Thursday, 23 May 2019

Serena Grand

Yesterday was a really interesting day. We got a call out from Anselm, the pianist at Serena Hotel. He was having trouble with A#2. After playing the note, the damper wasn't lowering properly and the note continued to sustain. 

This is only the fourth grand we've seen in Kigali. We tuned one for a private owner, the Belgian Embassy has one, and there's a baby one at Bamboo Chinese restaurant on the roof of T2000. There was also the matter of the one in Bukavu, but it wasn't anywhere near as glossy as this fabulous seventeen-year-old Yamaha. 


Generally, we haven't dealt with grands for the simple fact that they are so rare and we haven't had much opportunity. However, there is another reason we're hesitant. Grand pianos are very expensive instruments. Whereas you might be able to import a new upright for a couple of thousand dollars, something like a Yamaha grand can cost anywhere between £15-30,000. Currently being a hobby project and not a business, we don't have insurance for this. If we break anything, we need to fix it, and the cost, combined with very lengthy postal delays, makes working with grands a nerve-racking prospect.

However, Anselm had been in contact since November, asking us to check it out, because there really was no one else able to do so.

It was very clearly a damper issue. Instead of falling between two strings to silence them, it was twisting out of place and resting across the strings without enough pressure to silence them. Unfortunately, this meant removing the entire action from the piano to get to the damper at the back.

This is basically the entire process, thanks to our friend Steve Howard.

You can imagine, when this is your first time taking apart a Yamaha grand, it adds to the nerves to be doing it in front of a restaurant full of people. 

Still, things went well and the action slid out without any resistance. Thanks to the bar staff, we placed it safely on the carpet nearby, as it was too heavy for Marion to lift by herself.

It is rather strange to look at any piano without its keys, but it does allow for a fun photo looking out through the strings from the inside.

And it is like a mini-warehouse in there. There's space to lay out all your tools and rest your arms whilst you check to see what's going on.

Lights On

Lights Off

You can see the problem damper to the far right. The damper lever is slightly higher than the others because the damper hasn't dropped, it's resting above the string.

When you pushed the damper into place and played the note again, by pushing the damper lever up, the same thing happened and it refused to drop. By loosening the screw, you release the damper wire and can pull the whole thing up and out. We took that damper out, and the one next to it to compare. The troubled damper is the one on the right, but the wire is correctly positioned. It's at a funny angle because it's a corner damper that is shaped differently to fit snugly up against the string frame without catching. 

Having established the damper wire wasn't broken or bent, we popped it back in and tightened the damper wire screw securely. This immediately solved the problem. It appears the damper wire had simply come loose and that's why the damper was twisting out of position when the note was played.

Satisfied, we called on the assistance of the bar staff again, to help lift the action back into the piano, and set about replacing the cheek blocks and fall board.

Yamaha pianos are disgustingly well designed. Everything slots smoothly into place as though the piano is happy to help. The fall board even has a slow-lower mechanism, so it doesn't drop shut with a loud bang, but slowly drifts closed like a fire door. Very posh instrument. Mind you, it's a very posh hotel.

Anselm came to check it out once we'd finished, and was very pleased with the results. 

It was a great experience for us, though not one we're likely to repeat any time soon. This is a modern instrument, in good condition, and should hopefully have very few problems for a long time to come. Meanwhile, we'll get back to working with uprights and breathing easily.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

In Bed with Kigali Keys

We have a key bed, more or less.

This is the original:


As you can see, we're lacking rail pins, both balance and front. We were going to attempt this ourselves, and in the long-term hope to find a local solution, but in the interests of finishing the project sooner, we're ordering them from Howard in the US.


So, what does this mean for the project?

Well, once the pins arrive and we have them installed, we can mount the keys.  

That's when it should get exciting. Once the keys are mounted, providing everything's built to scale, we should be able to place the Lirika action inside our piano and, with any luck, it'll line up. This would let us test whether our own strings hold, tune the piano, and test our flip-flop hammers

That's when we're going to know whether this is a viable business or not. If we encounter serious problems at that stage, we might not be able to continue, as we couldn't afford to rebuild from scratch. But if only minor adjustments are required, we'll make those and move on to tackling the action. The action is extremely complicated, so it's only worth us attempting if we're likely to mass produce in the future. 

Exciting times.

If we can get the piano playing with the Lirika action, we could also display at this year's Made in Rwanda Expo.

We're currently funding this with our own time and money, so we're always extremely grateful for any contributions. 

Sunday, 19 May 2019


Shout out to all our fellow Game of Thrones fans. 

Fun fact - Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a UN Goodwill Ambassador and visited Rwanda earlier this year.

Yes - Jaime Lannister... a peace envoy.

Enjoy the finale everyone!

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Pride, Prejudice and Pianos

The Hamilton action arrived in Kigali and we've set to work on it. We measure time by how many movies you get through whilst you work. It's been nice listening to the piano music in Pride and Prejudice whilst putting one back together.

It's the long wet season at the moment:

But when the weather's nice, we sometimes work outside.

With the help of assistants.

Akantu ('little thing') and Gizmo

The main problem with the piano action is sticking hammers. It came from Tanzania where it caught a bit of humidity. The hammers move forward and backwards on tiny metal pins. The pins sit in holes padded with felt. If the felt gets damp, it expands, and this causes the pins to tighten up and the hammers to stick. One way to check for sticking hammers is to push the hammers forward and see how smoothly they return. This Kimball is in good shape:

If they return slowly or not at all, there's probably a tight pin. Though also check the hammer hasn't just got caught on the damper felt, which can happen if the action is out of the piano.

Fixing sticking hammers can be quite an undertaking and requires removing the hammers from the action frame.We made a little video on how to do that here

We also had to replace 35 bridle straps, which had been chewed on at some point in the past.



It's important to number everything with pencil or chalk as you take it out, so you remember where to put everything back. Things can get complicated quickly...

And a little bit of Blu Tack can go a long way. Especially in stopping errant screws from rolling across the floor and disappearing under couches.

Once the hammers were off, we used this handy pin poker and bushing broach kit to loosen up the felt. The poker pokes the pin out of the hole, which can be quite tough if it's in really tight. Pliers help once the top of the pin is far enough out. Then the broaching kit is made up of thin pokers with a rough edge to brush the felt loose. After that, you can gently tap the pin back in and the hammer should move smoothly again. 

1.27 mm/0.05" Flange Pin
Broaching Tool, Brushing the Felt
This has worked well for most of the faulty hammers, all except one which has too loose a flange. This means the felt isn't tight enough because it's worn down, resulting in a hammer that wobbles from side to side and doesn't strike true. 

Unfortunately - we have a problem. We tried re-felting the hole with the thickest felt we had, but this wasn't enough to solve the problem. It needs a larger pin. That's something we haven't got access to. Online shops sell bags of centre pins for around $11 before postage, but the sizes are so exact and if we order a big bag of the wrong size, and they don't fit, we have no other use for them at the moment. We're appealing to piano refurbishers to post us a selection of sizes. Every piano we encounter here comes from a different part of the world, with different specifications. We could really do with a little collection of centre pins for emergencies. The pin we need to replace is 1.27 mm/0.05", so the next two sizes up from that would be helpful, and then whatever else you have to spare.

Our address is:

Marion Grace Woolley
PO Box 5145

It can take several weeks for things to arrive, but we're always extremely grateful.  
We've done all that we can outside the piano now, and need to return it to the instrument to check whether the fixes have worked. 

On a final note, we found this on the back of the action. The Piano Age Calculator reckoned this was made between 1947-52, and this appears to back that up. It seems to say 8.12.52 - EW. This might be the first time it was tuned, but it's compelling evidence that the instrument was indeed around by 1952. As it's an American make, that's probably 12 August 1952, rather than the British date system of 8 December 1952.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Hamilton Hospitality

An absolutely lovely day on Wednesday. Marion met the owner of Bugesera Lodge a while back, and was invited to come check out their piano. Jocelyne and her husband brought it with them from Tanzania and it was a little worse for wear. But before taking a look, they fed her the most amazing four-course meal!

The lodge is a thirty-minute moto ride from town, set in a wonderful green area just before Nyamata. Their piano is an American Hamilton, built somewhere between 1947-52.

It wasn't in playable condition, but the issue was with the action, so Jocelyne is going to drop it off in Kigali and we'll see whether we can get it playing again.