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Looking for Chappell 1886 upright information #2920799 12/07/19 10:16 PM
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steven_usa Offline OP
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For reference, I've started a kind of blog to describe this piano:

https://cottagepianoproject.wordpress.com/



I came across a Chappell (of London) piano that was determined to be from 1886 (based on its serial number). Turns out it is "complete" (except one broken hammer), and it seems to be based on the Robert Wornum work from the 1830s: 44" high, tape check action, over damper, oblong pins, straight strung. It does have an iron hitch and felt hammers. The style of the cabinet does seem to fit the 1880s.

But I almost feel like the cabinet is from the 1880s, purpose built to fit in a left over "hammer action frame" that was from 20 years earlier (maybe someone found it and decided to fit it into a cabinet?). Others have said it is a "cheap knock off" -- but I'm not so sure, I think the tape-check-action actually works pretty well.


I tried contacting a few local tuners, but no one seemed really interested. As soon as you say "birdcage", they bolt -- and I don't blame them. And in any case, the workshop I have it in isn't heated, so for their sake it's not a comfortable place to work in (and not sound insulated, there are always planes or lawn mowers buzzing in the background).


Since it was on its way to be destroyed anyway ("curb pick up"), I didn't feel guilty tinkering with it myself.


I actually don't know how to play piano, but my daughter does. She's become rather fond of this acoustic. Recently I suggested it was time to go ahead and finish getting rid of it, but she protested. Now that it's some-what back in tune, she plays it on warm days; the chickens seem to enjoy it at least.


It's become my weekend hobby project. I've rebuilt car engines and telescopes, so I know how to tinker. We even built our own little "hammer dulcimer" out of Home Depot parts -- to show exactly how the sound vibrates thru wood (and other points like: cheap wood doesn't hold the pins very well -- they start to sag, and over-tightening the strings does indeed makes them snap). It's sad how schools don't have simple workshops to do things like this -- can't afford the liability, I suppose. But to me, dropping a hammer on your toe builds character!




I'm on my 3rd pass at tuning, but I've only tuned about the first six octaves. It's slow going because I don't like to tune when it's below 50degF. To be more consistent, I'm trying to tune when it's between upper 60's at least. But the tuning, at least for most keys, is holding for more than a few days. The arrangement of the bridge and the dampers around A4 were tricky to deal wtih at first. On this 3rd pass, I'm using CA glue now (a few drops, almost like a "tear of glue") and being a bit more diligent about the frequencies. I'll continue to add to the blog to report how it goes.



As a piano maker, Chappell seems to have mostly ceased by 1970. They're still around in terms of publishing and licensing (now owned by Time Warner, something like that). So I don't expect to find much information about THIS specific model or vintage of Chappell's work. From what I've read, Wornum's 1829 tape-check-action found a better audience in France -- and so some French shops replicated this and possibly improved it. Maybe it was patent restrictions in England that prevented the wider adoption of this action -- not till some 50 years later, where once again back in England it became known as the "French action". (where in France, it was always known as the "English action"). That's the story, anyway...


I'm looking for general opinions about this piece: am I right to think that it is still rather a "dime a dozen" piece, even in a semi-playable condition? There are some videos to show examples of the sound. As far as I can tell, it is the original strings. We know nothing about its actual history, since the prior owner literally moved away that same day.


Thanks!

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Re: Looking for Chappell 1886 upright information [Re: steven_usa] #2920806 12/07/19 11:22 PM
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Hi Steven, and welcome to Piano World!

I must say that I admire and appreciate what you are doing with the old Chappell upright piano! I too like old pianos, and have had a few. I looked at your blog site, and it seems that you have invested a great deal of time and effort in the blog itself. Based on your blog, I'd say you are serious about this project!

I'm afraid I'm a bit more casual about the old pianos I've owned and messed with, and just wanted to have fun with them. And, I've had a lot of fun with the old upright pianos I've owned! And, still have fun!

Based on the information I saw in you blog, I'm afraid I can't offer any advice. I will, however, say that I would prefer to be able to play my old pianos and enjoy the music I make with them. I've also learned, that, as much as I really love old upright pianos, which can be had for very cheap or free, I've come to the conclusion that newer is usually better, in terms of having a serviceable, playable musical instrument.

On the other hand, having an old saloon piano, or honky-tonk piano can be a lot of fun too! It's just a part of being a piano enthusiast, I suppose. I enjoy both the old (playable) and the new/newer, (even more playable) pianos.

Also, it seems to me that you are perhaps more focused on the historical aspect of your old Chappell upright piano. I like history too, but I would prefer to sit down at a piano and pound out a good ol' boogie-woogie tune! smile

Not sure exactly what you were asking in your thread, other than perhaps the rarity and value of the old Chappell, or perhaps opinions about whether or not it would be worth your time. Base on your blog, I'd say you are enjoying what you are doing, hence, it is indeed worth your time.

Keep it up! I admire you, my friend! smile

Rick


Piano enthusiast and amateur musician: "Treat others the way you would like to be treated". Yamaha C7. YouTube Channel
Re: Looking for Chappell 1886 upright information [Re: steven_usa] #2920807 12/07/19 11:23 PM
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Chappell were bought by Kemble, and eventually there were Chappell and Cramer pianos that were Yamaha strung backs being made, as late as the early 2000s.

The piano you have *was* a dime a dozen piece but they're getting harder to come by now. It won't be a high quality instrument, I know that much, and it was probably never intended to be more than a hobbyists piano at a time when there were lots of piano makers in England.

For information on your piano type you might want to look up Bill Kibby in England. He has a website that has lots of piano information on it but it's very hard to sift through. Here is his website: http://www.pianohistory.info

I think that the restoration of this piano is an interesting project, even if the end result is not a concert quality piano. It's a piece of piano history, and to that end I find it interesting.

Re: Looking for Chappell 1886 upright information [Re: steven_usa] #2920852 12/08/19 04:19 AM
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steven_usa Offline OP
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Bill has a fantastic site, he was among my early inspirations! I hope to be able to visit his collection in person someday. I am in Texas, but this has become my excuse to go to England now smile


I've seen youtube videos of restored saloon style pianos, and I agree they ARE great. I would have expected to run into one of those in the middle of Texas -- yet ironically, I came across this piece from London instead. And I better understand now how that probably happened.




One question I have is:

[1]
- I accidentally chip one of the keys. But I took that opportunity to put the chipped piece under a microscope, to try to determine if it was actually real ivory or not. I have a photograph of this in my materials page: https://cottagepianoproject.wordpress.com/blog/materials/
There are some aspects there that make me suspect that it may not be true ivory, so I'd like second opinions about this. But by all other observations (the yellowing of keys, the "line" across), they do seem to be ivory. I tried also the "black light" test, but it seemed inconclusive to me. And I'm not so much concerned whether it is or isn't "real" ivory -- I'm just more curious that an image of 10x or 40x magnified "real ivory" seems so hard to come by, I don't have a basis for comparison.




I do agree that, even brand new, this was a "casual" or "hobbyist" piano. Or maybe call it a "practice piano". That in itself is the definition of the "cottage piano": to be used in the smaller venues (e.g. school or playhouse) or a parlor (for either personal/guest entertainment, and/or for practice at the larger concerts).




[2]
Another question is: my impression has been that over-damper is the simplier design. It seems to me that under-damper has always required more parts (which in general means more complexity, more parts to wear out, etc.). Specifically, I think under-damper requires an extra spring to help push the damper back onto the string as a key is released -- where as over-damper essentially just works by gravity. Is that accurate?



In other areas I've heard of Chappell (or almost any English cottage piano of 1880s) as "cheap knock off", and I'm just not sure if that's quite fair. I can't vouch for Chappell after their new owners c.1929, but it seems to me in 1880 - what they did in this piano was construct a "retro" model using Robert Wornums designs from 30-50 years early. Not just for the sake of being cheap -- they still sold other more expensive models -- but to provide an alternative that didn't require an iron frame, and could be more easily maintained (as I am witnessing now; it is fairly straightforwad to tune).


-SL

Re: Looking for Chappell 1886 upright information [Re: steven_usa] #2920863 12/08/19 04:56 AM
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BTW: also my real "next question" is what to do about the hammers - but that may be a question saved for the tuning forum.

As mentioned, one of the hammers is broken. The head of that hammer, with the felt, was found (to the side of the keyboard). So I used to this hammer head to practice "voicing" the head with a needling tool. I didn't really like the results, so for now, I just gave up on it altogether.

The issue is -- and I think this might be why these are largely "throw away" pianos -- the hammer heads are not easily serviceable. They are glued to their shanks -- and maybe this is necessary to keep them secure. But it seems with a little finer machine work, they should be held in by set screws -- and perhaps in modern upright pianos, they are? This way, it would be easier to at least remove the head and replace it entirely.

I suspect in a restoration process, there is ways to heat the glue and more safely remove these hammer heads, and work the felt properly. But I'm not yet confident enough to try that -- mostly because I just don't want to risk stripping or ruining any of the machined screws that hold the hammers into place.


Aside from a few hammers being "off tilt" at the upper end of the piano (thus only actually striking 2 strings instead of all 3) -- it's a playable piano (well, IMO). So I'd rather my daughter enjoy at least for awhile first. But the consequence is that sometimes the hammers strike with a "thunk" since many of those felts are really worn along the grooves. Not always, but it is something I've noticed (or at least I can tell when a key likely has an extremely worn -- almost flat tipped -- hammer, versus not)..


The other issue I have is -- all the replacement hammer heads that I can find, they just don't look as high quality. Again, im no expert in this -- but the hammer heads I have are a layer of 3 materials, whereas the replacements are all some two-tone deal.


So I guess the question is: (1) am I right in thinking the heads that are on there are probably not very salvageable? i.e. are they behind reshaping? (2) is the proper way to replace them to remove each hammer unit? (looks like 2 or maybe 3 screws) Should probably at least clean the woven tapes at the same time, if not try to also replace them (although I can't quite see how they are attached, but it looks like a pretty delicate job)

Re: Looking for Chappell 1886 upright information [Re: steven_usa] #2920938 12/08/19 12:06 PM
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I'm by no means an expert when it comes to restoring old upright pianos, but I have tried my hand at various repairs, etc... with good success.

On the chipped ivory keytops, I've replaced an entire keyboard that had the two-piece ivory tops, the longer narrow piece on the rear portion of the keytop and the shorter, wide front piece on the front of the keytop (similar to your Chappell) ; the narrow tops were in excellent condition but the fronts were chipped at the edge in many places on several keys. I purchased the plastic replicas of the front portion of the two-piece ivory tops, and it looked very good. The plastic replicas even had a grained texture similar to ivory. That project turned out well (IMHO).

On my Yamaha C7 (circa 1978) with the one-piece ivory keytops, I had one keytop chipped on the front edge of the key. I used an old piece of ivory keytop I salvaged from one of my old upright projects, and filed a small piece of ivory to fit the C7 keytop, and then used super glue to glue it in place. You can see the seem where the two pieces are glued, and the shade/color of ivory is slightly different and somewhat noticeable, but the repair still looks better than the chipped edge of the keytop.

There is an epoxy type resin that some piano restorer's use to repair chipped ivory keytops, and that seems to work well; also, you can adjust the mix to try and match the color. You mix up the resin, apply it to the chipped keytop, let it set, and then file it to shape. I've not used that process or material before, but have read about it on the net.

As for the hammers, I think they have been glued on to the hammer shank from the beginning. I've replaced a few broken hammer shanks and hammer heads. I've never replaced an entire set of hammers before, but would be willing to take on a project like that if the opportunity ever presented itself. And, even if that project didn't turn out well, I would learn something from it, which is one of my primary goals in attempting such repairs. You will never learn if you never try...

As for the hammer being misaligned with the strings, and hitting only two, or one string of the unison, if you can't adjust the hammer flange assembly to align it, you can take a heat source and apply the heat to the wood shank while applying pressure in the direction you want the hammer to be positioned. I've done that before with good success.

Good luck with your project! smile

Rick


Piano enthusiast and amateur musician: "Treat others the way you would like to be treated". Yamaha C7. YouTube Channel
Re: Looking for Chappell 1886 upright information [Re: steven_usa] #2921158 12/09/19 04:17 AM
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steven_usa Offline OP
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Thanks Rick, I like the idea of applying the heat source to a misaligned wood shank. Very few notes here have this issue -- less than 10, throughout the top 2 octaves.

My priority it first making sure the pins hold -- initially, A4 was something like 267Hz, and I targeted it back to 440Hz. It's drifted down to about 430 after a few weeks, but on this 3rd pass at tuning I'm applying that thin cyanoacrylate glue that swells the pinblock. Hopefully this will help the pins hold better throughout a season at least.


The "wrinkles" in the cabinet and small splits in the keys, don't bother me so much - they're good reminders of its age. The chip I did repair was a chunk (around the center edge) that had broken off after one key was accidentally dropped - which shows how brittle they are; a little edge filing and super glue set it back in its place. It was this chunk that we scrutinized under a microscope at 40x -- I had read there was a period of "synthetic ivory", and I was trying to verify if maybe that's what these actually were. But so far it's been a little inconclusive.



If the CA works out and the pins do hold well, then the hammers may be the next project -- but they aren't cheap, and it'll be quite a bit of planning to ensure all the right sizing. I've been kind of wondering if I can 3D print some of the parts (shanks) -- which I thought would be an interesting way to archive the dimensions of these old pianos (by replicating their action into 3D models).




The analogy I've come up with is: selling this build of a piano in 1886 would sort of be like selling a B&W television in the 1980s. That's what I meant by "retro" (being based on tech and designs from 30 years prior to when it was built). Iron frames in uprights, over-strung (diagonal/oblique stringing), and under-damper designs were all well established by the 1860s. But they're new-ish (at that time) and more complicated to produce (and you'd be competing at the foundries to mold an iron frame). The claim is that the British liked the older tonal sound, but I think it was more practical conservation -- England had other priorities at the time for their iron: bridges and railroads). Anyhow, that was my conclusion: this 1886 Chappell, even new, was roughly like buying a $2500 basic piano today (kind of basic trainers). Not because Chappell didn't know how to make better pianos -- this "cottage" model was just targeting a particular price point, and this was the solution they offered. But two interesting aspects are: (1) this Wornum tape-check-action design from 1829 is pretty darn good (I can play the keys very slowly or extremely rapidly) and this is a good implementation of that design, (2) if you needed to build a piano without the overhead of an iron frame, this is a good way to do it.


The other claim is that the over head damper design doesn't dampen very well. And I challenge that. What I've found is that the wood frame that holds the hammers -- it is held in by two latches, and over time all that can kind of "sag" (where that whole frame leans forward more than it did originally, because of a gap generated in those latches by age). The dampers are on metal hanger wires, so you can just adjust (bend) those to compensate. OR, you can just insert spacers (e.g. even just index cards) to compensate for that "sag". So I feel you can operate this Chappell now in two "modes": long or short sustain. If the hammer frame is "sagged", yes you get a longer sustain. But if you just press the hammer frame slightly (just fill in the gap of the latches -- I'm talking just 1-2mm, like 1/16th of an inch), and the sustain is quite modern (the natural sustain is much shorter, i.e. the notes shut up immediately after releasing a key). In fact, I'm thinking about adding a screw where you can then "dial in" just how much "non-pedal" sustain you want.

Re: Looking for Chappell 1886 upright information [Re: steven_usa] #2922450 12/13/19 04:08 AM
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One specific question is:

For anyone familiar with wood types - can anyone review the photos on the MATERIALS page? There is claim that being from 1886, this is somehow a denser wood than is available today (I assume for the soundboard)

https://cottagepianoproject.wordpress.com/blog/materials/



And, the action "frame" (containing the action and hammers) can be entirely removed seperately from the cabinet. That's not so unusual. But there is a theory that this "action frame" (or "hammer frame"? is there a proper word for that assembly?) -- it's possibly older than the cabinet, since the wood seems quite different (and other small clues, like: a corner of the frame is crudely "hacked off" to provide clearance for a few of the tuning pins, suggesting it wasn't originally built for such a low profile cabinet; or as I mentioned, the misaligned hammers and strings in a few cases -- aside just from old age, maybe that was also a side effect of placing this "hammer frame" into a newer cabinet).

https://cottagepianoproject.wordpress.com/blog/reviewingaspects/



Last edited by steven_usa; 12/13/19 04:10 AM.

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