Friday, 31 August 2018

Red Leather

Heehee. Here's a picture of Désiré recording the interview with BBC World Service. Due to connection problems, we still haven't heard it yet because we can't load the player, but we've heard great feedback and a friend is going to record it on their phone and send it to us.

So, what's been happening?

Well. Indecision, mostly.

In an attempt to keep things local, Marion approached Bernadette from leather company Dokmai. The idea was to replace items like the understring and pressure bar felt with leather. Dokmai make a lot of leather products such as bags and wallets, and the idea was to use any scraps from their leftovers.

Then Marion was at Union Trade Centre (UTC), one of the main shopping centres in town, and saw that Kigali Leather have opened a shop. Along with leather products, they were selling full hides. One of which was a rather fetching shade of red.


The reason this looked so attractive is that the hitch pin punchings, which are made from felt, are also red.

Gizmo helping to put the punchings in.
Knowing nothing about leather, how much it costs or how it's made, we talked it through with Bernadette. The leather manufacturing capital of Rwanda is Bugesera. However, it has had a difficult history when it comes to environmental protection. Bugasera was temporarily closed for polluting Akagera River, and other tanneries in the country have been permanently closed for similar reasons. Waste disposal is an issue for us as we want to be conscientious about where we source our materials. The other thing we learned about the Bugesera leather is that the colour is painted on, whereas good quality leather tends to be dyed.

Bernadette put us on to another supplier in Kigali called Germaine. Germaine has worked in the leather industry since leaving school - it's a family business. She makes shoes and other leather goods, importing hides from Kenya. She showed us the difference.

Bugesera leather, which has been painted.
Kenyan leather which has been dyed.
You can tell from the back of the hide which process has been used. A white, or natural-coloured back, is painted, whereas a dyed hide is the same colour on the front and back, and that colour will not fade or rub off.

The difference then comes down to price.

The Kigali Leather hide was selling for FRW 50,800 (currently around £44/$58)whereas the second, dyed leather cost FRW 90,000 (£80/$103) for slightly less. Importing the felt from America (string braid, pressure bar and understring) comes to a lot less - around $40 including postage. As post takes a really long time and we want to start stringing, we opted for the leather. As we want the prototype to look smart, we've gone for the more expensive leather. In the future, we'll revisit this decision depending on how well the leather suits its purpose and what the customer wants. For now, we can also use the leather for the action as there's enough of it.

We also bought a bottle of 'yellow glue', which is suitable for sticking leather. It cost FRW 2,500 (around £2/$3) and takes around 30 minutes to set.

the leather is going into the piano over the weekend, and stringing should start next week.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

BBC Interview

Déseré and Marion did a little interview with BBC World Service this morning. You can listen to it here. It starts around 48 mins in. Unfortunately, we can't load it with our connection at the moment, so if the link doesn't work please let us know.

If it is no longer available on the BBC, you can listen to it here.

Monday, 13 August 2018


We met up with Bernadette Umunyana from Dokmai Rwanda today. They make really high-quality leather goods in Kigali. We're trying to keep things regionally sourced, so we're asking them for help with parts that would usually be made from imported material. Bear in mind that this is a test piano, so we're taking every opportunity to see what we can do locally. Bernadette first learnt to work with leather and silk whilst living in Laos, and her items are sold throughout Kigali, with a showroom at Lemigo Hotel.

In the meantime, we've noticed a slight problem with one of the hitch pins on the midsection. It's not quite fully formed and needs to go back to Chillington for welding so that it will securely hold the tension of the string. This would have been easier to do before the frame and pins went in, but our friend Mohammad assures us this can be done without setting fire to the rest of the piano. Part of this project is to pick up any issues with the frame so that we can modify the pattern and get it absolutely right in the future.

Top middle hitch pin not fully formed.

A while back, we dropped off the action rail for Chillington's appraisal, but it's likely to be a fiddly job for them as they're used to working with large-scale industrial equipment. Fiddly tends to equal expensive, so Marion went to collect the frame today and took it back to Dés's workshop. This is how we roll in Kigali, moving piano parts around town on a moto (public motorbike)...

Whilst waiting for Désiré, Marion noticed that the guy in the shop next door had a keyboard, so she popped in for a chat. His name's Honore and he has been teaching himself to play. His friend works next door as a carpenter and had heard about the piano venture. It was really nice to hang out with them. Hopefully he can help test the new piano once it's built.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Pinned to String

L-R: Paulin, Samuel and Désiré

We promised you a project update, and this should make you smile.

Désiré and his assistant, Paulin, have been hard at word inserting all of the tuning pins by hand. The soundboard is in and the bridges are also in place. For those who have been asking, the casing is made from native musave (moo-saav-ay) wood, from Congo.

Marion is back in Rwanda, and this week the piano will be moved from Dés's workshop to her home, where we'll start stringing it up.

This is where we find out how accurate the string frame and bridges are. It's a nerve-racking time, with a lot of money and effort gone before. We're keeping everything crossed that the frame will hold and that it's well aligned. 

Stringing will take a few weeks, but we'll make posts along the way.


Sunday, 5 August 2018

The Mystery of Thomas Dawkins

Next up, here's an intriguing instrument. Marion's stepdad, Merrick, inherited it from his father.


Lovely. What could be so strange about that?

Well, there's no such thing as a Thomas Dawkins piano, apparently. Thomas Dawkins is known to have advertised as a military instrument maker, but it appears he imported pianos rather than made them. 

It's likely he removed the original brand name and painted his own over the top before resale. So, we have a serial number, but it's impossible to date without the model.

If anyone has a piano with the same colour/shape plate, with 'Made in England' stamped on it, and the same serial font in the top right, we'd be interested to hear about it. See if we can identify the make.

Merrick remembers hearing something about the piano being connected to 'the exhibition at Crystal Palace'. The only major exhibition we'd heard of was the Great Exhibition of 1851 (you can watch a nice video about it here, with mention of a piano that four people could play at once). Sceptical that the piano was that old, we nonetheless did some research.

It turns out that 1851 was actually a historic turning point for pianos, as it was the first time that a European cast-iron frame had been displayed. You can find out more in this book: The Piano-Forte: Its History Traced to the Great Exhibition of 1851.

As this piano has an overstrung cast-iron frame with 'Made in England' on it, that rules out its participation in the Great Exhibition. Just to be absolutely sure, we scoured the full Guide to the Exhibition for any mention of Thomas Dawkins. There wasn't any, but there were some descriptions of very beautiful pianos, which might interest enthusiasts. You can press ctrl+F (for find) and type piano to skip through all mentions.

Examining the instrument, it shares some similarities with Marilyn's 1930 German Steck: the black and gold frame, 85 keys instead of the modern 88, all made of ivory (though a lot more yellowed). According to this article, ivory most likely places it pre-World War II. The war made it much harder to obtain ivory. Plastic also became cheaper to produce, keeping pianos affordable for the masses.

Yellowed, Ivory Keys

Responses on Piano World place it around 1890-1920. Given the similarities with the Steck, you could probably extend that to the early 1930s.

After the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace was relocated and hosted a huge number of events and exhibitions until it was converted into a naval training base during the First World War. It played host to the world's first aeronautical exhibition in 1868, and the world's first cat show in 1871. Music was a huge part of the building's purpose:

In the central transept was the 4,000-piece Grand Orchestra built around the 4,500-pipe Great Organ. There was a concert room with over 4,000 seats that hosted successful Handel Festivals for many years. The performance spaces hosted concerts, exhibits, and public entertainment. - Wiki

It's certainly not inconceivable that the piano was either played at Crystal Palace, or that it was sold there as part of a retail fair.

Unfortunately, like the Steck, it's suffered from damp and wear over the years and is in need of restoration.


You can see the colour the strings used to be.

We gave it a little tune up, and managed to find the music rack tucked away inside the lid.


And there was just time for a little play, in which you can hear a couple of the hammers stalling. It would be so interesting to know more about the original make of this piano, in the hopes of narrowing down the date a little.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Keeping Notes

Time for our next British piano, which is actually German - an 85-key Steck belonging to Marion's stepmum, Marilyn. It originally belonged to her mother, Marj.

L-R: Marj, Marilyn & Marion
Stanton Drew

Fall Board

Thanks to Roberts Pianos, Oxford, who published the serial numbers, it appears to have been built around 1929/30. You can also find a large list of model numbers in the Blue Book of Pianos.

Click to Enlarge
It's hard to date a piano by its serial number because you have to take a rough guess at how many pianos they manufactured each year. The serial number on this piano is 101169. Between 1920-40, Steck made 79,500 pianos, so roughly 3,975 per year. Adding 3,975 to the original 1920 total of 63,300 brings us to 1929-30. All depending on whether or not they made an average number of pianos each year. If more, it might be earlier. If less, it might be later.

We did find a little something that backs up our theory, though.

Lifting out the upper panel, some markings became visible along the ivory keys.

These appear to be the dates the piano was tuned. They're written in dark-blue ink in the centre of the piano. It wasn't until later that we spotted some fainter markings in pencil to the far left.

The one on the second key reads 1934.

It's fair to assume it was tuned a year or two after it was built. So, somewhere in the region of 1929-1934, most likely 1930-33. A pre-war German piano.

[UPDATE: Thanks to our friend  Jim Kelly at  Fur Elise Piano Service  for letting us know that the Aeolian embossing on the plate means that it was likely made at 155 New Bond Street, London!]

It's just really interesting to contemplate whether the piano had the same tuner all those years, or whether Biro Tuner saw Pencil Tuner's marks and thought 'that's a good idea, I'll continue doing that'. Was Biro Tuner a friend of the family or were they just a local tuner who came to the house year after year? It's fun to speculate.

Unfortunately, the piano has fallen into some disrepair over the years. Many of the hammers don't fall back, the strings are a bit rusty and the heads and dampers are worn.

But the piano is a family hand-me-down, so there's a chance that piano enthusiasm will spread and the instrument will be restored.

After giving it an overpull, it was time to head to the pub. A nice pint by the river at The Boat in Ashleworth, which had been run by the same family for over 350 years until recently.