The Pianocraft Rebuild™ - Our Rebuild: The Action
Dr. Owen Lovell
Professor of Piano Georgia College
Piano Review Editor – The Piano Buyer
The piano’s action is the pianist’s connection to the piano’s sound. It is an ingenious and highly complex mechanism that when perfectly designed, balanced, and regulated allows the pianist’s most subtle and expressive playing. Conversely, when the piano’s action is not correct, it can limit dynamic range, speed, control, evenness and expression. It makes playing the piano unnecessarily difficult.
A PianoCraft action begins with the understanding of what makes a piano feel comfortable and respond intuitively.
Years of analyzing, customizing, and perfecting actions in new and used pianos has given PianoCraft a unique and superior set of skills and insights into how to make a piano’s action ideal. More importantly, PianoCraft acquired our expertise by rebuilding countless piano actions, following up on them in the field, and listening to our clients. We have also learned that because of the inconsistencies found in handmade pianos (especially American pianos), a rebuilder who simply attempts to recreate what came from the factory will produce an action that is inferior regardless of parts chosen or quality of workmanship.
PianoCraft only uses the very best parts for any piano.
Unlike a manufacturer’s rebuild in which only the parts they sell are allowed to be used (regardless of performance), PianoCraft is authorized to offer whatever the ideal part is for any given rebuild.
Be it genuine Steinway parts direct from Steinway in New York, or genuine Hamburg Steinway parts direct from Renner (the German parts manufacturer who supplies the parts used in new Hamburg Steinway actions), PianoCraft will only use the highest quality and most appropriate parts for the specific needs of every piano action.
PianoCraft also is authorized to buy factory direct non traditional parts made of composites and carbon fiber should there be a situation that calls for them. For example, we have clients in tropical environments like Asia where pianos are subject to temperature and humidity extremes.
Of course it is not simply a matter of choosing high quality parts and installing them. Every aspect of the action must be considered – from idealizing the action’s intricate intersecting geometry to the resilience of the felts chosen to cushion the keys as they are played.
Once the action is designed and the parts are chosen and installed, much of the real work begins. The hammers must have their weight customized to sound best with the specific belly system (soundboard, strings, etc) of that piano as well as to not have too much or little mass in the action. For example, since PianoCraft’s standards for friction tolerances are far more demanding than any manufacturer, typically all of the hammer shanks and wippins in a piano’s action must be repinned for optimum friction and to meet our exacting standards. Once that is accomplished, the piano can be counterbalanced against the weight of the specific parts.
Hours and hours of meticulous regulation must then be executed by technicians with tremendous experience and expertise in this area.
A perfect action requires a new set of keys. Most restorations clean up the old set of keys and replace only the keytops. While this can be an acceptable approach, especially if one is on a tight budget, it will not perform as well as a brand new set of keys beautifully crafted specifically for the instrument being rebuilt.
Here’s why it matters:
When an action is rebuilt with new parts, it must be rebalanced against the new parts. More often than not, what happens is other rebuilders will put new parts in a piano and hope the original factory balancing will still work with the new parts. However, since the factory balancing was done with the weight of the original parts in mind, it will never be correct against the weight of the new parts until rebalanced. If the original keysticks are kept, this means popping out weights, filling the original weight placement holes and then redrilling to place new balancing weights. Because the keysticks must be of a soft enough material to flex rather than break under the force of playing, this extra “surgery” is asking an awful lot of the old, soft key sticks.
Because of our years of experience at PianoCraft, we feel the best approach is to custom craft a new set of keys specifically for the piano being rebuilt. Having a fresh key to drill and add counterbalancing weights provides balancing that gives the pianist the best possible result.
It is understandable why most rebuilders do not take the same approach as PianoCraft. The learning curve for working with new keys is quite steep and requires a level of expertise far beyond working with the original keyset. It is also a more expensive process in terms of both materials and time. The advice I offer is that when working with a rebuilder who is not an expert when it comes to keysets, you’re better off using the original keyset as you don’t want to pay for their steep learning curve. When working with PianoCraft, we almost always recommend new keysets to achieve a touch and feel that is truly incomparable.