Three Hamburg Steinways: Problems and Solutions
1935 Steinway D (8' 11¾")
This piano, which is in the private residence of a professional pianist who plays major repertoire, was rebuilt in the 1990s. The pianist complained that the repetition was too slow, and that the piano lacked good tonal presence in the treble. Another technician had added lead weights to the rear section of the keys in an attempt to make the action repeat faster, but this only made it more sluggish.
When inspected, the instrument turned out to have friction and geometry problems that had to be addressed before the action could be regulated and weighed off. When the piano was rebuilt, new action parts were installed, but they had become compressed and dirty in the 17 years since, and friction had become a major problem. In addition, the replacement action parts available when the piano was rebuilt had not been of the size originally installed, which created the geometry problems. Finally, the plate — and therefore the strings — had been reinstalled a bit too high, making regulation even more challenging and creating repetition problems. However, there was almost no hammer wear.
Given the good condition of the hammers and the high cost of replacing parts, I decided that in this case it would be more cost-effective to modify the existing parts than to replace them. First, I filed the hammers, repinned most of the action centers, cleaned and polished most other friction points and contact surfaces, and removed the extra lead weights from the keys. Then, to correct the geometry problems and compensate for the excess string height, I raised the action stack and made small changes to the contours, heights, and positions of some of the action parts. Finally, I regulated the action and corrected the touchweight.
After the problems of friction, geometry, regulation, and touchweight had been solved, I slightly repositioned the action relative to the treble strings, to get a more optimal treble tone. At the same time, the owner removed a rug from under the piano, which gave me more volume to work with. Interestingly, in addition to the above, the solution to getting more treble tone was to needle the hammers. This counterintuitive approach increased the flexibility of the hammer shoulders, which produced a rounder tone and boosted the body of the sound. The result was a more singing treble, a much more colorful tenor and bass, and greater dynamic range.
1984 Steinway O (5’ 10½”)
This Model O had had a succession of technical changes made by a series of technicians in attempts to address action problems that were primarily the results of age and heavy use. The main complaints were that the action was very uncontrollable and heavy, and the sound harsh.
Originally, the owner had complained about the action to Technician A, who replaced the hammers, shanks, and flanges with parts made by another manufacturer that were not suitable matches to the original. This technician had noticed that the hammers were worn, and ascribed the customer’s complaints to that, even though the customer had at first had no complaint about the tone — he was concerned about the feel of the action, which, it turned out, was dirty, worn, and had not been regulated in 28 years. But Technician A never addressed the friction or action-regulation problems, so, despite the new parts, the initial problem persisted. The customer, still not happy, called Technician B.
Technician B reinstalled the original parts (which the customer had kept), but, like Technician A, did not address the friction and regulation issues. When the customer complained to a third technician of an inability to control the piano’s volume, Technician C tried to remedy that by hardening the original, 28-year-old hammers. I then arrived to find the worn, original hammers, shanks, and flanges screwed back onto the action, the action far out of regulation, and the hammers hardened beyond retrieval.
The primary source of the problems was friction in the action — so much friction that the piano was very difficult to play at all — and the customer’s inability to control the volume was aggravated by uneven regulation. I salvaged many of the original action parts by minimizing the friction, but had to replace the hammers, shanks, and flanges because the hammers were now too hard to be voiced and the hammershank knuckles were worn.
This incident highlights the need for good communication between technician and customer, and the need for the technician to investigate beyond the customer’s initial complaint, in order to find the ultimate sources of the problems.