Bakelite was developed in 1907. It is one of the first plastics. It is very brittle, a condition which increases with age. Pianos which have Bakelite parts present a unique challenge to piano technicians. The cost to replace the Bakelite with wood parts is often more than the piano is worth. In the photo above, the flange broke under very little pressure.
Cost savings strategies are dear to corporations. In the 1930s plastic was the rage. It promised to perform as well as wood. It did not live up to the promise. Who were the piano builders who used Bakelite? No record exists, to my knowledge. The practices of the piano industry are not often scrutinized by the public or even within the piano industry. Piano manufacturers boast that pianos will last for 75 years or more, but many problems linked to faulty products or sub-standard manufacturing do not appear until a piano is over 20 years old. By that time, the product managers and CEOs may have retired or moved to other companies. The same conditions exist today. Periodically there are reports of major materials, design or construction problems with pianos, but it is rare (if it occurs at all) that the names of responsible parties are released to the public. The incompetence of profit-motivated manufacturers goes unnoticed, unreported, and the industry discreetly absorbs those same managers. Bakelite pianos serve as a good example of a significant design flaw. Who was responsible? No one knows.
This is a hammer jack. It delivers the full force of the “blow” of the key to an area directly underneath the hammer. The hammer is thrust forward towards the piano wire. Notice above that the flange used to anchor the hammer jack is made of wood. It is safe to assume that the designer of this piano (a Lester) knew that a Backelite flange would not hold up under the force used to propel the hammer. The hammer jack itself is very brittle and must be replaced. All 88 jacks will have to replaced.
These are the Bakelite flanges, seen from the back of the action. They are also brittle, likely to break if the action part is disassembled, but they are not subjected to as much force as the hammer jack. They still need to be replaced.
I am holding the flange. The hammer should swing free and fall. It does not. Corrosion in the flange is holding the center pin firmly in the bushing cloth (red circle). This condition, as it appears in this piano, is very severe. All the pins in the flanges will need to be removed and replaced. These flanges also need to be replaced.
Fortunately I keep a supply of old parts from pianos I have literally taken to the dump. These flanges may not fit though. The cost of new flanges will total into the hundreds of dollars. The piano was made in 1946, (66 years old), and it is worth saving. But the cost may not be within the budget of the client. If I acquired the piano for free, intent on repairing and reselling it, the cost of the parts and labor would exceed the market price of the piano. Therefore, I would part it out and take the remainder to the dump. Such is the case with all pianos that have Bakelite parts.
It is particularly irritating to me to see this happen for several reasons. I do not like it when the life of a piano is lessened because of the use of inferior parts. I also do not like how this impacts the client. Most often these old pianos hold sentimental value for family members. As a technician, I end of being the bearer of bad news when I must inform the client that the piano needs extensive and expensive repairs, not from natural causes. In a way I wish the product managers from the 1940s could experience the sadness and disappointment I witness when clients are informed that their piano has exceeded its life as a musical instrument. Such unfortunate circumstances come with the territory. It is part of the job of being a piano technician. The last reason I get irritated is because I know piano manufacturers continue to make compromises in materials, design, construction and labor expertise, in order to squeeze a little more profit out of the sale and into the pockets of greedy managers.
I will try to salvage the piano. I should just read it Last Rites, but for sake of the client I will do my best to piece it together so she can play a few hymns for a few more years.