KEYS & KEYBOARDS
Locks and lock-keys are near the bottom of the page.
(Page updated August 2020)
It is amazing how many websites will tell you that 88 is the standard number of keys on a piano. If it were true, a lot of this page would be pointless, but in reality, until the seventies, when I was selling them, most British pianos had 85 notes, or 7 octaves, and that is true for the majority of old pianos that you might see outside museums.
Before pianos existed, at a time in history when there was no possibility of communication across the world, many different people in different countries were making music and using very similar groups of notes, in which some notes were twice as far apart in pitch as others - known as a DIATONIC scale. This also became known as a Natural Scale because it seems to have arisen naturally in the minds of people who didn’t know each other. However, the diatonic keyboard layout as we know it today did not exist, and some of the earliest organ keyboards were too clumsy for one note to be operated by a single finger.
Later, some organs were equipped with just the “Natural” notes, which we think of as white notes. In order that the organist could tell which notes were which, the first note was marked A, and the 8th note sounded similar, but higher, so that was also A, and the pattern repeated. At the time, minor scales were more common, and these notes formed an A minor scale. (Technically a descending A minor scale.) The only major scale that could be played was C major.
Some early clavichords were made with the type of keyboard shown here. The first black note was added in order to make it possible to play an F major scale, and this involved placing a note between each A and B, so it was known as B flat and marked with a small letter b. This later became the symbol for all flat notes. Because the other notes had been named from A to G, there was also a case for calling those extra notes H instead of B flat, and this can still be seen in some modern German instruments such as Melodicas. The terms “flat” and “sharp” are thought to arise from the tuning of reeds for organs, because filing the base of a reed flatter makes the pitch go down, while filing it to a sharp edge makes it go up.
A lot of clavichords, harpsichords and early pianos had what we would regard as reverse-coloured keys. The chromatic scale we are used to, with 5 sharps, was starting to be used in clavichords by the 1300s although, much later, the tuning was rationalised in order to make the music sound equally good in any key - EQUAL TEMPERAMENT. The black notes here represent a C major scale, but the clavichord’s keys were shorter than we are used to, because they were only intended to be played by fingers, not thumbs.
The keyboard compass (range) of Cristofori’s first piano was only 4 octaves, or 49 notes, from C to C, little more than the vocal range of a choir. (Of course, some singers can reach that range on their own, but it may not all be of suitable quality.) Some of his later instruments had a few more notes at either end. To arrive at the number of notes from the number of octaves, multiply by 12 and then add 1.
HEADS & TAILS
As to the geometry of the keyboard, it is not as simple as it appears. If the tails of the white keys are made the same width as the black keys, it is difficult then to arrange for 7 white notes to fit in the same distance, and even if you do, they won’t all line up, so there has to be a bit of tweaking and cheating. 7 of the HEADS of the keys (at the bottom of the picture) have to fit into the same width as 12 TAILS (top of picture). If you want to have a go at drawing a keyboard, try making the tails 7mm wide, and the heads 12 mm wide.
Some early pianos were made on the assumption that we would never want to play an F# in the bass, so they had a SHORT OCTAVE at the bass end, in which there was no F#. This seems odd to modern eyes, but F# was hardly used then, partly because the tempering of tuning had not been sorted out.
Far too many generalisations are made about keyboard range, but I think it is fair to say that square pianos remained within 5 octaves (61 notes) until about 1790, and it is important to realise that many of the “great” composers such as Mozart had only 5 octaves to work with. An album cover shows an 85-note piano said to have been played by Beethoven, but this is incorrect. Some had reverse-coloured keys, and some Italian makers may have continued like this as late as the 1830s, although most others were gone by the 1800s.
Broadwood made cabinet pianos from 1811, and the early ones still had 61 notes F-F (5 octaves).
The Piano Pavilion in Westcliff has a Broadwood “Patent Boudoir Model” made in 1844, with a range of 6 octaves (73 notes). The 6-octave pianos we see outside museums are more often from the 1930s to the 1970s, and were unlikely to be found much before 1830.
By 1815, some cabinet pianos had 78 notes C-F (sometimes described as “six and-a-half octaves”) and this still applied in 1836. By 1853, the very tall Cabinet pianos were very much on the way out, and Tomlinson wrote that they were only one in every thousand of the pianos being made in London. Broadwoods made their last in 1854.
The typical range of a cottage piano from the 1840s to the 1870s was 82 notes from C to A, but opinions varied about how this should be defined in terms of octaves, and although it is really 6¾ octaves, it was often described as 6⅞ octaves. It has the usual top A, but doesn’t go any lower than C.
SAILING THE SEVEN Cs
By about 1875, I think it is fair to say that most cottage pianos had 7 octaves, or 85 notes A-A, which is now the commonest range for old British and European pianos, although some French makers had already been using 7 octaves for 45 years then. In spite of so many websites, newspapers, quizzes etc. saying 88 is the standard number of notes, 85 is by far the most common in British homes, although some people writing to me imagine it is strange or even rare to have “notes missing”. In the 1870s, it was not common to find an English keyboard going beyond that top A, but for example, Hopkinson made some cottage pianos still with 85 notes, but C-C, probably more useful and musical than those 3 horrible bottom notes.
In America, some “square grands” of the mid-1800s had 88 notes A-C, and later pianos do not normally go beyond that range. When I was selling new pianos in the 1960s, 88 notes was a sort of optional extra, not that there was any particular need to have 88, how many pieces of music even use those top 3 notes? One technical argument is that having them improves the tonal quality of what were previously the top notes. My survey of 219 pianos made between 1900 and 1920 showed that less than one in seven had 88 notes.
Around 1920, Cramers’ Drawing Room grand went down to G, 2 extra notes, making 90 in all. Mott had made a 90-note piano in 1851.
In 1909, Bosendorfer made their wonderful Imperial grand pianos, with 97 notes, or 8 octaves from C to C. These are a joy to play, but the very low notes are of little practical use, and you can here to judge for yourself. My recording starts by running down what is usually the bottom octave, then after a pause, the extra 9 notes below what is usually the bottom A. The tuner had made slight errors, but who can blame him?
In Australia, Stuart & Sons recently made a grand with 108 notes, and described it as a “full nine octaves” but technically it isn’t, because they didn’t give it a top C. Nevertheless, its top notes are vibrating over SEVEN THOUSAND times a second! Wayne Stuart kindly sent me a recording, and although ordinary laptop speakers may not do justice to the lower range, I am sure you will hear the brilliance of the top notes…
In the sixties, some of the new pianos I sold were still made with only 6 octaves F-F (73 notes), because although they were nearly as expensive to make as 7-octave models, they were small enough to be more convenient for small modern homes. Makers included Barratt & Robinson, Bentley, Berry, Danemann, Kemble, Lindner, Rogers, and Zender.
Around 1880-1925, when the majority of British pianos were made in and around Camden Town, some makers, such as Peters, Dale and Evans, were producing small “Student” uprights with short keyboards, sometimes only 5 octaves.
RECONSTRUCTION OF THE “MIDGET” PIANO
In the late 1800s, Cookes of Norwich made their “Midget” piano, with only 4 octaves (49 notes F-F). It is possible to make good music in just 3 octaves, you can buy electronic keyboards like this, but it is very limiting.
Cramers’ Patent Portable Piano had no bodywork below keyboard level, and only 5 octaves (61 notes C-C).
As recently as 1975, Kemble made this oblique-strung portable piano, which has only 5 octaves (61 notes C-C) and saves bulk by being raised off the floor on stands. These pianos were also sold as “Cramer” or “Brinsmead”.
In Victorian times, with so many people travelling and living in the British Empire, the climatic conditions became a problem for British pianos. Increasingly, makers advertised pianos which claimed to be resistant to extreme climates, sometimes specifying “Pianos for India”, “Indian Models”, “Colonial Models”, “Empire Pianos”, or various other phrases. In modern times, we tend to refer to them as “tropicalised”, but it is not always easy to see what changes have been made.
Some countries had insects which liked to eat the scotch glue that held together most parts of pianos, so this could lead to structural damage, although not directly to do with climate. The most obvious changes to keys involve curving the tops of the key coverings down to the fronts in one piece, and pinning both ends of the covering, rather than relying on glue. Interestingly, with modern central heating, pianos are quite often in tropical climates wherever they are in the world, and problems causing Dry Heat Damage are the subject of a separate page on this website…
In 1879, Bartholomeo Grassi Landis made a strange adaptor that sits on a normal keyboard, and converts it to a peculiar arrangement which has alternate black and white notes, described as “cromatique”. It may appear logical but, quite apart from the difficulty naming the notes, the normal irregular arrangement of black notes is the means by which pianists find their way around, and know which notes they are playing, so it is difficult to understand the point of this arrangement.
John Trotter had previously patented a similar keyboard layout in 1811, in which C, D & E were black notes, and C# & D# were white notes.
Here's another keyboard oddity from Allison, London, 1851. The shapes of the keys are normal, so it can be played in the usual way, but in this one, the colours alternate between grey and white, so each colour forms one of the whole-tone scales. More to the point, the colours can help you to work out how to play the most common scales without learning music theory. To find a major scale starting on any note, play 3 of the same colour, then 4 of the other colour, then repeat the pattern. To play an Ascending Melodic Minor Scale, play 2 notes of the same colour, then 5 of the other colour, then repeat. To play a Descending Melodic Minor Scale, working downwards, play 3 of the same colour, then 3 of the other colour, then 1 of the original colour.
In 1892, F.W.Hoffmann produced this strange keyboard with the sharps extended in front of the naturals, providing alternative positions for the fingers, as well as filling the gaps with extra keys for C and F.
Ron Reno wrote to me about his 1910 Kohler & Campbell upright, which has another strange keyboard. Most of the notes that would normally be black are brown, and only the C#s are black. The white notes extend behind them as well as in front. After the bottom A, the A# is brown, then there are 2 white notes, B & C, then a black C#, then 2 white notes, then brown, and so on.
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 patterns in 3 layers, Janko’s intention was to provide many alternative positions for playing scales or groups of notes.
This might make some things physically easier to play,
if only you can get past the mind-boggling layout!
The unusual cottage piano on your left, made around 1844 by Daniel Hewitt, London, is at the Piano Museum in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and it has a concave keyboard. People sometimes say that the idea is to bring the ends of the keyboard nearer to the pianist, so that they fall within the natural sweep of the arms. However, this only applies if the keys taper inwards, whereas if they are parallel, they are just as far apart as on a normal keyboard. Clutsam (or Clutsan or Cludsam) is often credited with the idea in 1910, but as early as 1780, Neuhauss, Vienna, is said to have made pianos with concave keyboards, and in 1824, G.Staufer & M.Heidinger made them, also in Vienna. There are grand and upright examples from the late 1800s, such as the 1882 piano in the Musical Instrument Museum, Brussels, which was made by W.Neuhaus Soehne, Germany, and is shown on your right. The idea was also used in theatre organs, and perhaps on a corner piano, now lost. In 1855, Henry Willis patented a concave organ pedalboard.
Between the naturals (white notes) C and D there is normally a black note which could equally be called C# (C sharp) or Db (D flat). All the black notes have two names, and C# and Db are said to be ENHARMONIC - two note-names sharing the same pitch. In addition to the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G, normal keyboards have 5 black notes within each octave, and these are usually tuned to what is known as Equal Temperament, mathematically calculated to make every semitone interval the same.
An Enharmonic keyboard is one which has more than the usual 13 notes to the octave and, inevitably, this has an effect on the relationships between the named naturals (white notes). Some examples have separate keys for C# and Db: They may also have an Fb and E#, or Cb and B#. This 1631 harpsichord by Fabbri, has double black notes and also has a note between E & F, and between B & C. Intervals smaller than a semitone are known as Microtones. The problem with these is that they destroy the normal tuning arrangement, so some enharmonic keyboards have been made with an extra note between each normal one, and are tuned in quarter-tones instead of semitones, but this is very difficult to incorporate in just one keyboard. In 1788, Charles Claggett invented the Teliochordon, an enharmonic piano in which every octave was divided into 39 graduations of pitch, and a key was provided for each.
In the 1760s, J.C.Zumpe made a piano with twice the usual number of black notes, it has double black keys, one on top of the other, so the keyboard includes C#, Db, D#, Eb, F#, Gb, G#, Ab, A# and Bb. The technical matter of how many notes there could or should be in an octave is a rather difficult one to explain, because the octave is a natural interval that even some animals can recognise, whereas semitones and whole-tones are man-made. The mathematics is straightforward, if boring! Why then, does no-one seem to quote the answer? Most sources say "quite a few" or "an awful lot". I wrote a program for my computer to find out how many notes per octave it would take to provide pure fourths and fifths from any note, within the limits of human error. If we limit the accuracy of tuning to the nearest whole-number frequency, there could be 54 notes in an octave… instead of 13! For many years, I wished I had a keyboard that would allow me to experiment with different temperaments and enharmonics, but when I wrote a computer program to do this, I soon found out that as a musician and a tuner, I really hate anything that is not Equal-Tempered, and I get a terrible feeling of inner disturbance when I hear anything that departs too far from it. It just sounds out of tune.
Some authors try to suggest that there is something natural and correct about other temperaments, but there is nothing natural in them, they are ALL man-made, as is the concept of 12 semitones in an octave. To suggest that equal temperament takes something away, makes music less interesting, or compromises it, is to misunderstand it completely, it solves problems, so that we can play anything in any key. It is not about the ratio of the semitone, so much as the need to remove the "WOLF" intervals that howl in every other temperament. One Norfolk tuner, for example, always tunes the F# notes wrongly, so when I played a restaurant piano that he had just tuned, I spent the evening trying to avoid anything with an F# in it - impossible!
As early as 1780, Bauer made pianofortes with Transposing keyboards, so that a piece of music could be played in a selection of different keys, without the need to change fingering. In 1801, Edward Riley obtained a patent for a transposing piano. 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 usually 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, so it could not be applied to overstrung pianos, 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. Heintzmann had a transposing patent in 1887, and around 1894, Lister was advertising 8-octave transposing pianos.
This label is from Blankenstein, a maker who only appears in our lists during the 1880s and 1890s, but perhaps the most common transposers to survive are the uprights made by George Russell, London, around the late 1800s and early 1900s.
There have been a number of different types of "double piano". Some were upright “duoclave” pianos with a keyboard each side, like Muller's 1800 Ditanaklasis, Erard’s 1811 duoclave upright, or Jones' 1851 Family Piano, shown here. Some double pianos are grands with one keyboard above the other, and usually some difference between them, but they could be the same pitch, and around the 1920s, Rogers made a double-keyboard upright for organists to practise on, with a bass pedalboard as well. Double keyboards are more likely to be an octave apart, or a quartertone apart, an idea which has limited use. The only suitable music that comes to mind is Henry Mancini's theme for the Audrey Hepburn film "Wait until dark", in which a simple minor chord goes down and up in quartertones, creating a very tense effect, because it is uncomfortable to our ears. Aug.Forster made a piano with 3 rows of keys, the middle row being a quartertone different in pitch from the others.
Then there are the double grands which are like 2 grands merged into one oblong shape, with the keyboards at opposite ends, like Pirrson's 1851 one here, or the later and better-known Pleyel. These are sometimes described as “Vis-a-Vis” because the pianists sit face to face. Bluthner's Duo-Flugel may seem similar, but it is 2 separate grands which are designed and shaped so that they can be fitted together for performance. In modern times, the Baldwin company created a double grand for Elton John and Lady Gaga by joining an electronic piano onto the back of a normal grand.
At the 1878 Paris Exposition, Mangeot showed double-decker grands in which the top one is reversed left-to-right, so the low notes are at the right-hand end. These require a particular kind of brain to play them! The top grand also has its bentside on the opposite side, so it curves on the lefthand side, a sort of “mirror grand” making the whole shape somewhat incongruous. I have never come across a reversed keyboard that does not have a normal one with it.
Then again, a few makers produced grands which were perfectly normal inside, but the case was made with the bentside on the left. Just art? David Martin sent me these photos of his Pleyel made in 1899, and there is a modern Bluthner "left-handed" grand, although some of the pictures of it shown online are fake. Most other examples on the internet are simply photos that have been accidentally flipped by couldn’t-care-less websites.
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The coverings on the tops of pianoforte keys are there to protect the wood from wear, and ivory gives that cool, dry, smooth feel. Early pianos didn’t always have any coverings at all on the wooden fronts of the keys, because they are not functional, but purely decorative. If they did, it would often be some artificial material, rather than ivory. In 1865, Henry Tolkien was advertising ivory key-fronts as an unusual feature. I was trying to work out when my pianos first had plastic fronts, but couldn’t tell. Then, using a wet wipe to clean the loose dirt off them, I found that ivory squeaked, and plastic didn’t! On that basis, it seems to be (predictably) around 1860.
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. In 1892, Thomas Sebright was advertising himself as “Inventor of the new Registered Front for Piano and Organ Keys” but we have no details yet.
Nobody can tell you whether your piano’s keys have ivory coverings unless they inspect them, or you send photos. Whereas artificial key tops can be made in one piece, genuine ivory key coverings have joins in them, level with the fronts of the sharps (black notes). Ivory can distort with age, and also has a visible grain, but this can be imitated, so it is the joins that give away ivory. If you want to export an old pianoforte 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 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. New Zealand has stricter laws, and recently ripped the ivory coverings off a piano that was imported. The ivory was then scrapped, but I am not sure how that helped anything, it seemed to add insult to injury. 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 killer has just been jailed for 77 years, 3 rhinos are killed every day. Meanwhile, POACHERS ARE KILLING 55 ELEPHANTS A DAY, more than are being born to replace them, and soon they will only exist in zoos. You can help…
I googled “rhino poachers” and Amazon said they sell them!
If you need another reason to support elephants, and wonder what is special about them, you cannot fail to be impressed by this video…
Although plastics came to fruition in the homes of the 1950s, they are a lot older than many people imagine, and by the 1860s, there was not enough ivory in the world to cope with demand for piano keys, billiard balls, etc. The hunt was on for artificial alternatives, but don’t imagine this was intended to save elephants, it was just because there weren’t enough dead elephants to supply demand. Plastics are a lot older than people think, but since the fifties, we have found wonderful, important everyday uses for plastics in food wrapping, medical hygiene etc., and the real problem we need to address is not about removing plastic products, but how to make better use of their many good attributes without polluting the environment. Burning plastics is said to produce cyanide gas, but It seems to me that since thermoplastics can be melted, instead of dumping our plastics, why can’t we melt them down and make large sheets and blocks that could be used for decorating and building projects. That way, a huge pollution problem is turned into a large stock of useful products.
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 something similar which 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. Much later, in 1907, Bakelite was the first plastic to be made purely from synthetic components, rather than milk, plant or animal products, but I don’t know if it was used for piano key coverings.
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. 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.
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 our 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.
This 1842 picture shows a Broadwood key-maker cutting keys 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 the artificial coverings was that they could be made in keyboard-sized sheets, glued to the board before it was cut into individual keys, or produced in ready-made key shapes, with no joins. At a time when pianoforte 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 now, 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 and Harling did the same.
Cocks & Co. also 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, and a rough date would be “circa 1844”.
This piano was previously at one of the Great Yarmouth museums – the David Howkins “Museum of Memories”: When our dear friend Val Howkins died, the piano was passed on to us. It was made by Collard & Collard in 1883, and has the rounded sharps. Internally, it is a fairly standard cottage piano, but externally it was part of the experimental period in the 1880s, and 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!
People often ask if it is better to keep the keyboard open to the light.
Ivory will stay whiter if it is in the light, but
don't ever put a piano in direct sunlight, and
if there are birds around, I would definitely keep it closed!
ACCESS TO KEYS
The TOP DOOR (top front panel) of an upright piano is usually held in place by two simple clips at the top corners, accessed by simply lifting the top. Then, the top door can be tilted forward and lifted out. The FALL (keyboard lid) is hinged to the HOLLOW, and this is usually just slotted in, so in theory it can be lifted out vertically with one hand on the fall. In practise, old pianos often warp, and if the hollow hasn’t been removed for years, it might be so tight that you need a carpenter’s help to get it back. Some hollows are much simpler, and held in place by a screw each end.
There may also be a strip of wood called a NAME-BOARD holding the keys in place, this may be screwed or clipped in at the ends. (Name-boards don’t usually have makers’ names on them, although retailers often mark them with a transfer or label.) Now, you should be able to see the whole length of each key, and it is usually possible to carefully lift out individual keys to examine all their surfaces for interesting marks. However, before you do this, have a good look at the dust. If only the middle of the keyboard has been used, the dust there will have fallen off the edges of the keys, leaving ridges along the middle of each key, and you may be able to see what area of the keyboard has been used regularly, or whether there have been favourite notes. Is it ordinary grey dust, or does it have leather and felt colours? These would suggest heavy use and wear, which may lead to repair work being required, to fix unevenness in the performance of the notes.
Before you start removing keys, have a look at the TOUCH DEPTH – the distance that the keys go down before they stop. As the felts and baizes under the keys wear and compress, they become thinner, and unless the keys are moving the correct distance, the action cannot perform efficiently, so the notes will not play correctly. Instead of measuring, press a black note all the way down until it stops, and check that the nearest end is still a couple of millimetres above the surrounding white keys, and doesn’t disappear down a hole. Then press the white keys either side of it down as well, they should now be in the same relationship that they have when at rest. If this is not right, there is probably wear and/or deterioration in the felts and baizes under the keys, so they need to be replaced. Repeat the test in different parts of the keyboard.
The keys are usually numbered left to right, other numbers marked on keys would obviously have meant something to the makers originally, but generally speaking, no information has survived to help us interpret them, and they rarely relate to the piano’s serial number, although this unusual example from around the 1914 war has Collard’s serial number rubber-stamped on two keys and on the key-frame. (They were making their own actions and keys then.) I suggest laying out the keys in order on top of the piano. Before you start doing this, it is vital to remember that every key is slightly different, and if they are not clearly numbered left to right, you must mark them in some way, so that they do not get mixed up. You can number them individually in pencil, but a simpler idea is to use some kind of straight edge to draw a sloping pencil line across the wooden tops of the keys. While you are removing them, you have a rare opportunity to examine every surface for interesting marks, and remove loose dirt, wet wipes are quite good for this job. Taking every wooden part back to clean wood is risky, and may cause damage, so leave that to an expert.
In this picture, some of the keys have been removed, to show the normal layout more clearly. In a Victorian piano like this one, each key may have a STICKER on the far end, and it is important to realise that these are hinged on vellum. You can break one in a second, but it can take an hour to mend it properly. The front-rail pins (nearest the pianist) are known as BAT-PINS because they are usually shaped like upside-down cricket bats, so that twisting them will tighten the key. Gently brush away loose dust with a dry paintbrush, and take the opportunity to clean the metal pins that the keys stand on, with 3-in-1 oil, WD40 or a little Vaseline. Some old tuners use ear wax for individual pins, but you should avoid double-dipping! Do not attempt to enlarge the holes in the keys with anything tapered, it will make them jam permanently.
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) was used by Bansall.
1930 Bluthners’ scale was 101.2 cm.
In a modern piano, the 2 holes in the key that fit over the metal pins would be bushed with felt or cloth, to provide a smooth, silent bearing surface, and such keys would be described as DOUBLE-BUSHED.
Victorian keys tend to have neither of these bushings, they are usually UNBUSHED, and may rattle or stick. Somewhere between the two, some old pianos have keys that are SINGLE-BUSHED, in the front hole only. Double-bushed keys are probably after 1870, single-bushed keys are probably before 1920.
Pape’s Piano Console, patented in 1837, has a screw each side near the the front of each key, to adjust the tightness of the key on the pin. Later, the pins were made in the shape of an inverted cricket bat, much easier to adjust by turning the pin.
Remember, any object you find inside a piano may be dated, but that does not prove the date of the piano (as it claims to in archaeological digs) because, for example, an 1870 coin could have been placed there at any time after 1869. Hand-written labels in pianos are sometimes faked, and are not reliable, but some piano owners don’t like being told that!
WOODWORM IN PIANO KEYS
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 still be years of damage to come. Fresh, clean wood 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. Some people say that WD40 aerosol discourages insects. 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.
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. Piano locks are also available, 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. Grand locks tend to be larger, and less standard.
Square or Triangular Solid Shaft Barrel Shaft
On an upright, 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 some kind of lock to a pianoforte, I suppose you need to decide whether this is to be just 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. 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 itself 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.
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