Monday, 20 November 2017

Chillin' with Chillington

Had a lovely day today. We had a visit from Alexandra, a journalist visiting Rwanda from the States. She's looking at all sorts of businesses in Rwanda and wanted to check out our progress. We took her to Désiré's workshop first, then on to Chillington (video above) who forge our string frames.

Here's Désiré showing how he makes our piano keys. It takes around three weeks for him to make the full set of 88.

Here's the new frame which was forged by Chillington. We had a bit of a giggle recently. We posted the original picture of Sam holding up the frame to a piano forum, where a couple of people started posting that they didn't believe it was made in Rwanda and it must have been a frame we'd taken out of another piano. Talk about conspiracy theory gone wild. I can assure everyone, it's 100% real, and 100% Rwandan. 

Désiré's Workshop

Can you guess who this is, peeking round the door to Dés's office? It's our original Lirika. One day. One day you will play again...

We had a wonderful tour of Chillington with Mohammad, who has been part of this since the start. It would be impossible for us to build pianos in Rwanda if it wasn't for them. They cast the string frames, which would be too heavy and expensive to import.

First, they make a pattern from the original Lirika frame. This is made from wood. They keep every pattern for every client in their warehouse, ready to make more parts to order.

We found out that casting metal requires a huge amount of sand. So much sand that they wash it, dry it and reuse it after each casting. It's a safety thing, because sand can withstand a huge amount of heat.

The patterns are used to make moulds - ready to have liquid iron poured into them.

Some of their products (not our piano frames) require heat treatment, then dunking in cold water to harden them. This is mostly used on large lumps of metal for stone-crushing machines. Chillington originally started out making industrial-sized coffee grinders.

Finished Piece

It really was a wonderful day, touring the birthplace of our pianos. Helps us to feel more patient about the problems we're having finding strings. Chillington have offered to give us a hand looking.

Didn't quite manage to outrun the rain on the way home. Everyone travels by public motorbike here, so we had to seek shelter at a local petrol station and wait it out. Water to sooth the fire of the foundry.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Mysterious Case of the String Pinger

We've been with one of our regulars today, restringing a Korean piano at a church. They didn't mean to become regulars, but they have a rather enthusiastic pianist who somehow manages to keep breaking strings. This is the seventh one we've replaced!

The church manages to get new strings in around two weeks, ordered direct from the Young Chang manufacturer. Perhaps an avenue for us to explore if we don't manage to find a supplier.

We've been working hard on sourcing strings, and enlisted the help of one of our supporters, Fred Cairns, who has been scouring the internet for potential suppliers. We were having no luck at all. No one was responding, until we e-mailed a Chinese company called Steel Wire Cable Wire which we found on LinkedIn. They responded almost immediately, asking how much we need.

Now that is a very good question.

Marion and Désiré spent quite a bit of time down the workshop this afternoon, trying to figure that out.

Here's the original Lirika frame. Working out the strings gets extremely complicated after the bass section. All bass strings have copper wire around them, and they all have an eye at the bottom which hooks around a hitch pin. One hitch pin per wire.

That's straightforward enough.

Bass Strings Attached to Hitch Pins

But when you get to the steel wire for the midsection and treble, it doesn't work that way.

Every note beyond D3# is made up of a chorus of strings. This means that when the hammer hits a note, it hits three strings to sound that single note.

But it isn't as simple as three strings attaching to three hitch pins at the bottom of the frame.

Instead, one note is made up of two lengths of wire, three tuning pins and one-and-a-half hitch pins.

You have three tuning pins along the top. The first length of wire goes from the top tuning pin, down, around the hitch pin, then back up to the second tuning pin. The next length of wire goes from the third tuning pin, down, around the hitch pin, and up to the tuning pin of the next note. So, there are six strings for ever two notes, each note comprising of three strings, sharing half a length of wire between them.

Steel Wire Around Hitch Pins
3 Wires = 1 Note

To make things more complicated, the wire changes both thickness and length as you progress up the piano.

So, when someone asks you 'How much wire do you need?' it's not an easy thing to answer.

We think we have a rough idea of the sizes we need:

Diameter in inches: .043, .041, .039, .035, .033 and .032.

That's 19, 18, 17, 15, 14 and 13 1/2  to American standards.

But we based that on octave samples, so we might be missing a few half-steps. It's been so difficult to find help on this issue, we're going to plough ahead with what we know. We're aiming for a working prototype. We can refine it after that.

Our first step was to figure out where the octaves were, using the hitch pins for guidance. As you can imagine, it's pretty confusing when there aren't any strings remaining on the frame.

We used tuning pins to mark out each set of two notes.

Working on the principle: it's better to have too much than too little, we measured from the lowest hitch pin to the top tuning pin on each set of two notes, timesed that by six (the number of strings in two notes) then added 18", because every string requires an extra 3" to coil around the tuning pin.

Then we rounded up, just for good measure.

The amount of string we think we need for two pianos (our prototype and rebuilding Lirika) is:

19 - 200 ft
18 - 220 ft
17 - 150 ft
15 - 120 ft
14 - 100 ft
13 1/2 - 20 ft

That's what we're guessing at. 

Mapes sell size 19 in a 200 ft coil, but we can't buy from Mapes because of the extremely high postage cost. That's why we're looking to India and China.

We get quite a lot of parts, such as bridle straps and these balance rail punchings, free delivery from China. We're not expecting wire to come with free delivery, but we do hope it's going to be  a bit more affordable.


In other, non-string related news, Désiré has made a start on the keys. We're still planning to cover them in igitenge. Our friend Maia is going to do that for us, but she needs to pick up some resin first.

New Keys Being Made (left)

Original Lirika Action and Keys

Monday, 6 November 2017

Strung Out to Dry

Sorry it's been a while since our last update.

We're having a pretty tough time of it at the moment.

Something we thought would be relatively straightforward has turned out to be extremely difficult - strings.

After a good start with Hellerbass, who provided the bass strings, we're really struggling to source steel strings for the midsection and treble.

These are made from thin spring steel wire. We've spoken to one of the leading spring steel manufacturers in East Africa and they basically told us 'not a chance', so we cast our net further afield.

We sent a sample board to one of the leading piano wire manufacturers in the world, based in Tennessee, USA. We were going to send it via UPS for quick next-day delivery, but that would have cost over £50, so we decided to send it via the local post office. This cost about £2, but also took a fortnight to arrive.

After two weeks, we still hadn't heard anything, so we gave them a call.

Yes, they got our letter. No, they hadn't read it. What did we want again?

So disappointing. Seemed like they couldn't be less interested in selling us strings. We tried ordering via their online shop, but it wouldn't let us add everything we needed to the cart. Then we saw the postage cost!

Just over $50 worth of wire was going to cost over $440 to deliver to Rwanda! Again, courtesy of UPS.


It's not like someone has to get on horseback and traverse the Kalahari Desert to get it to us. How can it possibly cost that much?


The only good thing to come out of this was that the string manufacturer was able to accurately measure our string samples and tell us exactly what we need: 19, 18, 17, 15, 14 and 13 1/2 (diameter: .043, .041, .039, .035, .033 and .032 to US standards).

That's a big help, but it still leaves us slightly stranded unless we can find someone who can supply those sizes at a sensible delivery price. We've tried contacting several sellers, but they either don't respond or don't export. We honestly had no idea it would be this difficult.

Going to check out India and China to see if they have anywhere producing it at a better price.

We'd hugely welcome suggestions from anyone who's got a few hours to devote to internet research. It's a major sticking point in our project.