The Alexander Piano
The Alexander Piano
One of my most interesting achievements has been to build the Alexander piano. Here is a brief history of the making of this piano. There’s much much more to the full story
Looking back I recognise the task I had. At the age of 15 a question to my piano teacher sparked a curiosity enough to do an experiment in the back yard. In conclusion after seeing the length of string needed and hearing the sound I was convinced that I was going to build a piano with very long and deep sounding bass strings. In my 16th year I was lucky enough to have been given access to the space in our neighbour’s garage. I had no idea what I was doing at the beginning.I just knew what I wanted the outcome to be.
I needed to learn something that was not able to be taught, in the respect that such a piano with a string scale this different had never been built. The project unlocked a lot of intuitive problem solving with discovery, experiment after experiment, theories guess work, the known and the unknown. There were so many technical problems that had never been addressed that I was facing just because of the physical dimensions.
Knowing very little at the beginning and the ignorance of youth meant I ‘knew’ it was possible and I carried that notion through the entire project even when many said I was wasting my time.
As the project moved forward and sometimes backward the community interest grew with each step and soon local media were taking an interest with a major front page article followed by national TV coverage the very next day. This was key because the support turned from local to national.
Part way through the construction I was in need of more workshop space so a friend helped me out and offered his dad’s farm shed as an alternative. So the piano was off on its first journey!
Having a unique learning style meant I was often behind in reading and spelling in school and its no surprise that a wordy 1916 book on the art of piano forte construction was the first book I actually read the whole way through page by page when I was 17.
The new workshop space came at a critical time in the project. I was needing to finish the case work and start engineering. Funding was coming in with support from local business’s and generous individuals. Large businesses also pitched in with funding and offers of engineering supplies like steel and the loan of some tools
The main building of the case was mostly done at the first garage and completed at the farm Shed.
I drew up a string scale on a sheet of tin tacked to the inside the piano, so it was 1-1 scale and from this I designed the action, soundboard bridges and steel frame.
The whole scale was based on an old formula where a given string length was divided by 37 and multiplied by 39 to give the next semitone length and not quite doubling each octave in length and with a the gauge of wire adjusting accordingly as the scale descended. This is a very old kind of scale but worked fine for what I was doing. The soundboard I glued up using Douglas Fir quarter sawn and a belly made with wedges while it was being glued with a tremendous number of ribs.
The keyboard took many prototypes and attempts before it would even work, let alone be stable enough, and many more attempts before I set the correct pivot point!
The action parts came and I made 2 different geometries before I was happy with that. Dampers were a matter of proportionate scaling for size.
I designed all the steel plate components onto life-size tin sheets and sent them to the steel company for the parts to be machine cut. When the steel arrived by truck it was a matter of tacking it up in reference to the action and the bridge was made up from the original tin design, cut, capped and put in place and glued before the steel plate went in.
The plate was drilled with reference to the action and the bridge notches were marked using the plate holes. Then hitch pins were put in to the bridge and the piano was strung up.
No tuning plank was used as the plate had maple plugs that the tuning pins were inserted into. This was an idea I came up with on my own and found it was actually used in the past.
I put the strings in and tuned them right up to a semitone above pitch and let it drop over the next few weeks. The dampers were installed as it was strung. And when nearly all the notes went in it was time to have my piano teacher over to see what eventuated form that small question.
It had been 4 and a half years. now I was 20 and a few weeks later it was time for the first concert 4 April 2009
People ask me “how did you build this piano?”
To build this piano from scratch took learning, sheer determination, knowledge, luck, and sometimes pure coincidence! Even the doubters can be used as determination building! Piano technicians were consulted sparingly and one technician said “I’m glad you never consulted me, I would have told you to stop”.
He has now written a booklet on the construction of the piano, and the proceeds from the sales of the book help keep the piano maintained.
There has been many more concerts and gigs including many trips around New Zealand. The journey has been monumental with lots of friends sharing the experiences!
Beginners, concert pianists, famous and novice, have all performed on this piano with every visitor so far being thrilled and there have even been some who’s prior negative judgement has changed entirely just by playing and listening to it.
The most seasoned concert pianist must also be aware that it is but a gigantic experiment conducted by a 20 year old, which odds said shouldn’t have even happened.
Now I run a small business restoring pianos and tuning with the Alexander piano sitting in my showroom with all the other pianos around it.