Part III: Keyboard and strings
Updated: Feb 6
If you missed our previous posts on constructing the case and gluing in the bridge and soundboard (amongst other things), you can find it all here.
At the end of the previous post, we were getting ready to transport the finished case, with soundboard, from U-En's place to Lin's house for the final part if the project: stringing, installing the action, and decorating. However, there was a crucial step that was taking place concurrently with the case and soundboard, which we haven't dealt with yet: the keyboard.
The keys are cut from a single plank and are shipped with the ebony covers already glued on, but the accidentals loose. Because they are cut from a single plank, the keys aren't interchangeable, so the first thing we did was to number each of them individually from 1 to 56. NB ours is a reverse keyboard: the naturals are 'black' (ebony) while the accidentals are 'white' -- in this case the natural (*haha) light brown of the pearwood from which they are cut. The keys all have holes already drilled near the centre of balance -- these must be cleaned out (there's sawdust and bits still in them) and will be used to balance and secure the keys on the key frame, which we need to construct from various pieces.
Here are two keys on the frame: the bottom-most GG and the top-most d''' are secured to the balance rail with balance pins, while the ends of the keys (the 'key tails') also have pins driven through them so that they can fit in the slotted rack at the rear. Once all the keys are in, we'll need to make sure they are all levelled (by gently tapping the balance pins right or left) and equally spaced (by adjusting the tail pins), and the same height (we can raise them with paper punchings or lower them by shaving the bottom of the balance hole on the key lever). We'll also balance each key with a 5g weight on the front end. The manual recommends the US Nickel coin or Italian 200 lire, and the Japanese yen piece weighs just under 1g -- we can add to this list the new UK 20p which is also exactly 5g and was what we ended up using.
The keys might look finished... but they are not. They are rough from the sawing and need to be finished smooth, while the ebony covers need to be lightly sanded and the edges of the accidentals are a little sharp (ha hahahaah). Here's a video of Andrew and Lin doing the sanding while Kenneth and Eugene sand down the turned-oak legs of what will eventually be the harpsichord stand:
Once that's all done, we put the keys back on the frame and got them ready for transport. Here they already look quite lovely before we glued the accidentals on, which was a straightforward process of applying glue to the pearwood piece, and pressing the piece into place on the key lever.
It's important to reiterate here that all the steps up to this point took place concurrently with the construction of the case and the other 'major' work, and we actually got to this point in the keyboard construction a day or two before we undertook the work on the bridge and soundboard which you can read about in our previous post. Once these bits were done, we packed everything up in a box, got to work on the soundboard and finishing the casework before shipping everything over to Lin's place.
So, finally following on from the previous post, we nailed the bottom panels to the harpsichord, installed the lid and flap on the top of the instrument, and wrapped the harpsichord carefully in blankets and rugs before loading it into the back of Andrew's car and driving over to Lin's. Once there, we simply couldn't resist putting everything together just to see it all take shape:
Here you can see the flap folded back over the lid (to which it's hinged), and the lid hinged to the spine with the brass hinges Andrew had worked on to bring to a lovely finish. The two registers are also in place (these are the long slotted pieces running across the instrument between the wrestplank and the soundboard). We opted for the traditional Flemish registers, which pierce through the cheek. Pulling or pushing them will engage or disengage the jacks that pluck the strings -- but all this is still in the future.
First we have to do something terrifying. After all the hard work (blood and sweat, definitely, we now have to drill 450-odd holes into various parts of the soundboard: the wrestplank, the hitchpin rails, the bridge, and the nut, which we haven't yet installed. This must all all be done with a power drill and a great deal of care, so it's a job best left to the architect amongst us (Lin).
It was quite epic, and it was good to have Panda's moral support.
First the holes for the tuning pins in the wrestplank. These will secure the tuning end of each string (NB the photo here is for dramatic purposes only -- when actually drilling, Lin always ties back her hair!)
Next are the holes in the hitchpin rails which secure the opposite ends of the strings. We put in a hole for each string through the hitchpin rail, into the soundboard and into the liner beneath. The bit of tape stuck on the drill-bit helped tell us how deep to go (NB it's always good to have Stuart keep an eye on the drilling angle).
Next, we used a tiny 0.9mm bit to drill the holes on the bridge for the bridge pins -- one for each string; two strings per key. There will be additional backpins on the bass end of the bridge but we'll get to that later. Here you can see the nut already glued in place. This is the 'bridge' piece running diagonally across the wrestplank in front of the tuning pin holes. The strings will run over this, and we'll drive bridge pins here too (again, one for each string) to guide them to the pins. But this will happen only after we've put the strings on the instrument.
Then comes the actual pinning, which we did by with the help of a pin-driver consisting of a brass rod with holes in each end, set in a wooden handle. The hitchpin rail at the tail is taller than it is at the bentside, and we've secured this to the case with screws from the outside. There will be a ton of pressure when all the strings are on and tuned up, so it's important to get all these bits done properly.
So, we then put in the hitchpins (as you can see in the picture above) as well as the bridgepins. But while all this was happening, Andrew was engaged on an epic quest of his own:
To finish the keyboard, we need thick felt near the tail of each key. This is where the jacks will rest, and after striking a key, we don't want them to reset noisily on the key. The general idea was to glue the entire strip of felt across all the keys, and then slice through the attached felt with a sharp knife -- but this proved to be too imprecise and Andrew painstakingly cut, shaped and glued every piece of felt individually. The process took about 8 hours, which quite understandably resulted in neck and shoulder pain. However, wine and coffee helped :)
Also, in front of the cutting board near the scissors, you can also see the makeshift balance U-En made from a piece of dowel and a spare bridgepin, together with the 20p coin used to balance each key (we put little pieces of lead on the other side of the key near the tail to help achieve the balance).
And here is the result of Andrew's hard work. In this photo, you can also see the touchrail on the left, screwed to the rack. This limits the downward movement of the keys when you press them, and there are several layers of black felt sewn (by Lin) to the underside of the touchrail to stop the keys going 'clack'.
After all this is done, it's time to polish up the keys:
Andrew used a very small amount of purified linseed oil spread on a small piece of cloth to wipe on and wipe off -- in the video you can see what a difference it makes to the keys, especially the accidentals!
And next comes the fun part...
There are several gauges of wire that we need to use, and these are made of different materials as well: brass for the bass strings, iron for the middle and treble. The idea is that, for every string, we need to make a nice loop with the strands forming a proper double helix so the string doesn't slip when we bring it up to tension, and we finish it off with a nice coil. This is what it should look like:
And this is what we did to make each one of these loops:
We made a few mistakes -- but we were also quite fussy, wanting every loop to be as close to perfect as possible so that we wouldn't run into problems later.
Once each string was done, we'd set the loop on the appropriate hitchpin, run the string on the bridge by bridgepin, over the nut on the wrestplank and put the other end of the string through a pin, which we'll then seat into the tuning pin hole Lin drilled earlier. Here's what it looks like from the hitchpin rail:
And here's what it looks like on the other end, at the pins:
It's quite a sight when it's all done!
It’s all coming together quite nicely. In the next post, we'll do the last bits of stringing and then move on to...