By Bruce Clark
The Greer Era
The important thing to remember about the Falcone Piano Company—now renamed The Mason & Hamlin Companies—was that whatever its failings, its intention was to build the best piano in the world. The founder, Santi Falcone, was gone, but his vision of piano making remained. In addition, new CEO Lloyd Meyer brought on Peter Mohr, a well-regarded former member of Steinway’s engineering department, and Allen Harrah, formerly head of Rodgers Organ. New owner Bud Greer invested in new machinery and climate-control systems. Mason & Hamlin was now part of an institution that cared about its piano making.
When Falcone acquired Mason & Hamlin, they never intended to stop building Falcone pianos, which continued to be made for some time thereafter. However, over time Mason & Hamlin came to dominate the attention of this small company, which lacked the capital and skilled workers to focus on both brands. We who worked at the company viewed Mason & Hamlin as the better piano, and because of its history certainly the easier brand to market and sell. Thus, by 1992, the Falcone brand had been phased out to focus entirely on Mason & Hamlin for grands, and on Sohmer, another brand with a distinguished history—which had been acquired with Mason & Hamlin—for uprights.
Because Falcone pianos had basically been copies of Steinway models, from a technical point of view the company had always had a Steinway mindset. But a Mason & Hamlin is not a Steinway, and can’t be made the same way. Paul Monachino (a Mason & Hamlin employee since 1946) and I possessed the only institutional knowledge of Mason & Hamlin that existed. So, Peter Mohr, Allen Harrah, and I formed a working group to answer the question, “What is a Mason & Hamlin?” Mohr, as would be expected, came at things from a Steinway point of view. Harrah was a musician with expertise in pipe organs and was a hard-nosed factory manager. I brought Falcone and Mason & Hamlin knowledge and experience. The models A and BB had between them accounted for the vast majority of Mason & Hamlin grands produced over the years; both had been original designs by Richard Gertz, not copies of something else. Extrapolating from these two models, our group worked out a standard for precisely what is a Mason & Hamlin grand.
Some things were intrinsic to the Mason & Hamlin. The shape and wood (maple) of the rims were essential, as were the original rim sizes for the grands. As explained in Part 1, the part of the rim surface to be glued to the soundboard was cut to match the soundboard, and cut-crown ribs were retained. We stayed with eastern white spruce soundboards, used in all pre-1932 Mason & Hamlins, as well as in the Steinways and Chickerings of that era, even though it was more expensive than the Sitka spruce then used by Steinway. The BB retained its traditional full-perimeter plate design, and it was our intention to eventually extend that plate design to all Mason & Hamlin grands. I could go on in considerable detail; suffice it to say that we carefully preserved everything we considered essential to a Mason & Hamlin.
Some things, however, were not intrinsic. Since the beginning, Mason & Hamlin keyboards had had sharps (black keys) that were ¼" shorter than on any other piano. That may have been a viable choice in 1910, but by 1990 there was a de facto standard for key length used around the world, and serious pianists would find the old Mason & Hamlin sharps uncomfortable. Converting to the current standard necessitated redesigns of the front of the piano and of the keyboard itself. In the process, we selected an arm shape from a 1919 model BB as the standard for all the grand models.
Although we were not in full agreement about every detail, we all respected the design and execution of the pre-Depression Mason & Hamlins and agreed on the desire for Mason & Hamlin to be restored to its original glory. This was no small task. For equipment reasons, there was no way we could do everything exactly as it had been done in Mason & Hamlin’s original Boston factory, not to mention the fact that none of the current group had been born when that plant was in operation. Also, cash flow and funds for capital investment and dealer financing were limited, which caused worker layoffs. But for the first time in decades, there were good piano people responsible for Mason & Hamlin who genuinely cared about making it the really fine instrument it had the potential to be.
In June 1990, the first two Mason & Hamlin grand pianos built to our new standards, which is to say the original Mason & Hamlin standards, emerged from the Haverhill plant in time to be exhibited at the summer NAMM trade show. By that fall, we had begun regular delivery of small numbers of pianos. These were halting steps, but resurrecting Mason & Hamlin was no small task. Within a few years, we were building pianos on a commercially viable scale. In addition, we redesigned, rebuilt, or replaced nearly every piece of manufacturing equipment we had gotten from Aeolian, our owner from 1930 to 1985. These were not easy years, but good things came from them.
New Scale Designs
During this time, I also worked on new scale designs for several models. In the years since Richard Gertz had designed the Mason & Hamlin pianos, techniques for mathematically designing a scale had dramatically advanced. After the 1960s, methods for calculating inharmonicity—the deviation of overtones from their theoretical frequencies due to string stiffness—became readily available. By the 1970s, Dr. Al Sanderson had created the first electronic tuning devices that could take inharmonicity into account. The programable calculator made the calculation of inharmonicity and string tension straightforward if somewhat time-consuming. Scaling software made these calculations much easier.
Since the beginning of piano making, designing the break—the transition from the tenor (lower treble) to the bass strings—has been a major problem. Ideally, there should be no change in volume or tone when playing notes across the break, but due to limitations of maximum string length imposed by the size of the piano’s case, few pianos achieve this. As far back as the 1920s, a few piano designers in Europe and the U.S. had experimented with a way to lay out a scale design that made designing a smooth break easier, but for various reasons, this method never caught on and was largely forgotten by the industry. Then, in the mid-1980s, Klaus Fenner, a German scale designer, reintroduced and popularized it.
Designing the old way—as Gertz would necessarily have worked—a maker would somewhat arbitrarily choose the number of notes to be strung on the bass bridge and design the rest of the scale around them. Typically, a maker would have just two different bass scales—say, a 20-note bass for larger models, and a 26-note bass for smaller models. This was done in part because it had always been done that way, and in part for efficiency—models of the same brand with the same number of bass notes can be designed to share the same keyboard and/or action.
The problem with this method is that it usually results in having to make unfortunate compromises in the lowest few notes in the tenor section, just above the break. The pitch of a string depends on its length, its mass (as represented by its diameter), and its tension, each of which can vary only within a narrow range and still produce a musical sound without the string breaking. Because a piano’s size makes it impossible to use strings of the desired length below a certain note in the scale—the smaller the piano, the higher in the scale that note is—the designer must resort to using some combination of thicker and/or shorter strings and/or lower tension to produce the lower tenor notes. However, when an abnormally short or undertensioned string is hit by a hammer, it tends to produce an ugly, flabby, or inharmonic sound, usually at a lower volume. In Gertz’s time, solving this break problem was done by trial and error—there was no reliable way to consistently achieve good results. The result is that the great majority of scales designed this way sound awful in the lowest notes above the break.
The new way, as popularized by Fenner, was quite different and solves this problem. The treble scale is laid out first, in the usual way (mathematically), with little compromise as to string length, mass, or tension. When the designer runs out of room in the case—i.e., the treble bridge gets too close to the rim to produce good tone—all notes lower in the scale are simply moved to the bass bridge. However, this means that every size of piano will have a different number of notes on the bass bridge, and therefore potentially a different keyboard and action—more desirable for the instrument, but more costly to manufacture. Changing from the traditional to the Fenner method can’t be done on a piano with an old design; it requires, at minimum, designing a new piano inside the old rim—new plate, new keyboard, new soundboard, etc.
In 1992, during a layoff (as critical personnel, I stayed on), I had little to do. I’d been thinking about designing a replacement for the model AA (6' 2½") and a new concert grand. Before the Depression, the AA had a third (transition) bridge, with a 20-note bass—it was, for all intents and purposes, a clone of Steinway’s model AI. After the Depression, the company simplified the AA to a two-bridge design. With three bridges, a 20-note bass works fine; with two bridges, it’s a disaster—20 notes are nowhere near enough notes on the bass bridge for a piano of that size. But the rim shape and a three-bridge design didn’t conform to the technical standards we’d developed for Mason & Hamlin grands, so it was obvious that the AA needed to be replaced.
To keep busy, I designed a new model, the AA-64—at 6' 4", it fell halfway between the A (5' 8") and the BB (7'). The new scale contained 26 bass notes, which allowed the string lengths in the tenor to be uncompromised and thus fully up to tension. The rim thickness fell halfway between the A and the BB. The arm and front design already worked out for the A and BB were retained, and the keys and action, though redesigned for the AA scale, featured the same design logic as the other models. Essentially, the new AA was a small BB—with all the essential features of a Mason & Hamlin, but with a newer, better scale and a more modern action.
As for the concert grand, in 1989 I had seen an original 9' 4" model CC in a church in Pennsylvania. I liked the idea of a 9' 4" concert grand, but I didn’t like that piano’s shape and scale design. I was also never a fan of the later model CC-2 (9')—it was essentially a clone of a Steinway concert grand, but with tonal flaws, and lacked a good reputation with artists, the latter itself a fatal problem. It seemed to me that a new design was needed. I designed a replacement 9' 4" model, the CC-94, the shape of its case based on that of the model BB, with a fully modern scale with an 18-note bass, the same rim structure as the intermediate model CC-1, and a fully modern action design.
During this time, I also laid out beginning sketches for a new 5' 4" model, the B-54. I had a scale designed, and initial engineering drawings that confirmed feasibility. However, I didn’t take that project very far, as I had little reason to think it was realistic to manufacture that piano. In fact, although these designs were what I thought Mason & Hamlin needed to complete its line, I had no reason to believe that any of these pianos would ever be built. The reason for my pessimism was that Mason & Hamlin was again in financial trouble, as the recession of 1991 and the losses in the Sohmer division, based in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, had drained the company of operating capital. Then, in 1994, the Elysburg plant was closed, and all production was consolidated in Haverhill. In January 1995, the Haverhill plant, too, was shut down, and Bud Greer filed for Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy protection.
In early 1995, some enterprising piano rebuilders from Boston flew to Washington State to persuade Greer to sell them his shares in the Mason & Hamlin company, which at that point had little value. Shares in hand, the rebuilders then persuaded the bankruptcy court to change the filing to Chapter 11 (reorganization). For about a year, the new owners completed the manufacture of in-process inventory and made a few new pianos from scratch, while trying to fight off legal attempts by creditors to force liquidation of the company or its sale to another party. Many creditors had no faith in the new owners’ ability to run the company profitably. They believed—rightly, in my opinion—that the new owners, while well-intentioned, lacked the necessary capital and know-how to do the job. In the end, the Court sided with the creditors, and in April 1996 awarded the Mason & Hamlin, Knabe, and Sohmer brands, and the Haverhill factory, to Kirk and Gary Burgett, founders and owners of Music Systems Research (later renamed PianoDisc), a company that produced computerized player-piano systems.
The Burgett Era
The Burgett brothers had started out as piano retailers, selling pianos made by South Korean manufacturer Young Chang, and had become one of its most successful dealers. In the 1980s the Burgetts were installing in new pianos, as a primary way of selling them, the Marantz Pianocorder, an early electronic player-piano system. In the late 1980s, Yamaha bought the rights to the Pianocorder, then discontinued it and introduced their own Disklavier player-piano system, leaving dealers such as the Burgetts without products to sell. Seeing an opportunity, the Burgetts invested in the creation of their own brand of electronic player-piano system, PianoDisc. The advantage of PianoDisc over Disklavier was that, whereas Disklavier was available only in new Yamaha pianos, PianoDisc could be installed in any piano, new or old. By the mid-1990s, PianoDisc had become one of the roaring success stories of the American music industry, and the Burgetts were looking for other investment opportunities just as the Mason & Hamlin bankruptcy presented itself.
Both Burgetts were piano people, though in different ways. Gary, now deceased, was a university-trained pianist who taught piano before they opened their dealership, and Kirk was a piano technician. In the 1980s, Kirk became a Certified Tuning Examiner (CTE) in the Piano Technicians Guild, not a common status. Both had seen and played the old Mason & Hamlins, and both loved them. For this reason, the Burgetts made what was eventually the winning offer for the company, and took ownership in March 1996. In 1997, the first pianos of the Burgett era left the factory. Thus began—again—the long, difficult task of restoring Mason & Hamlin to the ranks of the world’s best pianos.
The biggest challenge was rebuilding the workforce. Of the approximately 50 workers at the time the factory closed in January 1995, fewer than ten returned a year later. Starting up a mostly new workforce is quite different from introducing a new worker to an existing production system. The process is slow, difficult, and develops at its own pace. For the next three years, it was a struggle to produce pianos at the required level of quality and volume, but by 2000, Mason & Hamlin was back on track.
In 2001, the Burgetts invested in computer numerical control (CNC) manufacturing technology and the requisite three-dimensional (3D) modeling and computer-aided design (CAD) software and skills. Kirk Burgett felt—correctly, as it turned out—that CAD and CNC machining were the future. Converting to 3D design is no simple process. We had to learn to 3D-model all of the various dimensions for which, previously, we had relied on rules of thumb. For example: The thickness of a rim can be drawn with 2D design, but in a traditional scale drawing, the rim’s height is not represented, nor is the cut on the top of the rim that matches the soundboard. Kirk’s foresight proved very much to Mason & Hamlin’s benefit, as it enabled us to increase the reliability and accuracy of what we did on a daily basis.
Since the early 1990s, we had intended to extend the model BB’s full-perimeter plate design to all grand models. When Baldwin moved its plate making to Brazil in late 1999, we feared that O.S. Kelly, the only remaining U.S. plate manufacturer, would go out of business, so we moved our plate making to another vendor. (To ensure its own supply of plates, Steinway bought O.S. Kelly in 2001.) In the process, we were able to change the plates to full perimeter, thus unifying our plate design across the line as well as solving some other nagging problems. At this point, we redesigned the hitch-pin patterns in the trebles of the A and the BB models, so that we could place a stainless-steel plate under the tunable aliquots. This increased the usefulness of the tunable-aliquot feature that had been included in Mason & Hamlin pianos since at least 1910; the aliquots could now be tuned without damaging the plate finish. Moving to a new plate vendor and developing new plate designs is a large and expensive undertaking we would have preferred to avoid, but in this case, it paid great dividends. The Burgetts deserve great credit for being willing to make this investment.
In the early 2000s, Mason & Hamlin was still producing only two models, the A (5' 8") and BB (7'). These models were well chosen: Both were, at their core, Gertz pianos, and, as mentioned earlier, had sustained the line for the better part of a century. However, a piano maker needs an entire line of models so that dealers can make a living selling that maker’s pianos without seeking out models from a competing maker to fill out the line—two models of grand are not enough.
In thinking through the idea of bringing out a new model AA, we had to decide whether to bring back the old one or use the design I’d worked up in the 1990s. As we revisited the old version, it became obvious to all that it did not conform to the new standards we’d worked out, derived from the A and BB, and we decided to go with the new design. As described earlier, this piano was essentially a small BB with a fully modern scale, and incorporated all the essential features of the new Mason & Hamlin standard, including the newly designed full-perimeter plate. The biggest break with the past was that the scale contained 26 bass notes, which allowed the string lengths in the tenor to be uncompromised and thus the break area to be fully up to tension. The piano also contained a modern action design with lowered inertia. In January 2004, we introduced the brand-new 6' 4" model, the AA-64, at the trade show. By that fall it was in production, and rapidly became one of our best sellers.
While the AA was in development, we’d begun thinking about a concert grand. Again, under the new owners, we had to decide whether to revive the old CC-2 or commit to the CC-94 I’d designed in 1992. We had an old CC-2 in-house to study, and after extensive discussions, opted for the new CC-94. As described earlier, this model was to be a larger, fully modernized version of the BB. Sticking with the design logic of the AA, this piano became an 18-bass-note concert grand. Again, we moved notes to the bass bridge as required by the piano’s length, rather than assuming a required number of bass notes. In January 2005, we introduced the new CC-94 9' 4" concert grand at the trade show. Though it had taken us longer to get into production than had the AA-64, the CC-94 was being shipped by the end of the year.
When the Marketing Department requested that the model B be brought back into production, I got out my sketches from the 1990s. Again, after much discussion, it became clear that the old model B (variously called T3 or B3 under previous company ownerships) did not live up to our standards and, over the years, had been cheapened in many ways. For example, the case bracing was a single post down the middle of the piano.
The old T3/B3 was a 26-bass-note piano with the same keys and action as the model A. (As mentioned earlier, using the same number of bass notes and the same keys and action in pianos of widely varying sizes is a common practice in the piano industry, but not a good practice.) When we thought through the various issues, it became evident to all that while a 26-note bass is correct for the AA at a length of 6' 4", a 26-note bass can’t possibly be correct for a piano a full foot shorter. Instead, we designed a new model, the B-54 (5' 4"), with a 30-note bass. There was a lot more design work to be done, as my 1990s design had not been taken as far as those of the other new models. But the B-54 repeated the pattern set by the AA-64: It was introduced at the trade show in January 2007, was in production by the following fall, and within a few years had become one of our best-selling models.
Around the same time, the model 50, the only upright Mason & Hamlin makes, was re-introduced. The 50 had been brought back in the post-Aeolian period in 1987, 1991, and 1994. The problem that led to this stuttering production schedule was that our case-finishing capacity was then limited. This meant that every time we built and finished an upright, a grand would not get built—the grands being better sellers and more profitable, the uprights inevitably lost out. In the mid-2000s, we solved the problem by building the upright strung backs in Haverhill, buying finished case parts for them from an outside vendor, and completing their assembly in the PianoDisc factory in Sacramento, California, where there was enough space and personnel for this operation.
While Mason & Hamlin is still a grand-piano maker that also makes a few uprights, the uprights are built to standards similar to the grands. The back is all maple and contains a Tension Resonator, and the soundboard gluing surface is crowned. The soundboard itself is crowned the same way as in the grands, and the ribs are made the same way. A Mason & Hamlin upright adheres to the Gertz standard and is thus a true Mason & Hamlin in every sense.
By 2007, Mason & Hamlin again offered a full line of pianos, each model faithfully designed and built following the concepts of Richard Gertz. In many ways, these new models were the cleanest implementations of Gertz’s ideas Mason & Hamlin had ever produced.
The Wessell, Nickel & Gross Revival
The golden-age Mason & Hamlins used Wessell, Nickel & Gross (WNG) actions. Otto Wessell, Adam Nickel, and Rudolph Gross originally made actions at Steinway. In 1874 they left Steinway to start their own company, which rapidly rose to prominence until, by 1881, when Mason & Hamlin began making pianos, WNG was the best action maker in the world. Over time, Mason & Hamlin became their most prominent customer; indeed, often the two are thought of together.
Although Aeolian had bought the WNG manufacturing equipment out of bankruptcy during the Depression and used it for more than 50 years, it never used the WNG trade name in connection with Mason & Hamlin pianos, and the trademark expired in 1953. In 2005 the Burgett brothers re-registered the Wessell, Nickel & Gross trademark to reserve it for future use, essentially reconnecting with the company’s heritage. At that time, all that really changed was the addition of a little brass plate on our actions with the WNG name, but in 2005, we began work on designing a new piano action under that name.
Traditional wooden action parts have inherent problems. Wood and bushing cloth are highly hygroscopic, meaning that they swell and shrink with changes in humidity. This has been true for as long as wooden actions with cloth bushings have been used in pianos. High humidity causes piano actions to become sluggish and have a higher touch weight. In cold weather, low humidity causes piano actions to become loose and sometimes noisy. Over the years, several attempts have been made to solve these problems.
In the late 1940s, Pratt, Read & Company came out with acetate-based plastic actions that seemed for a while to help. They still had cloth bushings, but at least there was no wood to swell or shrink. By the early 1950s, however, it had become clear that this early form of plastic was crumbling and falling apart. To Pratt-Read’s credit, they were only trying to solve a problem—and the problem their solution created gave generations of future piano technicians work in replacing crumbling plastic actions!
In 1962, Steinway introduced bushings made of solid Teflon, which didn’t swell or shrink like wool-based bushings. But while the Teflon didn’t respond to humidity changes, the wood around it did, with the result that the Teflon bushings became loose and noisy in humid environments. In dry environments, the Teflon, being relatively soft, would get squeezed by the wood, creating a too-tight bushing. Training technicians to service Teflon bushings was also problematic, and Steinway resumed using cloth bushings around 1981. But again, Steinway deserves credit for trying to solve a problem of long-standing.
In 1970, Kawai introduced action parts made from a composite called ABS (acrylonitrile, butadiene, styrene), a plastic that is relatively light and stable. However, because ABS is both more dense and less rigid than wood, the first ABS parts were heavier than desired in order to make them acceptably rigid. In 2004 Kawai introduced its Millennium III composite actions, in which the stiffness of ABS was reinforced with carbon fiber, thus making it possible to use less of the material, for lighter action parts. However, Kawai still used cloth bushings.
Over the years, Kawai took a lot of criticism from competitors for using action parts made of plastic, the implication being that these parts would crumble like the primitive plastics of the 1940s. But over time, Kawai’s new composites proved extremely durable, and now such criticisms are rarely heard. Kawai thus paved the way for others, including Mason & Hamlin, to use nontraditional materials in pianos.
In late 2005, we at Mason & Hamlin began working, under the WNG name, on an action that would use modern composites instead of wood, and, for bushings, self-lubricating plastics instead of wool. These composites—nylon glass, ABS glass, epoxy carbon fiber, and other materials, depending on the part—have been around since before 1950. However, not wanting to repeat Pratt-Read’s mistake, we took great care to fully research the materials. When we asked vendors about the life expectancy of their composites, they said that they couldn’t see why the materials would ever fail in the relatively benign environment of a piano, but they wouldn’t promise more than a century.
For all practical purposes, the composites we selected are non-hygroscopic and don’t move relative to the hard bushing in response to humidity, as wooden parts did with the old Teflon bushings. The hard bushings are also constructed from a much denser material, and are therefore much more durable than Teflon bushings. Because of the need for greater precision when working with hard bushings, we used stainless-steel needle bearings for center pins, which can be manufactured with far greater consistency of diameter and thus work with far more accuracy than standard brass center pins, as well as being better polished and rounder. In addition, we’ve brought out lightweight capstans (the contact points between the keys and the action parts) and permanently polished keypins (which keep the keys in place and guide their movement). For both factory and technician use, we’ve also developed new tools and processes for assembling, installing, and servicing the new parts.
By January 2008 we were able to show a model BB piano with a composite action at the trade show, and this action became available as an extra-cost option. While this action still had cloth bushings, the positive response from the many pianists who played the BB encouraged us, and in November 2009 we introduced self-lubricating hard bushings. By 2011, composite actions with hard bushings had replaced the traditional wooden actions in all of our models. We’ve also made these parts available to rebuilders for use in older Mason & Hamlins, Steinways, and other brands. In fact, these parts can be configured to functionally duplicate almost any piano’s action. Pianists report that the lighter weight and uniformity of the composite parts make it possible to play with a greater range and degree of dynamic nuance, especially when playing softly. Our testing also shows the parts to be extremely durable over time.
A funny thing happened: Because the piano business is one of long tradition, we expected that a significant proportion of our dealers would hold on to the wooden actions as long as possible. But not long after every one of our dealers had received a piano with a composite action, we found that we could no longer sell pianos equipped with wooden actions. To sell the remaining stock, we had to replace those actions with composite actions.
While the Mason & Hamlin pianos of today are fully modern, they also embody the heritage of the golden-age Gertz pianos. Richard Gertz provided the architecture, and the tonal and structural concepts, that we follow to this day. But, as would be expected, a century later things can be done better, and at Mason & Hamlin they are.
Bruce Clark, Senior Design Engineer at Mason & Hamlin, has been with the company since 1984. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.