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The brass rail
#611106 11/19/08 06:12 PM
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So who invented the brass rail system and is there a circle of heck specifically reserved for them?

I had to work on two pianos recently with brass rails. Hammers coming off all over the place. Ugh.


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Re: The brass rail
#611107 11/19/08 06:15 PM
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And also, I won't start another thread about this, but rather just put it here.

I came across one of the worst keytop jobs I think I've ever seen. This poor woman called me to tune her 1920s Grinnell Bros. upright that she got for free. The piano had been worked on by someone; the refinish job was actually pretty decent. It was easy to tune. Hammers need replacing. Felts are pretty worn.

But the worst is the keytop job someone did. It was sloppy, ugly... just terrible. She had complained to me on the phone about some keys "clicking" and when I got there and heard the noise in person I thought to myself, "That sounds like plastic clicking..." The only thing plastic in an old piano like that are the keytops. Sure enough, the person who replaced them didn't bother filing them and the keys were clacking up against each other, which was also causing them to become un-glued.

So I'm trying to get her to let me re-do the keys with new tops.

laugh


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Re: The brass rail
#611108 11/19/08 06:37 PM
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Sounds like a DIYer job. I would think that any respectable technician has been around enough to know this isn't the way its done. Theres a couple internet sites that sell whole kits for DIYers and the instructions were pretty vague.


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Re: The brass rail
#611109 11/19/08 06:41 PM
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Brass rails are a pain to work on in a home, but they respond quite well to a good overhaul in a shop. (A least I've had good results) I get the dampers out of the way and replace the butt plates - all of them, if I can get the customer to spring for it.

I've heard that the place reserved in heck for the originator of the brass rail is quite close to the place for the inventor of the spinet drop action, but never having been there, I have to rely on rumor, and the word of those who claim to be in-the-know.


David L. Jenson
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Re: The brass rail
#611110 11/19/08 07:07 PM
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Brass rails work pretty well, but the brass fatigues with age. Also, the steel screws react with it, which is why the plates break at the screw hole. Wood flanges last longer, usually.

This supports my contention that soundboards, made of wood, last much, much longer than the metal strings.


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Re: The brass rail
#611111 11/19/08 10:48 PM
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I replace all the plates or none. Replacing just a few is a good way to be called back for free when the next one breaks.




Re: The brass rail
#611112 11/20/08 12:04 AM
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Saw Bill Spurlock replace the brass plates and flanges with wood flanges. The modification looked very straignt forward and probably took about the same time as replacing the brass.


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Re: The brass rail
#611113 11/20/08 12:31 AM
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Quote
Originally posted by Bob:
I replace all the plates or none. Replacing just a few is a good way to be called back for free when the next one breaks.
Agreed, we have to do it to our famous Canadian made Heitzmans every time we do a rebuild.

Hate doing repairs in a home too. thumb


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Re: The brass rail
#611114 11/20/08 01:49 AM
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Quote
Originally posted by Gene Nelson:
Saw Bill Spurlock replace the brass plates and flanges with wood flanges. The modification looked very straignt forward and probably took about the same time as replacing the brass.
I did this repair on an old Packard last year. Not being much of a woodworker I took the rail to a cabinet maker to modify it to accept the profile of the new flanges. You can use the old brass rail as a template to locate the flange screw holes. I prehung the hammers on the shanks using the Spurlock jig. That's really helpful because it gives quite a bit of latitude when spacing the hammers to the strings - you can shave a bit off the bottom of the shank to help tilt it to one side or the other.

Not a bad job. I would definitely do it again.


Ryan Sowers,
Pianova Piano Service
Olympia, WA
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Re: The brass rail
#611115 11/20/08 01:55 PM
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I'd like to see that retrofit! Sounds promising!

I tell the clients with brass rail systems about the risks of more failures and make sure they know why and that I am not responsible for them. But I will, of course, fix them!


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Re: The brass rail
#611116 11/20/08 06:09 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by David Jenson:

I've heard that the place reserved in heck for the originator of the brass rail is quite close to the place for the inventor of the spinet drop action
That's exactly what I was gonna say!


Anne Francis
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Re: The brass rail
#611117 11/20/08 06:35 PM
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The brass action rail system in some ways was superior to the wooden flanges. I have found that the hammer to string alignment on these pianos is usually *very* good with very sharp, neat, string cuts in the hammer felt. Also the screws, being metal on metal, don't have the tendency to get loose like wooden ones do. Usually I find the brass action rails on the higher quality uprights.

Why complain about something that gives us more work? smile

It's similar with the plastic parts of the 50's. People love to talk trash about them but really they were beautiful parts! Compare an intact old plastic part to a wood part and you can see that the replication was amazingly good. It was a shame that the parts became brittle, especially because it must have driven a number of companies into the ground.

When you look at the plastics now being utilized in modern pianos you can say those manufactures in the 50's were ahead of their time. Just a little bit too far ahead!


Ryan Sowers,
Pianova Piano Service
Olympia, WA
www.pianova.net
Re: The brass rail
#611118 11/20/08 06:37 PM
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Another thing about brass rails. I have a theory that some of them have problems because over-zealous technicians over tighten them.

They aren't wood screws! They just need to be a little snug. Don't ask me how I know...


Ryan Sowers,
Pianova Piano Service
Olympia, WA
www.pianova.net
Re: The brass rail
#611119 11/20/08 07:00 PM
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quote:
Another thing about brass rails. I have a theory that some of them have problems because over-zealous technicians over tighten them.

So true Ryan. The trick to replacing the butt plates on them is to know when to stop turning that screw.

Would sure love to attend a class on the Spurlock method teaching how to repace with a wooden flange. Does he ever teach this at his shop or at the Convention?


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Re: The brass rail
#611120 11/20/08 08:35 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by rysowers:
The brass action rail system in some ways was superior to the wooden flanges. I have found that the hammer to string alignment on these pianos is usually *very* good with very sharp, neat, string cuts in the hammer felt. Also the screws, being metal on metal, don't have the tendency to get loose like wooden ones do. Usually I find the brass action rails on the higher quality uprights.

Why complain about something that gives us more work? smile
I, too, grow weary hearing complaints about the brass-rail system—but for a different reason.

As Ryan points out, these were usually used on higher-quality uprights. And there was a good reason for using them. They were precise and reliable. They were relatively unaffected by changes in humidity. At least the screws were relatively unaffected. (And remember, these pianos were built in a day when central heating and insulation were virtually unheard of.) Traveling and spacing were stable and consistent.

The problem with them is that the brass in some of them—not all, just some—tends to crystallize and then break and now they have to be replaced. But, please, this happens after, what, 75 years or so? It is a little unreasonable, I think, to criticize a system that, in general, has worked flawlessly exactly as it was designed to work for about the length of the average human lifespan.

How many other mechanical systems that receive similar use and abuse can boast a similar track record? So now, forty or fifty years beyond the projected lifespan of the piano we find we have to repair and/or replace them. What a surprise! How much can we realistically expect from these systems?

I’m looking at one of these systems myself just now. It’s in beautiful old Bush & Lane upright. I don’t know yet whether or not I’ll replace the rail or the plates. There is not a broken or cracked tab or plate in the whole system. So far I’ve not even been able to find a bent one.

These are top end pianos no matter their age. With new hammer butts, shanks and hammers, a repaired soundboard, a new pinblock insert and a nice, new finish over some really nice, thick walnut veneer this is going to be one spectacular piano. I’ll happily invite any comparison between it and a new vertical piano of any size or price.

ddf


Delwin D Fandrich
Piano Research, Design & Manufacturing Consultant
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Stupidity is a rare condition, ignorance is a common choice. --Anon
Re: The brass rail
#611121 11/20/08 09:31 PM
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Del,

Let me know when your Bush & Lane is done - I'd love to buzz down and give it a test drive! thumb
I know what you mean about the brass rails - some of them seem to hold up really well, others are a disaster!

Do you think that use plays a role in the breakdown of the brass or is it just a time issue? I've heard that some technicians anneal them by making them red hot with an acetylene torch and then let them cool down. It would be good to experiment on an old brass rail that is breaking and see if it can be restrengthened. Has anyone tried this?


Ryan Sowers,
Pianova Piano Service
Olympia, WA
www.pianova.net
Re: The brass rail
#611122 11/20/08 10:22 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by rysowers:
Del,

…. I know what you mean about the brass rails - some of them seem to hold up really well, others are a disaster!

Do you think that use plays a role in the breakdown of the brass or is it just a time issue? I've heard that some technicians anneal them by making them red hot with an acetylene torch and then let them cool down. It would be good to experiment on an old brass rail that is breaking and see if it can be restrengthened. Has anyone tried this?
My old Materials Handbook describes a bewildering array of brass alloys. Basically brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. In addition to zinc there can be a wide variety of other metals alloyed into the mix. There is no fixed percentage of zinc in brass alloys. It can vary from very little up to 40% or so. One problem with brass alloys having a high zinc content is that a process of dezincification can occur leaving the brass porous and weak. To prevent dezincification special inhibitors—antimony, phosphorus or arsenic—are added to the alloy. I suspect the brass parts we see cracking and breaking originally had a large amount of zinc and little, if any, of the requisite inhibitors.

I have no idea whether or not old brass parts can be toughened by heating and cooling. I’ve also heard technicians talk about doing this but I don’t know if the process actually improved the mechanical strength characteristic of the brass. Personally, I doubt it. I have long assumed the weakening of the brass parts was due primarily to dezincification and I’ll continue believing this until someone can come up with a more likely solution. And, so far as I know, there is no practical method of adding zinc back into the alloy. Short of melting it down and starting over.

ddf


Delwin D Fandrich
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Re: The brass rail
#611123 11/20/08 10:35 PM
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My father, a chemist, would use brass beads when zinc was needed as a catalyst.

As I said before, the dissimilar metals are a problem, as well.

Replacing brass rails with wood is pretty simple, if you do not make too big a deal of it. You could either leave the rail as is, or add on the appropriate strip to keep the flanges straight. Then it is just a lot of drilling. The butts may not pivot at exactly the same point, but it will be close enough, and the rest of their geometry is not likely to be exactly the same, either.


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Re: The brass rail
#611124 11/20/08 10:46 PM
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Excellent reply, Del. This is the first I've heard of dezincification. Apparently by the red line showing up under the word, it's the first time my spell checker has seen it too!

Here's a little more info I found on the subject:

Quote
The most common example is selective leaching of zinc from some brasses with less than 85% content of copper (dezincification) in presence of oxygen and moisture, eg. from brass taps in chlorine-containing water. It is believed that both copper and zinc dissolve simultaneously and copper precipitates back from the solution. The material remaining is a copper-rich sponge with poor mechanical properties, and color changed from yellow to red. To combat this, arsenic or tin can be added to brass, or gunmetal can be used instead. Plumbing fittings that are resistant to dezincification are appropriately marked, with the letters "CR" (Corrosion Resistant) in the UK, and the letters "DR" (Dezincification Resistant) in Australia.
Dezincification makes sense if the brass is immersed in a solution but what about just being in the air? Where does the zinc go? Of course those brass rails don't have a lot of material on either side of the screw hole. Maybe a bit of condensation could cause some leaching on the surface. This might be enough to weaken the brass at that delicate point.


Ryan Sowers,
Pianova Piano Service
Olympia, WA
www.pianova.net
Re: The brass rail
#611125 11/20/08 11:03 PM
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Quote
Originally posted by rysowers:
Excellent reply, Del. This is the first I've heard of dezincification. Apparently by the red line showing up under the word, it's the first time my spell checker has seen it too!

Here's a little more info I found on the subject:

Quote
The most common example is selective leaching of zinc from some brasses with less than 85% content of copper (dezincification) in presence of oxygen and moisture, eg. from brass taps in chlorine-containing water. It is believed that both copper and zinc dissolve simultaneously and copper precipitates back from the solution. The material remaining is a copper-rich sponge with poor mechanical properties, and color changed from yellow to red. To combat this, arsenic or tin can be added to brass, or gunmetal can be used instead. Plumbing fittings that are resistant to dezincification are appropriately marked, with the letters "CR" (Corrosion Resistant) in the UK, and the letters "DR" (Dezincification Resistant) in Australia.
Dezincification makes sense if the brass is immersed in a solution but what about just being in the air? Where does the zinc go? Of course those brass rails don't have a lot of material on either side of the screw hole. Maybe a bit of condensation could cause some leaching on the surface. This might be enough to weaken the brass at that delicate point.
I'm not a metallurgist so I’ve been going by what I’ve read and what I have been told by those who are.

Apparently something like this can occur in areas with high humidity. That or something called stress corrosion, or season cracking, which occurs when moisture condenses on the metal and accelerates corrosion.

As well, never underestimate the strength and power of air pollution. It has been pretty brutal in lots of America’s industrial regions. Which is, of course, where “the average working man” lived who was buying all these pianos.

ddf


Delwin D Fandrich
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ddfandrich@gmail.com
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Stupidity is a rare condition, ignorance is a common choice. --Anon
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