The Restoration of a Mason & Hamlin AA Grand Piano

 

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RESTORATION OF A MASON & HAMLIN AA

It is my pleasure to present to you this picture documentation of the restoration of my Mason & Hamlin AA. I consider myself fortunate to possess it and have thoroughly enjoyed myself throughout the restoration process. I hope you will get some sense of the scope of the project despite any imperfection in the following presentation. Finally, if you consider yourself a piano lover feel welcome to pay a visit to my workshop (by appointment only) because this instrument is 100 times more impressive live than in these photographs.

The original Mason and Hamlin Piano Company went out of business primarily because it was not successful at marketing itself. However it was taken over by Aeolean Piano Company in 1924 and manufactured for many years afterwards, though not in the large numbers that Steinways were.

This piano was made in 1901 by the original Mason & Hamlin manufacturer. It is 6'2" and was originally owned by a piano teacher in St David’s, PA. I discovered the instrument through a friend of the previous owner’s family and immediately recognized its potential. Though Mason & Hamlin does not have the widespread name recognition among the general public as Steinway, it is known by piano specialists; technicians, dealers and some musicians to be AT LEAST the equal of Steinway.

The first series of photos depict the original pre-restoration condition of the instrument. The piano had been sitting in a damp den for countless years where the previous owner apparently taught piano lessons.

The original finish is mildewed and opaque from dampness and age. Parts of the cabinet are gouged. The brass damper pedal is worn clear through from long use. The interior is filthy, mildewed and cruddy. The fallboard and the sides of the keys are gouged from over 80 years of students slashing fingernails. The hammers have been played into a trapezoidal profile.

My course of action is the following. New Pin block, tuning pins and strings to ensure long term tuning stability. Soundboard repaired. This necessitates re-veneering and reconstruction of damaged, gouged, crushed and missing portions. Action mechanism will eventually be remanufactured; new key sticks, whippens, hammer shanks and flanges, hammers and necessary felts.

Because of singing quality and tone of instrument prior to restoration it has been determined that the soundboard does not need to be replaced. However, some repairs and esthetic procedures are in order.

As an interim course, the original keys will be recovered and new hammers, back checks and hammer shanks and flanges will be installed. Damper heads will be refinished and new damper felts installed. The under lever mechanism will be overhauled.

MANUFACTURE AND INSTALLATION OF NEW PINBLOCK

The first step involves complete disassembly and removal of cabinet hardware and of the original tuning pins, strings, plate and dampers. However; just before this step, essential measurements of the plate position, height, down bearing and string-scale must be recorded for future reference in order to properly reassemble the instrument. I also evaluate the instrument as to the extent that original parts such as the old pin block can be used as a guide in the manufacture of the new block. In this case the old pin block can be used as a close reference.

In the above photo, the old pin block has been removed from the piano and can be seen in the foreground in comparison to the new pin block blank in the background. Pin block material is the equivalent of plywood made out of layers of hard rock maple. Hard rock maple is a uniform, stable
and dense wood used for the purpose of securing over 230 odd tuning pins in a set position so that 40,000 pounds of tension can be maintained to yield the musical 12 tone scale that we are familiar with.

The new block must be fit securely to the plate flange and webbing in order to guarantee the future tuning stability and structural integrity of the instrument. This fit is achieved by careful measurements being made of the old block and plate executed in tandem with scrupulous and painstaking observations of the consequences on the new material. In a sense, it is a reverse sculpture of the cabinet rim, plate webbing and flange.

The 230 odd tuning pin holes are drilled evenly and slowly with a cool drill bit to ensure consistency of hole diameter. Without such care, an inconsistent tuning pin torque will result leading to immediate and future tuning stability problems. After fit is achieved, additional waste pieces of blank are removed. Then 30 odd plate screw holes are drilled. Since material is so dense, each hole must be drilled to very strict tolerances or else the screws will not go in properly at all. Tuning pin holes are .250" drilled with a cool bit at a 7 degree angle to counteract the pull of the strings.

The above photo depicts the result of MANY HOURS of replication, fitting and modification of the new piece of material. The major cuts have been made with the band saw and router. Chisel and rasp are used for the more subtle gradations. Final fit of block to webbing is trickiest to achieve because of its effect and changes to the previous fitting procedures.

The above photo’s show the drill press, angle jig and the cooling apparatus. All markings for drilled holes are made with appropriate sized punches while the pin block blank is clamped into place onto the plate which is separate from the piano at this time. If you look closely at the photo you can see the pin block blank off line on the jig. This is to further simulate the angle of the strings in the piano while drilling. The squiggly markings on top of the blank and indicate the top webbing fit of the block and 2 different layers of material.

Since new pin block is fit to plate and has been carefully measured to fit in cabinet without plate, it is now time to put all 3 pieces together to determine actual fit and any changes that would be necessary. Plate position & height has been pre-measured and are the primary guides that will be used to determine if there is a proper union. Because of original tone and condition of piano, down bearing of strings is only of academic interest at this time. When assembly is completed and fit properly, spacing shims are glued between block and rim; plate is removed and new block is screwed and doweled into rim.


All surface veneer of cabinet is initially sanded with 120 grit paper. Any traces of old finish are removed and loose pieces of veneer are repaired. Sections of cabinet where veneer is missing are prepared for the application and installation of new veneer. New veneer is glued and clamped to the surface beneath. This process is time consuming and tedious, however careful inspections of the surfaces reveal numerous spots where it is necessary.

SOUNDBOARD PREPARED FOR FINISHING

Shims and dowels are reduced close to the surface of the board. All the old unsightly shellac-finish is scraped off. The treble and bass bridges are in excellent condition. Nevertheless, all 660 bridge pins are bolstered and firmed up with a special epoxy made for this very purpose. Bridges and bridge pins are then cleaned of all excess epoxy and old finish. After rough removal of finish and shims, the board, dowels and shims are sanded flush to each other.

SOUNDBOARD REPAIR

The above photos show the cracks that are filled with spruce shims. This procedure has a purely esthetic purpose and does not add anything to the tone. The board is also clamped and glued.

Cracks shimmed
Board then refinished
Cabinet completely finished with clear semi-gloss lacquer.

CABINET FINISH REMOVED

The old finish is unsightly and ugly. The above photo’s give you a glimpse of the stripping process. A chemical solvent that dissolves the old finish is applied to the cabinet. Effective removal requires careful observation of the dissolving process, willingness to work with a messy noxious substance, careful removal of dissolved finish and washing down of surfaces. This work is not recommended for everybody.

REASSEMBLY OF FINISHED PLATE AND CABINET

All plate screw heads and duplex scaling' string rests are cleaned and polished. All 50 odd screws are tightened, carefully and slowly.
Inspection reveals that piano has been assembled properly. Plate is re-guild with new cloths that are attached in appropriate locations where the strings are in contact.
Plate is sprayed gold. Gold paint is removed pins. Raised lettering is inked in
with black. Plate is sprayed with 10 coats of semi-gloss lacquer.

FURTHER ASSEMBLY OF PIANO

Special buckskin lid cushion rests are made to protect cabinet and lid where the two surfaces contact each other. Lid hinge; and hardware are polished. Additional lid members are re-felted and reattached to each other. Damper under lever guide rail is refinished, re-bushed and installed into the piano. Lid is reattached. Piano action work is ready to proceed.

All lacquered surfaces are lightly sanded between coats with 320-400 grit wet-dry paper to level out the high spots. The final coat is then sanded and rubbed with 0000 steel wool in order to give a lustrous hand rubbed appearance.

RESTRINGING THE PIANO

Different string gauges are marked onto the plate webbing in appropriate locations. Restringing takes 50% longer because of slippery and problematic duplex scaling string rests.

REFINISHING AND RESTORING THE CABINET AND PLATE

Soundboard is carefully masked off so that the cabinet can be finished separate to the board. Cast plate is thoroughly cleaned of all dirt and grime before spraying gold.
Cabinet is brushed on with 10 coats of semi-gloss lacquer. Cabinet and soundboard are then carefully sanded with successively finer grades of paper until the natural grain and figure of the wood transparent.

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The Restoration of a Mason & Hamlin AA circa 1907, #17787
 

Piano Original Condition

Original Pin Block in foreground, new Pin Block blank in background

Shims glued to Sound Board prior to refinishing

Removal of Old Finish from lid

 

Removal of Old finish from soundboard after shims planed to surface

 

 

 

Pin block matched and fitting, old block in background

Drilling tuning pin holes on jig so that pins are will stand at a 7 degree angle to counteract the pull of the strings

 

Piano masked of in preparation for new finish to be applied

Plate refinished

Lid freshly finished

 

 

Action prior to restoration

New hammers shanks and flanges being fit

 

Piano partially restrung after refinishing

 

 

Final appearance minus leg for comparison to original

Gnarled Mahogany

 

 





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