Introduction: How to Make a Pianoforte, Part 1, by W. H. Davies

This is a series of articles by W. H. Davies of Liverpool published in The English Mechanic and World of Science in July and August, 1878. They can mostly be downloaded from Google Books but part of part 6 is missing. The vertically strung English sticker action upright piano Mr. Davies describes was old fashioned at the time and many piano tuners won't service them now, and the services and patterns he offers as well as the parts he recommends are no longer available so some options might be researched when you follow his directions. I edited and broke it up a little, and reproduced some of the illustrations as vector drawings. The engraving is of a cabinet upright taken from A Day at a Pianoforte Factory in Days at the Factories: Or, the Manufacturing Industry of Great Britain by George Dodd, from 1843.

The first part describes making the wooden frame or back of the piano.

Step 1: Davies' Introduction


At first sight the interior of a pianoforte appears a mass of complexity, and, taking it as a whole, there is certainly a great deal to admire and wonder at; but when it is remembered that the whole action may be bought in parts arranged, and even numbered, for their position, a great portion of the credit must be transferred to the action-maker, who is generally entirely overlooked. The fact is that in these days of divided labour the pianoforte "maker," as formerly understood, has entirely disappeared, and in his place has arisen on whose sole work is to put the different parts together.

So much has lately been said in favour of "iron backs," that probably most of our English readers would elect to save themselves much hard work, and assure stability to the construction of employing one. But on the other hand I know of numbers in the colonies, and elsewhere, who have not the same facilities of procuring one, and who consequently would be obliged to content themselves with the ordinary wooden back. For their benefit then, I must crave indulgence while I first describe out this is put together.

Step 2: Parts Needed

The parts necessary for its construction are a wrest plank, bent side, linings (or end pieces) and bracings. The wrest plank is of English beech not less than 1 1/2in. thick, 4ft. 2 1/2in. long, and 8in. wide. As this is perhaps the most important part of the whole instrument, great care should be used in its selection. It should be thoroughly weathered and "shop dried," and if possible should be cut, as it is termed, "on the quarter," that is, the tree is first cut in quarters, and the planks, cut off their faces. When cut in this manner it is almost impossible to split, and as our readers are aware that a number of holes are bored in it close together, and in a line with the grain, this is a casualty very necessary to guard against.

The bent side is also of beech, 1 3/4in. thick, so called because at one time it really used to be bent, and though now cut out of the straight it still preserves the old name. The round side should follow pretty nearly the curve of the bridge as by this means the same area of soundboard is everywhere between them. A sufficient idea of its shape may be obtained from the diagram.

The linings are of spruce, 4ft. long by 4 1/2 x 1 1/4in. The bottom is the same, but 2 1/2in. longer; the bracings, also spruce, are 4ft. long by 4 1/2 x 3in. There should not be less than six, and eight would be still better.

Step 3: Preparing the Parts

To prepare these parts for putting together, the wrest plank must first be planed level on both sides, and toothed. The side selected for the front must then be veneered with some clean white veneer, preferably sycamore, which should be, for the purpose of strength, 1/8in. thick, and the grain crossing that of the plank.

While this is under the handscrews the spruce may be planed over, making the front sides level, and marking them as such.

The linings and bottom are first required - a lap must be cut in the former to receive the plank. The depth of this lap depends on the thickness of the plank, which should stand over not less than 5/8in.;* thus supposing the plank then levelled, to be 1 1/4 in., the lap should be 5/8in.* deep, and calculating the finished instrument at 4ft. 2in., a fair average size, the bottom of this lap should be 3ft. 3in. from its lower end, which will be dovetailed into that of the bottom lining, this being, of course, exactly the same length as the plank.

{* best guess}

Step 4: Putting the Frame Together

The first part to be put together is the frame - i.e., the four sides, plank, side linings, and bottom, but before doing so the position of the bracings must be determined and marked on the back of the plank and top of the bottom lining (see dotted lines in diagram, Fig. 2).

If it is decided to use six bracings it is better to close them together a little at the middle of the back, where the chief strain comes. (These and other measurements may readily be calculated from Fig. 1, which is drawn to a scale of 1 in 12.)* Should the operator prefer to make sure by putting in the two extra, it will suffice if the spaces between them are equally divided throughout.

When the frame is together, and before finally tightening the hand-screws, test its squareness. The handiest way of doing this is to measure with a pair of sliding rods from corner to corner diagonally, and alter till both are equal; when, if the lengths of each lining are identical, the frame will be quite square.

It can then be laid on its face, and the bracings fitted and dovetailed, each being numbered as done. These laps should be 1in. longer than those of the linings, to allow for a wedge. The back will be all the stronger if a 1in. hardwood dowel (F, Fig. 2) be inserted.

{* 1:10 in 1f123.pdf}

Step 5: Finishing the Back

The bent side is now to be added. The position of this is 9in. from the bottom of the wrest plank at the treble or right-hand end, and 24in. from the bass lining at the bottom. It must be understood that the work will hold much better together if all the joints are made hot before glueing.

The back is now finished, with the exception of wedging. The wedges should be beech, and fit very tightly, with the grain parallel to that of the plank. In hammering them it is advisable that each bracing should be well bedded, as its wedge is forced in, or it is very likely to be torn from its joint.

It now becomes necessary for the amateur to supply himself with the requisite metal work, as it may be of service to him, if he gets a plate, to match which I shall be happy to supply a scale on payment of postage (1 stamp), he is quite welcome to ask for my pattern as Messrs. Hughes, 37, Drury-lane.

References to sketches: - Fig. 1, back: A, wrest plank, B, wedges; C, resisting irons; D, bent side; E, dovetail at back of bracings. Fig. 2, top side of bottom: C, resisting irons; E, dovetail for back of bracings; F, dowel. Fig. 3, section of back.

W. H. Davies

(from The English Mechanic and World of Science vol. 27, July 19, 1878, p.462-463)

part 2