#13: Canadian Maple – for pin blocks and all things durable

While looks is not insignificant, a pleasant, long-lasting resonance is everything! Today, I’ll give you an update of the restoration process of my Dörr piano from 1830.

A tricky choice: Durability or good looks?

No matter how beautiful its appearance, a piano is useless if you cannot tune it properly. While many elements of an old piano can be polished and kept, the structural parts have to be able to keep the strain of the case and the tension of the strings tuned to the proper pitch.

Last week, the old pin block (or ‘wrestplank’) of my Dörr piano was being exchanged. About the same time, a stunning new strip of veneer replaced the old fringed piece at the front of the key bed. The choice of material is crucial in both cases. While some materials are chosen for their durability, others are being chosen purely for their good looks.

Following the process of having the pin block in my Dörr piano exchanged, allowed me to ponder these questions once more. Restoring a piano is maybe not so different than many other things in life!

Oh, no! Cracks in the pin block….makes tuning impossible

The pin block, or the wrest plank, is the wooden block where the tuning pins sit. As I have explained in a previous post, the pin blocks of old pianos usually have to be replaced. The reason is that over the years, the string tension exerted on the wood of the pin block is likely to weaken it to the point where little cracks appear. Such cracks will (sooner or later) affect the grip of the tuning pins, and thus the piano’s ability to stay in tune.

The whole point of the pin block is to provide stability for the tuning pins to withhold the string tension and thus keep the strings at the proper pitch. When the stability of the wood is weakened by cracks, the tension of the string is likely to pull the string out of tune.

Pin block cracks in a Bechstein upright piano. (Photo: forum.pianoworld.com)

Sometimes, the cracks will be visible, like in this photo of a Bechstein piano. While one cannot determine by looking at the surface whether the cracks are deep or only superficial, they are never a good sign! Age, wear and tear, humidity changes, room heating and excessively dry air are among the factors that can cause cracks and instability of the pin block. If you see this in your own piano, please make sure to call your piano technician soon!  

Despite few visible cracks in the old pin block of the Dörr piano, we decided to exchange it to make sure it would be as strong as possible. The goal is that the new pin block is the last one this piano will ever need!

Choosing material for a pin block

As you have probably realized by now, stability of material is the most important aspect of the pin block. My piano restorer chose sustainable Canadian maple for the Dörr piano. This fine-grained hardwood tree is well-known for providing stability to everything from skateboards to electric guitars.

Basically, if you’ve got a good piece of maple, you can make yourself a violin, some floor planks, a turned salad bowl, a skateboard, a piano pin block, or mostly anything requiring durability and/or resonance!

The construction and fitting of a pin block

The sturdy material, chosen from a good old tree harvested from the deep woods of cold winters, should be the best possible starting point for creating a pin block. Let’s take a closer look at its construction.

Rather than opting for a solid piece of wood, a pin block is usually created from laminated wood. Lamination means that thinner plates of wood are being glued together. What’s the point? The point is to increase stability even more. The reason for the increased strength is that the direction of the grain is alternated, which is why the piece looked striped. Gluing pieces together with alternating grain direction should also reduce the damages from cracks, since any crack will usually stop within its own layer.

Here are some photos of the pin block being fitted inside the piano:

The new veneer strips

Did you notice something else NEW in those photos? In my first post, I showed you this photo of the Dörr piano before restoration:

#1: An old, new piano!

…and in this post, I discussed problems of damaged veneer, for instanced around this front corner:

Looking closely, we see that the old veneer is fringed and torn, especially the strips around and right under the keyboard. We decided that this entire strip would have to be exchanged, so that the piano would look great and withstand some strain from sitting at the piano and possibly rubbing against this part.

My restorers were able to pick out a strip of veneer that visibly suited the rest of piano. That is the new part. Look at it now!

This was obviously done before the durable maple pin block was inserted. Sometimes, one chooses for the looks, and sometimes, one chooses for stability.

Maple postlude

I always liked the look of walnut tree – the veneer so often used for furniture and Viennese pianos. And I always loved maple – we used to have a big old maple tree next to the house I grew up, and I always collected the colourful leaves in the autumn. Besides, I played Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag!

And now I realized that, when Anton and I married three years ago, we ordered wooden wedding rings made of ebony, gold flakes, antlers – and Canadian maple!

Occasionally, good looks and durability do meet. Inadvertently, I chose the same material for my wedding ring as for the pin block of my piano! Hopefully, they will both endure until my last day…

I see no other suitable ending to this blog post than that of a real poet:

Time, though in Eternity, applied

To motion, measures all things durable

By present, past, and future.

JOHN MILTON, Paradise Lost

Christina Kobb, 7 July 2023

Photos of the new piano pin block and the Dörr piano: Florian Bischof, piano restorer

Photos of wedding rings: Laura Belo

Photos unless otherwise noted: CK

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