In April, I bought an upright piano! After moving around the world for decades with different digital pianos, I’m finally settled enough to own this big old, magical wooden box with 1,200 moving parts. Now, I am home.
I drove all over Brisbane and the Gold Coast checking out pianos advertised on Gumtree. When I found something in Kallangur which I really liked, I asked piano technician Gerard Wilkinson to inspect it.
It’s a Beale (Bijou model) and according to the serial number it was made in 1951. It’s a small piano, but with a big enough sound for my purpose. When Gerard said it’s a hardy piano which just needs some TLC, I bought it.
ATS brought it out to the Scenic Rim. She’s an old gal made of solid timber with a walnut veneer, which is a really thin timber used for appearance. Gerard said I could clean her with a 50/50 mixture of linseed oil and methylated spirits, which over time would condition the wood. He didn’t want me to use ‘0000’ fine steel wool to clean the piano, because there’s some damage to the veneer and he didn’t want me to catch it.
We let it rest for a month before Gerard came out for the first tuning or “pitch raising”. He took off the front of the cabinet, then he removed the keys and started vacuuming the inside!
He checked all the hammers, realigning them to the paired string. He described the business of a key being pressed and a hammer hitting a string as a “direct blow action”. The goal here is to eliminate delay between when the key is pressed and when the sound is made.
On this visit, he brought the piano up to concert pitch. He’ll be back in a couple of months to tune it again, and reshape the hammers, which will bring out the tone of the piano some more.
Gerard used a pitch fork first. He banged it on his knee and held it up. All that vibration and ringing in my ear! He tuned the entire piano by ear to get it to pitch, then he went through it all again using a phone app digital tuner. Originally it was a programme written for computer. The Queensland Tuners Guild uses this programme to test all new tuners coming into the guild. During the tuning, only a certain number of points are allowed to be lost, and this app actually tells you how many points you’ve lost. Gerard uses it to check his hearing as he’s going along, to make sure his work is perfect.
I had been looking for an old Beale, which was an Australian-made piano up until the mid-1970s. It had a different, very robust, tuning system, which was actually called the Beale Tuning System. Most pianos have a timber tuning frame, with metal tuning pins going into it. Beale pianos had an all-steel tuning system, the frame was metal, as were the pins.
Gerard said that on a Beale, the heart of the piano will last a lifetime, while everything else can be repaired. He said some tuners don’t like them because, if they haven’t been tuned for a long time, the pins can snap. But they’re replaceable, and he always carries spare Beale pins with him.
Beale pianos were made at one factory in Annandale, Sydney. Octavius Beale was a German migrant to came to Australia in the 1800s. After working in other piano factories, he started up his own, and began making the Beale piano in the 1880s, with its special tuning system.
The Beale name was eventually sold. Gerard said when the factory closed, the equipment that actually made the steel tuning frames and pins disappeared, and was never found!
The Beale name first went to Japan, then to China. Inside, it is now a traditional piano, without the steel tuning system.
Before starting my search for a piano, I read this forum on Piano World. The opinions expressed on the thread sold me on the idea of trying to find an old Beale.
See the two colours of the strings? The ones in front of Gerard are the bass strings, he called them Bichords. A piano can have Monochords, Bichords and Trichords. A long grand piano will have Monochords, because its strings can lie straight. But on shorter pianos, the string for one note can be wound to look like two or three strings, hence the names Bichord and Trichord.
My bass strings are copper. Gerard described them as “copper-wound” and said they create a beautiful, resonant bass tone. The treble strings are steel, which is fine for the treble tone. While I was looking at pianos, I played a 100-year old, tall Beale, and sent a video to Gerard. It was a really pretty piano, but Gerard said the bass strings were steel-wound, not copper, and the bass sound was tubby and dead. They would definitely need to be replaced and that would be a $1,400 cost right there. No thank you! What a minefield!
I cleaned up the keys with soapy water and a soft rag, wrung out as dry as possible so as not to get water on the wood underneath. Can you see the difference?
Brasso cleaned up the hinges and pedals.
I’m playing the piano almost every day, it’s supposed to move in and out of tune as it settles. I run chromatic scales all the way up and down, to make sure every key gets a play. I can hear the tone changing and can’t wait till Gerard comes back to do a second tuning and shape the hammers!