Story taken from International Piano July / August 2012
Integral piano parts continue to be crafted out of wood but could there be a 21st-century alternative? Tom Lagomarsino, executive vice president of Wessell, Nickel & Gross, suggests that the answer lies in carbon fibre and nylon glass
For more than three hundred years, piano makers, dedicated to providing the very finest musical instruments to the great composers, artists and piano-playing enthusiasts of the world, have taken a great deal of pride in their craft and products. Although the piano witnessed many changes and improvements in the 19th century – increased pitch range, steel strings, felt hammers, a more stable design with cast iron plates and improved bearing and tension of the stringing scale – such refinements were considered by some as vexing and a compromise of Cristofori’s delicate masterpiece of 1700. While steeped in tradition and fine design, many manufacturers have been reluctant to embrace advances in the resources and technology available to improve both the instrument and the performance experience for players and listeners.
Twentieth-century innovations brought us the first man on the moon, the split atom and colossal advances in technology, medicine and science, but there was a profound lack of progress in piano design. And as these same designs – considered cutting-edge 150 years ago – are carried over into the early part of the new century, some might see an industry seemingly content with yesteryear’s creations.
Today few companies report much in the way of plausible research and development expenses to improve design or protect intellectual property, and thus little has changed in the material and functional design of today’s grand piano in comparison to Cristofori’s. Most of today’s piano actions are comprised of wood, the same material that’s been used for 300 years. Although wood action quality has been enhanced by advances in manufacturing processes, quality of selection and so on, wood is still wood and it has not changed a great deal over the centuries. For optimum performance, a piano action must be extremely consistent, balanced, durable and precise as well as resistant to corrosion. Wood is subject to atmospheric changes and conditions; it reacts negatively to arid and high altitude dryness, as well as to moisture, humidity and rainy environments. One could hardly say that wood action vulnerabilities are optimum or congruous on the concert stage, in an institution or at home. Wood action parts can lack a consistency of grain, strength and weight of balance. Simply put, no two trees are alike – nor are any two hammer shanks or repetition parts in a piano action.
But this is changing. THE STATUS QUO and great piano makers of our time are now being confronted with startling innovations and applications of synthetic material and design elements that promise to thrust piano technology and performance to a level unparalleled, unmatched and unseen in 300 years of piano-making.
The Wessell, Nickel & Gross company (WNG ) high performance piano action is a non-wood action consisting of parts made from composite materials, specifically carbon fibre and nylon glass. WNG combines a base resin of nylon glass and long carbon fibres to create a composite that is both strong and rigid. Nylon has been in wide use for over 50 years. Long fibre is durable to the extreme. In the benign environment of the piano action with limited – if any – exposure to the sun, material scientists expect a minimum life expectancy of 100 years; indeed, it could be much longer.
Composite parts are stronger and more durable than wood parts, with the same weight but yet a more responsive action feel. WNG carbon fibre hammer shanks are more rigid, therefore they deliver more power for the pianist, a longer sustain and an increased repetition speed. Environmental considerations aside, composite actions are also impervious to changes in climatic conditions, humidity-related swelling or shrinking and loss of consistency in performance, and are much more durable and rigid than wood with over 10 times the strength. The low maintenance and durability of these parts are a piano technician’s dream. Additional benefits include lower liabilities and longer instrument life – this is especially useful for schools and institutions where decreasing operational budgets restrict the affordability of maintaining optimally performing instruments. Forward-thinking companies like Kawai of Japan have used composite action parts much to their advantage and to the benefit of many educational institutions. WNG offers compatible turn-key piano actions and parts to piano manufacturers and piano rebuilders for every make, model and brand, for both today’s pianos and for pianos over a century old. Additionally, the Boston-based Mason & Hamlin, a sister company sharing the same ownership as WNG , has demonstrated its courage of conviction by exclusively offering WNG composite actions in all of its grand piano models.
For more information about WNG high-performance piano action parts, please visit www.wessellnickelandgross.com