The Solar Powered Rainwater Project began about eight months ago, although one might argue it is the culmination of my rainwater system dreams beginning in 2002. In any case, the system is essentially done, and it’s time to assess the results, and what we learned. Here are the original project goals:
- measure the daily average power needed to pump rainwater for household use
- design a solar power system to provide that power with at least 3 days of extra storage for overcast conditions
- allow for the rapid change back to commercial power during equipment failures
- keep the cost as low as possible
- develop additional expertise in the design and installation process
- collect data on the operation of such a system
Measuring Daily Use
First, I measured the power use of a 3/4-horse pump supplying household water for one week. This 1100-watt pump, running in short bursts, uses about 1300 watt-hours of power per day. Added to the power needed for a 30-watt ultra-violet water filter consuming 720 watt-hours, they consume a total of 2020 watt-hours per day. I didn’t know how much power the inverter itself would use. There is a power-saving feature on the inverter, but it couldn’t be used to power a ultra-violet water filter continuously. Therefore, the inverter is on all the time — consuming about 70 watts with no load. That adds an additional 1680 watt-hours. So instead of using the predicted 2020 watt-hours per day, the total is actually 3700 watt-hours. I’d say I missed this one by a mile.
One could greatly reduce this figure by running the UV filter on a separate smaller inverter, or even better, a DC supply. The big inverter could then run in “power-saver” mode — reducing its standby power consumption to about 30 watts. In this arrangement, the 24-hour power consumption (both UV filter and inverter power) could be reduced to as little as 1440 watt-hours for a total daily consumption of 2740 watt-hours — almost a 1000 watt-hour savings.
Three-day power for overcast conditions
In my original calculations, I predicted 2020 watt-hours per day to run the pump and UV filter. Accounting for an estimated inverter efficiency of 92%, the design called for 2195 watt-hours of storage per day. Batteries are not perfect, degrade at high temperatures and wear out faster if discharged more than about 50%. The estimated battery storage:
- Average daily Watt-hours * Days of Autonomy * Battery Temperature Multiplier / Battery Discharge Limit = Battery Bank Capacity in Watt-hours
Substituting numbers: 2195 * 3 * 1.19 / .5 = 15,672 Watt-hours of storage
Golf-cart batteries are attractive because they are inexpensive per unit of energy. When eight 6-volt batteries are wired in series, they yield a 48-volt, 10,500 watt-hour battery. I decided to start with that and add more if needed.
A week of overcast conditions provided a test. Solar panels generate some power even in overcast conditions, providing some of the daytime power needs. Nevertheless, the battery bank was approaching 48 volts (down from 52 to 54 volts when charged) by sunset of the second day. Since 48.8 volts is considered 50% discharge, they were just about depleted. I came close to the original estimate though. With only 10,500 watt-hours of storage installed (instead of the designed 15,672) and an additional 1680 watt-hours of power consumption each day by the inverter, my estimates were close. Installing an additional battery bank and reducing the inverter standby power by using the power-saver mode would make up the difference.
Rapid change back to commercial power
Success! By installing a transfer switch between the inverter and breaker box, we have the ability to not only rapidly change back to commercial power, but do so on a circuit-by-circuit basis. In addition, the inverter/charge controller/battery charger can sense when batteries are depleted and automatically switch to commercial power while applying a fast charge to the battery bank. Once the charge is complete, the inverter automatically changes back to battery power. This maximizes use of solar power while maintaining the reliability of a commercial grid.
Original cost estimates were $3500, but additional solar panels, a custom battery cart, a transfer switch and other incidentals raised the cost to just over $5000 dollars excluding labor.
- Inverter/Charge Controller/Battery Charger – $1200
- 6-250 watt solar panels – $1900
- 48-volt battery bank (golf cart batteries) – $860
- Battery cart (custom-made welded steel) – $300
- Transfer switch, panel combiner, DC breakers and other incidentals – $840
Big win here. The system has been operating since July, and daily data indicators like battery voltage and battery power consumption have been enlightening. The digital power meter shows, under varying conditions, how the system is working. It also uncovered a problem. The Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) charge controller is supposed to maximize the transfer of power from panels to batteries while preventing them from overcharging. I have seen battery voltages exceeding 60 volts when they shouldn’t be higher than 59.2 volts. Contacting the manufacturer, they recommended changing an internal setting on the charge controller. The adjustment helped, but I will have to monitor it a while.
I began collecting data the day the solar power system was operational. By monitoring the battery voltage each morning, I could see that two panels were just keeping up with the UV filter and inverter. Two more panels were added, and the battery was over-voltage on the sunniest days. With a consistent battery usage of about 1100 watt-hours per day, there was ample production to replace that energy and power the UV filter and inverter for 24 hours. After adding the last two panels and the buried rainwater system power cable, I began powering the rainwater system. With the exception of about a week of continuous overcast, it has been exclusively solar-powered ever since. Battery usage increased to about 2200 watt-hours per day, and there is adequate panel production to independently power the pump (actual consumption: 1500 watts) at peak sun.
Lessons learned and next steps
- Small, continuous loads can consume as much or more power than short, high-current loads.
- Solar panels produce some power during overcast days.
- Transfer switches allow selective powering of loads to maximize use of solar power.
- Metering is essential to understanding system performance.
If we have an especially dry or cold winter, I will shut the rainwater system down. This will provide a real-world test of the system powering a 3000-watt well pump. Will there be enough solar production during the short days of winter to keep up? I also plan to work on an alternative power source for the UV filter. In the meanwhile, it can be switched to commercial power (love that transfer switch!) so I can use the power-saver mode on the inverter. I may also add another battery bank, but that’s another $1200 expense. We’ll see. Otherwise, I’m declaring victory!
The solar-powered rainwater system was complete — except for more panels, and a cable to isolate the rainwater power from the rest of the system. Construction on the rainwater system began in 2002, when I trenched the various wires and pipes into the ground. I needed power for the rainwater system, and tapped into an underground wire originally intended to supply power to the well. I figured it was heavy enough to power an additional pump for the rainwater system. The arrangement has worked well until now, but there was no way to isolate the rainwater pump from the well pump. I needed one more cable — underground — of course.
I’m a little slow . . .
I had already installed two more panels on the garden shed roof while I pondered where to put the remaining two panels. None of the options seemed good since they were either shaded by trees or other plantings or would make an unsightly mess on the ground. I was stumped until I finally realized that the front of the garden shed had two blank walls on either side of the double doors. Facing south. Big enough to each hold one panel. Isn’t it amazing that sometimes we can’t see what is in plain sight? With two more panels, the system would have a total of 1580 watts of solar capacity.
Vertical orientation was not best for capturing the sun. I could mount a frame that would hold them at the same angle as the roof — about 34% — but I thought, why not hinge them? That way I could adjust their angle seasonally and even store them against the building during extreme weather. My well-stocked junk-box provided all the necessary materials: sections of 2-by-4 pressure-treated wood, salvaged exterior door hinges, and deck screws.
I fabricated frames that would form the panel/hinge interface. They were made by ripping sections of pressure-treated 2-by-4 to fit snuggly into the interior of the aluminum frame. Two pieces were cut at 45˚angles, and joined with a biscuit and wood glue to make each corner. Two frame “corners” were secured to each panel with a screw, and the hinges attached to them. The other side of the hinges attached to a horizontal 2-by-2 attached to the front of the shed. Once installed, each panel could be raised or lowered to any position from almost horizontal to perfectly vertical, and anywhere in between.
I haven’t made the adjustable support pieces for the panel bottoms yet, and they are currently supported by sections of heavy cardboard tube and an old shovel handle. I want to make the panels easily adjustable and haven’t arrived at the perfect solution yet. Having them fixed with a temporary support is fine for now.
Trenching for fun and profit –
Digging trenches is no fun, and I’ve been putting it off — but couldn’t any longer. I got out the cinch bar and trenching shovel and set to work. Did I mention that the “soil” here is caliche? It’s a soft rock-like substance that is much harder than dirt, but not as hard as rock. Diggable, but only just. It took several hours to fully enjoy opening the trench, but I finally had a clear path from the underground junction box to the breaker panel in the garden shed. I wired a new, 50-foot section of 12-2 NM direct-bury cable, and the worst part of the job was done. Testing the new cable, I was now able to power the rainwater pump from the solar generator, and it worked fine.
The batteries now charge much more rapidly but have a new problem: the voltage is rising over 60 volts at peak sun when it should cut off at no more than 59. Be careful what you wish for! I’ll share what may be the solution in the next article but for now, we have plenty of power!
Every piano is different, and although there are recommended measurements for key dip, blow distance, hammer height, etc., changes are sometimes needed to suit a specific action. At this point, Danny Boone’s Regulating Grand Piano Touch and Tone suggested fully regulating 3 notes in the center of the keyboard to determine the best measurements. It was time to get an expert technician, Jack Mills, involved since he would have a better idea of what to look for than I would.
As we met at the piano shop, he immediately spotted a problem. The jacks (#5 in the diagram below) were jamming against the let-off buttons (#4), and were at risk of breaking if the piano was played with much force. I was glad I had been pretty gentle with it so far, and none of the jacks had broken. This meant we would need to change the action geometry somewhat, with adjustments to key dip and hammer height. The entire key set could be raised or lowered on the balance rail as well, but this could complicate clearance under the fall board and the key slip. The keys had to fit under the fall board, and not be so high for the key slip to hide their bottom. Once the jamming problem was solved, centering the jacks would be next.
Jack showed me how to center the jack side-to-side (#5 in the diagram at right) on the knuckles (#8) by placing one side of the wippen (#3) on a block of wood and tapping the center of the jack to adjust the position of the jack pin slightly. The jack is then adjusted front-to-back. Using the adjusting screw on the jack, one aligns the back edge of the jack with the back edge of the wooden core of the knuckle (#8) .
Finally, he showed me the hammer drop adjustment (#7) and advised adding extra “drop” to exaggerate the let-off. This makes it easier to adjust the let-off before setting the final hammer drop. Both would affected by the tension adjustment on the repetition lever (#9) spring.
I was taking notes and trying to keep up, and it was obvious I was in for some serious “wood-shedding” on these sensitive adjustments. I just hoped I had captured it all. Later, Bernard and I discussed strategies for correcting the jammed jacks, and decided I would first adjust the key dip by adding various thicknesses of punchings to each front key pin, while adding a bit more punching thickness to the sharps. This would correct for their overly-low key dip and would prevent the sharps from “burying” into the ivories. After that, I could reset the hammer line a bit lower, and that should correct the jack problem. The rest of the afternoon was spent adjusting jacks fore, aft and center.
Back at home the next day, I added punchings and re-adjusted the hammer line as planned. To my relief a tiny bit of space remained between the jacks and let-off buttons when each note was played — alleviating the jamming problem. Back in the piano, there was about a paper-thickness of clearance between the keytops and the bottom of the fall board, and the key slip still covered the bottom of the ivories.
I played it for a while, and there was definite improvement in the action. With the slightly-reduced key dip, it was more comfortable to play, and another round of hammer line adjustment helped with the evenness. I was beginning to see how the “circle of refinement” made subtle but cumulative improvements — like compound interest in a savings account. Each change is small, but taken together, they add up.
With casters installed and a rudimentary understanding of action adjustments, I was able to tinker. Hammer alignment went quickly, and as predicted, the sotto voce pedal now worked properly. Since the rockers were not snugged into their final position, they tended to drift, so I touched up the hammer line and let-off, and put the action back into the piano. It was time to play!
As mentioned in an earlier post, I purchased the piano from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1982, and the action was rough even then. As a result, it was difficult to play any sort of nuanced music with mezzo forte being about the softest dynamic possible. Still, I enjoyed playing it since it was the best piano I had ever owned.With its limited dynamic control and worn hammers the piano had a harsh sound. It was brittle-bright in parts of the mid and upper registers while being dull to the point of absent in the highest parts of the keyboard. No wonder I had all but abandoned playing it in favor of the much better Baldwin.
With reconditioned keys, new hammers and the beginnings of regulation, a different instrument was emerging. I was playing it nearly every day — reasoning that would help “settle” everything back into place — and enjoying it. The Weber still sounded somewhat harsh when played with forte and louder dynamics, but the softer sounds, with the new ability to shape them were lovely — especially the octave below middle c and higher. Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude (opus 28, No. 15) or the Nocturne (opus 9, No. 1) sounded especially nice.
Pianos are sometimes categorized as “American” or “European” in nature. The American style of grand emphasizes rich harmonic overtones and can be musically played at fff volume levels. European models, on the other hand, emphasize the fundamental tone, producing a thinner and cleaner sound. Also the European pianos sound harsh when played at high dynamic levels with a less musical sound. The 1927 Baldwin definitely has an “American” sound. Was the Weber more “European” in nature? This made some sense if one remembers that the Weber Piano Company was founded by a German immigrant, Albert Weber, Sr., in 1851 and employed skilled craftsmen, some of whom were no doubt European immigrants as well.
There was much work to do, but pausing to enjoy the intermediate results was very satisfying. I found myself playing the Weber almost exclusively now, fascinated by the evolving nature of the instrument. My initial fears that rebuilding the instrument might be a waste of time and money, were gone. The Weber was providing a window into an earlier time, shedding light on the instruments, the artists who played them and the musical practice of a bygone era.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, the Weber had been without casters for about 20 years. After we moved to our log home, I was eager to make it more playable, but there was a distinct rattling! It took me a while to find the rattle, and it turned out to be the casters. Off they came. I wasn’t aware of piano geometry then, and although I noticed the keyboard was somewhat lower, it didn’t bother me. The old casters were stored in the garden shed and forgotten.
Now, with an action rebuild in process, it became obvious the extra bit of height was crucial not only for the player’s comfort, but also for the function of the pedals. Resting so close to the floor, they couldn’t be fully depressed.
Bernard suggested a new set, but at nearly $300, I hesitated. Then he mentioned some older casters that had been removed from other rebuilds — maybe some of them would suffice. We looked through the collection, and many had been removed for good reason. We did find one set of brass casters that looked pretty good though, and I could have them for considerably less. A little polishing, and they would look almost like new, and with the “modesty skirts” on the Weber’s Victorian case legs, most of the caster would be hidden anyway.
The first step was to clean up the “new” casters. The wheels were brass, but the rest looked like brass-plated steel. Comparing them with the old casters, I noticed a difference in size between the mounts. I would have to enlarge the hole in each leg. Using a cloth wheel and a little white polishing compound, they were gleaming in no time.
The next problem was removing each piano leg long enough to install the new casters. This is a heavier-than-average standard grand, and I was working alone. No problem — that’s what farm jacks are for. I had purchased a 48-inch jack thinking we could use it with our teardrop trailer, but it was simply too large and heavy. It was perfect for this job. I found a couple of scrap boards and blocks of wood to stabilize the farm jack base and protect the piano from its steel jaw.
It didn’t seem wise to rely on the farm jack while the piano leg was missing — I don’t really trust jacks of any kind. A substitute leg (a piano prosthetic?) seemed best. I have plenty of rough cedar 4-by-4 cutoffs, and the addition of a few long lag screws makes a very stout leg. I was ready for the lift.
Having never jacked up a grand piano before, I was cautious and took it slow. The farm jack made it very easy, and in a few minutes, one corner of the piano was several inches in the air. A few whacks with a rubber-faced mallet, and the leg was off. I positioned the substitute leg, and lowered the jack to share the weight. So far, so good.
The next problem was how to enlarge a hole and keep it perfectly round and centered. Bernard suggested plugging the hole with a piece of hardwood dowel and then re-drilling it. The only problem, 3/4-inch dowel isn’t available at the local home store. They do have 1-inch though. I would have to turn it down to the correct size.
Improvising with a “poor-man’s lathe,” I drilled a quarter-inch hole as close to the center of the 1-inch dowel as I could, and then installed a “T” nut in one end. A long, 1/4-inch bolt became the mandrel and an old 1/4-inch hand drill became the lathe. Mounted into a wood vise, I “turned” the dowel down to 3/4-inch using a wood rasp. A snug fit in the existing hole, and the 1-inch paddle bit centered up just fine.
The new caster mounts were a little sloppy in the new hole, so some thin shims snugged them up. After pre-drilling the four holes in the mounts, 2 and 1/2-inch wood screws secured them. I tapped the caster into the mount and the leg was ready to be remounted on the piano. One leg done.
The other two legs went together without incident, except space around the piano was tight. With the two grand pianos nested together, I barely had enough room for the farm jack. There was just enough though. The entire job took only a couple of hours.
And how did the piano do with all that moving and flexing? Not bad. A couple of notes detuned slightly, but not much. The Weber still has a very good and stable pin block. And best of all, the pedals were in the air enough to use. I could now align the hammers for the sotto voce pedal. Success!
At the beginning of this project, my piano technician friend Jack recommended I read Regulating Grand Piano Touch and Tone by Danny L. Boone. It breaks the process down into 56 steps from reshaping the hammers to adjusting the pedals. I spent some time with it, but dove into the process with Bernard’s and Celeste’s help without really reading it all.
So far, that had been fine. But after my last visit to Bernard’s piano shop, it was beginning to look like I was missing something. When I asked about next steps after aligning the back checks, he mentioned the book, and even pointed out a small chart posted in the shop that listed all 56 steps. As I looked through the list, I could see that I had done many of the steps, but certainly not all of them, and there were some early steps I had missed.
It is hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. I decided to duplicate the 56-step list and make a written inventory of the Weber project. Although daunting at first, it was also liberating as I listed each process, step-by-step. Experts on “getting things done” will tell you that checking things off lists is a great motivator — and I had completed over 30 of the 56 steps. I was more than half-way through!
Bernard did end up giving me a suggestion for the next step though. He had noticed that the hammers were not rising after being caught by the back check. The test is simple, and done with the action on the bench. One firmly presses a key while holding a hand over the hammer so it will strike your hand and be caught on the bounce by the back check. Releasing the key slowly, the hammer should rise fully. If it doesn’t, there is not enough spring tension. My hammers were not rising at all.
I spent a couple of hours whacking my hand with piano hammers and adjusting repetition lever springs. They were not consistent, but according to the book, that’s not necessary at this point. I had just completed step 35.
I still needed to align the hammers to the strings however. Since the pedal lyre was too close to the floor and I couldn’t be sure the pedals were fully functional, I needed to install the new casters. That was the next step.
A process of piano improvement where regulation, voicing and tuning are applied repeatedly, one after another and with ever finer adjustments until the true potential of the instrument is achieved.
After the much-needed boost of demonstrating the Weber with rebuilt action at our piano gathering, I was eager to continue. Time to align the hammers so they centered on the strings and shifted correctly when the sotto voce pedal (or “soft” pedal, on the left) was pressed. The soft pedal shifts the entire action slightly to the right, with the goal of hitting just two of the three strings on the “triples” (notes 21 and above on the Weber) and one of the two strings on the “doubles” (notes 9 to 20).
One uses a special tool to shift the hammers slightly left and right while the action is installed in the piano. It works by grabbing the butt of the hammer flange from under the pin block. With one note depressed so the hammer is near the string, the technician peers over the pin block while using the “grand hammer butt spacer” tool to twist the flange thus shifting the hammer slightly left or right.
It is checked to confirm string centering (released) and hitting only one or two strings (doubles and triples) when pressed. There is the added complication that the hammers must not hit any of the adjacent strings when the soft pedal is pressed — not easy with the tight tolerances involved. As I worked, it was clear I couldn’t satisfy both conditions because the action was not shifting enough with the pedal depression.
The cause was likely the old, rusted, ruined and rattling casters had been removed from the Weber almost 20 years before. This changed the keyboard height by at least an inch and allowed the pedal lyre to rest directly on the carpeting which in turn interfered with the action of the pedals. It was clear I couldn’t complete the hammer alignment until they were replaced. Bernard and I had looked at some “previously owned” casters during an earlier visit, and I could get some of them.
I also noticed that some of the hammer flange screws were still scraping on the pin block. This was likely a contributor to the action shifting problem. More planing on the pin block would help, but some laminations had separated from the bottom. They could be re-adhered with some CA glue, but how could I clamp them while the glue cured? Then I remembered the Jack Screw I had used 40 years earlier to restring the Weber. Originally used to support the pin block while pounding in tuning pegs, it could also act as a gluing clamp.
I was looking forward to a day at Bernard’s shop, and ready for next steps after I adjusted the back checks with their “smiling pliers.” Looking over the action he wondered if I had “travelled and burned” the hammers and shanks. The look on my face must have been telling as the words floated into my ears and met with — nothing. Once again, Bernard had gently provided a reality check. There was more to do than I had realized.
“Traveling” ensures the hammers pivot along an arc that is perfectly parallel to each other. “Burning” ensures that the hammers are perfectly parallel when at rest. They are separate adjustments, but effect each other making the process iterative in nature. Celeste got me started.
Even though the new hammers were machine made and mounted, there were subtle misalignments. I couldn’t see them until Celeste pointed out the small twist in this or that hammer evidenced by being out of parallel. “Burning” corrects the problem by heating the hammer shank and then twisting the hammer into alignment. The heat gun is very hot, and is only applied for a couple of seconds at a time, but it is all that is needed. Amazingly, the hammers stay in the new alignment after just a few seconds of heating, twisting and cooling. I worked my way through the action.
“Traveling” is a little more complicated. A long, thin piece of wood (like a ruler) is threaded under a bank of hammer shanks so that they can all be lifted together. As they move, one sights along each hammer, comparing it to the others.
Any that “travel” to the right or left differently than their neighbors are adjusted by putting thin strips of material under the right or left side of the flange. This works by correcting small alignment errors in the hinge between the shank and flange — ensuring that the hammer travels true. It’s a little bit of a brain twister, because the material is applied to the underside of the flange. I got the hang of it pretty quickly. (no pun intended)
It was finally time to adjust the back checks. Here, we want the tail of the hammer to be grabbed by the back check when the key is depressed, so the back check must be aligned left-to-right and front-to-back. Two tools are used: the “grand back check regulator” and the “wire bending pliers” (aka “smiling” pliers).
We finished the day by looking through Bernard’s caster collection. I considered buying new brass casters, but at $80 each, the $15 used models would be fine — especially since the Weber has “modesty” skirts around them. Not much would be visible. I selected three matching brass casters that would clean up with a little buffing. As I was leaving, I mentioned the challenge of adjusting one set of parameters on the action only to have previous adjustments change as well. Bernard assured me this was normal, and mentioned The Circle of Refinement. It was clear that I am just at the beginning of that circle.
We were hosting a group of our pianist friends on Saturday, and I hoped to have the action back together and with luck, installed in the piano for a little preliminary “plunking”. Time was short!
Up to this point, everything was in pieces and as you’ve seen in previous posts:
- The keyframe had been cleaned, sanded and given a new coat of shellac.
- New felt and punchings were installed.
- Pins were cleaned and lubricated.
- Keys had been cleaned and sanded.
- Loose ivory had been reattached and missing wood under the sharps had been replaced.
- The sharps were stripped of varnish and refinished with Danish Oil.
- New key end felts were installed.
- New Robertson (square drive) screws were installed in the rocker arms.
- The wippens had been cleaned.
- Action centers and jacks had been tested for motion and lubricated.
- The wippens cushions had been repaired.
- New hammers were installed.
It was time to reassemble them into a working action and try it in the piano.
With the keys installed in the keyframe, I attached the wippens and hammer rails. Now for the hard part: reattaching the linkage that connects each wippens to its mating rocker arm. In a modern grand piano, this step is easy — each wippens simply rests on a capstan. In 1893 each wippens was connected to the key with a wooden link that snapped over a rocker arm pin. Each must be connected separately, and in a tight space. Small wonder this system was abandoned for the simpler capstan system. It took me about an hour to get them all connected using a special pliers.
With this collection of new and old parts, some preliminary adjustment was needed to achieve basic operation. Setting the hammer height was first. Normally the hammer shanks float about a shank’s width above the wippens cushion, and the capstan in a modern piano, or the rocker arms in this case, are adjusted to float each hammer. Now we learn the other disadvantage the rocker arm system. In order to adjust the pin the supports the wippen link, two screws must be turned instead of just one. Another hour or two were spent setting the initial hammer height.
I could now press keys and cause the hammers to actuate. I needed something to simulate the strings and stop the hammer travel as if the action were installed in the piano. Using a long piece of poplar, I created a rail and mounted it above the table at the required string height. Since the piano has different string heights for the bass and treble notes, I also cut a portion of the rail to the correct height. Now I could actuate hammers and they hit the rail with a satisfying thwack!
Not all the keys worked the same however. Some would tap the rail and fall away as desired, but most hit the rail and stayed there. The let-off would have to be adjusted. By the time I adjusted each let-off button, it was time to quit for the day. Putting it in the case would have to wait until tomorrow.
Let’s get this show on the road!
Saturday dawned, the day of our piano gathering. I was excited to get the action into the case, and moved it in from the shop. Setting the heavy and awkward action onto the keybed, I began to slide it into place. It didn’t fit! New parts in the action, combined with changes in humidity since February (when they were last together) had allowed the top of the action to bind on the bottom of the pin block. A couple of texts to Bernard established I would have to shave the bottom of the pin block with a wood plane. Well, at least there was a potential solution.
It took about an hour of shaving before I got the action into the case. It was still tight, but the very roughly adjusted action was functional. I could play the Weber for the first time in six months. What a big difference! The new hammers had tamed the previously brittle tone, and I had some ability to shape softly played notes — in spite of the rough regulation. I was beginning to think this might work!
The Baldwin was still the star for our piano gathering, and we played several great pieces of music for each other that evening. Everyone was intrigued by the Weber however. Not ready to play, but definitely promising, and I was about to learn about The Circle of Refinement.
Back on track with the sharps refinish, let-off buttons and hammer rest repairs, I was looking forward to the last bits before reassembling the action: key leveling and key weights. In order to address key leveling, I had to first place a lead weight on each back check to simulate the presence of the rest of the action — with the ivory end forced up.
Since the action is almost entirely made of wood, 120 years of wear had affected the height of each individual key. When viewed on edge, certain keys were a bit lower or higher than the average. I had already placed a felt punching under each key on the balance rail, and now it was time to make them exactly even. This is done by placing paper punchings as needed under each key.
The punchings are supplied in various thicknesses from 3 (white) to 15 (cardboard) thousandths inches. By adding one or more of the paper punchings, each key can be set to a specific height. It’s a simple but time-consuming task. Using the tallest keys as a reference, you simply add punchings to the balance rail of each lower key until they all match. A long straight edge shows which keys are lower. Not surprisingly, I used some of each thickness of punching. The key heights were all over the place, although none was out by more than 15 thousandths.
A Weighty Puzzle
Each piano key has one or more small lead weights embedded near the ivory end. This is to balance the weight of the whippens and hammers on the other end of the balance rail, reducing the effort needed to actuate that key. For some reason, a previous technician had removed about half of these weights from each key — a fact that puzzled Bernard.
It looked like they had been gone for decades judging by the dis-coloration of the wood inside the holes. He was confident they would have been present when the piano was new and would need to be replaced. Fortunately, he had a supply in the right size.
Using the handy custom jig he had made for installing key weights, I went to work. This required more effort than I expected, since each weight had to be “swedged” or flattened until it was wedged inside of the hole. Even though the weights are made of lead, a soft metal, it took some effort on the press to change their shape.
I started on the bass end where there are as many as 7 weights per key, and it looked like a long process. To my relief, the number of weights per key decreases going up the keyboard, ending with just one or none on the top keys. I ran through the entire supply of weights with several keys to go, but a trip to the junk box provided the few more that were needed. Once again, a salute to the careful preservation of important odds and ends (aka packrats)!
It was time to reassemble the action into the keyframe and begin regulation.
This far into the action rebuild, and I confess to a little project fatigue. After so many months, the end seemed to be receding into the distance. After the excitement of receiving new hammers, I lost a month to a California trip and other things around the ranch that needed attention, and it was a little hard to get my head back into the game. Some of the tasks I had been putting off — not my favorite things to do.
Just Gotta Get My Mind Right . . .
I decided to tackle my least favorite task first. Refinishing the sharps. It had been on the list since May, and I couldn’t put if off any longer. A previous rebuilder had lacquered them, and the coating was worn in spots. Also, many pianists don’t like a slick lacquer finish and prefer natural wood — myself included. The sharps on the Weber are real ebony attached to the softer wood of the key so they were good candidates for an oil finish. I began by masking the keys with the ebony wood exposed. Then, an application of Jasco Paint and Epoxy Remover softened the lacquer so it could be scraped off. It doesn’t take long. Jasco should be used with adequate ventilation however, so I had to open the shop up to the summer heat. In the end, it took two applications of the finish remover to clean the sharps, followed by wiping them with mineral spirits to remove residue. A light sanding with 220 grit finished the cleanup process.
Some pianists play very aggressively and their fingernails can dig out the softer wood below the ebony leaving a divot of unfinished wood. An application of Mohawk Epoxy Putty to the divot and then sanding it flat makes a great repair. The putty is tinted, but not perfectly black, so a final application of a black marker effectively hides the repair. Stripping and repairs done, two applications of Watco Danish Oil produces the final finish. Beautiful!
There’s a Bug.
The hammer cushions were next. Several of them had insect damage. Moths like wool felt! I didn’t want to replace all of them, but finding a wool fabric in a matching royal blue color had proven difficult. I spent a full day hunting for something similar online and in every fabric store in Austin. No luck. Finally in desperation I asked Bernard and Celeste about it. Naturally, they had a small scrap of a blue fabric that was a reasonable match. Let’s hear it for the “pack rats” of the world who save small bits of this and that!
After removing the damaged cushion covers from the keyboard, I cut strips of the precious cloth and attached them with animal glue. Not a perfect match, but good enough. From a distance, you can’t tell the difference.
The next task was both easier and more fun. Earlier I had removed the old felt buttons from the let-off adjusters on the hammer rail. A bag of new felt buttons, a little hide glue, and the replacements were installed. It took less than an hour.
It felt good to complete these lingering tasks. By the time everything dried overnight, it would be time to level the keys.