Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Happy Holidays & Made in Rwanda Expo

We're taking a little break over Christmas & New Year, so we just wanted to wish all of our followers and supporters a very cool Yule and festive season. 

Last week brought to a close the 2017 Made in Rwanda Expo, where manufacturers and crafts people across the country displayed their wares. There's a real emphasis placed on building and buying local. Rwanda Motorcycle Company won the  Best Exhibitor's Award this year. You can read about it here.

We were really hoping to be able to display at the expo this year, but at the time of starting this project, we slightly underestimated the work involved in building a piano, and we wanted to wait until we have a fully functioning instrument to display - so definitely next year.

However, we have achieved a lot so far. We only launched our crowdfunding campaign in April, received the money in July, had fun with flip-flops in August, successfully produced a piano frame in September (after an unsuccessful attempt in June), also received the bass strings and started work on the body around the same time. We've hit heavy delays trying to source steel wire for the mid-section and treble strings, but we think we'll be able to order those in January, meanwhile Désiré is making the keys.

We've come a long way in five months. 

There are periods of waiting for things to arrive and trying to source the parts we can't make, but progress is certainly being made. The three hardest things about building a piano are the string frame, the strings, and the action. We've got the frame, we've got half the strings, so we're 50% of the way there, maybe a little more with the case and the keys.

We're looking forward to 2018 with all its challenges.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Piano That Saved Christmas

Here's a Christmas story with a happy ending.

We were recently approached by pianist Fabio Tedde (Pianist Without Borders). He was travelling to Rwanda to play music with a group of autistic children from Autisme Rwanda, based in Gisozi. He asked if we could help him source an acoustic piano, as the full sound and vibration seems to work better with the kids than an electric instrument. 

"Sure, give us a shout when you arrive," we said.

So, yesterday we got a call from the school asking if we could find them a piano for Tuesday-Friday, two hours each morning, for a group of ten children. They currently have thirty-nine at the school, but these ten respond particularly well to music.

It was a little short notice, but we were determined to find one. After almost a year of tuning pianos in Kigali, we'd seen a few. Surely it was just a case of calling around?

The best piano we could think of was the American Kimball in Kicukiro. The piano was in tune and in a nice quiet space that could easily accommodate the kids. Unfortunately, there were some major roadworks going on and the mud track leading to the church had been dug up, so we couldn't access it.

Unperturbed, we met up with Fabio at a disability NGO in town. The NGO owns two pianos, but they're both a little out of tune. The plan was to offer to tune one in return for letting the kids use it. They had told us in the past that if anyone wanted to play their pianos, they were welcome. But not this time. The owners were leaving for Christmas and weren't prepared to let their manager welcome us instead.

You Can't Use Our Piano

Next, we tried a rooftop restaurant with a nice grand piano - horribly out of tune. 

This time, they wanted to know how much money the children would be spending on meals, and what we were prepared to pay.

Neither the offer of a free tuning nor feel-good publicity could sway them.

You Can't Use Our Piano

From there, we headed over to a music school.

Although their piano was close to the children's school, we weren't sure about this one because it's very old and the tuning pins slip. It doesn't stay in tune for long. Fabio loved the sound quality though, and the space was perfect for accommodating the kids. The manager was happy to say yes.

"Let me just check with the director," he told us.

It was a no.

No reason given.

It was a heartbreaking experience, travelling all over town in search of one acoustic piano for a small group of disabled children - at Christmas.

We retired to the bar to contemplate things. It was not looking hopeful.

Out of desperation, we posted a plea to a local forum called Living in Kigali

Within an hour, we had three offers and two other leads.  All from individuals willing to welcome the children into their homes. It was such a lovely response after all we'd been through that day. Kigali Keys has offered a free tuning to everyone who responded.

We took up an offer from a lady in Nyarutarama called Ilse. She had brought her father's piano with her, a German Haegele, and was happy for Fabio and the kids to make music on it.

Pictures shared with permission from Autisme Rwanda.


(panorama, click to enlarge)

We are really grateful to Ilse for her kindness (and piano). The kids had a lovely time and each got to have a go playing. Some of them really didn't want to leave, so it's good they're coming back tomorrow.

Music is meant to be shared.

We hope that once we can produce instruments of our own, more people will get to access them. Fabio has played hundreds of public street pianos around the world, and it is our dream to install one in Kigali. It would also be great to have a piano available to loan out to schools like Autisme Rwanda in the future.

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.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Tennessee Bound

Sorry for the silence. We're still working on the steel string supply issue. 

This is the part where we need someone to explain which size steel strings we need, and how much of each size to string a piano.

We've tried several places but it's not proven fruitful. Last week we called up Mapes Piano String Company in Tennessee. They are piano string experts and have very kindly offered to take a look, so we've sent them a sample board of all our steel wires in the hopes they can give us some accurate measurements and advice - and, ultimately, supply the wire. 

The reason it's taking so long is that to send an A4 envelope next-day delivery with UPS would have cost us over FRW 50,000 (£50, $65)! Meanwhile, at the post office, the same letter costs FRW 2,000 (£2/$2.60) but takes two weeks to get there.

So, industry is on hold for a while until the letter arrives.

Monday, 9 October 2017


We just want to give a massive shout out to something that's been really helpful in the battle to tune all of Kigali's pianos. It's an app called TuneLab and it's free for Android, so you can use it on your phone or tablet.

It's a kick-ass electric tuning assistant. It really makes life a heck of a lot easier than trying to tune by ear alone. 

It also has another extremely funky feature which caused us to shed a little tear of gratitude.

Most of the pianos we see here in Rwanda haven't been tuned in decades. When pianos get really out of tune, they usually need two rounds of tuning. The first to pull the note up above its proper pitch, and the second to fine tune it to its proper pitch. 

The reason you need to do this is because, as you pull the notes into tune, you stretch the strings. This exerts a huge amount of pressure on the metal string frame. As a result, the frame changes shape a little, pulled in by the strings. All the strings become a bit looser (flatter) as you tighten.

If you're just tightening a little bit, on an instrument that's relatively in tune, that's no big deal, but on instruments that are heavily out of tune, it can really cause a problem. If you don't perform an over-pull (first tuning) and go straight for fine tuning, you'll discover that all the notes you've tuned will be out of tune again by the time you finish.

We usually do the two tunings on separate days, a couple of weeks apart, to give the strings a chance to settle. But, thanks to TuneLab, life just got a whole lot easier.

There's a special function on the app that listens to how out of tune the piano is, then performs a ridiculously complex mathematical equation and tells you exactly how far above the correct pitch to pull each string so that, by the time you finish, all the strings end up in tune.

It's witchcraft.

We tried it for the first time on the Kawai and it worked like a dream. We'll pop back in a couple of weeks to check whether the tuning has held, but it looks like it'll save a huge amount of time. 

Praise be modern technology.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Cool Key Tops

Our lovely friend Maia has been experimenting with igitenge, which is a local printed fabric, and resin. She's currently making jewelry, but we're considering using this technique to make key tops. African fabric instead of plain white plastic. We think it might look rather stylish.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Kawait a Nice Piano

Double whammy yesterday. Went back to tighten up the gorgeous Yamaha grand, then dropped by the neighbour's house to tune their Kawai. 

You might remember a while back, we abducted a piano action from a (we think) 1969 Kawai upright. It had some broken bridle straps and a broken hammer.

We had to wait a month for the straps to arrive, but Désiré replaced about five of them and carved a new hammer butt for the broken one.

Spot the New Ones?

It was our first ever repair job, which we did for free just to see whether we could. 

Marion broke into a cold sweat over replacing the action. In every upright we've seen so far, the pedals are connected with wooden poles. The Kawai had exactly the same pedals: 

  1. Sustain: which lifts the dampers, so the sound continues after you release the key.
  2. Muffler: Which lowers a strip of felt to soften the sound.
  3. Half-blow: which raises the hammers closer to the strings to make it a little quieter.

The only thing is, unlike any other piano we've seen, the pedals are attached with lengths of black rubber hose. 

Some sort of cat's cradle with liquorish.

The sustain and muffler went in easily, but the half-blow was nowhere near as obvious. Somebody else had taken it out, so putting it back was trial and error. There was a length of wire with two screws attached, but the screws didn't appear to screw onto anything. Turned out, they were just to prevent the wire slipping through the catch.

Bit of a palaver, but got there in the end.

There's certainly never a dull day with pianos. In the very short time we've been doing this, we've seen so many types of piano from all over the world: Dutch, American, Canadian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French and Russian. 

Really hope to add Rwandan to that soon, but we're having huge problems sourcing steel strings. One of the largest steel suppliers in Kenya told us it would be impossible to find in East Africa. We've tried a French supplier, who hasn't responded, and a Canadian supplier, who doesn't export. The search goes on...