building a custom piano, looking for advises

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bach_addict
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building a custom piano, looking for advises

Post by bach_addict » 14 Nov 2012, 21:50

hello everyone
I'm new to this forum and I'm french so I hope you will excuse my sometimes bizarre english.

I am in the complex process of building a grand piano just for "fun", and I was hoping to get some advises here. I am not a piano technician, I just have a lot of interest in the field, my only strengths are that I own an engineering degree, that I have enough spare time, patience and that I am very motivated. A friend of mine who is a good piano technician also advises me on that project, so the situation is not that desperate !

my first question is about the action : I am not planning to build one, but rather buy it. I understand that Renner and the likes will not just sell me an action as they only deal with registered piano technicians, fait enough, since I know one.
Since I am building the piano from scratch , I believe that I have more freedom in the choice of the action (as I can adapt the grand to the action). So is it possible to pick any Renner action (let us say the cheapest one), through a piano technician, then work out how the piano should be build ?
Also, are there different types of actions ? I am chiefly interested in an action that would fit for a piano with a relatively low string tension, and thinner strings than the modern standard, so the speed of the hammers should be as low as possible. Is this possible to choose a new action that is better than the others for that purpose ? I assume that the action for a Steinway D will be more powerfull than the one that we can find on a Steinway A or a even smaller grand (or are they the same, just reconfigured?)

Are there other action builders, that are still in business, and cheaper than Renner but still produce good quality parts?

Last, wouldn't it be cheaper to buy a used grand piano, with an action that works still correctly, then adapt the plans of my grand piano so this action fits well ? Maybe this will be cheaper but will the time and cost of repairing an old action (if I have to pay a piano technician to do the job) exceed the cost of buying a new one? It all depends on the age and state of the used action, I guess, but on average, do you think that buying a very old piano (like 60 years+ ) to get the action at low price is less expensive than buying a new one ?

thanks in advance for your answers !
Last edited by bach_addict on 15 Nov 2012, 12:26, edited 1 time in total.

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Colin Nicholson
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Re: building a custom piano, looking for advices

Post by Colin Nicholson » 15 Nov 2012, 00:31

A difficult subject here to convey on this forum - and only general advice may be offered - and regrettably we are unable to give out too much technical information in order to protect the trade - alot of info is classified - sorry. It's not a question of just selecting the right action to fit your piano, and just choosing various parts.... you also need to consider the basics first such as all the dimensions such as the height of the keybed/ thickness and height of the key frame.... then select the right action frame. Steinway's action frames are mostly all welded together "as one" with 5 alloy struts forming 3 tubular action rails - one for the hammers, one for the levers and one for the set-off buttons. I believe Renner actions are an alloy frame with wooden action rails.... the concert grands (eg Bosendorfer) have 6 struts, with 12 screws holding the action in place. A standard Model A has 10 screws. So you will need to construct the keyframe according to the action frame..... and if you wanting it sounding like Steinway, you will need duplex bars - 3 of them needed for the treble between the bridge and hitch pins.

The power of a model D is relative to the longer keys & keyframe combined with much longer strings, bigger dampers, more lead weights - the actions are very similar and robust for all models mainly due to good quality hammer shanks/ rollers and flanges combined. Dealing with touch weight/ key weight etc is too specialised on this forum.

Much too much to mention here!! .... but thats a start.
I'm not sure about your "low tension" & thinner strings? ...... are you building the cast iron frame yourself????.... and why would you fit thinner strings? If you are (say) stringing a model A (6ft 2"), it MUST start in the top treble with 13 gauge wire - each string tensioned to approx 80 kg - for the first 6 tri-chords.... and of course you will need to consider building the bridge/ capo bar/ upper bridge plate & agraffes (and open agraffes) for the strings to have sufficient down-bearing. You also need to have pattern of your bass strings/ singles/ bi chords and tri-chords - of which there are 7 bass tri-chords on a Model A.... all fitted with split wedge dampers.

Hope that helps for a start.... but I dont think you can just "buy a piano action off the shelf" so to speak.

Maybe best to buy an old grand and then copy it. Mammoth task I think!

I might be wrong in saying this, but I think you need to know someone who is in the piano construction trade - not just a piano technician or tuner. Getting parts and vast amount of information will be a virtually impossible task.
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bach_addict
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Re: building a custom piano, looking for advises

Post by bach_addict » 15 Nov 2012, 12:25

thank you very much for your quick and detailed answer Colin. I don't want to disclose here exactly which type of piano I am planning to build, but the task is manageable.
My friend is more in the business of rebuilding pianos than tuning, eventhough he tunes on a regular basis as many people do. He also used to work in the piano industry, so he is quite experienced. He also did a very good job at repairing/replacing parts in my Steinway A and having tried one of the piano he rebuilt from scratch some time ago, I was quite impressed. So I am in good hands, but the more advises you get the better (and I don't want to ask him one question a day he is a busy man).

I realise that my question is a little bit like "I want to build a car, where can I buy a standard Rolls Royce engine, please". So I am gratefull you took some time to explain anyway :)

I am currently working on a prototype and when this work will be more advanced, I will know which lenghts, heights, levers ,etc, I would like to use. In the meantime I will put my hand on any part of used action that I can find, or maybe build some parts, so I can produce some sounds and work out plans.

Anyway, thanks again. Will keep you updated of the work from time to time if some of you guys are interested. Would you advise to go to more technical forums or do you think that this one is ok ?

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Re: building a custom piano, looking for advises

Post by joseph » 15 Nov 2012, 19:31

just when you thought you'd seen it all....

didn't a young man in New Zealand do this about 5 years ago? Based on a previous design I believe?

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Re: building a custom piano, looking for advises

Post by amlv12 » 13 May 2014, 00:32

I realise this thread is old, but I couldn't help replying.

Firstly, I think it's great that someone outside of the traditional profession was sufficiently interested to try and build a piano - how did it go? Equally, I agree with the responder that it is not a trivial task!

The thing that really motivated me to reply was the responder's first sentence: "...regrettably we are unable to give out too much technical information in order to protect the trade - alot of info is classified". Personally I think this commonly exhibited attitude is at the heart of why piano tuning/repair/restoration/etc is a dying art.

Actually appear to have a similar background to bach_addict: I run a technology company, I have a PhD in aeronautical engineering & computing, I've been playing the piano for 25yrs (I'm no Lang Lang or Kissin, but I appreciate a good instrument), and fortunately I too have a friendly piano builder/technician. He has always been keen to share his knowledge with me, since I was about 10. Indeed I credit him with encouraging my interest in the subject to begin with, relatively recently I have invested serious time in this subject - partly because it is difficult to find a good professional in this country.

It seems that the principal reason there are so few professional technicians around is that 30-40 years ago the piano building industry had a huge dip in sales and canned all their apprenciship programmes. Things have improved steadily in more recent years, but the number of independent technicians is apparently still declining. Surely protectionism such as in the responder's post is only justifiable in the short term as a means of securing an order book? How would you cope if demand increased, there aren't many good technicians you could employ to help you. What about personal retirement planning or business succession? Many of those that do become technicians are 'hand picked', whilst they are no doubt talented this does mean that the 'technicians' gene pool' is somewhat restricted!

Maybe I am missing something, but surely it is an inherent quality of any 'profession' that knowledge and information are not guarded secrets but openly shared. Even in the shady world of defence technology everyone shares experience (although not designs) because they realise this is an important part of knowledge development- it is all too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when confined to your daily sphere of operation.

I don't mean to cause offense, but it is deeply frustrating to hear so many people in an industry complain it is in decline whilst simultaneously trying to keep it all for themselves. The development of pianos has been heavily guided by science, they are no more magic than aeroplanes or bicycles - and like those inventions, a great piano requires the devotion to detail of an artist. The difference, which perhaps is the only hope, is that with pianos the need for a creative/artistic quality on the part of the professional is more obvious: so it should be easier to convince newcomers that it is a subject worthy of their time. I am sure the many industries desperate to encourage youngsters to study technical subjects would give their right arm for something so attractive.

"Knowledge is like money: to be of value it must circulate, and in circulating it can increase in quantity and, hopefully, in value." [Louis L’Amour]

"Alchemists turned into chemists when they stopped keeping secrets." [Eric Raymond]

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Re: building a custom piano, looking for advises

Post by Colin Nicholson » 14 May 2014, 10:28

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Last edited by Colin Nicholson on 14 May 2014, 10:42, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: building a custom piano, looking for advises

Post by Colin Nicholson » 14 May 2014, 10:40

All information provided on this forum (either by myself or other pros) is purely done out of the goodness of our hearts - no one is paid, and we don't get a 'job description' or go through any kind of enrolment process.... except that certain moderators (eg Barrie Heaton) will look over and possibly 'vet' or add certain comments if needed. By the fact that I took around one hour to reply to this post, shows willing and nothing I said was secret. Much of the information that was written by the member (with respect) didn't make a lot of sense.

Discussing about piano building from scratch, or providing detailed technical drawings/ measurements/ dimensions/ geometry issues etc can only be generalised here.... as the member did say in the title "Looking for advises" (ok, slight grammar error, should be "Looking for advice") . Even when I asked what kind of piano was being built, the member didn't want to disclose this information!!!.... so who is in the wrong now?.... it seems that even their own DIY plans are secretly guarded!!

I felt that my reply was well & truly detailed and appropriate on this forum taking into account that none of knew anything about the instrument, and that there were no diagrams/ images shown, or any specific detailed questions asked about dimensions etc.

There are plenty technical piano books out there on the market, which show detailed information about piano "rebuilding" - but as yet, I don't think there are any manuals showing you how to build a piano from scratch.... I don't think this would affect my status or business creditability by saying that there are a few guarded secrets.... which rightly so.... if everyone here spilled out every bit of detail, we might risk giving wrong or inappropriate information.

I might ask you.... "How do you build a rocket, I want to launch it into space?"
Detailed plans/ diagrams/ step-by-step processes ....please provide here on this forum.

So.... if anyone is to contact me personally and ask some questions (like I do on a regular basis, and particularly to a good amateur piano technician in Switzerland) .... feel free to ask.... however, I have never built a piano from scratch.... and to be honest, even if I picked up a flat-pack piano from Norway, I would myself needed to read it in much detail. General information/ advice/ helpful information/ some detail/ is usually the 'key' thing for a forum.

Certainly not a dying trade where I live.... very busy 24/7 !

I regularly give detailed information to my customers - show them the tools needed, and even point them in the right direction for books to buy - yesterday, I spent an extra hour (free) explaining about a player unit in a pianola.... and if anyone knows me personally, they know the level of service they receive for a very moderate fee... but some extra coffee & biscuits.... you'll be wanting rid of me!

I think it is fair to say, like any business - car mechanic/ scientist/ etc etc.... everyone pays a lot of money for their tuition/ lectures.. providing and buying tools for the trade (to learn at college) worth thousands of pounds over a few years/ travelling costs and so on.... and whilst we offer valuable advice here on the forum (which may be restricted at times) - I myself, when I to know the customer - I often offer loads of free advice & help.... however, not forgetting this is not a charity, and all piano tuners/ technicians are out to make money & profit.... just like any other business.

Colin
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Piano tuning & repairs. Full UK restoration service
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athomik
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Re: building a custom piano, looking for advises

Post by athomik » 14 May 2014, 19:05

I am always happy to advise dealers and customers, if it is a short enquiry - whether by email or phone, or on this forum. If an enquiry requires extensive research/time, I would charge at some point. But being in a specialist position, I am not prepared to assist major manufacturers in educating/training possible competition for free.

However, I believe that the main problem is in the decline of the piano industry in the UK, which means that there are fewer opportunities for people to get into the business and learn their trade, which in turn means that there is less demand for training courses ( AFAIK, there is only Newark College left)

The result is that there are a lot of good piano designers and technicians but, due to profit margins, they are all (with a few brave exceptions) in Asia. :(
athomik

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