Toronto Piano Tuning

by Jamie Musselwhite

Toronto Piano Tuning

by James Musselwhite

A Little History Lesson

Most people think of the piano simply as a piece of musical furniture, something for their kids to learn on, or for other people to master. Many people think of a piano as something to play as a form of recreation, or perhaps a skill that they could learn. A few people see a piano as part of their livelihoods, or an outlet for their passion. An instrument on which they express themselves and enrich their life, and the lives of those around them.

I am a third generation piano technician. Like my Grandfather, Father and brother, I am a Piano Tuner, Technician and Rebuilder and have worked in the Piano Industry since 1976. I see the piano as being a connection to the history of creativity of humankind: A time capsule, a wonderful machine that does so much more than just work. It expresses something that speaks of our need as a species to create something meaningful, something beautiful.

A piano is a wooden machine that makes music. It's not unusual to find pianos that are a century old. Built before the existence of any of the technology that shapes our current culture, they still fulfill exactly the purpose that they were designed to do, using materials and machinery that predates practically everything in our lives today.

Pianos such as these were designed by craftsmen that for the most part used nothing but guesswork, experimentation and common sense. They were built by men who used hand tools and giant unwieldy machines powered by steam and horse power: machines literally powered by horses.

In a typical piano factory, a small group of men worked for months to build one piano. They sold for staggering amounts of money. A good upright piano in the early 1900's sold for the equivalent of buying a luxury car today. The difference: A good car may, if you care for it, last for only around a quarter of a century, during that time having more money poured into it in the form of fuel, maintenance and repair. A piano, tuned at least once a year, may last for a century or more.

Every Family in Canada during the early 1900's aspired to own a piano, as it was not only a measure of wealth and prosperity, it was astounding useful – often the only form of entertainment in a home. Hundreds of piano factories fulfilled this need, most of them, building pianos quickly, and charging as little as $500 – still a huge expense, the equivalent of close to $10,000 in today’s currency.

A few factories strove to create the best instrument they could, building pianos slowly, with the best materials, and made by craftsmen that were the cream of the crop. In Canada, the best of the best was Heintzman & Co. If you had the money, and wanted the best, you bought a Heintzman. If you were a dyed-in-the-wool piano craftsman, you worked for Heintzman. From the late 1800's until the end of the 1920's Heintzman made the best pianos in Canada, and arguably, among the best in the world.

A true Canadian brand, a Heintzman piano was not built as a fragile piece of art, but as tanks of the musical battlefield. They were designed and built to withstand the brutal conditions of the country as it existed then, cold long winters, scorching hot summers, and every conceivable climate in between: Humid or dry, Hot or cold, and delivered to these places in horse drawn wagons or by train. Climate-controlled conditions did not exist, anywhere, period. Heintzman built pianos that would survive a sled ride to the arctic, a barge across a rural lake, in homes heated by open fireplaces, Franklin stoves, and coal-fed furnaces.

 

Heintzman & Co. Ltd. was founded by Theodore August Heintzman. Born in Berlin Germany on May 19th 1817, he was apprenticed to the piano-building trade when he was just fourteen years old. As was common back then, he learned every aspect of instrument making: learning to be a machinist, a cabinet-maker, and an engineer. He came to North America in 1850 in order to reunite with his wife and her family, who had fled Germany during the March Revolution of 1848.

They settled first in New York City, where Heintzman worked for the piano makers Lighte & Newton. In 1852 Heintzman moved to Buffalo, where he worked, first for the Keogh Piano Co. And then in partnership under the brand name Drew, Heintzman & Annowski.

With the American Civil War brewing, and possibly reminding him of the unrest that he had endured in “The Old Country” He moved to Toronto in 1860. He built his first Canadian piano that year in his kitchen, and sold it immediately, continuing and enlarging his business with the proceeds. The company was incorporated in May 1866, with the financial and managerial help of Heintzman's son-in-law, Charles Bender, a prosperous tobacconist.

Heintzman's first real factory was in the 100 block of King St W. In 1888 a new factory was built at the intersection of Keele and Dundas streets in the Annex District of Downtown Toronto.

This factory had a long tunnel-like corridor built around the foundation of the basement that had two doors side-by side. Rough cut lumber would enter in one door and placed in racks alongside a wet-furnace fed by shavings of the new wood. Every month the lumber was moved further along the racks until it emerged from the second set of doors two years later beside a dry-kiln furnace that heated the factory. Two years of slow seasoning made the wood exceptionally dry and resilient, perfect for building pianos for the Canadian Climate. Every year their pianos improved, until during the “Golden Years” of the 1920's, when they produced pianos of such durability and beauty that they were revered around the world.

Like my father and my grandfather before me, I worked for Heintzman in their retail outlets as a technician and a rebuilder. Every once in a while, I am given the opportunity to breath new life into one of these wonderful pianos.


Rebuilding a 1931 Heintzman Miniature Grand #83634

REBUILDING THE ACTION AND KEYBOARD

At first glance the action looks dirty but in good shape - there are new hammers! However, nothing has been done to this action (other than the new hammers and shanks) for 85 years. Plus, the shanks were all in dire need of re-pinning, and the hammers were installed improperly.

At first glance the action looks dirty but in good shape - there are new hammers! However, nothing has been done to this action (other than the new hammers and shanks) for 85 years. Plus, the shanks were all in dire need of re-pinning, and the hammers were installed improperly.

First, I removed the action stack and the keys.

First, I removed the action stack and the keys.

Then I removed all the old felt from the frame.

Then I removed all the old felt from the frame.

Then I cleaned the keys and the frame in my glass-bead blaster.

Then I cleaned the keys and the frame in my glass-bead blaster.

Here you see the keys after - and before cleaning.

Here you see the keys after - and before cleaning.

The Key bushings were all replaced with new felt.

The Key bushings were all replaced with new felt.

Then the frame was re-felted, and the keys placed back on the frame.

Then the frame was re-felted, and the keys placed back on the frame.

This is the Whippen rail of the action before reconditioning,

This is the Whippen rail of the action before reconditioning,

A close-up of the Whippens.

A close-up of the Whippens.

The action stack was completely dis-assembled in preparation for reconditioning.

The action stack was completely dis-assembled in preparation for reconditioning.

Then, the Whippens (and the other action parts) were all cleaned with the blaster.

Then, the Whippens (and the other action parts) were all cleaned with the blaster.

Once clean, the Whippens were individually checked, lubricated, and given an initial adjustment.

Once clean, the Whippens were individually checked, lubricated, and given an initial adjustment.

This is the action frame before cleaning...

This is the action frame before cleaning...

and after cleaning. The black line that you see is a special rubberized fabric tape. It duplicates the original tape used 85 years ago by Heintzman.

and after cleaning. The black line that you see is a special rubberized fabric tape. It duplicates the original tape used 85 years ago by Heintzman.

Here's a close-up of the tape. Notice that the chrome action brackets have been cleaned and polished.

Here's a close-up of the tape. Notice that the chrome action brackets have been cleaned and polished.

Then, the hammers and shanks were cleaned, re-pinned, and re-attached to the frame.

Then, the hammers and shanks were cleaned, re-pinned, and re-attached to the frame.

Here's a close-up of the hammers. Notice that (besides being grooved by the strings) they are all at different angles.

Here's a close-up of the hammers. Notice that (besides being grooved by the strings) they are all at different angles.

The hammerheads were all removed, and re-glued into their proper positions, and the hammers reshaped to remove the grooving.

The hammerheads were all removed, and re-glued into their proper positions, and the hammers reshaped to remove the grooving.

These are the original 85 year-old dampers.

These are the original 85 year-old dampers.

The old felt was removed, the damper heads and wires cleaned, and new treble felt glued on. (The bass felt will be glued on once the dampers are re-installed).

The old felt was removed, the damper heads and wires cleaned, and new treble felt glued on. (The bass felt will be glued on once the dampers are re-installed).

Here's the action completely reconditioned, and given a bench regulation. Click on the picture to enlarge and Compare this picture to the before picture.

REFINISHING AND REBUILDING THE BACK AND BELLY

The case stripped, the Plate and Pinblock removed, and the soundboard being given an initial cleaning.

The case stripped, the Plate and Pinblock removed, and the soundboard being given an initial cleaning.

The Plate out of the piano. It will be cleaned, re-painted, the decals re-applied, and the plate felt replaced.

The Plate out of the piano. It will be cleaned, re-painted, the decals re-applied, and the plate felt replaced.

The old and the new Pinblock.

The old and the new Pinblock.

The soundboard was dried, and then the cracks in the board opened up and shimmed with soundboard spruce. Notice that the treble bridge cap (the curved line of wood on the board) has been replaced.

The soundboard was dried, and then the cracks in the board opened up and shimmed with soundboard spruce. Notice that the treble bridge cap (the curved line of wood on the board) has been replaced.

The Soundboard given its first coat of lacquer.

The Soundboard given its first coat of lacquer.

The Plate cleaned and prepped for painting.

The Plate cleaned and prepped for painting.

The case parts stripped and sanded.

The case parts stripped and sanded.

The finished Piano ready for restringing.

The finished Piano ready for restringing.

The freshly re-strung piano.

The freshly re-strung piano.

The dampers installed.

The dampers installed.

Initial Tuning.

Initial Tuning.

All done and...

All done and...

Delivered!

Delivered!