012

Heavy Hitters Strike Out a Lot

Posted: January 31, 2012 in Piano
Babe Ruth, full-length portrait, standing, fac...

Image via Wikipedia

Two items are framed in my office. One is an old sheet of music. The other is a reprint from the Wall Street Journal. These relics have hung on the wall of every office I have had. I would like to share them with you.

Old Sheet Music

I was working in a piano store. I was also in the Air Force. I was working part-time in Largo, Maryland at Jordan-Kitts Music.  I remember this story because it occurred on my 21st birthday. I was playing a grand piano in the store. A man walked up and said hello. I said hello and finished playing. He listened to me. When I was done he took a piece of manuscript paper from his satchel and started writing at a quick pace. When he was finished, he handed me the music and said, “Keep this. One day you will be able to play it.” I looked at it and laughed. I had no idea what the symbols meant. I thanked him.  I have kept that piece of paper for over 30 years. It was the first time anyone had showed me anything related to jazz.  It was maybe six or seven years before I was able to play that music or understand what it meant. It was a special moment, so I framed the music. I have no idea who the man was who gave it to me. I wish I did. I would say thank you again, and again.

The Reprint

I was in college in the 80s. I read an editorial ad in the Wall Street Journal. I was very impressed with the contents because I was an older college student and was unaware how a return to college would benefit me. Going to college was never a concern because it was a life goal. But I never really knew if there would be a pay-off. I would tell myself, “You will either be a 32 year old college graduate, or you will not.” It was a simple choice. Still, the question about the worth of the effort lingered…until I read this article. It too found a permanent home on my office wall.

The content of the article reads as follows:

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

You’ve failed
Many times,
Although you may not
You fell down
The first time
You tried to walk.
You almost drowned
The first time
You tried to swim, didn’t you?
Did you hit the
Ball the first time
You swung the bat?
Heavy hitters,
The ones who hit the
Most home runs,
Also strike
Out a lot.
R. H. Macy
Failed seven
Times before his
Store in New York
Caught on.
English Novelist
John Creasey got
753 rejection slips
Before he published
564 books.
Babe Ruth struck out
1,330 times,
But he also hit
714 home runs.
Don’t worry
About failure.
Worry about the
Chances you miss
When you don’t
even try.

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To Touch or Not To Touch…

Posted: January 29, 2012 in Piano
English: Piano strings Español: Cuerdas de piano

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I’m writing about strings – piano strings. First, they are not strings. They are wires.  We talk about the “strings of a piano” which reinforces the idea that a piano has strings but in truth, when it comes to pianos, there are no strings attached.

You might think I am behaving like a lonely hunter, just out to split some hares, but piano technicians work in a world of exactitude. We are most often rationalists. We make decisions based on the facts, and the fact is – a wire is not a string. Yes, that kind of scrutiny can be annoying, but it is difficult to solve real problems by working with myth and inaccuracies.

Speaking of myths

A myth is a collection of ‘best guesses” and “long stretches” retold by learned men and women, embellished in pubs and Piano Technician’s Guild meetings, and passed along to the unwary and naïve with the signature of seniority’s  authority.

Make no mythstake: the world would be a boring place without myths. It would be a living Hell if we could only speak about things that are certain. Come to think about it, what is certain? Death, taxes and … what was the other one?

Seniority’s Authority

Politicians and theologians know that if you tell the same story over and over, it will likely be held to be true eventually. If I had a hole for every bagel of truth that has been offered to me, I would have a ton of donuts. (If I had gone with “kernel” of truth, the pun would have been corny.)

A History of Pianos

As America developed, especially during the waves of immigration which occurred in the 1800s, people who were involved in the trades knew where to go in Europe to find skilled labor. They would go to the town where they once lived, where they knew craftsmen who knew the trade, and would help them immigrate to the new world.  With the promise of a job, liberty, a new home, and a few friends, craftsmen of all sorts of ability came to America.  The piano craftsmen were from Europe, and they created thousands of piano brands in the U.S. in the northeast and beyond.

Restringing a Piano

Yes, it is called restringing – not rewiring. You restring a piano. You rewire a house. Actually, you “restring” a wire.  And when you restring that piano, it is customary and highly advised to wire gloves. Piano wire is sharp, and it can put a nice hole in your finger if you are not careful. Gloves also shield the piano wire from perspiration and the natural oils that are on the hands and fingers. Those substances can be corrosive, especially with the bass strings which are wrapped with copper, a softer metal than steel.

Position yourself in that time. There you are – standing in the shop watching a master craftsman restring a piano. You ask, “Must I always wear gloves?” The crusty old German tech turns and nods, “You’d be an idiot not to.”

And so that advice was passed from one tech to another, from shop to shop, from meeting to meeting, and it was soon considered the gospel truth that you must never touch a piano wire with your bare hands, for fear of leaving a corrosive residue of oil and salty perspiration which would cause the piano wire to one day turn to stone, wither and die – during a concert.

How Corrosive Is It?

When people are certain of the truth, confirmation is not needed. I am not privy to any documentation, based on scientific examination, which reveals how much damage is done to a piano wire per specified unit of perspiration and/or oily skin.   It is certainly more true that gloves should be worn when restringing a piano, because that is work which requires physical strength, long periods of labor, and which will promote much perspiration of the hands and fingers.  It is less true that the precaution of gloves is required for changing a single piano wire.

It is always safer to wear gloves when changing a piano wire. What is not known is what risk of corrosion is introduced by a tech that chooses not to use gloves to change a single string. For this, we need to be careful not to produce a myth from a truth that seems similar.

How Oily are You?

Remember the guy who was restringing the piano who advised you to wear gloves? He was a big, burly olive-skinned man of certain ethnic origin. The poor man was a saturated sponge of perspiration from morning to night. The shop was not air conditioned, and as long as he bathed on Saturday, he was as clean as the other workers.  Some people are oilier and smellier than others. As a result, some people produce more corrosive elements than others. Therefore, the advice about wearing gloves applies more to people who are both oily and smelly. If you were just oily, you would not do as much damage to a string. If you were only a smelly person, then oily, smelly people would be jealous of you. “Yea, he stinks, but he is not slippery.”

Let the Tech Be the Judge

There is certainly a correlation between a person’s production of oil and perspiration and the likelihood of introducing potentially corrosive matter onto a piano wire when it is changed. If we could measure the impact, there would be a low impact and a high impact. (I feel the need to draw a graph!) Technicians who are oily but not smelly would be more of a risk to a piano wire than someone who is both oily and sweaty. People who are neither oily nor sweaty would pose the least risk.

The Force of Truth

Of course, people who are neither oily nor sweaty must account to the majority who are oily and sweaty.  And if the oily and sweaty technicians own the status of being senior techs, then the weight of their authority would be enough to cause the dry, non-perspiring techs to slip on a pair of gloves.

As for how much damage is done to a piano wire by touching it, no one really knows. It is certainly safer to use gloves, and that is reason enough to employ them. But as for how much damage is done, or if the damage is even consequential, that data does not exist. Each technician knows if he (or she) is likely to contaminate the wire by touching it. There is no fast rule in this case, except when it comes to safety.  It is not known (and it is certainly suspect) if the introduction of minute quantities of oil or perspiration would pose any detrimental effect to a piano wire.

If you have worked with wood, you know that oil from your hands can leave prints on a piece of wood. Those prints make it difficult for finishing materials to enter the wood’s surface.  Oil from the hands can result in tarnishing the copper windings of a piano wire, but it is not known if this results in any effect which is detrimental to the tone of the piano or health of the wire.

It remains advisable to wear gloves when replacing a piano wire. The practice may not be grounded in exact science, but it remains a common practice, one that is sensible.

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Why Make Boxes?

Posted: January 24, 2012 in Piano

Why indeed!

What possible use could making boxes be for a piano technician?

You might  be very surprised to learn the diverse skills that must be mastered in order to work on pianos. One client may want a scratch removed from a piano top. The next may need a new bridge. A rib may become disconnected from the soundboard. A shim may be required to fill a buzzing crack in the soundboard.

There is only one way to prepare for such unexpected repairs. PRACTICE.

In keeping with that requirement, I (and many other full-time techs) practice the skills of woodworking, refinishing, cabinet repair, metalwork, and many other skills in order to gain general knowledge that may (or never!) proved to be beneficial to the client.

Currently I am building boxes. I have a small collection of cigar boxes. I bought them for $1 each and display them above my desk. Perhaps this is just “man art”, but I like the look of them. They are cheaply made and a close inspection reveals that the wood is low quality. I still like them.

The joints are of interest to me. Although the joints are made by machine, I must admit they are top-notch. They would not qualify as “fine woodworking” but they are better than I can do with my chisel in my own shop.

Until today.

One of my friends is a very excellent woodworker. He assures me that the first step to making excellent furniture, something I will want to keep for many years, if to learn how to make boxes.

So…I am making boxes.

Now, if you know how to make boxes, I’ll be quick to admit that my joints are pretty lousy. They are much better than my first attempt though. :)

Like other woodworkers, I watch the videos that sport projects that are made to look very easy to complete. In truth, the people who make those videos are often masterful woodworkers who are trying to ‘sell’ a product that makes the task of woodworking easier.

The other side of woodworking, the side you don’t see in videos, is the many projects that should not ever be shown to anyone.  I think that is disingenuous. You can’t master anything until you first learn how to make a good piece of junk.  Even though these joints are not very tight, I am still proud of the improvement that is evident when I recall what my first project looked like.

An ambitious woodworker may want to display his best stuff in order to improve his reputation among woodworkers and the buying public. I have no less ambition, but I feel confident enough in my abilities as a technician to let other aspiring woodworkers know that they are not alone in their frustrations as they try to improve their skills.

The joints on the cigar boxes are better than mine. That is a little disconcerting, but it is also evidence that the task can be done quickly, cheaply and easily if you have enough skill.

Making Joints

How are these joints made? Very carefully! You measure this way and that, use a chisel and bandsaw, and after some cussing…the mistakes just shout back at you while you cringe in disbelief.

Little by little, the joints come into being. Gluing a square box is tricky, and I would not want to deprive anyone of the thrill of doing that without instruction. I was lucky this time because my dimensions permitted me to use a stock 2 x 4 as a block which gave me the angle I needed. It is 1 degree out of square though, and that alone disqualifies this project as an entry for “fine” woodworking. I’ll use it to store nails when I am done.

The experience shall remain mine though.  I was able to use the belt sander to clean up the glue and square the joints up a bit. The result is something that looks like a box.

I call it a box.  More accurately, it will soon become my first box, and in time, I hope to compare it to other boxes in my future, which I hope look better than a cigar box.

For now, this is what I am going with. I will work on the top and bottom tonight and post a pic when I am done.


Tried to cover my tracks on a few tear outs and gaps. I created a marquet by following the steps on the back of this month’s Fine Woodworking. The “How to” article featured the work of Ulnke Scribe’s marquetry. which you can view at that link.

After using my palm router to cut out a small section on the top, I pieced the marquet into place and glued it with a liberal amount of Titebond Hide Glue The types of mistakes  I was making were due in part to the quality and dullness of my chisels. These old chisels have been used for everything from removing nail heads to cleaning fingernails, so I opted to start over with a new set rather than try to put an edge on old chisels. Not that old chisels cannot be sharpened: they can. But I messed them up when I tried to use a grinder to put an edge on them. the backs are cupped, or there are small dings in the blade surface. Pretty much ruined for fine woodworking.

So I bought some new butt chisels by Wood River. That set is not the best. Probably an intermediate level, and the edge is not as sharp as it can be. It is much better than what I have. As the salesman said at our local Woodcraft store craftsmanship is a function of skill and tool quality.  My skill has increased to the level that I can justify investing in a better set of chisels. My next set will be better quality and with standard handles, but I now have to work on developing my skill to warrant that purchase. The butt chisels will always be useful though even after I get newer chisels.

So let’s see…the marquet sets up okay. I sand the unit, fix what dings I can, and then add some Mohawk Natural Wiping Stain. If you use Minwax stains, or some other stain available at common stores, I encourage you to try the Mohawk products. There is a noticeable difference.

Time for some pics.

I do not know what kinds of wood I used. The burl had to be filled. I used walnut wood filler for that.  I rubbed it into the holes and cracks. It dried quickly (a little too quickly) and then it sanded easily to leave a good surface to accept stain and finish. In the top left corner, you will notice a filler that did not take the stain. That is from an two part epoxy filler. I have to stop using that for fills because it does not take a stain.  Later I mixed yellow glue with sawdust and was pleased with that as a filler.

The marquetry opens a new door for me. It is easy to do, and the combinations are endless. I look forward to exploring its use and designs more.

Notice on the right side that the inlay cut is not even. This is another reason I bought new chisels. I want that line to be perfectly straight. That will depend on skill development. with new chisels, I will not be able to blame the chisels any longer. :)

The top right plank of the topboard – notice the side grain.  The inside curve is supposed to be used as the outside wall. This was explained to me today when I took the box to the Woodcraft store for tips and critique. The rings on the wood are designated as either inside or outside. The ‘inside’ would be the smaller contours that are nearest the center of the tree.  Humidity will cause the plank to splay outwards, or flatten out, as the rings relax. In the photo it shows that I did it incorrectly.  When humidity affects this box (which it will one day), that plank is going to want to turn up at the ends. The glue joint may crack.  If it were turned the other way, the force of the curve would conform to the desired position of the board. So! I’ll have to remember that.

The left side cuts were the first I attempted. The ones on the right show some improvement. As I progressed through the piece, each corner improved. All in all, I am satisfied.  The darker color on the tails is just due to the way the wood absorbed the stain.

I have been told that if I make about twenty boxes, I will develop an intermediate level of skill in the areas that are required to make a box. I still have a few steps left on this box, but I learned quite a bit from this first project. Yes, that case on the bottom is my set of Wood River chisels.  I am anxious to start a new project and cut some dovetails, but I must wait. One project at a time. Tomorrow I will cut the top lid.

Check back for to see how it turns out.


This project won’t go away. A lot of time elapses between all the steps. I am working on other projects at the same time. I am ready for this project to be done! haha

I used the tablesaw to cut a lid. All went well on three sides but on the last side — the FINAL cut of the project,  the piece kicked out from the blade and I ended up with a mess.  I used some wood filler to fix it.  I did not like the squareness of the lid so I routed with a rounded bit.  From there I attached hinges. No clasp yet. Can’t find one I like. I taped off the box and added some black lacquer as a highlight. Tomorrow I will spray it with satin finish and be done with it for until I find a clasp. I bought some new wood for my next box. This project was fun and I learned a lot. I think the next box will look much nicer.

Self Awareness and Music Performance

Posted: January 21, 2012 in Piano

Glenn GouldThis morning while I was sharpening chisels in the shop, reading the Tweeter feed and enjoying the cold morning with a cup of hot coffee, I read a tweet from @a_flat_miner with a link to Rosalyn Tureck’s recording of the Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach.

As I listened to Tureck I was struck with the idea that her approach focused more on the music and less on the person playing the music. The style in the work was more delicate, as if each note were given its moment on the stage with no interference from the player. There is a difference in my mind between music that is being played and music which I am playing.

It often occurs while playing music that the player is unaware that any effort is being made. In the Tao we are advised to “do by not doing”. Those who play golf know that each part of the swing must first be, learned, memorized and committed to muscle memory. After these several steps are learned, one is then told not to think about one’s swing when hitting the ball. In the movie Caddie Shack, Chevy Chase, who plays the role as a resident gold pro, instructs an amateur golfer to “be the ball”. Through humor the point of the necessity for a detachment between object and ego is necessary in order to achieve the desired relationship between ego and object.

Ego and object are the respective expressions — I am playing and the music that is being played.

The part of the brain used to play the music is not self-aware. It is just a cog in a machine. The brain is aware that it is performing a task, but it is not aware of the how the performance of the task is being accomplished. I can do math but I cannot explain to you how I do math. I have no awareness of how my brain translates ideas into languages. I am aware however that I can translate ideas into languages. Therefore I am aware that I can play music, but I am not aware how I am able to play it.

These two functions, differing in the presence of self-awareness, differ in the degree of their necessity when performing a piece of music. It is not necessary to the performance that one be aware that one is playing the music. It is only necessary that the brain perform the tasks necessary to play the music. Of course, you must be aware of what you are playing while you are learning a piece of music, or a golf swing, but after the piece is mastered, it is no longer necessary to be aware that you are playing the music. You must forget that you are playing, turn off self-awareness, and just “be the ball.”

“Be the music.”  This is also expressed as “being one with the music.” It is an idea expressed in Zen; becoming one with self.

Within our minds is discord and cacophony. Who has played before a large crowd of listeners and not been aware that “I sit here on this stage before the audience.” We become self-conscience. It is possible to lose that awareness but it is not necessary. One could say, “I am on this stage before an audience playing music,” but the music does not depend on your awareness that you are on the stage, that an audience exists, that you stand before them, or that you are playing the music. All of those things depend on self-awareness, and self-awareness is not necessary to perform the music.

In fact, a performer is encouraged not to be distracted by the presence of the audience. “Forget that you are on the stage.” “Quiet your mind.” “Focus on the music.”

All of these encouragements (which come in many forms) direct the performer to detach one’s self from the music. It is not about the performer; it is only about the music.

Now I return to the comparison between Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck. I cannot know what either of these artists thought while they were playing, or if they were each detached from self.  Turek’s music elicits a thought within me that there is less ego present in her playing than is evident in Gould’s.  There is no part of the performance by either artist which elicits this thought. It is self-produced by this listener. I seek an understanding as to why the two styles are different; why I can detect a difference and what I might attribute to be the cause of that difference. My analysis reveals nothing about Gould or Tureck. It only reveals something about me. Tureck’s interpretation of Bach’s music inspired me. (It was not Tureck or Bach or the interpretation which inspired me – it was only the music which inspired.)

I am aware of this detachment which occurs when music is played. I am never aware that I am not aware I am playing until a period of detachment has occurred. It is like driving to work; arriving at your destination only to become aware that you have no memory of having made the trip. We are never aware that we are unaware. We ask, “Where did the time go?” when we become absorbed by a task and lose track of the time. The use of the word “absorbed” implies that we are drawn into the task; we become one with it.

When I am unaware, I do not know that I am not playing well (although too many mistakes made can jostle you from your detachment, and quite rudely!). When I am unaware, I am engulfed by the music. It flows. I am not relevant. There is no awareness that I am part of the transaction. What is left in this reduction of self is the purity of the music expressed.

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Tuning Tricks

Posted: January 17, 2012 in Piano

There are lot of tricks used by piano tuners. The tricks are called ‘checks’.  Stated simply, if note x and note y are properly tuned, they can each be checked for accuracy by comparing each to note z.

In the photo above I am comparing note F2 to note A4. I set A4 to 440 using a tuning fork (and my brain).

Once A4 is set, then the rate of the tuning fork equals the rate of A4.

For a fine tuning adjustment, I compare the fork frequency to F2.  It beats wildly. Since A4 = tuning fork A, it should beat wildly with F2 at the same rate as A4 <=> F2.

If the beat rate of A4 <=> F2 is faster than the rate of the tuning fork, then the interval is wide A4 is a little bit on the sharp side. If the beat rate is slower, then the reverse is true. By adjusting the F2 <=> A4 interval, you can fine tune A4 to the rate of the fork more precisely.

Checks like these are used throughout the piano. There are countless relationships between the notes. Thirds will beat faster as you go up the scale. A tenth (an octave plus a third) will beat a hair faster than a third in the octave below. So, F4 <=> A4 is a hair slower than F4 <=> A5.

The third (F4 <=> A4) finds a complement in the sixth (F4 <=> D4) and beats one beat per second (BPS) faster.

A tuner will often set three intervals of thirds in the temperament in order to establish a rough estimate of a proper tuning. F4-A4; A4 – C#4; and C# – F5, are most often used. The beat rate/second will be approximately 7, 11, 15, or “fast, faster, and fastest.” If any one of those intervals creates a slow beat rate, then you know the interval of the third is not correct.

It is through using comparison checks that the piano can be tuned by ear. Some tuners rely on machines to help them tune.  The note is adjusted until the machine indicator says the note is tuned. This might look impressive, but the use of a machine detracts from using your brain to hear the variations.  Since the variations are excruciatingly tiny, a tuner may fudge a bit on the mathematically correct frequency in order to allow for a more pleasing, albeit subjective sound.  Machines help less experienced tuners, but they do litle to aid ear development. Ear training and use of checks is the best way to tune a piano.

Your brain gets exhausted from listening to intervals. You aren’t aware of the exhaustion of course, but after a lengthy period of time you will notice that you are fatigued from listening. The brain is tired.  You can rest for a period and recover quickly, but customers do not want to allocate hours to a piano tuning.  It is not necessary to be a fast tuner, but it is best to be an efficient one.  When I tune a piano I start at A4 and do not stop until the whole piano is tuned. The whole process seems to be one fluid movement. Here’s how I do it.

Set your temperament in the F4-F5 octave. Move upwards one octave and continue checks and adjustments in the temperament octave.  Only tune the middle wire until you reach the treble break, then tune every treble note all the way to C8.

Now return to the middle octave and tune downward starting with E4-E3. Only tune one wire in the unison all the way down to A1. Now move back up to the lowest bass note that has two strings and tune the second wire to the first. Keep doing that until you reach the trichord unisons. Tune two wires to each tuned middle wire all the way to the treble break, and the tuning is finished.

How do you learn to tune a piano? I have received the same answer from countless tuners: tune 100 pianos and then ask me again.

And then the next answer is, tune 100 more and come back to see me.

and 100 more…

After tuning hundreds of pianos, you become a piano tuner. I don’t know how it happens. It is a mystery.

This Day (3) in the Shop

Posted: January 16, 2012 in Piano

The grinder stand is done and is in its assigned space in the shop. Next project will be to build a stand for my planer.  You can find plans for the grinder below at Wood Magazine.

I will have to install leveling feet because there is no flat surface on my shop floor. The unit itself is squared up: but depending on where I put it, it does not sit squarely on the floor.

As shown, I added a black enamel trim and a coat of spray lacquer. Now it is just another object in the shop, and the hours of work needed to build are almost forgotten.

This Day (2) in the Shop

Posted: January 16, 2012 in Piano

There is no end to this project.

Yesterday I finished the cutting. Today I moved to assembly.

Lots of pics…. walk with me….

I am going to comment under each pic because I have saved them in numerical order and cannot remember which is which…never mind. That doesn’t matter to you at all. lol.

Okay, this is a royal pain in the ass. How am I going to screw the vertical board to the horizontal board? Those boards in the background helped.  I balanced the middle board at the right height, and drilled from the side. I was concerned about splitting the wood.

Here is a tip. You can imagine that as soon as I stood this up, it rocked on the ground. Sure, that will happen. So what I did was — set the thing up first, and then drill the top screw. That worked.

Next I have to bevel the edges of the boards to 7 degrees so it will sit flat on the floor.  I took out all these magnificent tools I have in order to perform some calculus, and then it occurs to me that the scrap wood from the cut is the complementary angle of the cut, so I used that as a guide.  Later I discovered it didn’t work, but I thought it was a clever idea. I had some issue with the alignment of my band saw blade (Ryobi — don’t buy!), and the tolerances of wood cuts allows a variance that defeats exact science.

I am placing the shelf now. It won’t conform to a square because the bottom board is not relatively flat, (it is at an angle too).  So I regroup and try something else. I have to figure out how to get a square measure in order to assure the shelf is level.

Well, of course! How many times has this happened to you! Cutting a 7 degree angle is a real challenge. I rethink how to measure it. I know the angle of the existing board.  So I take a rule and mark a parallel line using the edge as a guide. I will then align the band saw blade to that line.

Okay, here I mark a line that is parallel to the side board (and notice that my hands look ancient and fat! Great! Sharing sucks right about now.)

Then I take that board to the band saw and adjust the table to fit the line.

Oh no, that is not a shadow. That is a FLUSH cut. Yeah Daddy! Killer cut.

Now that the band saw is set at the correct angle, I trim the feet to the required bevel. Easy.

This is the clearance under the top board. I can sand that out. No problem.

Sand out the pencil marks. I will then take Pore-Pac and seal the wood. Also, I repair the dings with wood filler.

You can see the dings here. They are called “tear outs” and they occur with plywood often.  The filler is Mohawk brand, and is two compounds that when mixed form an epoxy filler. Just use a pinch and roll it to activate the two chemicals. Very cool.  It will create a smooth, sandable surface.

Pore-Pac deserves a large pic because this is incredible stuff. It dries quickly, so work fast. A mineral based product, it fills the pores of soft woods. Usually it is used in fine woodworking, but I use it here because – even though I am working with rough wood, I always perform the steps of fine woodworking because those are the skills I seek to develop.  There is no way to explain what it is like to work with this goopy stuff, so I won’t try. But I will say this much, you can put the scraps back into the can. Just add some mineral oil and you can reuse it.

You might think this took a long time to build. You are right! Oh sure, all those woodworking videos on the web say it is easy. Bollocks! These five pieces of wood took hours to create. I cannot leave any detail unattended.  It’s a curse — and a blessing. :)

But wait. There is no end to this madness. I have applied mahogany stain. (Yes, I disassembled the unit.)

And now I have some color to the project.

Although I am not finished yet, this is the future home of my grinder/buffer. Two days of work.

I know – I work like a tortoise.

This Day in the Shop

Posted: January 15, 2012 in Piano

It was a beautiful day today in Dallas, Texas.  I spent the day outside in the shop working on a stand for my grinder/buffer.

I started with a 4 X 8 sheet of B/C 3/4″ plywood. I built a feed table from scrap wood. I drew up plans to determine where to make my first cut. Lucky I did — it was 50″.

That took longer than I expected. I made the cut with my circular saw and started drawing patterns. I need three section, narrower at the top than bottom, which means long angled cuts.

Three more passes with the circular saw and I have my boards.  I used a guide for the saw for the first couple of cuts, but found a freehand cut worked just as well. I buffed the edges on the belt sander after I put a jig saw to the cut outs on the bottom of the boards.


I was soon finished with the prep work and cut a shelve and the top, then routed the edges with a round cut.

The Bosch Colt Palm Router worked well.

Everything is set for tomorrow when I will assemble the parts.

It took several hours to get this much done. The sun quit before I did.  The cold air returned quickly. I grabbed my coat and started putting tools away. Time for a good dinner and some relaxation at the piano.


Ten Things to Teach Your Piano Students

Posted: January 14, 2012 in Piano

In my work as a piano tuner/technician I often have an opportunity to show young piano students how their piano works. The range of topics I present to children is fairly broad and largely based on what I think will inspire them. In retrospect though it really surprises me what they have not yet been taught.  Piano teachers are trained to teach, have more accessibility to the student, and are positive role models. Here are eight things I would like you to teach your piano students.

1. Almost every 3rd grader I encounter is studying science in school and understands the concept of sound waves. When I raise this topic, their faces brighten up immediately because they remember that they know about this. What is amazing to me is that very, very few piano students (of many ages) have ever seen, heard or held a tuning fork. “It tickles,” they say when I let them touch it. Even four-year old tots are ASTOUNDED when I hold the vibrating fork close to an ear. And there is no trouble for the student to understand what a soundboard does when I place the end of the tuning fork on a wall in their house. “Vibrations travel,” I say. They get it.

2. Teach them to look into your eyes when they speak to you. Children are self-conscious, sure. But that view dissipates when you make a connection with your eyes.  One teacher I admire makes the point this way: he says, “I can’t see you listening to me.” But that is not how I address this topic with young self-conscious children. Instead, when I introduce myself I gently say their name until they lift the eyes to mine. Then I smile brightly and say, “THERE YOU ARE! I SEE YOU NOW!” They are no longer hidden. I know them now. They know me. Consciousness is sensed through the eyes. I say, “My eyes tell you where I am. When I look into your eyes, I can see you.” Once this connection is made, the self-consciousness disappears.

3.  Nine and ten year old students can grasp the concept of harmonics. I demonstrate this topic on a grand piano only.  Most technicians will instruct you never to touch a piano string. Here is the exception. Lightly touch the F#2 string at the halfway point and depress the key. The fundamental is muted and the first harmonic sounds. Now depress the F#2 without triggering the sound and play a forceful F#3. The fundamental of that note will trigger the harmonic in F#2. I say, “When I hit this key (F#3) it makes this one (F#2) sound! How did that happen!!!” You can build on this presentation until you can play F#3, F#4, C#4, and then a F# triad in the fifth octave.  Every note that is struck will trigger a harmonic in the F#2 string, and the sound of a chord will be heard. Children get this.

4. I teach children how to tell if the piano is out of tune. I help them hear the warble that is present on some of the notes. Since I have a tuning lever, this lesson is easier for me. I can alter the pitch and then correct it.  The trick here is to get them to recognize the warble in the detuned note. They can hear it, but unless someone directs their attention to what they are hearing, they won’t know what a warbling note really means. I appreciate that teachers in the home will advise parents when it is time to get the piano tuned, but that is not the same thing as teaching a child how to recognize when the piano is out of tune.

5. Increasing self esteem is one of the fundamental benefits of learning to play a musical instrument. When band directors instruct new students they always press the point of caring for YOUR instrument. Children are taught to be responsible for the care of their instruments. There are rules to follow. 1. Do not let anyone else play your instrument. 2. Do not let anyone else carry your instrument to class. etc. The emphasis is always placed on YOUR INSTRUMENT. Piano students do not receive this kind of connection with the piano. It is Mom’s piano, or Grandmother’s piano, or Dad’s piano…but the same sense of ownership is not present between a piano student and a piano, unless someone specifically makes note of this connection.

6. To continue with that thinking, piano students should be empowered by knowing more about THEIR instrument than anyone else in the family. The obvious way to do this is to teach them how to play it. The less obvious way is to teach them how the piano works! Every time I open the “magic box”, children run into the room to watch. They are fascinated to see all the parts inside. I let them touch the hammers, the keys, feel the wood, and watch how the key moves the hammer. This is a great way to empower a student with knowledge and to increase a sense of ownership. Open the magic box and let them see what is inside.

7. Teach piano students what a piano tuner is and what he or she does. A piano tuner works for the piano student. A piano tuner will always be a part of the piano student’s playing experience. I want children to know that I work for them, and I state that whenever I can. “I am your piano tuner.” This is a very unusual relationship for a child.  What could it possibly mean? I explain, “If your piano ever breaks, I can fix it for you. Just tell your parents if the piano does not sound or play correctly.”

8.  Teach them how to shake hands.  It is remarkable that children are not taught how to shake hands. Granted, there are not a lot of occasions to practice. Children do not often meet the hired help. The piano tuner is the exception. When I am introduced to the student, or the children in the house, I may offer to shake their hands to say hello. If no one knows how, I will ask with enthusiasm, “Would everyone like to learn how to shake hands?” The response is always in the affirmative. I hold up my palm and show the “Vee” that is created between the inside of my thumb and the inside of my forefinger. I ask each child to do the same. “You put your Vee right where mine is,” I motion. “And then squeeze.” A genuine sense of accomplishment appears on the face of each child. I do not let go unless they do one very important thing. (See #2) Works every time!

9. Teachers are wonderful people. (I married one, so I ought to know!) I am amazed that anyone could teach a child how to play a piano. I have seen small children play pieces by memory that I cannot play. (Rather humbling, I might add).  Teachers do not often see their students when they are engaged with a piano tuner.  I speak for all tuners everywhere on this next point. We would be happy to show your students how a piano works. A field trip to the local piano store to meet a piano tuner is an opportunity for a fun outing for your students.  I cannot think of any piano dealer who would not welcome your visit.  Help your students establish the connection they have with the network of people who are dedicated to the purposes of music education.

10.  Teach them how to play four-hand chopsticks on the piano.  This is a fun piece and a nice way to introduce any student to the concept of four-hand piano.

And with that, I shall retire. I salute all piano teachers. You are on the front lines.  I see and hear your accomplishments in the music played by your students.

Just a few pics for you.

I was repairing a pedal and thought to take a few pics so I can show you a few things.

With the action removed, I can inspect the player piano plungers. See the missing piece of felt? Here is what caused that. When the action is returned to the piano, the end of the key is brushing against the pieces of felt. Why? Because the plungers are too high. They can be jostled during a move. The clearance is 1/32 so the action should slide right in.

This is the bass section. Would it do any good to replace the felts without also adjusting the plungers? Yep! Got some work ahead of me on this one.

But while I have the action out, let’s look around a bit more.

These are the damper wires and damper lift rail.  Everything is fine here.

This is the mechanism for the sustenuto (middle) pedal. It rotates that steel transverse bar which enables pressed keys to be sustained while allowing others to be played w/o sustain.

This little critter is the rod tip that moves the action to the right when the left pedal is played. Called the “soft” pedal, it is really a “shift” pedal since it moves the entire action the width of one piano wire in the treble. Since the hammer only engages two wires in a unison, the volume is softer.

Hmm. This looks suspicious. This is the keybed, a very flat surface for the action, but made of somewhat softer wood. That round circle is hardwood. When the left pedal is pressed, the whole action assembly moves to the right.  The action rests on stainless steel buttons which slide on this hardwood area. That faint line extending from the button is actually an indentation in the wood. That should not be there. That is a symptom, but I am yet sure what is causing the symptom.

Here is a closer look. Ordinarily, if this piano had been prepped properly by the dealer. there would be traces of lubricate leaving a stain trail. As the action is removed from the piano, the excess lubricate will smear as the action is removed. No biggie, but in this case, there is a depression in the wood, and no stain. Also, there appears to be an application of wax on the hardwood button. I have not seen that before, so I am going to have to confer with my fellow tuners about this.

Not the most exciting photos on the web, but plenty to get excited about if your piano technician does not bother to inspect this area. I found three pencils in there too.

Things to do

1. Adjust plunger on player

2. Replace plunger felts.

3. Lubricate keybed buttons.

4. Tighten all screws

I may also lubricate the back end of the keys where they cantilever over the plungers so they can slide into place easier. Will think on that a bit.