Friday, 22 September 2017

Pili Pili Piano

Something cool that happened yesterday. Went to check out a Sébastien Érard piano from around 1900. Rudy, the owner of a popular bar in town called Pili Pili, bought it at auction a couple of years back and imported it from Europe. He originally bought it for decoration as it's very beautiful, with handles to help move it, candle holders and curvy legs.


With the possible exception of the Emile Vits, it's the oldest piano we've seen so far in Kigali. Roughly 117 years to Kigali Music School's 93-year-old Heintzman. At least we know how this one came to be in Rwanda.

Unfortunately, it's not in good condition. It needs a full hammer and damper replacement, new hammer rail felt and string braids, and it's got five broken hammer shanks.

It's also got a few missing key tops. As with the Heintzman, that's difficult because they're ivory. You can't replace ivory key tops because ivory is illegal. On the upside, Rudy's got some spare keys and we can strip the ivory from those to replace the broken pieces. On the downside, it's still ivory, and that's particularly poignant when you're fixing pianos in Africa. Sort of like the elephant foot table in President Habyarimana's palace. 

Some cute features on this piano do include an extremely slim string frame.

Key lettering on each tuning pin. How incredibly helpful is that! Wish every piano had it.

And an illegible (thanks to the strings) piece of script on the back.

Pili Pili is a very nice bar with a pool and a stunning view of Kigali. If they decide to go ahead with the refurbishment, you'll soon be able to listen to the sound of a piano whilst watching the sun go down.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Fiddley Bits

This is not what's in the UPS package, but we almost fell over ourselves with joy. These are the bridle straps we need to fix the Kawai piano action. We ordered them from China on 21 August and they only just arrived today, one month later. That's one of the big problems ordering parts from abroad, the post takes ages. On the upside, thanks to eBay, it is free international shipping.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Mystery Package

Something exciting this way comes. Would anybody like to take a guess what it is?

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

First Rwandan Piano Frame

Hi guys. We're extremely proud, and a little bit teary-eyed, to present to you the first Rwandan-made piano frame. It's fresh out the forge, thanks to Chillington, who worked really hard to make this happen.

This is Désiré's assistant, Samuel, holding it up for display. Pretty hard to tell it apart from the original Lirika frame, below.


Désiré and Marion spent this afternoon measuring up the old frame to put in their string order. You may remember the funky Hellerbass tape measure we received? Well, we were finally able to put it to use now that we have the old frame back in Lirika's casing. It's much easier to take the measurements with the piano flat on the ground and two people to read both ends.

Désiré Modeling the Hellerbass Tape Measure

Bass strings are the low notes on a piano. They're made from a strand of spring steel with copper wound around it. From A0 (the bottom note) to A1 (one octave), each note on this model has a single copper string. Then, from A1 to D3# each note has two, thinner copper strings. Above D3# (the third D# from the left) all the notes have three spring steel wires, creating a chorus of strings. These make up the rest of the midsection and treble. Here's an example of bass and regular strings.

That made a total of 49 measurements to take (18 dual strings and 13 singles).

We're now ready to put in our order with Hellerbass but, as the name suggests, they only make bass strings. We now need to find a supplier of thin spring steel wire in East Africa, otherwise we'll only have a third of a strung piano. 

Meanwhile, Désiré is working to build the piano casing to put the new frame in.

Entrance to Désiré's Workshop

View from Désiré's Workshop

Monday, 4 September 2017

New Uniform

Our piano tuner, Marion, has gone a little crackers. Recently pictured at a party dressed as a piano. We're thinking of introducing this as the new work uniform.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

A Most Unusual Morning

We've had a lovely morning fixing this unusual Dutch Rippen piano. A family brought it with them to Rwanda. It belonged to the owner's grandfather. 

The keys weren't working and it took some getting into. Turned out the instrument had been packed away with a long plastic pole - possibly a damp-prevention method - slotted between the hammers, with the hammer rail pushed forward. We removed the pole, pushed back the hammer rail, and the piano burst into life. Sounds lovely with the acoustics of the tiled room.  

Similar Model from Google Image
The bottom board was quite a struggle to replace as there's a gap through which to see the strings and, presumably, through which sound escapes.

Overall, the piano is in very good condition. A couple of the bridle straps have gone, but that's fixable. It was also pretty much in tune because it hadn't been played. 

A really intriguing design. Quite possibly done to make it look more like a grand piano on its side.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Thank You!

We've just been down to the Post Office in Kigali to send out the rewards to our Indiegogo backers. Thanks so much for all of your support. Songs to follow - once we've built the piano!

Monday, 21 August 2017

Bridle Strapped

It's been a super exciting few days, and this week is shaping up to be a lot of fun.

We started out tuning at a church in Kicukiro, near Nyanza Genocide Memorial, on Friday. It's a Korean-run church called Glory Bible Mission in Africa, with a US-made Kimball piano.

We'll go back in a couple of weeks as it hasn't been serviced in a very long time and needs a second pass. 

Rain stopped play at one point. We had to take an hour's break as the weather broke. We haven't had rain in about three months and a massive thunderstorm rolled in. The sound of the downpour against the tin roof made it impossible to hear the strings, but we were all grateful for the cool breeze.

The pastor's wife teaches piano and we headed over to one of her student's houses afterwards to look at a 1969 Japanese Kawai. The idea was to check it over and schedule a tuning, but on closer inspection, a couple of the bridle straps had gone and one of the hammers was entirely broken - so we kidnapped the action.


It's not easy untangling a Kawai action. Instead of solid wooden pedal poles, it's linked together with thick rubber tubing. Took a little bit of figuring out.

You can see the removed action at the top of this post. Désiré came to cart it off to the workshop this morning. He's working on repairing the hammer whilst Marion is dashing about town trying to find cotton braiding. We've ordered some standard bridle straps online but, as ever, we're keen to see what we can source locally. Bridle straps aren't exactly complicated - just braided cotton with a leather tab - but braided cotton is not something you can find in Kigali. We'll keep searching, but Plan B is in the post, thanks to eBay.

5mm Bridle Strap

We're excited because this is our first proper repair job, and it'll be a challenge for Désiré to see how he gets on with fixing the hammer.

We're off to Chillington tomorrow to take a look at our string frame, which has taken a little longer than anticipated, but should be ready for collection on Friday. 

We then need to pop the original frame back into Lirika so that we can take the string measurements with Hellerbass's swanky tape measure. Then we can order our strings and a set of tuning pins. At this point, it's worth mentioning how incredibly patient Hellerbass have been with us, fielding all sorts of newbie questions. If you ever need to buy piano strings - one or many - look them up.

We're also shopping for tuning pin bushings, which we're likely to purchase from Howard Piano Industries as Steve Howard is someone else who has been extremely patient with our questions. We need two full sets, as Lirika's were pulled out when she was used to create the casting mould. It might be something we can make ourselves one day, but they're so small, fiddly and cheap, it's best just to order them for now.

But all these purchases really feel like progress and we're excited to start building our prototype very soon.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Flip the Flop

We're insanely excited.

These are the world's first piano hammers made from recycled flipflops, thanks to our friends at Ocean Sole, Kenya. 

We have no idea whether they will work, whether they will be durable enough or produce the right sound, and it will be a couple of months before we can test them properly, but it's a fun experiment. We're looking for ways to reduce the materials we need to import from outside the East Africa region.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Pinning it Down

Chillington have been hard at work forging a string frame for us. This is their second attempt. Still some problems with the pins, but this should get fixed in the finish. We hope to be able to collect it next week.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Strung Out

We received this in the post the other day. It's HellerBass's special tape measure for determining the length of new bass strings. It's got a little loop on it to attach to the pins.

The process seems rather complicated, and the forms are in German, so we're relying on friends to help us work out what goes where. Unfortunately, Google Translate reckons stimmwirbelbestellung means 'voting invertebrate order.'

Still, we have time.

We've been quiet whilst Chillington continues to work on the string frame. They made one casting but need to modify the tuning pin holes and recast. They're used to making hulking great agricultural machines, so the fine detail on a frame takes some adjustment.

Both the new and old frames need to be encased before we can take the measurements, because it's based on length between pins and bridge pins. The pins are on the frame, but the bridges (with their pins) are in the case. This means putting the original frame back in Lirika, then building a case for the new one to exactly the same specification.

Once we've got the measurements, we'll put in our order for strings and tuning pins, then sit back and wait another few weeks for everything to arrive. 

Building the first piano will take time as everything is new, but once we've got the process down we should just be able to order more frames and strings very quickly.

Meanwhile, take a look at what someone else has made. It's extremely cool - a fluid piano.

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.