|Newsletter #9: Re-finishing the Broadwood; New Packages of Downloads; Letter to a Beginner Lutenist
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Restoring the 1809 Broadwood's Finish
You probably thought that refinishing the Broadwood would consist of my getting out the belt sander, putting on a coarse-grit belt and grinding off the old finish right down to the wood. Or I might use some heavy-duty stripper, and slap on a couple of coats of varnish. Well, not quite.
You saw the bare wood after the Bechstein after it had been stripped clean and sanded (Nov./Dec. 2005 newsletter). What are the differences between the way a two-hundred year old piano is finished, as opposed to a mere stripling of one hundred? I'm going to answer those questions, plus a few you hadn't thought of.
The Bechstein had a laminated poplar case (sawn layers glued together over a mould), originally covered in an early lacquer, subsequently re-finished using a more modern product, which due to its inflexibility and failure to move with its wooden substrate, had “crackled” or more picturesquely, it “alligatored”. Buddy Tavares, who did the job, said "there was enough finish for three pianos". Once the wood was exposed, there was evidence of heavy treatment consistent with use on stage or in a conservatory. The re-finisher had sanded through the capping veneers placed on the rim and had rounded over most of the edges. Buddy carefully built them up again before applying any finish.
In order to make it resemble the more or less modern piano that it actually is, one whose design and structure hasn’t changed to the present, we may just as well clean it off, repair, and start over. But the decorative nature of the Broadwood's veneers and panels does not only does not permit us to sand it at all, but that would amount to a corruption of its nature as a precious antique object.
Something that has survived so long without altered should only be dealt with by adopting its finishing vernacular, treating the surfaces with the greatest respect and care. Our goal should be to make it look as if it had been returned to Broadwoods’ shop for service and freshening up, say within a generation of its manufacture. So it must be finished with a historically accurate finish, and one that does not remove or alter the history of the instrument.
A properly finished piece of wood is like jewellery. It has presence, because the right finish makes light play on the surface in a way that suggests value, and it makes the masses and volumes of wood have weight visually and therefore psychologically. A painted board weighs more to the eye than one that is unfinished. A glossy surface can seem cheap, while one that has a properly applied, buffed and carefully waxed shine polarizes the light and allows it to penetrate wood in a way that makes it seem to have depth. Modern matte finishes use stearates, flat crystalline structures, to mimic this effect.
We perceive the cell structure of the wood and something of the life of the tree. A favourite motto of harpsichords of the 17th century was “In life I was silent, in death I sing”, a reference to the living thing that was sacrificed for the beauty of music.
Above, the softwood framing of the Broadwood, seen with the bottom removed. It is a complex arrangement of criss-crossed members, bracing the string tension in triangles of force, resisting the never-ending pull of the iron wire. It might come as a surprise to the casual observer that the instrument is largely air and a low-density honeycomb of coniferous wood. It’s because the makers and designers of the furniture and keyboards of the 17th and 18th centuries covered up their secrets by using sawn veneer (and therefore thicker veneer, not cut industrially with a hydraulically-actuated knife, as it now is).
These two or three millimetre slices of tropical hardwood were imported to Northern Europe from the great then-virgin rainforests of Central and South America, as well as the Ivory Coast of Africa in enormous quantities. This technique of covering lighter and more stable woods with spectacularly figured and grained veneers of mahogany, rosewood, ebony and their near relations made vast fortunes for Chippendale, Heppelwhite and Sheraton.
Their basically simple technology of applying heated glue made from the proteins of animal carcasses (hide glue) to panels of softwoods and cheaper mahogany created a demand for elaborate furnishings requiring carcass construction. Rather than making furniture out of solid walnut, oak, maple or other native species, first the “ébenistes” of France in the 17th century and later the famous houses above created their sideboards, tables, and chests from assemblies of veneered panels. Chairs, which are usually solid “stick” construction, sometimes upholstered, were most often carved mahogany, which is easily worked with chisels.
t was only a matter of time before keyboard makers adapted this trick of adding value to pianos and harpsichords. Most of the harpsichords of the 17th and early 18th centuries were painted or stained, or simply made from native hardwoods. But the makers of later 18th century England adapted the veneering methods of furniture to their cases. Before long the instrument which had been made from solid, rather plain mahogany imported from Central America and Cuba started sporting rosewood-veneered keywells, satinwood nameboards and panelled veneering on the spine, cheeks and bentsides. This panelled style developed from the decorative Rococo techniques of the previous generation.
(Painted, gilded and lacquered harpsichord in the "Chinoiserie" style by Pascal Taskin, Paris 1760's)
And that is how the1809 Broadwood is decorated, essentially in late 18th century style. The panelling technique takes flitches of veneer sawn from the same log and place them in the centre of a banded frame, with so-called stringing, usually made from boxwood (from the Pyrenées) or ebony (from the Niger basin). Banding is the placement of darker red mahogany with the grain at right angles to the main panel, about 4 to 5 cm wide. It was a momentous discovery to me, as I cleaned 200 years of grime from the lockboard and spine of the instrument, that the mahogany was heavily figured. Figure is a rippling of the cell growth which has the effect of corruscating as the light hits it. Each and every panel of the instrument, three along the spine, the lockboard, the cheek and three along the bentside, was stunningly figured, but obscured completely by dirt and the bleaching of the sun.
(The tail of the Broadwood, showing fading, flaking, scarred and blackened finish)
The instruments of this period were finished with a process widely known as “French polishing”. This technique is borrowed, beginning at the end of the 17th century, from the ancient Chinese process of lacquering. The waxy body secretions of the lacifera beetle found on the Indian subcontinent of Asia were collected, refined and dissolved in ethyl alcohol, distilled from fermentation. The crude “seedlac” is refined and cleaned and mixed into an alcohol-borne emulsion of proteins and waxes which is applied with a “rubber”, a cotton wad or “fad”. The cotton wad is wetted with the liquid “shellac” wrapped in a cotton or silk cloth and rubbed on in successive thin coats. The pressure and twist of the cloth, controlled by the finisher, builds up a glassy film which has the desired optical properties. The technique also involves occasional rubbing down with abrasive (pumice in a cloth) between coats, and final “spiriting off” of the oil, buffing and polishing with wax.
(Blond and unbleached shellac flakes and rubbers, lotions and potions)
An important part of the process is the evaporation of the solvent, which is very rapid during the application, rendering the finish “dry”, more properly polymerized, almost immediately, so that without the careful control of amount, pressure and the application of a small amount of oil lubricant to the fad, the process of polishing would not work. Considerable hand skill is required to properly execute the finish, which cannot, like varnish, simply be applied by brush and allowed to dry.
The application may take days or even weeks, and up to thirty coats of very thin shellac may be applied. Violins and cellos were regularly finished for months at a time, often alternating shellac with varnish (pine or other tree resins, boiled and dissolved in drying oils). The finishing of precious instruments was the occasion for much secretive guarding of recipes and procedures which gave the instruments of Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri and their school much of their otherwordly lustre.
Unlike varnish, shellac is quite elastic and may expand and contract with the grain of the wood in changing humidity; it is relatively easy to repair and apply with a minimum of fuss and concern about dust control; it’s quite inexpensive and still easily available, unlike traditional oil varnish, which is now obtainable only from specialist suppliers. Most furniture and instruments were finished this way until the middle of the 18th century, when varnish became more economic. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the early “plastic” finishes began to appear, often with shellac as the base, incorporating lampblack and resins. The piano went all black in this period, and has mostly remained so.
More recently the big manufacturers have started to offer expensive veneered models in response to the craze for decorating. Modern pianos are finished with polyesters and urethanes applied with spray and solvent, extremely hard and durable, easy to repair with right supplies, and flexible enough to tolerate wood movement. But let's face it, they often are too thick and look silly; not at all like wood. They might as well be plastic laminate, and I’ve no doubt that someday, they will be.
Our Broadwood had been finished with subtle artifice. Vertical surfaces veneered as I have described, such as the case sides, seemed to have a thinner finish, much of it worn off, except on the spine, by repeated waxing. One might easily imagine the maid-of-all-work regularly applying beeswax polish to the cheek, tail and bentside every month or so for a generation or more, before the instrument apparently fell into disuse, I guess about 50 years after it was made.
The lid, however is quite different. It’s solid mahogany, consisting of two “fall-boards” hinged together, and a lid proper, which covers the strings. This lid is not veneered, and the main board is sawn from a single log, through the centre, about a metre wide. Marinus repaired the crack and got the badly cupped board straight again. Go to the lumberyard now and see if you can buy such a piece of wood today—impossible!
(pinblock with water damage, before and after cleaning, before soundboard removal)
The lid must be finished with great care, since a piece seen from which the light is reflecting directly is judged by quite different standards. It seemed to have a much thicker finish, or it would have been. The shellac degrades as it is exposed to light, and many zig-zag scars in the wood pointed to the fact that the instrument had been frequently moved, unprotected, in a horse-cart over cobbled streets. There were marks from the inevitable potted plant on the lid, as well as the cutwork doily that it sat upon. There was evidence that the plant had been over-watered and water had spilled into the piano, rusting strings and tuning pins. It seems unlikely that the instrument was functional by then, and the damage was not cleaned up or repaired.
(The keywell's satinwood and mahogany panels after cleaning and polish. Note the hand-cut screws at left, removed from the hitchpin rail.)
The keywell area and nameboard, veneered in stunningly figured satinwood were very beautifully finished in the best English style, with hardly any damage. The nameboard sports an inlaid roundel of boxwood, which bears the following pen-and-ink inscription: John Broadwood & Son/Makers to his Majesty and the Princefses/Great Pulteney Street, Golden Square/London. (The word “Princesses is spelled with the long “s”, which resembles our “f”. The “Majesty” is George III, who was referred to on Broadwood nameboards from around 1800-1820.)
(The nameboard before cleaning, note the yellowed ivory keyboard, which will be bleached white in the sun)
So here is how I went about the restoration of the finish. I should say that I have been French polishing lutes and guitars for nearly 30 years, and the technique and its many variations is well known to me. I also felt strongly that any marks or scars deep in the wood, which are usually blackened by time, should not be removed. But the shellac cannot simply be repaired by amalgamation of the old finish with some new coating, which is often done on older finishes.
The use of coal gas and kerosene for lighting throughout England from the late Victorian period until the late 1950’s had deposited a black amalgam of bitumen (the condensed resin of burned coal), lampblack (carbon particles), dust and dirt, mixed with the old finish. In some places the mixture was covered with wax.
(The bentside before cleaning)
In respect to the old finish and the original sensitivity to material and placement which was everywhere evident, I had several different ways to refinish. The stand, for example, was just plain filthy, as if stored in an attic or barn, so it would require deep cleaning and new polish. The stuff that came off this piece was a black mud, laboriously removed with mineral spirits and a small scraper.
The sides and spine I cleaned with first xylene emulsion (PolyClens, to lift the wax and dirt) and a polyester mesh rubbing pad, then mineral spirits (to re-flow the oils in the mahogany, turning it red again), then citrus solvent (a new high-tech non-volatile cleaner which cleans wood without altering its color, this step to undo the mess of the previous two), then application and buffing of conservator’s wax, another high-tech blend of sealant, ceresin and carnauba waxes in a solvent base. This type of coating is non-yellowing and may easily be removed with only alcohol. The idea is to make it look as it did before, only with the colour and wax refreshed. Here is the result. I did this filthy, smelly and back-breaking work over a two day period in Marinus’ shop while Susan played a beautiful 1913 Steinway under restoration.
(Panelled figured mahogany of the spine after cleaning and waxing, without use of abrasives or scrapers)
The stand, fall-boards, lid, lockboard and miscellaneous pieces (damper rail, music desk etc.), I took home to the shop, thinking that cleaning and fresh polish would take me a few days. It took nearly three weeks! There was some woodworking to do to repair the music desk, and wood from a scrapped mahogany piano of the same date had to be added to many of the hinge sites.
French polish, even for a seasoned veteran, can be a very frustrating process consisting of two steps forward and one back, as every application has the potential to undo the work of the previous, and the exact proportions of lac, oil, pressure and solvent can be infinitely varied.
“Burning” may occur, in which you break through the finish you just applied the day before with too much solvent or pressure. The rubbing down, which I do with mineral spirits and a foam sponge impregnated with fine silicon carbide particles (originally done with oil and pumice), and try to keep to an absolute minimum, can go too far or not far enough.
It was quite a battle, since my experience with smaller surfaces did not necessarily make me the master of larger ones. On some pieces I initially attempted to preserve the original underlayer of finish, but this proved unworkable, having degraded beyond repair, and I had to go back to bare wood with fine scraping, without removing its colour or patina.
I found that the “finishing of the finish” is easily the most important thing with a large flat surface. The rubbing and waxing must be done with great care and attention, all by hand. I discovered that anachronistic techniques such as mechanical rubbing or buffing was just not working, as steel wool (the usual quick rubdown material) also did not.
Careful examination of Broadwood pianos of somewhat later date in Marinus’ shop confirmed what I had long suspected, that the swirling and rubbing marks that the rubber leaves in the lac itself are indeed an organic part of the finish, without them the finish has a curious flat quality like that on modern furniture, as if a layer of plastic has been applied over the wood. Instead we must be able to sense the understructure of the wood itself from many angles and in differing light conditions, otherwise the antique surface quality is not present. We see through the old finishes, whereas newer finishes are more obvious.
One more interesting discovery: Cleaning revealed some surprising economies. Broadwoods’ choice of material for the two stretchers (the long boards that underlie the instrument and connect the pedal-lyre and tail) shows that they were ever conscious of final profitability and the waste of materials—the upper stretcher, never seen under normal circumstances, was a piece of pine with some of it wane (bark edge) still present, while the lower stretcher was a magnificent piece of perfectly quarter-sawn mahogany, still absolutely straight and without a flaw.
On a recent binge of watching videos of Jane Austen novels adapted to movies, we frequently observed this same model of piano and square pianos used as props in the productions. The recent big-budget version of Pride and Prejudice, with Keira Knightly as Lizzie Bennet and Malcolm Macfadyen as D’Arcy also had prominent display of what appeared to be a Broadwood grand of the Austen period, contemporary with our piano. These productions, including three from the BBC in conjunction with the American A&E channel, used National Trust houses as sets for the country homes of the characters, and had fine instruments in almost all the social gathering scenes.
The films often had the instruments being “played” by characters; that is, they were played by professionals with the actors faking, usually badly. Sometimes the soundtrack and period instrument matched, sometimes it did not. We sometimes heard the juicy sound of a modern Steinway, but saw a tiny square.
Though infinite pains were taken with the dialogue, costumes and hair, no such pains were taken, in most cases with the pianos or their repertoire, ranging from anachronistic Baroque to post-Chopinesque. There was some quite accurate depiction of square pianos being used for unpretentious dance music. Three or four string players playing for the the ball sound like twenty or thirty in the soundtrack. In one scene, a “player” was merrily tinkling on an instrument with several keys clearly stuck down!
But my eye was on the finishes. With only one exception the instruments had been refinished with perfectly flat and shiny modern finish, virtually erasing all evidence of age. This was quite clear, even on video. Given that these instruments were most likely to have been rented or borrowed for filming, I was not happy to see old instruments with obviously modern varnish finishes, gleaming under the film lights, but divested of their histories. Much has changed in our aesthetics when it comes to early objects, and now I understand that loss much more acutely than I did only months ago.
New Download Packages
We are always looking at ways to improve the presentation and service of our website boutique. So, we recently designed theme-oriented packages of downloads that we feel reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed by too many choices. Thanks to our designers at Spincaster for doing such a fine job of making your choices easier.
Rather than having to make a selection from a bewildering array of music, we pre-selected assemblies of music that we feel go together.
Each of the packages is about 30 to 35 minutes in length and any of the pieces may be auditioned in a sample, as with the main list. The packages are ideal for loading up your MP3 player with unique music with little fuss, and the cost is very competitive.
The price is $9.99 CAD, c. $8.62 USD, 7.09 Euros, 4.94 GBP,1007.23 Japanese Yen, 68.61 Chinese Yuan. The titles of the packages are:
A Letter to a Beginning Lute Player
I often get inquiries from web visitors who want advice about learning the lute for the first time, and some who have instruments but are not too sure what to do with them. One such letter arrived recently, and I thought for the benefit of readers who may be in that position or know someone who is, I include that short essay here. I included a few new comments for the sake of the newsletter:
The first thing to realize is that the lute is just part of a big picture. One needs to immerse oneself in the entire aural tradition of Renaissance music. Try making the acquaintance of non-lute playing musicians and students who play viols, sing, and play recorder or keyboard. These people are on the same journey. You must be prepared to learn to read both tablature (very easy) and pitch notation (more difficult) and be prepared to make music with others. Singing with the lute is natural, and you should sing yourself, even a little bit. Early music was largely intended for an audience of capable amateurs, though there is plenty of challenging repertoire at the virtuoso level. Be a member of the English and US lute societies [easily found by using a search engine for “lute”], read their newsletters and try their music, which is very reasonably priced. Perhaps you will attend one of the numerous early music summer schools, where you will learn as much from the other students as from the teachers, whatever level you are at.
You need a lute. I recommend that you begin with a six-course lute, like those on the Instruments for Sale page (below). These are often referred to as "student" lutes because they are well suited to the simple single line music and chordal dance music of the early Italian Renaissance by Dalza, Spinaccino and Capirola. There is also plenty of French and German and earlier Tudor English music which is well suited to students. The six-course lute is easy to play and maintain, easy to tune, carry with you, and well suited to students. They are usually not too expensive if kept simple in materials (mine are more elaborate) and they can often be purchased used.
(my version of a six-course lute, original design by Hans Gerle, c. 1550)
[For many students who already play the guitar, it’s possible to learn the lute tablature and basic fretted instrument technique on the nylon-strung classical guitar by tuning the G string to F#, and placing a capo on the third fret. This makes it easy to read some tablature and learn a few chords, but eventually you must acquire a lute. I have found this an effective and expedient way to get beginners off to a good start.]
Look at Wayne’s lute page (www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~wbc/lute.html) and the (English) Lute Society pages for new and used instruments. To put in a plug for my own work, the vihuela is often used to play Italian and Spanish Renaissance music, and it's easier to play and tune than the lute, but perhaps a bit more specialized. It sounds similar and has the same string length and technique as the six-course lute.
Diana Poulton's exhaustive method book, A Tutor for the Renaissance Lute, published by Schott and Co., is expensive but worth the price. You can browse lute's huge repertoire and look at method books on the Saul B. Groen website (www.saulbgroen.nl) or the excellent OMI site (www.omifacsimiles.com). The English Lute society has many inexpensive publications directed at students, with lots of music anthologies from many countries.
Stay away from [used] ten-course lutes or eight course lutes, they are transitional (1580- 1620's) and though you can play earlier music on them, they don't really have the same feel or sound as the smaller early ones, due to larger body size and longer string length.
Later you might consider playing more complex English music by Dowland and his contemporaries, and you will need a larger body and seven or eight courses. That music is some of the hardest in the repertoire. Later still you might wish to learn some Baroque lute music on 11 courses, which has a large and interesting repertoire, mostly French and German, but requires a good ear for tuning, more maintenance, and they are more expensive. [Many pieces by Weiss and Bach may be played on this type of lute, as well as music by Bittner, Reusner and Kellner, some of the best music of the instrument’s large body of music.] This type of lute was in use from 1620 until about 1750.
Hope that helps and let me know how you make out.
Another new feature is a photo collage and “twenty questions” on the About Us page, with lots of embarrassing publicity photographs--early Early Music Studio.
The winner of the free CD for correctly answering the customer survey questions (just kidding!) is Daniel of Portland, who selected a copy of Constancy Rewarded. An appropriate title!
We reached a milestone when Susan alerted the Knitting List that the free download was Couperin's Les Tricoteurs, "The Knitters". More than 700 people have downloaded this track, and our hits and visitors numbers went up to a new level , and seem to have stayed there. Thanks to all those interested fibre nuts!
Later this month Susan will be recording music by Bach, Scarlatti, Byrd and Arne on the Italian single-manual harpsichord built by John Secker. This will be posted on the site within the next few weeks.
Thirty—one to screw in the bulb and the other 29 to form an internet discussion group which argues incessantly about the size of the threads, the design of the receptacle and the stylistic accuracy of the shade.
Next Newsletter: The Broadwood has its action and stringing restored
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