Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Good to Go

The Piano Girl by Kim Wilkowich


The Indiegogo funds arrived in our account. 

Thank you so much to everyone who's donated.

Chillington are already working on the string frame. The hammers have arrived in Nairobi, awaiting collection by Ocean Sole. Things are starting to look more hopeful.

[Watch this Space]

Wednesday, 5 July 2017


Well, um... that was interesting.

We sent three piano hammers to Nairobi on 6 June. Just checked the post box today and they've been returned to us without explanation. They didn't make it as far as Marula Studios in Karen. We're not entirely sure what happened, but we're going to try DHL tomorrow.

Thankfully they're all in one piece.

Still, on the upside, we paid Chillington today and they're going to try casting our second string frame next week (the first one didn't turn out so well). We're really hoping high on this one. If Chillington can't do it, we might not be able to do it at all in Rwanda. 

They're going to be working hard in the heat. We're in the Long Dry Season at the moment. Which means a typical week looks like this:

 As opposed to the Long Wet Season, which looks more like this:

We're struggling a little as we still haven't received a penny of our Indiegogo funding. It's supposed to arrive within 15 working days after the campaign ends, which would have been Monday. But apparently there can be an extra five-days' delay for bank transfer. Still, it's got us rather nervous. Wouldn't recommend going down the Indiegogo route in the future, not if you're trying to get a project done before retirement.

Still, we're doing something - waiting on a frame - and therefore there is reason to feel excited. 

They're starting early next week. We're not sure exactly how long it'll take, but possibly in the region of two to three weeks. Chillington are confident for the most part, there's just a question over the accuracy of the tuning pin holes, which they reckon might be out by up to a millimetre. If that's the worst that happens, we should do fine.

So, if everyone could just hold their breaths for a couple of weeks...

That's it. 

Nobody breathe.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017


It's a sunny 27c in Kigali at the moment.

We've just got back from meeting the team at Chillington. This is where we're going to attempt to forge the second string frame. These guys are more used to producing industrial equipment, and the fine detail is giving them the same headache it gave Alex (the hitch pins and tuning pin holes), but we're going to give it a go. They seem excited about the project.

Unfortunately, our main problem at the moment is that Indiegogo still haven't released the funds. Considering they take a large chunk of the money we raise, a sense of urgency would be nice in return. Apparently, it takes up to fifteen working says. Our campaign ended on 12th June. That means we should receive it by next Monday. 

On the up-side, initial calculations suggest that building the prototype might not cost quite as much as originally thought. Especially if we go into production, as both the strings and the frames reduce in cost the more you order.

We're a very long way from production yet. We're still a long way from a prototype. But it's something to feel hopeful about.

Especially with the hammers stuck in the post to Nairobi, and needing to put Lirika's frame back in its case to take measurements before we can order strings... 

Pianos. Bloody complicated instruments.


Friday, 23 June 2017

Something's Got To Give

Hi everyone. 

Well, no one said building a piano would be easy. You weren't expecting updates full of sugar and sunshine, were you? Where would be the fun in that?

We've been a bit quiet because we're still waiting for Indiegogo to transfer the funds. Apparently it takes up to fifteen business days from the close of the campaign, and we're only on day ten. Hopefully it'll come through soon.

We're still struggling with the three fundimentals:

  1. String Frame
  2. Strings
  3. Action

So, basically, the whole piano.

Here's where we're at...



Our first attempt at a string frame didn't work out so well. Alex didn't have some of the equipment he needed to make the mould smooth. Unfortunately, it's not to the quality we'd need to build one. He's ordered more equipment, so we might give it another shot once that arrives but, in the meantime, Désiré took the frame to Chillington, an industrial metal manufacturer down some very dusty back roads. It's quite hard to find, but worth the trip.

They've come back with a quote that looks very good, and would significantly reduce the cost of our final product. The only problem is that they just called to say they're not sure they can make the tuning pin holes accurate enough. We're dropping by on Tuesday to discuss.

If they can't, that might be an end to the idea of building piano frames in Rwanda, and would require importing - which would push the cost right up. We won't worry too much until we know for certain. There may be a solution.


We've got a real problem on this front. We're looking to purchase from Hellerbass, only we should have taken the string measurements before removing them from the piano. There are also hitch pin measurements we apparently need to take whilst the frame is in the piano. Unfortunately, the frame is at the forge and the piano is in pieces.

Someone with a similar model Lirika very kindly offered to take measurements for us - but we haven't heard from them since. 

If you know anyone who has a (roughly) 1960-80s Soviet Lirika piano and might be willing to help us out, we would be extremely grateful. Any help spreading the word is very much appreciated. Without the measurements, we can't order the strings.


We're still none the wiser as to whether we can use flipflops for piano hammers

Funny quirk. You can send a human being from Kigali to Nairobi in 24 hours.

It takes over two weeks for a small parcel to arrive.

Still waiting....

That's where we're at for the time being.

One of these problems has to give. Hopefully in that order. No point ordering strings if we haven't got a frame, no point building an action if we haven't got strings.

We are committed to finding local solutions wherever possible.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

100% Funded + Flipflops

Woo! We did it. Our Indiegogo campaign broke the amount we asked for.

Huge thank you to everyone who donated, and we'll be putting together a permanent supporters' page shortly.

Quite a bit to update you on at the moment.


Good news and not-as-good news on the string frame.

We really, really wanted to video the first string frame being poured at the foundry.

Unfortunately, Alex had to visit Kampala. Whilst he was away, his team decided to get on with things without giving us a call to come and film it.

Of course, we're really happy the job is done, but as it was such a historic moment, we're also a little sad we couldn't capture it for you.

Oh well.

Communication is one thing we will have to contend with throughout this process. When you're working in several languages across different workshops, there will always be hiccups.

Désiré is going over tomorrow to take a look at the frame and see whether it's fit for purpose.

Alex has offered to melt it back down, but if it's a working frame to the right specifications, we'd rather get on with building a piano.


This is proving much harder than we could have imagined.

There is nowhere (that we know of) in Africa that makes piano strings.

This means ordering online from abroad. As mentioned before, we should have taken a rubbing of the strings before taking them off our template piano, Lirika. A rubbing helps to provide the measurements the string manufacturer needs. We've tried contacting the original Lirika manufacturer in Russia to get the spec, but the e-mail bounces.

There's one string manufacturer we're not too keen to work with after they told us we were unlikely to succeed. As you can imagine, that didn't leave us with a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Another said they'd get back to us but haven't.

Another responded saying it was an interesting project, but didn't answer any of the questions we asked.

Finally, we found a piano shop in Wales who have a similar model of Lirika and who said they'd be willing to check the string spec against ours and take a rubbing if it's the same. That would make online ordering so much easier.

It feels as though string manufacturers are just used to dealing with big companies who order in bulk and know exactly what they're doing. We haven't got a clue, and there's not much interim support for that.


In the meantime, we've gone a little off the rails.

It's the action, you see.

It's really complicated.

Like the strings, half the stuff involved just isn't made in Africa. One of the big bits is the felt for the hammers. It's not that we won't order abroad, it's just that we're curious to see whether there are any other options.

After thinking about it for a few weeks, Marion came up with the idea of sending three hammers to Kenya, to a little place called Ocean Sole. They're cleaning the world's beaches one flipflop at a time, and they make beautiful sculptures out of the materials they recycle.

Marion visited their shop at Marula Studios a few years back.

It's a slightly mad idea, but I was sitting there with a hammer in my hand, thinking - what else could you use instead of felt? Traditionally, piano hammers were made from leather, but apparently this creates a softer sound. We're not ruling out leather, but I remembered holding an animal sculpture that Ocean Sole made and it occurred to me that it had a similar texture and density to hammer felt. Joe Mwakiremba, the manager, agreed to have a look. It'll take about two weeks for our hammers to arrive in Nairobi, but once they do we'll know whether it's possible. We're looking to order five mid-section hammer heads to test. They'd need to be as durable as felt, and create a decent sound. It's a really long shot, but I don't think anyone's ever tried building a piano action from flipflops before. Seemed like a fun experiment. - Marion

The really big challenge ahead of us is to build a reliable supply chain for the parts we need. The more we can do locally, the lower our import and postage costs, and the more authentically African our pianos will be.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

70kg of Joy

It's a girl! 

70kg (11 st) of string frame.

This is Lirika's frame being turned into a mould at Alex's workshop as I type.

This weekend, it looks like we might be casting our very own frame.

Back of Frame

A frame is still a long way off a full piano, but it's one of the two biggest parts we needed to figure out. We can't start working on anything else until we're sure we can make the frame.

Interestingly, it seems that the frame might not have been the heaviest part! The back board of the piano weighed an absolute ton. At least the same, if not more, by the feel of it.

This is the back board, with the soundboard and thick wood for the tuning pins.

It feels really emotional to see Lirika like this. Just over a week ago, she was a fully functioning piano. Hopefully she will be again.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

All Strung Out

Well, we have 15 days left on our fundraiser. Please help us out - we really, really want to build pianos. We've also added a short introduction page to our team, so you can see us all with our cheesy grins.

The past couple of weeks has given us a lot to think about. The frame has safely been delivered to Alex and we'll be looking to try to cast our own frame in the next couple of weeks.

There are a few things that are proving complex. Strings are a big one. We're still looking for a string company to work with. We're in contact with a couple of places, but mostly waiting on quotes and replies. Some suppliers charge a standard international delivery fee which is more than actual postage costs. We're trying to see if we can find somewhere that will charge us the actual postage cost, plus a nominal amount for packaging. Try to keep prices within the realms of possibility.

One day it might be interesting to cost up a stringing machine, someone to teach us how to use it, and wire supply, to see if we could install one at Alex's workshop and save long-term on the postage and import costs, but for now we just need two complete sets of strings - one for our prototype and one to put Lirika back together.

One of the mistakes already made is that we should have taken rubbings of the strings before removing them. There's a great website that explains how to take measurements. Of course, all of this would be a lot easier if we just knew the string spec for a 1968 Lirika. All of her strings are labelled and there to be measured, but we're also trying to track down the once-upon-a-time Belarus Piano Co., apparently now owned by Muzinstrument-Borisov, to see whether they have the records. Unfortunately, the e-mail on their contact page bounces.

Failing that, we will measure what needs measuring and take rubbings on the floor.

Many other things have been on our mind, but we'll talk more about those soon.

All That is Left of Lirika

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

In The Frame

Latest update from Désiré's workshop today - Lirika's frame is out! Next stop, Alex's forge to see if we can replicate it.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Lirika's Journey

This morning Désiré came to take Lirika to his workshop. He'll be taking the frame out to give to Alex to see whether we can forge our own. Whilst Alex is doing that, Désiré will be working on the action to see whether we can build one. 

We're now 50% funded on our Indiegogo campaign, but we still need your support. Please help to spread the word. You can find more video diary entries on our YouTube channel.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Kigali Music School II

Had a really great day at Kigali Music School today. We mentioned before that they have a 1924 Heintzman that's in need of a little love, so Marion dropped by to teach Director Bunani how to tune the piano.

The instrument is in pretty good condition considering her age. Started by wiping the dust out from the inside. This is the water after one pass of the sponge!

But looking sparkly afterwards. Under all of that dust, each of the keys were numbered.

She's a bit of a difficult piano to tune because she has very high key buts - the part that connects the key to the hammer. You can see the stems along the bottom. Because of this, the action is very high, so when you get to the treble section it's extremely difficult to get the tuning dampers in so that you can listen to the strings accurately. Still, we pressed on and she now sounds wonderful.

Finished up with a DIY patch on a bridle strap. A few of the keys have crumbling straps just because of the age of the instrument. C8 went completely, so Marion crafted a makeshift hook using cardboard, sellotape and superglue. It'll hold until we can replace it properly.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Past The Point of No Return

Well, that's it. No backing out now. Yesterday Marion took the strings off Lirika, our template piano. She's going to need a new set to play again.

Speaking of which, we're searching for a string company to work with as we'll need to import a couple of sets, and more if we go into production. If anyone has a recommendation, drop us a line.

Naked Lirika
All Strung Out

We're jobbing for donations at Kigali Music School tomorrow. 

There's still time to donate to our Indiegogo campaign, and we really need all the support we can get. Among the prizes are a very limited number of original Lirika tuning pins which we'll be turning into pendants with the help of a local jeweller. 

Saturday, 13 May 2017

It Begins - Welcome to Our Video Diary

We're getting everything prepared to start the project. In our first Vlog, Marion starts to take apart our template piano, Lirika. You can follow along with future updates here and on YouTube.

Last Wednesday our friend Fidele dropped by to give Lirika a last play. He taught himself to play keyboard at home and had never played an acoustic piano before. It is such a different experience, and always raises a smile. Often the only places people have seen real pianos are in church, and many people don't realise that they don't require electricity to work. 

We're starting a little early on this project as two people have already made enquiries about ordering. We still really need help paying for the prototype, but we feel that we stand a good chance of building a sustainable business once we have something to show. 

Monday, 8 May 2017

Kigali Music School

Just been to take a look at the piano at Kigali Music School. It's an upright Heintzman from Toronto, Canada. Built in 1924 it's looking pretty good for almost 100 years old!

Thanks to Launzo Music for telling us the age.

Going back to tune her soon, and working on a few small details such as the key covers, missing dampers and dust.

Proceeds from the tuning are going to our Kigali Keys project to build pianos in Rwanda. Please help us spread the link to our Indiegogo campaign.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Forging Ahead

We've just reached the £2,000 mark on our Indiegogo campaign. There's only one month left to go, so please, please help us spread the word and raise donations.

Today we were really lucky to have a visit from Chris Nicholson. Chris is a classical guitarist and music therapist living in Rwanda. He's the regional representative for Musicians Without Borders, which works in conflict-affected areas to build peace and reconciliation through music. He's just returned from working in Azerbaijan and Kosovo. 

Chris Nicholson

He came to check out the Kigali Keys project and we went on a tour of the foundry. This will be the birthplace of our first string frame, where Alex will purify recycled iron to pour into the mould we make from Lirika.

We had a chat to Alex about the amount of iron that would be needed. This is one of the most difficult points - whether the forge will be large enough to melt the amount of metal needed for a piano frame. Doing some nifty calculations between kilograms and stone, we reckon it'll be okay. Everything rests on being able to forge a solid string frame. Without it, there is no piano.

Alex Explaining the Process
The metal goes into the hole in the top, then it's heated until it melts. Chemicals are added to purify the iron and make it strong. Then the whole thing tips forward and pours the molten metal into a mould on the floor.

On Monday, I'm heading over to Kigali Music School with Chris to meet the director and take a look at their piano. We're exploring the possibility of teaching students how to tune.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Free Piano Tuning in Kigali

What a week! We've almost reached £1,000 on our Indiegogo campaign. I've just posted an update there. 

Apparently, the sooner we reach 20% funded, the more likely we are to reach our grand total. Some strange crowdfunding psychology. 

Ways you can help us get there: 

  • Share our Indiegogo campaign via social media, through Facebook and Twitter, using hashtags like #pianos and #music
  • Leave a comment on our Indiegogo page explaining why you think this is a great idea and why you backed it.
  • If you know someone running a music or travel blog, ask them if we could do a guest post or interview with them.

We're also offering free upright piano tuning in Kigali to anyone who can help us raise contributions.

Last week I headed over to help the Korean church in Kinyinya to replace five bass strings. Going back to do a second tuning soon.

I've also just done an article for Piano Addict about what we're doing - you can read it here.

Please continue to spread the word about our project and let's keep the momentum going.