(Updated May 2017)
This page is for various piano subjects that don’t fit conveniently into any of the other page headings, starting with various items about keys. If you don’t find what you want on my website, email me, or try the Piano History Forum
The coverings on piano keys are there to protect the wood from wear, and early pianos didn’t always have any coverings at all on the fronts of the keys. If they did, it would often be fancy wooden mouldings, or some artificial material, rather than ivory. In 1865, Henry Tolkien was advertising ivory key-fronts as an unusual feature.
Many square pianos had fancy wooden mouldings as key-fronts, at least until the 1840s, and Lucy Coad tells me that fronts like these were already being used by Broadwood as early as 1783.
Here is the unusual profile of the keys on a piano known only as “Alexandra” from around 1880.
Nobody can tell you whether your piano’s keys have ivory coverings unless you inspect them, or photograph them. Genuine ivory key coverings usually have joins in them, level with the fronts of the sharps. Ivory can distort with age, and also has a visible grain, but this can be imitated. If you want to export an old piano with ivory keys, you may need a license, and if it involves America and Canada, you may even be asked to prove whether the elephant came from Africa, this is impossible. I recently heard from a client who was shocked to have her antique piano seized temporarily by Customs because she did not have a license for importing the ivory. Any “worked specimens” (such as ivory cut into piano key coverings) are covered by antiques derogation and probably may be traded within the European Union commercially without a certificate, provided they were worked before 1947. The law is complex, but a lot of the restrictions do not apply to antique piano keys that stay within Europe. Who knows what will happen after Brexit!
This 1903 hunter said he had “a lucky escape from an elephant” but it wasn’t lucky for the elephant when this man invaded his home with a gun. All the elephants whose ivory was used would have died eventually, it is so sad that people couldn’t just wait for them to die naturally to steal those overgrown incisors. How wonderful that a rhino poacher has just been jailed for 77 years!
By the 1860s, there was not enough ivory in the world to cope with demand for piano keys, billiard balls, etc., and the hunt was on for artificial alternatives. Although plastics came to fruition in the homes of the 1950s, they are a lot older than many people imagine, and in 1862, Cellulose was first made artificially from gun-cotton by A. Parkes, of Birmingham. Called "Parkesine", it could simulate ivory, tortoiseshell, wood or India-rubber, and was shown at the 1862 London Exhibition. In 1868, John & Isaiah Hyatt, of New York, produced what they called “Celluloid” from camphor and pyroxlin (cellulose nitrate). Celluloid is sometimes said to be "the American name for an English invention". It is still used, often with a fake grain, as an alternative to ivory.
Over the years, there has been an amusing array of names for ivory imitations, including Eburnea, Elephite, Elfenit, Ivoette, Ivoren, Ivorine, Ivorite, Ivothene, Tuskite, etc., but we have no way of knowing which of these materials was used on your piano, unless there is a label somewhere. Undoubtedly the worst synthetic key covering ever made was Galalith (Milkstone) – made from the casein of milk, and not to be confused with the naturally-occurring soft galalith found in underground caves. An ad in the 1914 Music Trades Directory says Galalith "wears better than ivory, far superior to celluloid". In reality, it marks and scratches very easily, being much softer than ivory or celluloid, and by now is a characteristic dirty grey colour.
I created something very similar one morning when, in a half-asleep state,
I microwaved the porridge for 20 minutes instead of 2.
The real challenge is to produce an artificial covering which does not stick to sweaty fingers, and has the smooth, dry feel of ivory. Yamaha seem to do this better than most.
The keys on a piano are cut from a single board, hence the term “keyboard”, but elephants have traditionally been unwilling to co-operate in producing large sheets of flat ivory, and one of the advantages of these artificial coverings was that they could be made in keyboard-sized sheets, glued to the board before it was cut into individual keys. At a time when keys were cut by hand, it was easier if the outer ends of the sharps were rounded, as shown in the middle picture.
By 1856, Collard & Collard advertised this as their “Registered Key Board”, saying that their pianos were not genuine without it. Witton & Witton took it a stage further, and fitted thick, rounded fronts to the naturals as well, as shown above. Caperoe did the same.
Cocks & Co. referred to “Registered Keys”, and around 1889, J.& J.Tomkinson acknowledged the use of “Collard’s Registered Keys”. Some other makers used the rounded sharps from the 1860s to the 1880s, including examples bearing the name of the London key-maker William Dewar. In 1865, Tolkien advertised “rounded keys with ivory fronts”. It is fair to say that if you have a Collard piano thought to have been made around the mid-1800s, and it does not have rounded sharps, it would be pre-1856.
This piano is at one of the Great Yarmouth museums – the David Howkins “Museum of Memories”: it was made by Collard & Collard in 1883, and has the rounded sharps. Internally, it is a fairly standard cottage piano, but the top door has 9 beautiful hand-painted floral panels, and pierced fretwork on the centre panel. (Val Howkins’ grandfather was the manager of the “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick around that time.) Collards were phasing out the rounded sharps in the 1880s, and the latest examples we know of are dated 1892.
One of the common and characteristic forms of damage to key coverings is perhaps from a surprising source. If you let a budgie loose around a piano, it will soon work out that if it sits on the keys, it can peck at the edges of them, to help keep its beak sharp. Needless to say, parrots do even more damage!
JANKO’S MULTI-TIER KEYBOARD
I’m sure you know what it is like when a familiar page on your computer is updated, and becomes unrecognisable, but what if they did it to your piano keyboard?
In 1882, Paul von Janko introduced a multi-tiered keyboard which aimed to rationalise the octave layout into 2 sets of 6 notes, by applying simple logic. On one level, there are 2 sharps (C# D#) and 4 naturals (F G A B) while on the next level there are 3 naturals (C D E) and 3 sharps (F# G# A#).
By repeating these mind-blowing keyboards in 3 layers, Janko’s intention was to provide many alternative positions for playing scales or groups of notes.
SCALE OR SCALING
In the piano trade, the word SCALE does not usually refer to a music scale, it more often indicates the SCALING or measurement of various design aspects, such as stringing. Sideways measurement of the piano keyboard varies somewhat from make to make, and there are certain scales which have recognised names, while many do not. For the purpose of comparison, it is convenient to measure the width of six octaves F-F in centimetres, because this is somewhere around one metre, or one hundred centimetres. A scale of exactly one metre for six octaves is known as the "Continental Scale". The version of the Continental Scale used in Collard pianos of the 1840s included unusually wide tails on the D keys.
Circa 1913 Sewell catalogue includes their Class 6 upright, with Continental Scaling.
Circa 1925 The Miller Scale - 116.8 cm - (46" for 7 octaves) was used by Bansall.
1930 Bluthners’ scale was 101.2 cm.
As early as 1780, Bauer made pianos with Transposing Keyboards, so that a piece of music could be played in a selection of different keys, without the need to change fingering. Erard was making them in 1812, and Montal presented a transposing upright at the Great Exhibition, 1851, (above) with markings on the keys to show that they could be moved up or down a maximum of 3 semitones. He still made them in the 1870s. Transposition is achieved by a lever under the keyboard which slides the keys so that they operate different notes of the action, and Irving Berlin famously used this repeatedly in mid-performance because he could only play on the black notes! Normally, this arrangement means that all the keys, strings and all the notes of the action have to be equally spaced, but Feurich made a transposing upright piano in 1894 which had strangely-angled levers to overcome this problem, so the action was normal, and did not need to be equally spaced. This meant that overstringing could be used. Heintzmann had a patent in 1887, and around 1894, Lister was advertising 8-octave transposing pianos.
This label is from Blankenstein, another maker, but perhaps the most common transposers to survive are the uprights made by George Russell, London, around the late 1800s and early 1900s.
LOCKS & LOCK-KEYS
Pianos have many keys, one for each note, and the same word is used in various languages whether one is talking about a key that “unlocks” the sound of a note, or a key for the lock. In the piano trade, we talk about LOCK-KEYS. Scans or photos of locks and lock-keys are often interesting to us, although rarely useful in dating pianos. If the lock-key is missing, a locksmith should be able to provide a key if you unscrew the lock and take it to him, or keys may be available from trade suppliers.
Square or Triangular Solid Shaft Barrel Shaft
If the keyhole escutcheon is circular, this indicates the simplest and least-secure types of piano lock-key, which usually have a triangular shaft, but occasionally a square one. Either way, they can be opened with a small screwdriver. A more conventional keyhole shape on an upright piano suggests a lock-key of one of two types…
A "solid" key has a solid shaft which fits into a hole in the back plate of the lock. These are the most common type of piano lock, mass-produced, and almost universal in shape, so they are easy to replace. A "barrel" type is not a barrel lock, but a hollow key shaped like a gun barrel, which fits over a pin in the back plate of the lock. These are the best, most secure piano locks, not that any of them are burglar-proof.
If you want to fit a lock to a piano, I suppose you need to decide whether this is to be a lightweight discouragement for people who would like to tinkle the keys, or a major security effort against vandals. In the former case, a strong cloth cover may be sufficient. In the latter case, you need to lock the top, keyboard and bottom door of an upright piano. Grands are a security nightmare, and it is frightening the tricks that sweet, little convent girls will pull on a grand, like pouring sand and paraffin into it, and adding a lighted match. If you have a grand standing in front of a stage, it is worth investigating the possibility of hiding it away under the stage, but moving pianos regularly can cause tuning problems, and risks of injury to the people involved. Piano locks are obtainable through the trade suppliers, but they are not really specialised units, or substantially different to small cupboard / wardrobe locks, and they aren't vandal-proof, they can be picked with a bent wire, or sometimes even a screwdriver. Some churches build a large lockable box fixed to the wall, to enclose an upright piano, but the more usual method is a hasp and staple, with a padlock. One of the problems in trying to make the piano secure is that many hasps tend to vibrate when the piano is played. You may be able to solve this by fitting two staples and a long padlock. If a piano lock buzzes when you play certain notes, try oiling it. Locks are only as secure as the material into which they are fixed, and if it's a modern chipboard piano, screws don't hold well, security is virtually impossible, so a box is your best approach.
RENOVATION, CONVERSION & MUTILATION
There is no standard definition of terms like renovation, restoration, refurbishment, or reconditioning, so although we can say that “restoration” or “renovation” should mean restoring it to its original condition, “as new”, it often means nothing of the kind, and sometimes it is more like mutilation. Antique dealers often moan about “over-cleaning” but when it comes to some pianos, appearances may be purposely altered by reputable museums, even when pictures are available to show what the piano should look like. Old authentic parts are sometimes ripped out and replaced with modern ones, wood finishes are completely altered, and this obsession with making the interior of an old piano shine like a new pin can lead to the destruction of its original character. We go to museums in the hoping of seeing what things looked like originally, but what we see is often quite wrong.
WOODWORM IN PIANOS
When the timber beetle Anobius Punctatum flies or crawls into your piano to lay her eggs, she will probably take a right turn, and start looking for some soft, tasty wood to feed her grubs when they hatch. Why she takes a right turn is a complete mystery, but she'll probably end up in the soft wood of the keys at the treble end rather than anywhere else. Once hatched, the grubs tunnel and munch their way through yards of wood for 3 to 5 years, sometimes leaving as little as 30% remaining to just wait until a pianist comes along, presses the key, and wonders why it doesn't come back up!
The important thing to remember is that the holes are exit holes, so there is probably nobody home when you find them. On the other hand, there may be 2 or 3 years' more damage to come. Fresh dust indicates activity, so brush it away and watch for more. Mark every hole, and check for the appearance of new holes.
Treatment with an injecting aerosol is the best way to force liquid in, and soak the wood from the inside, but there are no guarantees. Kiln treatment will kill the woodworm, but may destroy the piano, so don't even think about it! Fumigation inside the piano may be an answer, especially in upright pianos. An undated catalogue from Baker & Co., piano supplies, includes the following information, which is interesting in spite of some inaccuracies.
There is no doubt that "woodworm" has very greatly increased in recent years and what, in our grandmother's day, was spoken of as "proof of a genuine antique " has now become a definite menace to every type of furniture, and particularly to pianos. Most people seem to think that woodworm is only a summer pest and it is true that every year during the warmer months of spring and summer, the seasonal emergence period brings more and more tiny flight holes on the surface of cherished furniture and pianos. These flight holes can be so numerous sometimes as to occasion the gravest concern in many homes. Everyone becomes very woodworm conscious, and treatments of many kinds are tried out. When the end of summer comes, the attack appears to die out, alarm fades and interest flags. Not so the woodworm. This tiny grub, the larval stage of a wood-boring beetle tunnels within the wood for anything up to 33 months and there is no period of hibernation. Also, a fact that few people realise, is that, having emerged, as an adult beetle it can fly quite freely. The female will lay anything up to 50 eggs on suitable wood surfaces over a wide area and the attack can spread throughout the house. Briefly, the life cycle of the pest is this; the eggs are laid in cracks and crevices on the surface of the wood and are so tiny as to be hardly visible to the naked eye.
These eggs hatch out in 4 to 5 weeks into tiny hook-shaped grubs (this is the woodworm) which immediately start eating their way into the wood. The grub stage lasts about 33 months and during that time its tunnelling operation can do a great deal of damage. The grub ends its boring just under the surface of the wood, spends a few weeks as a pupa and then, having become a tiny beetle, it bites its way out, making the little round hole we all recognise. The beetle itself is dark brown in colour and is about an eighth of an inch long. What is obvious from these facts is that treatment for extermination can be carried out just as effectively in winter as in summer. Moreover, it can be done without the feeling of panic hurry that comes from seeing daily evidence of fresh emergence holes. Pianos, being valuable instruments, should be regularly inspected for signs of woodworm holes. Not a casual glance over the case, but a really careful check, inside and out, should be made and attention should be focused on, and under, the bottom pedal board, which is only too often found to be infected. If the tell-tale flight holes are seen, treatment should be given immediately. One of the most highly recommended insecticides for such treatment is Rentokil Timber Fluid "A". This is a deeply penetrating liquid which will not harm the finest polished surfaces. The method is simple, but must be thoroughly carried out. All surfaces both inside and out must be given two really wetting brush coats of Rentokil Timber Fluid "A", using an ordinary clean paint brush, and allowing four days between the applications. In addition to brush coating it is advisable to inject into the flight holes using the plastic injector (supplied in the outfit). This injection forces the Fluid deeply into the galleries made by the tunnelling grub and gives extra penetration from inside the wood. The Rentokil Timber Fluid "A" will not harm strings or felts should it accidentally come into contact with them. Once the full treatment for woodworm has been given there will be no further trouble. Rentokil Timber Fluids remain effective for many years.
SOUNDPROOFING & SOUND TREATMENT
When we lived in a small mid-terrace cottage, it was difficult rehearsing and recording music. Firstly, there was the unpredictable noise from the neighbours, especially when Melissa was having one of her 6-hour screaming fits! Secondly, it is difficult to let yourself go, and sing or play confidently, when you know the neighbours can hear you. After all, rehearsing is about going over and over the WORST bits!
Another aspect is that a normal room does not produce good microphone recordings, because there is usually a lot of resonance from hard surfaces. The process of improving the acoustics of a room is called “Sound Treatment”, but it can be combined with soundproofing. With modern recording equipment, it is easy to add controlled amounts of reverberation electronically, so the ideal is a completely “dead” room, to get that warm, intimate sound.
I set about seeking advice from professional people who should know the best way to soundproof, but even ignoring those who had no idea, the advice from others was often conflicting and confused, so I developed an experimental formula, based on combining ideas from various sources with ideas of my own, and I set about testing it.
The results were amazing! Having put panels around the walls of a room, I set some music playing very loudly, went next door and asked if the music was loud enough to bother them. They said “what music?” and nothing at all could be heard inside their house, in spite of the fact that I had done nothing to the floor or ceiling. Here is a description of the simple construction of these panels, which also have the effect of levelling out the temperature in the room.
One of the requirements for keeping sound out is to have a hard surface with plenty of mass, so that it can reflect sound back out, but also dissipate any that it absorbs. The simplest idea is ¾” chipboard, and this usually comes in 8’x4’ panels. Lay one on the floor, and fix 4” sides on top of it, to form a tray. Apply a 2” layer of rockwool, then a 2” sheet of polystyrene, which will have to be trimmed slightly to fit inside the edges. Top it with softboard, which absorbs and insulates. This is the surface that should face into the room, although it is the least attractive, and a bit of a dust-trap, so you may want to dress it up with curtains. The chipboard will go against the wall, but must not conduct vibrations from the wall, so stick a layer of bubble wrap on it. In the same way, it needs some soft rubber to stop vibrations from the floor. I used strips cut from kneeling pads. At the time, the total cost was about £30 for an 8’x4’ panel, about 5” thick. Without donations, I will be fine, but PianoHistory.Info may not survive. If every visitor to this site donated just one pound, we would have a proper museum building and much-improved facilities for research within our own archives.
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