Piano Pitfalls #2 – Frames

by Richard Smith

Mr Richard Smith was a highly respected teacher of keyboards in the City of Wollongong NSW.

Frames – Wooden or Iron?

In N.S.W. alone, there are literally hundreds of pianos with wooden frames, in my district of Illawarra, far, far too many. The most notable two makes are Bord and Aucher, Freres.

Modern piano frames are expected to hold a strain of approximately fifteen to twenty tons. Wooden framed instruments in order to hold pitch would need tuning every second week. For example, even today, all modern harpsichords need tuning before every performance (a frame of wood). The tone quality of the wooden framed instrument is of poor quality, and with the over-damper action, it leads to a series of disasters for the tuner and heart break for the owners and student. However, these instruments keep on popping up, and music teachers (most times completely unaware of the trash the child has at home) are expected to make a Barenboim, Geoffrey Parsons or Liberace with that student. No chance!!! Some wooden framed pianos have oblong tuning pins, long since gone. Most wooden framed pianos are small. One hundred dollars to six hundred dollars is far too much money for a valueless piano. Please do not buy an old piano that fits in that little space in the corner unless you are confident of its design or have had it inspected by a reputable piano tuner.

Iron framed pianos were first produced in the United States in 1825 by Babcock. Cast iron was preferred, as its expansion and contraction was almost nil as against steel whose expansion and contraction was excessive. Many pianos have a three-quarter iron frame. This construction is also to be avoided. An over-damper action is generally associated with this type of frame, most of them coming from Brittain and Europe.

Again, in selecting a piano, care must be taken to ensure the instrument in question has a sound iron frame. Generally, iron frames are in good order, however we do occasionally find a piano with a crack in its frame. This piano is then valueless. Unless a similar model’s frame can be substituted by your qualified piano tuner, the piano is worthless. The cost for the substitute frame would be almost, or more than the cost of a new piano. If there is a crack in the frame, one section of the piano would sound completely limp. However, smaller cracks are harder to detect and could suddenly have the effect of a sonic boom in your home as the frame collapses under the strain; a disturbing thought. Cracks generally occur when shifting, if the piano has been dropped. Of the thousands of pianos in homes, I have only seen ten pianos with cracked iron frames in my thirty-five years in the piano trade.

Remember: twenty tons strain!!!

First published in Keyboard World magazine, October 1980.