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I am not a piano repairman. But when our piano tuner told us that it would be pretty expensive to fix our 1950s-era spinet piano (for which we paid $60), my wife urged me to try it myself.
A couple weeks earlier, one of the younger kids had been pounding on the keys, and the dowel rod holding one of the hammers snapped right off. My wife found the broken piece inside the piano. It was the B-flat above middle C–so not exactly a note that we could do without.
It’s easy to forget that a piano is both a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument. Press a key, and a small hammer strikes a string held in tension over a soundboard. There are 88 of these hammers, most of which strike three strings at once. The dowel rod that held this hammer somehow snapped in two–perhaps there was a flaw in the wood, or perhaps the key was just struck too hard. That happens sometimes when you have little kids.
Regardless, fixing this hammer was going to be tricky. Open up the bottom of the piano, and this is what you see:
All those vertical, wooden pieces are part of the action–the mechanism that connects each key to each hammer. The broken piece was deep inside this very complicated mechanism. (Pardon the funny lighting, but the ambient lighting in my living room is abysmal, and I was working mostly by LED flashlight.)
Looking in from the top, this is what I see:
Somewhere down there is the other end of a broken dowel rod. My first thought was that, if I could get the stubby end out, I could surgically insert a new dowel without having to disassemble anything. Some older pianos, I knew, were assembled with hide glue, which will release when moistened. I tried it out on the free end of the broken hammer, but no luck. It’s PVA, i.e. yellow wood glue. The whole thing was going to have to come out.
All the way out.
I had heard from pianists that it was possible to remove the entire action assembly from a piano. I looked over the inside of the piano for quite some time, trying to see how the action assembly was attached. Fortunately, the internet had a helpful tutorial by a professional piano repairman. I’m not sure I would have gotten any further without his help.
Once I located the points of attachment, I started carefully removing nuts and screws.
At one point, I ran across an odd little nut that looked like this:
I recognized it as a “split nut,” which is used on many old handsaws. Getting one loose can be quite a trick, unless you have the right tool.
Which I did.
It’s an old spade bit ground down to a screwdriver shape and a notch filed into it. I made this split-nut driver several years ago when I started working with old handsaws.
When I made it, I didn’t think I’d get to use it on a piano.
In order to remove the action assembly on a spinet piano, it is also necessary to remove ALL the keys. And piano keys are NOT interchangeable. The keys on our piano are numbered, but I still kept them all in order so as to make it easier to put them back in later.
Once the keys were all out, I was able to remove the last few bolts and screws holding the action in place. I carefully lifted the whole thing out.
Here is the now-an empty piano with the keys lined up on the floor and the action assembly at the very bottom of the picture. (Side note: you can probably imagine how much dust accumulates underneath the keys over sixty years. It took us quite some time to vacuum it all out.) The keys fit over those metal pins and rest on felt pads. It really is an ingenious design, very complicated in some places and dirt-simple in others.
It was time to carry the whole action assembly out to the workbench.
If the soundboard and strings are the soul of the piano, this is its heart. I sort of feel like I’m doing open-heart surgery here. One false move, and the patient may not survive.
With the action on the workbench, I carefully un-hooked and un-screwed the very-complicated mechanism that had the broken piece.
Each key is connected to a mechanism like this. From this perspective, it looks a little like a Rube Goldberg machine. Press the key, and a whole sequence of levers, straps, and pads moves to strike the strings.
Take a moment to appreciate how many individual pieces there are in even a small piano. I count 14 wooden pieces all together here. Some of the higher notes have fewer parts, but there are 88 keys total. There over 1,000 little wooden pieces in the whole action assembly!
You can see here where the dowel supporting the hammer broke–right at the base where it was glued in.
Replacing the broken dowel was, I think, the easy part. Once it got down to cutting and shaping wood, I felt that I actually knew what I was doing. But order of operations was critical.
I first sawed the broken dowel off flush at the base. Then I carefully re-drilled the hole. The replacement dowel I’m using is a hair thinner than the original, but it’s dead-straight hardwood and should hold up to household use.
It took me three stops before I found a suitably tough hardwood dowel at a local hardware store. The original one was, I think, maple or birch. I’m not sure what species the replacement is, but it’s not poplar, which was too soft for this application.
Dealing with the other end was more tricky. After close inspection, I noticed that the dowel went into the hammer’s head at an angle. I would need to drill out the old dowel at the same precise angle. So before cutting off the old dowel, I made this little jig:
In a squared-up piece of scrap, I cut a small dado to fit the hammer and wedged it in upside down. I then inserted a long, pan-head screw into one end of the underside so I could raise the whole jig up at an angle by turning the screw. I sighted the dowel along an upright square and, by trial-and-error, found the precise angle at which the dowel was inserted.
I sawed off the old dowel and took my jig and workpiece down to the drill press.
It was easy to drill the hole at the correct angle.
I glued in the new dowel and went and had a cup of coffee while the glue dried. (Sorry, no picture of the fixed mechanism. I was so tired that I forgot to take one!)
It wasn’t easy getting the repaired mechanism back into the piano. Having one or even two people to help guide it in was very helpful. The more you bump things inside a piano, the more out of tune it will be. And I sure didn’t want to break any more pieces on this action assembly!
My oldest daughter kindly helped me put the keys back on, too.
Keys, nuts, screws–all had to be reinserted exactly as they had come out. It was especially annoying to reattach the damper and sustain pedals.
Finally everything was back in place. It was a lot of work to fix a little piece. It kind of reminded me of car repair–and not necessarily in a good way. I had to remove so many components in order to replace one little piece without which the whole thing wouldn’t work. At least it leaves my hands less greasy.
Now, of course, the piano needs to be tuned again. But it plays. And I fixed it all by myself.
Tagged: drill press, piano, piano hammer, piano keys, piano repair
High above my workbench, I keep the back-issues of a woodworking magazine I subscribe to. It takes up about 8″ of shelf space, but it grows by a fraction of an inch as a new issue arrives each month. Eventually I’ll have to cull the pile, saving issues with articles that I will want to reread and throwing out the rest. Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody took the time to compile the really good articles, especially the ones covering essential tools and techniques, and reprinted them in a bound book?
That is exactly what Christopher Schwarz & co. at Lost Art Press have done with The Woodworker, a magazine published in Britain and edited by Charles H. Hayward from 1939 to 1967.
I first met Hayward’s work back in my graduate school days. When it came to woodworking, I was both ignorant and broke, so at the end of one school year I used some of my remaining printer pages to print out a bunch of old woodworking books, including Charles Hayward’s How to Make Woodwork Tools, from various archive websites. I three-hole punched them and put them in binders. It wasn’t an elegant solution, but it was the only affordable way to hold these classic books in my hands.
Now the bulk of Hayward’s work is available bound in these finely printed books. These three volumes contain over 1,100 pages of instruction and information on woodworking, focusing almost exclusively on hand-work. A fourth volume is coming out in February, and it will cover shop equipment and furniture styles. Volume four will add over 300 more pages to the set, bringing the total number of pages to 1,500. (The pages are numbered continuously across volumes.) The set retails at $37-$45 per volume, though I expect that you’ll be able to order all four as a set once they’re all in print. You can order them individually from the publisher here.
The volumes are organized by topic, although the fact that they are made up of hundreds of self-contained magazine articles means that the organization is somewhat loose. Here’s what you can expect in each volume:
Volume 1: Tools
This volume of about 450 pages includes articles on sharpening, marking tools (such as squares and marking gauges), chisels, hand planes (both metal and wooden), and hand saws. There are also short sections on turning and veneering. The volume also includes articles on basic techniques like planing and sawing, as well as a number of articles on relief carving and letter carving. The articles describe the notable characteristics of well-made tools, as well as typical modifications and repairs.
The sheer scope of the information in volume 1 is overwhelming, though this volume is perhaps the most repetitive of the set. If you’re already familiar and comfortable with your basic tool kit, you could skip this volume. But I don’t recommend doing that. There is enough detailed information here on effective tool use that it’s well worth the sticker price.
Volume 2: Techniques
In this volume of over 400 pages, there are articles describing a wide range of hand tool techniques that a well-equipped woodworker should know. It covers everything from shooting board techniques and creative clamp use to drawer and door construction, moldings, and cabriole legs. Want to know how cut a stopped rabbet? It’s here. How to fit a door? It’s here too. How to affix a table top to its base? Yep, it’s here. Which nails to use for which job? That’s also covered. Plowing a curved groove for inlay? That, too.
In volume 2, the superb illustrations alone are worth the cover price. The articles are very well written and instructive, but you can learn a whole lot just by looking at the charts and illustrations. I enjoyed just flipping through the volume and reading anything that caught my eye. Just now, I happened upon instructions for making a replacement handle for a socket chisel without using a lathe. It immediately solved a problem for me that I had always struggled with before. Now why didn’t I think of doing it that way?!? (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. Go buy the book yourself. You cheapskate.)
Volume 3: Joinery
This volume contains nearly everything from the popular but long-out-of-print book Woodworking Joints by Charles Hayward. According to the publisher, however, this is much more than just a reprint. It not only contains virtually everything that the original Woodworking Joints book included, but also includes many other articles that were never reprinted. The articles cover edge joints, mortise-and-tenon, rabbets and dadoes, lap and bridle joints, miters of all kinds, and of course dovetails. I never knew there were so many variations on the lap joint.
As with volume 2, you can learn a lot from volume 3 just by looking at the illustrations. But don’t skip the articles themselves. Every article has helpful tips that make hand work simpler and warn you away from common pitfalls. Although this is by far the slimmest of the volumes (only about 270 pages), it is perhaps the most packed with information. Solid joinery is a cornerstone of woodworking, but it is often the thing that hobby woodworkers struggle with the most. If you are going to buy just one volume of the set, this is the one to get.
Every good book should have little surprises that reward the reader, and The Woodworker is no exception. The editors not only include quite a few period advertisements, but they also reprint many of the original magazine headings, complete with volume numbers, issue numbers, dates, and decorative illustrations.
I have two cautions for readers just delving into these books. First, remember that the period photography is often grainy and of little help in illustrating the articles. Our woodworking magazines have accustomed us to sharp, close-up photography, but don’t expect that here. What we get instead more than makes up for it. The pages are covered with Hayward’s own crystal-clear line drawings, as well as numerous charts and illustrations. On balance, I much prefer illustrations to even the best photographs when it comes to learning techniques from a book.
Second, because the volumes cover nearly thirty years of publication, there is a good deal of repetition early on. In volume 1, for example, there are about ten different articles on sharpening chisels and plane irons, all of them saying much the same thing. After a while, I began to wish that the editors had left a few of the more repetitive articles out. These books are not intended to be read through from cover to cover, but to be browsed and sampled over months and (I expect) years.
Also, I must say that the organization does not always make sense to me. On a large scale, the articles are sorted into separate, topical volumes. But on a closer look, some of the organization seems haphazard. For example, letter-carving is covered in volume one, Tools, whereas the articles on assembling basic tool kits are in volume two, Techniques. The tables of contents in both books is titled “Tools and Techniques.” Perhaps there was no perfect way to organize such a mountain of information into a reference encyclopedia, and since the volumes are available for sale individually, it makes some sense that the information be spread out across volumes. But it makes it difficult to use these as reference books.
I love the historical perspective that these volumes give me. Woodworking in Britain changed more slowly than it did in America, especially after WWII, and while power tools do appear in the books, it is assumed that most work will still be done by hand. The articles on sharpening indicate that most woodworkers did not even own a bench grinder–a situation I was in for many years. Unlike a lot of writers in today’s woodworking magazine, these authors do not assume that every reader will have a wide array of well-tuned power tools and accessories. Instead, they frequently give instructions for effective work-arounds. There are whole articles in volume 2 on what to do when you don’t have a standard tool and can’t just go out and buy it.
As a professional teacher of writing, I especially appreciate the authors’ clear, direct writing style. You won’t stumble over vague, cumbersome sentences when trying to understand a technique the author is describing. There are a few new vocabulary words to learn (e.g. what we call “clamps,” the Brits call “cramps”), but the writing is exactly like the tools and joinery it describes: straightforward, robust, and effective.
When asked for a one-volume introduction to hand tools, I will continue to recommend Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but when asked for a comprehensive guide to woodworking with hand tools, I will be recommending The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years.
Some years ago I was given a wooden tenor recorder. (It’s a Küng pearwood, made in Germany, if anybody cares.) It came in a basswood storage case that the previous owner had made for it, but time and use had weighed heavily on the original case. The cheap hinges eventually fell off, and there was no latch to keep the box closed. The interior, however, still did its job of protecting the instrument, so I resolved to build a second, sturdier box around the original basswood case.
That was four or five years ago. Finally, over the holidays, I built the case.
The finished box is made from cherry and spalted pecan–the same wood combination that comprises my tool chest, on which the recorder case is sitting in the above photo. I like the combination visually, and I happened to have a lot of both woods on hand. I also selected some cherry that had a few bug holes in it (including one massively big hole) in order to do some creative inlay to fill the holes.
But back to the original basswood case. It has a story.
The maker was a high school math teacher. She wasn’t much of a woodworker, but she did understand geometry. She bought a number of thin pieces of basswood, which is very soft and easy to carve. She she measured the recorder pieces at different points, drew out the measurements on each thin piece, cut the profile out of each section, and then glued the sections together to form a box. The result is what you see above–though I presume she did some sanding to get everything fitted just right.
In my own stock selection, I found pieces of wood that were thick enough that I could saw each one in half. That way, the top and bottom pieces that make up each side of the clamshell would be bookmatched. The cherry sides ended up at about 3/8″ thick, and the pecan top and bottom just a little thinner. But I did almost no numerical measurement on this project. The new case just needs to fit the old case snuggly inside it.
I carefully arranged the pieces for the best visual effect and marked them out.
Construction was straightforward. I dovetailed the corners–one big dovetail per corner–and plowed grooves all around the insides of the cherry sides to accept the pecan top and bottom, which will be captured in the grooves once the sides are assembled.
On the long sides, I used my plow plane to cut the groove along their entire lengths, but had I done that to the short end pieces, the ends of the groove would show as gaps once the box was put together, and I’d have to plug each gap. The other option is to make a stopped groove.
I began by taking a couple strokes with my plow plane, stopping before I went all the way through the end. That way, I had the groove laid out exactly as it should be. I just needed to deepen the groove. I first used a utility knife to score each side of the groove.
I then used a narrow chisel and mallet to deepen the groove. The result wasn’t exactly pretty, but it worked. The grooves are small, about 3/16″ wide and deep.
I beveled the top of each panel with a handplane so as to just fit into the grooves. Then it was time to glue up each side.
Everything came together nicely. When your joints are cut precisely, you shouldn’t need much clamping pressure to keep them together as the glue dries. Just enough to ensure that all mating surfaces are making full contact, and that the joints don’t somehow spring apart while you’re not looking.
After planing, the joinery looks pretty tight all around.
I cut a small chamfer all around the top and bottom of each side, just to break the sharp edges and prevent damage to the box in use.
Then it was time to fill in the bug holes with some some crushed stone inlay. The process is not difficult, and I’ve used it before on my dining table and other projects. I begin by back-filling any deep holes with cheap material–either sawdust or a slip of wood, such as a section of a toothpick. When I back-fill with sawdust, I flood it with superglue to keep it all in place. Then I fill each hole with the inlay material, which in this case is a green stone called malachite. (I get it in small amounts on Amazon–I get the finest grain available.) I mound it up a bit over each hole and then soak it with superglue. The regular, thin variety works better than the gel kind. Once the glue sets up, I scrape and sand the surface flush and clean.
Fitting the old box into the new one was easy enough. It did require a little planing here and there to get everything to fit. Somehow I made the new box just a little too long, so I had to pack just a little filler (wood shavings squeezed flat) into one end.
I ordered some hinges and a latch from Lee Valley, and while I waited for them to arrive in the mail, I set about finishing the box. Because the box may see significant handling, I went with three coats of a semi-gloss polyurethane.
Everything fits nicely now.
The recorder fits very nicely
I could have used small hinges that required a mortise, but I really like the look of decorative, surface-mount hinges for a project like this. And they’re a lot easier to install. To hold them steady while I marked out the screw holes, I taped them down with masking tape.
The latch is a simple wire catch.
It was a satisfying project, and my favorite recorder will have a fine home for many years to come.
Tagged: box making, cherry, dovetailed box, pecan, recorder, recorder box, recorder case, spalted pecan, stopped groove, tenor recorder