"Transforming" an 1893 J. J. Hopkinson British Piano

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This handmade 125 year-old J. J. Hopkinson piano has been in the same family for generations...

This piano has what is called in the piano industry a "Birdcage" action.

If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you can see the damper wires in front of the action, which resembles a birdcage. It's a highly intricate and ineffective type of mechanism which had been discarded by most manufacturers by the time this piano was made. The Brits, however, chose to hold on to the old style.

  This is not the piano's only problem, though. The entire piano is made of poorly seasoned wood (Britain's climate is notoriously damp), and assembled using a glue made from raw chalk and cottage cheese. (I'm not kidding. It's a great glue in moist environments. For instance, your jaws would be permanently stuck together if you clamped it between your teeth. Don't try this!)

This is not the piano's only problem, though. The entire piano is made of poorly seasoned wood (Britain's climate is notoriously damp), and assembled using a glue made from raw chalk and cottage cheese. (I'm not kidding. It's a great glue in moist environments. For instance, your jaws would be permanently stuck together if you clamped it between your teeth. Don't try this!)

  Although it is possible to historically restore this piano, it is not recommended unless it's for a museum. The cost is terribly high, and the results make for an interesting piece of history, but a very poor musical instrument.    There is an alternative, though...    First, the action and keyboard are removed.

Although it is possible to historically restore this piano, it is not recommended unless it's for a museum. The cost is terribly high, and the results make for an interesting piece of history, but a very poor musical instrument.

There is an alternative, though...

First, the action and keyboard are removed.

  In these old pianos, a fabric screen hides the back.  Apparently, they thought it unsightly!

In these old pianos, a fabric screen hides the back.  Apparently, they thought it unsightly!

  The screen removed.

The screen removed.

  The top removed. The parts pop off easily because of the crystalized glue!

The top removed. The parts pop off easily because of the crystalized glue!

  The piano on its back. Getting ready to remove the rest of the case parts!

The piano on its back. Getting ready to remove the rest of the case parts!

  The pedals are actually wooden, with brass tops!

The pedals are actually wooden, with brass tops!

  The pedal board removed.

The pedal board removed.

  The old strings and tuning pins uninstalled. This is done so that the heavy iron plate can be removed.

The old strings and tuning pins uninstalled. This is done so that the heavy iron plate can be removed.

  The sides removed.

The sides removed.

  The other case parts.

The other case parts.

  The old keyboard... and a new action!

The old keyboard... and a new action!

  The leg braces... and a new keyboard!

The leg braces... and a new keyboard!

  The piano's new strung back... from a Young Chang Pramberger Signature Series.

The piano's new strung back... from a Young Chang Pramberger Signature Series.

  The old sides glued and clamped to the new back, bottom spreader and keybed.

The old sides glued and clamped to the new back, bottom spreader and keybed.

  The new action and new keyboard installed.

The new action and new keyboard installed.

  The original pedals, and new rubber-wheeled castors installed.    Now, I know this all seems very simple, however, the geometry from the transfer is very tricky. The new action and keyboard has to align not only with the back, but with the old case parts. It's a very complicated proceedure involving a lot of measurements and math.

The original pedals, and new rubber-wheeled castors installed.

Now, I know this all seems very simple, however, the geometry from the transfer is very tricky. The new action and keyboard has to align not only with the back, but with the old case parts. It's a very complicated proceedure involving a lot of measurements and math.

  Now for another hard part: The owners wanted the original ivory on the new keys. First, the old keys are cleaned in my glass-bead blaster. The picture above shows before and after cleaning.

Now for another hard part: The owners wanted the original ivory on the new keys. First, the old keys are cleaned in my glass-bead blaster. The picture above shows before and after cleaning.

  The old ebony is glued onto the new key bodies, and the plastic tops are cut off of the new keys.

The old ebony is glued onto the new key bodies, and the plastic tops are cut off of the new keys.

  Then, the Ivory is cut off the old keys.

Then, the Ivory is cut off the old keys.

Another hard part: The key bodies had to be elongated to correct the geometry, which meant that doglegs had to be created in order to correct the angle of the back of the keys so that it aligns with the action. (Click the image to enlarge)

  Then, the ivories are glued on, and shaped to match the new key bodies.

Then, the ivories are glued on, and shaped to match the new key bodies.

  Now, because the old case was four inches narrower than the new piano, I had to make new parts to fill the gaps between the old and new parts  (such as the key rail, which is visible behind the keys in this picture).

Now, because the old case was four inches narrower than the new piano, I had to make new parts to fill the gaps between the old and new parts  (such as the key rail, which is visible behind the keys in this picture).

  There are also new cheek blocks on either end of the keyboard, and, as you'll see in the following pictures, extensions on all the other case parts.

There are also new cheek blocks on either end of the keyboard, and, as you'll see in the following pictures, extensions on all the other case parts.

  In this picture, a new cheek block and an extension to the fallboard can be clearly seen.

In this picture, a new cheek block and an extension to the fallboard can be clearly seen.

  Here you can plainly see the extensions on both sides of the case parts.

Here you can plainly see the extensions on both sides of the case parts.

  All done. A new piano in an old case!    (Whoever tunes this piano after I'm gone is in for a big surprise when they open it up!)

All done. A new piano in an old case!

(Whoever tunes this piano after I'm gone is in for a big surprise when they open it up!)

Reconditioning the Action and Keyboard of a 1910 Heintzman