The Caped Regulators: Pianos, high and low.

The Caped Regulators, piano pamperers to the stars (and you) continue to serve the ivory-tickling community. Town and country, high and low, but mostly low. Opportunities for shared adventures abound.

A series of serial numbers on a Collard & Collard grand piano circa 1890. It's fascinating to encounter such a museum curio. Straight-strung, with oval tuning pins, curvaceous keytops and genuine period rust, this piano's got it all. 

 The Collard should be able to snooze away its afternoons like a palliative pooch. Let sleeping dogs. But no, in the true spirit of 'living museums' this piano's loins must be girded for a warble-filled operatic onslaught. 

The sharps are less sharp, and I'm not just talking about the pitch.

My partner in piano pampering sensed the situation may have been a little out of the ordinary. He peeked 'under the hood' prior to the appointment and noticed that the piano had oval tuning pins, rather than the modern (by that I mean the last 110-odd years) square tapered tuning pins. He borrowed an oval tuning tip from a colleague. Such a tip would not be expected to be carried by any piano technician in their standard kit. It's the exotic widget that pertains to operating your automobile's hand-cranking system. My grandmother's car had a hand crank - and it was half the age of this piano. Does this strengthen or weaken my argument?  

At least the logbook entries are up-to-date. 1894, year indecipherable, and 1920. 

Dire straights. The Collard & Collard is a straight-strung piano* with bichords (two strings per note) in the low bass.

The tuning pins were (unsurprisingly) somewhat lacking in torque and we quickly discovered that it was possible to operate them with various (conventional) tuning tips without endangering tools nor pins. Not the most elegant mating, but we found ways to simultaneously pitch-raise different parts of the piano**. The most annoying thing about an oval tip is that it offers only two orientations for the tuning hammer (lever) to fit onto the pin, and they are 180 degrees apart. Modern tuning hammers have an eight-pointed star tip and thus many more ways to be placed onto a square pin. Getting the hammer onto each new pin felt four times slower, but maths was never my strong suit.

Curvy curve-ball pedal lyre. The pedals work. Good.

Captain Pugwash dampers.

Momentary monochrome sees me imagining we're preparing the instrument for Lurch from the Addams Family. But didn't he play the harpsichord, Cazzbo? In 1774 Voltaire described the piano as a "boiler-maker's instrument in comparison to the harpsichord" but it caught on and the piano is no longer regarded as blue-collar.

Some jobs we oughtn't to touch with a bargepole. I emphasise the point with the nearest prop to hand, my buddy's Bunnings-style felt-ended straight timber rest designed to support upright piano hammers while they are being voiced. Which job gets my Bargepole Award (or Bargy) today? Strangely, none of the jobs described in this epistle. I know, it's incredible, isn't it?

I trust my esteemed colleague when he signs me up to be a piano mover. The move within the house is carefully planned. 

The client has prepared. Her piano-shaped paper cut-out was not difficult to move at all. The piano is to be moved down a hallway from the slippers-and-telly room to a nook that had seen its development applications for both library and bar rejected by the Senate.

Controlled hefting of pianos from horizontal to vertical (and vice-versa) is a little nerve-wracking. Look at me, I'm a piss-weak middle-aged girly. I've observed countless piano manoeuvres, I remind myself. But isn't that like spending all day gazing out a coffee shop window in Amsterdam and reasoning that although you've never ridden a bicycle, it looks straightforward enough? 

To be fair, I can ride a bicycle. Wow, we're half-way there. Only one more terrifying chapter. Cue the blood-curdling scream.  

Viola! (sic) Now to move the lid the same distance and put it back on, nestle the piano into the nook, and tune it. Violas are a darn sight easier to move, and tune, for that matter.

My partner in piano pushing samples the acoustic properties of the nook. I sample tea, biscuits and conversation in the next room.

Elsewhere in the naked city a piano receives a replacement keyboard. This is far from a normal occurrence.*** Heavy use of this quite young piano had seen the non-optimum-quality cloth bushings that line the keys' various mortises degrade and compress to the point that the client was convinced her piano's keyboard had shrunk to Casio-sized. 

Wood is wood. Some aspects of even identical model pianos may not be interchangeable. We brought many tools up many flights, imagining that some woodworking and drilling would be inevitable.

It went surprisingly smoothly, with many screw holes lining up well between keyframe and keybed. Some regulation was required to get the action humming again. The alternative approach would have been to replace all the cloth bushings in every key. Fiddly-diddly work in the extreme, but it is done. There is every chance that this piano may still receive that treatment if continued miles on the practice odometer cause a similar premature degradation. 


Many manufacturers of entry-level new pianos use cloth that is not a patch on the top quality cloth. Good quality piano bushing cloth is expensive. Prince Charles might hesitate before getting a kilt made out of it, but he'd still do it - because he's worth it.

Avid readers might recall the series of broken 'triple keys' that plagued this poor little piano. It's a problem that the overwhelming majority of pianos simply cannot have. But certain (not recent) trends toward compact pianos have occasionally seen two- and three-part key levers rather than the standard (and obviously superior) single piece keysticks.

This former shed piano had already seen many dodgy regluing efforts, presumably in the same shed. All my previous repairs had held on. But after a subsequent call-out for even more broken keys, with the client swearing off fortissimo, I daydreamed up a more secure solution. Upright hammer shanks are the perfect 'wooden nails' or mini-dowels. Drilling then inserting said dowels through the keys' joins should see a end to this problem.

I wasn't sure that the client was ready to consider investing in weird woodwork on a borrowed piano, but I blurted out my daydream anyway. My esteemed fellow technician (of our many and varied shared service calls and piano workshop exploits) loved the idea and agreed to assist.  

Wrangling a workbench with tools large and small into the piano room demonstrated that we meant business. I had gleaned during previous repairs that nursing the glued keys in situ was the only reliable way to ensure that they were accurately set and did not interfere with neighbouring keys. 

Inserting a hammer shank dowel (with aliphatic resin glue - and a cup of tea).

All the rear key joins are dowelled, awaiting sanding. Just eighty-eight more splints to engineer. More key joins failed along the way as we worked, evincing a fleeting feeling of one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. Progress was pleasing, but, as with all pernickety repair or modification jobs - however long you think it might take, you might as well double it. That also applies to Greater Sydney travel times.

Chalked or pencilled angled lines are a speedy workshop method of confirming the order of the keysticks. They were stamped with almost-impossible-to-read numbers, I added pencil numbers, but diagonal, or converging, lines (or similar tricks) are expedient and recommended. 

A finished 'masterpiece'.

If pianoing goes pear-shaped, there's always this option...

At the end of a long day's piano pampering, this is how the Caped Regulators stay warm as the cold takes hold. Stay tuned for more wintry wippen-warming stories of selective decluttering in the two secret piano lairs.

*Suddenly, with Daniel Barenboim's imprimatur, straight-strung pianos are all the rage. "Everything old is new again".

** This is one of our party tricks - any wonder nobody comes to our parties.

***Replacement keyboards are made for high-end pianos by specialist artisan companies (if that's not an oxymoron). The Caped Regulators have recently commissioned just such a keyboard for a Steinway B (copied from the original keyboard which was provided as a sample). It's not for the faint-of-wallet, let me tell you that!

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