Archibald Ramsden

Acoustic Piano

This piano is of a relatively uncommon type—the "straight-strung overdamper English piano"—that has not been manufactured (as far as I know of) since the mid-20th century, and that was most popular in the late 19th century. There are many things that distinguish this piano from most others, but two are particularly important to note right away. Number one is its overdamper (or "birdcage") action that is simpler and less effective at dampening the vibrating strings as compared to modern underdamper designs, but that would have been relatively cheap and easy to manufacture due to its simplicity. "Overdamper" means that the felt dampers that mute the strings upon the release of a key are positioned above the hammers, with metal wire actuators connecting them to the lower action parts (hence the "birdcage" name), rather than having the dampers below the hammers. Number two would be its straight-strung strings, meaning that all strings are more or less parallel, without a "crossover" between bass and mid/treble strings.

On its fallboard decal, shown below, this piano bears the name "Archibald Ramsden (Limited).," the locations "London & Leeds," and the phrase "By Royal Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen & H.R.H. Princess Louise." Based on these things, I conclude that it was probably manufactured in London and/or Leeds, almost certainly in the last quarter of the 19th century (i.e. during the peak of popularity for its type). Queen Victoria died in early 1901, so this piano would presumably predate that. Perhaps the royal family had an Archibald Ramsden at some point?

You may wonder how (and why) an antique English piano would have made it to Alberta, Canada. At first, I thought it might have been exported by ship back around the time it was built, but then I discovered an interesting forum posting. According to this, in the 1960s or early 1970s, a large number of English overdamper pianos were purchased for very cheap (around $25.00 each) in England, and shipped to Vancouver for around $75.00 each. Then sconces were sold for around $100.00 per pair, and each piano for about $500.00. Needless to say, a significant profit. Mine is almost certainly from this batch, since the sconces are gone, and it also has a sticker on the back for "Bekins", a Vancouver-based moving and storage company.

Something else interesting to note is that, assuming this piano was made prior to 1901, it predates, and has existed at the same time as, many things of significance. For example, it predates the vast majority of recorded sound. It predates the digital computer, transistor, and even the vacuum tube; in fact, only a very small portion of the world had domestic power when it was made. It existed through both World Wars, seeing both the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. As well, as of June 22, 2015, there are no persons from England born on or before 1901 who are still known to be living. This, as well as the fact that the craftsmen were probably not newborns at the time of manufacture, means that all of the people who contributed to its manufacture are certainly now deceased, probably by many decades. The list could continue like this for many volumes. Of course, these all apply to anything made before 1901, but nonetheless, it's something neat to think about.

Features

  • 85 almost-full-sized keys (A-1 to A7 / 7 octaves + semitone) with celluloid and ebony tops
  • straight-strung, with all strings more or less parallel to one another
  • "open" wooden pinblock (without any metal surrounding each pin)
  • metal frame extending only up to below the pinblock
  • overdamper or "birdcage" action
  • beautiful and intricately detailed wooden case

Maintenance & Repairs

The following were performed on the unit:

  • Adjusted damper rest positions & hammer let-off
  • Bent and glued broken spring to jack (using Super-T)
  • Cleaned wood surfaces (interior and exterior)
  • Cleaned each key lever
  • Cleaned action w/ air compressor
  • Drilled out some caster screw holes and glued 1/4" dowels in place, drilled pilot holes in dowels
  • Enlarged some balance rail pin holes (keys were sticking)
  • Filled damaged screw holes & cracks w/ wood filler (on top hinge and bottom caster mounting places)
  • Polished wood surfaces w/ Cory Care "All Brite"
  • Replaced felts under trap levers
  • Re-glued trap levers to rods (using PVC-E)
  • Re-glued two wood support blocks for bottom right trap panel (using carpenter's)
  • Re-glued broken hammer shank (using Super-T and Hot Stuff cyanoacrylate glue)
  • Re-glued ebony keytop which had fallen off (using contact cement)
  • Re-glued pedal friction felt strips
  • Removed glue from key lever felts
  • Removed decayed blue cloth from back
  • Replaced moth-eaten front rail felts
  • Replaced nameboard felt
  • Replaced pedal screw & 5 caster screws
  • Replaced previous flimsy wooden fix of the left leg with metal mending plates
  • Repaired broken cloth jack links w/ synthetic cloth and glue (Super-T, but mostly PVC-E)
  • Shined brass parts with Brasso
  • Tightened pinblock w/ Hot Stuff CA glue (on all pins)
  • Tuned a whole step lower than concert pitch due to loose pins—x2

Some of you may be asking, "why expend so much effort on a piano that was cheap to begin with?" Well, I should probably give a bit of background as to why I got this thing in the first place...

If you're familiar with the Releases of the JCS "record label", you would know that I often enjoy unusual sounds, and especially enjoy using sounds that people especially don't seem to like. In terms of pianos, it seems that many people believe, and would like you to believe, that there is a single true piano sound that all pianos are meant to strive for. This is usually the sound of a perfectly tuned and regulated 9-foot Steinway concert grand (which, by no coincidence, is one of the most expensive types of piano). Largely ignored are the types of pianos which are, by design, not able to emulate this sound well, including small "spinet" uprights, and of course, English pianos like this one. True, this piano will never sound like a Steinway. Then again, a Steinway will certainly never sound like this piano.

Anyway, I became interested in acquiring a "false" piano after playing a hacky spinet at a band camp venue. Branded "Allegro", this thing was probably the cheapest type of piano you could possibly have bought new in the late 60s—early 70s. It was completely straight-strung in three sections of approximately equal number of notes. The bass section had one string per note, the middle section had two strings, and the treble section was the only one with three! This piano likely hadn't been tuned for years, and a number of the keys failed to play. Despite all of this, I loved the plunky and dissonant sound, and I spent every possible bit of free time at the camp playing this piano.

Later on, I found out about straight-strung overdamper English pianos after asking a local piano technician if he had encountered pianos like the one at the camp. After telling him it was straight-strung, he asked, "was it an English piano?" to which I responded "uh, possibly," because I hadn't heard of English pianos before. It is from this that I discovered their existence. Talking to the technician further revealed that, like many technicians, he refuses to do any sort of work on these types of pianos, and rather recommends to owners that they relocate them to the nearest landfill. Looking around online for more info was fascinating; it seemed almost everyone hated these pianos. Naturally, I decided I had to have one, and this, the Archibald Ramsden, is the result.

Believe it or not, this piano was originally advertised as being (and I quote) "in great playing condition" with only needing "some slight repair to the leg". Perhaps if its true initial condition was known, I would have thought differently about going to have a look at it. I'm glad I did not change my mind, however, because performing all of the repairs has been a very enjoyable and educational experience, and has cost relatively little. I'm not going to go through absolutely every bit of repair that was done, but here are what I think are the most interesting and useful points...

When acquired, the piano was immensely filthy. It had been stored in a garage for months, and before that, well, who knows. The back had a black cloth stapled over it that had become flimsy from decay, which I later discovered was supposed to be blue, and which was quickly disposed of. On the wooden outer surfaces, there was a coating of dust, cigarette ashes, and deposits from liquid spills, especially on the keys. Underneath the keys, there was a truly remarkable layer of accumulated dust—the same height as the tops of the front rail felts! As well as dust, chunks of wax were present under the keys, possibly having melted through the gaps a hundred years ago, or at least back when it had candle sconces. The below image shows the bottom end of the keyboard, right after removing some of the key levers:

Most of what was done at first was cleaning, the most I've ever done on a single unit. The keybed was thoroughly vacuumed, and dirty surfaces and the key levers were wiped with a damp cloth or paper towel. Probably the trickiest bit of cleaning was the action; it was taken outside to have the dust blown off using an air compressor. This proved to be a very efficient cleaning method mostly, but it did leave a fair bit of caked on dirt still on the hammers particularly. As for the functionality of the action, it had quite a few issues, mostly stemming from a whole bunch of thin cloth links which at this point have degraded...

You can see in the above image that some of the jacks (vertical wooden pieces towards the bottom) are not quite vertical, some even being positioned above more than one key-lever, resulting in actuation by more than one key. The cause is, as mentioned earlier, the degradation and tearing of either one of the two cloth links holding it in position at the bottom. Also visible in the image are a few metal flange pins that a previous tech has hammered into the key levers to try and keep the jacks from moving forward. Of course, since they don't stop the jacks from moving sideways, it isn't really an ideal repair. All affected jacks have had to be fixed by gluing new synthetic cloth strips near, but not exactly in the same place as the original failed cloth links:

I tried a few types of cloth and glue, but what seemed to work best is synthetic cloth from a gift ribbon, cut to the same width as the jacks, and then glued with PVC-E glue from Howard Piano Industries. I also tried "Super T" cyanoacrylate glue, but this had a tendency to crack off easily, rather than remaining somewhat elastic. Elasticity helps since the cloth pieces have to flex slightly. Duct tape was used to hold things in place while the glue dried. It was especially important, since the action was upside down, to secure each hammer in its normal resting position, since otherwise, the replacement cloth strips would be glued too short, and therefore the hammers wouldn't return completely.

A few notes about the hammers: you can see in the above picture of the action that the heads of the hammers are composed of a relatively thick wooden core and a single layer of relatively thin felt. Canadian and American piano hammer heads from around the same time generally had very thick two-layer felt, with a thin wooden core, especially for the lower notes. When received, the hammer for the lowest D note had a broken shank, as shown in the image below (which also shows just how thin the felt is, and thick the core):

This was a tricky repair, but so far it has held perfectly. I removed the hammer flange (with the rest of the shank) from the action, and applied two glues in series, the very thin "Hot Stuff" and thicker "Super T" cyanoacrylate glues, to initially bond the two pieces together. Then I wound quite a few layers of fine sewing thread around the shank, applied more glue, and repeated gluing over a few days until the joint seemed "saturated" with glue. You can see the repair to the left in the above picture of the action upside-down. Interesting to note is that the hammer has less deep of a groove in the head than the other bass section hammers, indicating perhaps that the break happened quite a while ago, and the piano continued to be played often enough to cause the other hammers to wear more significantly.

With the action and all the key levers removed, I noticed that many of the front rail punchings were quite "moth-eaten", so I replaced them. Each pin had two thin felt front rail punchings stacked, which I was able to replace with thicker single ones. The balance rail punchings seemed decent, but I removed all of them just to be sure, and in the process found that there were quite a few paper spacers made out of newspaper! Sadly, as far as I can tell, the papers contain no info that points to a specific date of manufacture, but interesting nonetheless. The two images below show both sides of the 20 that I found.

A few of the repairs had to be done with the piano on its back, which was not too difficult to accomplish since as far as pianos go, this one is relatively small and lightweight. Firstly, the casters were fixed. Particularly, the ones towards the back of the piano had screws that were no longer holding strongly in the wood, with some being bent and coming out. Five damaged screws were replaced. As for the damaged holes, at first, I tried to simply reinforce them with wood filler so that they would hold screws firmly, but the wood was too cracked and damaged for this to work for all of them. For the ones where the wood filler failed, the holes were completely drilled out to 1/4", and a 1/4" dowel was hammered in along with carpenter's glue. After the glue dried and pilot holes were drilled, these held the screws very well. The mounting holes for the left caster after repair are shown below, with the two left holes bearing dowels:

Accessible now were the pedals, and therefore their design could be seen. Each pedal is comprised of a long wooden piece, with a metal actuator rod secured in the middle, and a screw at the back allowing just enough motion for its given function. The right (sustain) pedal's screw had broken off deep into the wood, so I decided rather than trying to remove the metal of the old screw, I'd just drill a hole for the new screw slightly to the side of the old one. This worked fine, and the change in pedal position is barely noticeable. I couldn't find quite the right type of screw at the hardware store, so in its place, I used a hex-headed screw along with a washer so that its head wouldn't dig into the wood.

One of the last things done was to fix the single problem mentioned in the original ad. This was that the left leg was weak and wobbly. Well, this was a result of yet another poor repair job of the past; the wood piece holding the leg to the rest of the piano at the bottom had broken, and so someone screwed a piece of low quality scrap wood to the underside with very little finesse. This then proceeded to crack around the seven or so poorly positioned screws, which were long and thin enough to bend badly. Here's what it looked like after being removed:

No wonder the piano's leg was wobbly! After being intensely photographed, this piece was quickly thrown away, and the old screw holes on the bottom of the piano filled with wood filler. My replacement consisted of two thinner (but much more robust) metal mending plates, along with thicker and better positioned screws. A little wood filler was also used in the broken area of the original wood holding the leg to the rest of the piano. The repair was entirely successful, and the piano now stands more sturdily than it probably has in decades.

As for the tuning, when it arrived, it was so ridiculously flat overall that it was clear that it would not hold a tuning at concert pitch. The pins of the pinblock were so loose that it was decided that while on its back, super thin "Hot Stuff" cyanoacrylate glue would be applied to the base of every one of the pins in the thing. It did end up discoloring the wood around the pins slightly, but really, it's a small concern considering the glue makes it considerably better at holding a tuning.

Which, I should mention, it still doesn't do extremely well. I tuned it to a whole step below concert pitch, since even with the glue, I doubted it could hold a tuning at concert pitch, or even a semitone below concert pitch. This meant that most of the low notes had to be brought lower, and most of the high notes had to be brought higher. After about two months, the tuning had slightly, noticeably drifted. By around nine months, things had gone very far off—it had drifted almost exactly a whole tone lower than initially, i.e. two whole tones lower than concert pitch! The second tuning was more difficult, especially in the high end, since every time a note was brought higher, it would bring the notes around it lower. I'm not sure why this happened, but I'd guess perhaps due to the bridge continuing to "settle." So far, though, the second tuning seems more stable than the first.

This is about the point where I should mention that there are a few reasons that piano techs usually give for refusing to tune these types of pianos, none of which I think are very respectable. First, it is a little tougher to mute the desired strings as compared to an underdamper piano, because the overdamper structure pretty much has to be removed before you can access the vibrating part of the strings. Honestly though, this was the second piano I'd ever tuned in my life, and it still wasn't that hard. At least, the way I did it, which was to tilt the action backwards slightly, just enough to have room to slip in a temperament strip (for most of the keyboard), or wedge mutes (for the high notes). Secondly, techs often won't tune anything they can't tune to concert pitch. Admittedly, this one is a little more compelling, but still, if it can be tuned lower, then why not? Especially if the piano is intended for recording, where pitch can be altered in software or by varying tape speed.

In any case, I'll finish the repair section by saying that it was a heck of a thing to fix up, and I'd imagine it will continue to be as I continue to use it, but that I feel that it's been completely worth the effort. Because what do I have at the end of it? A piano that truly stands out; that really doesn't come close to sounding like a 9-foot concert grand, and is a unique example of a long-abandoned type of design.

The Hardware

Well, probably the first thing that anyone would notice is that the wood on this thing is really, really nice. Just have a look. Admittedly, I think there were some grain-enhancing substances involved, but so what? To me, it still looks fantastic even after over a century (much better than shiny black boxes!) Opening up the key cover shows the beautiful black and gold decal, as well as the folding music stand comprised of thin wooden pieces. Note that it has only 85 keys rather than 88; in a way, this makes sense, since 85 gives a nice 7-octave range plus one semitone extra, so from A to A (or, as I have it tuned, from G to G).

The celluloid tops of the natural keys are still in very good shape after over a century. A few little burn marks can be seen, most likely from smouldering tobacco ashes that burned their way through the keytop. Celluloid is, of course, a relatively flammable material, especially as compared to many modern plastics. When cleaning the celluloid tops using water-soaked paper towels, they produced a smell that could best be likened to nail polish, which makes sense due to both nail polish and celluloid having nitrocellulose as their main ingredient. Also, the keys are very slightly thinner and more tightly spaced than typical modern piano keys.

Taking the top and front pieces off, it becomes especially clear what makes this piano different from those made recently. The action is called an "overdamper" because the dampers are positioned above the hammers, or a "birdcage" because of the long metal pieces that go from the jacks to the dampers, lifting them when a key is pressed. This design provides pretty ineffective damping of the strings, especially in the high end. The dampers also cease to exist much sooner than on most pianos, going from low to high. As well though, the rightmost dampers are actually constructed in such a way that they are actually positioned too high to even touch the vibrating part of the strings!

It has two wooden pedals with thin brass caps. The right pedal is the sustain pedal, which lifts the dampers from the strings through a very crude rotating rail. The left one is a dampening pedal, which inserts a sheet of felt in between the strings and hammers, which is now a common feature on many Asian pianos. The original felt has become quite worn; it's nearly all the way through on some of the middle notes. But, I decided not to replace it.

Another thing you might see in the above image (taken with the action removed) is that there are a number of very large cracks in the soundboard. Yes, those horizontal lines around the middle of the image are cracks, and in fact, you can also see that they've been open long enough to collect dust! Now, believe it or not, they don't appear to be the cause of any buzzing or other tonal "issues" except for possibly on rare occasion, when there is a little bit of rattling that may come from the soundboard, but it is usually gone within a few days.

Below the keybed, the bottom wood panel can be found. This part has suffered some notable damage. For one, the two thin rectangular veneered sheets held by the thicker pieces have warped and cracked slightly, but that's not the best part. The best part is when I found some green airsoft BBs while cleaning out the bottom area, and then realized that there were a whole bunch of tiny circular dents in the bottom panel! Seriously, I think at some point, someone shot it with an airsoft machine gun! Luckily, they had low aim, and the damage is almost entirely near the top of the bottom panel, which is usually not carefully observed.

The Sound

Alright, well if you'd like to just jump right to hearing it, have a look at the last paragraph in this section. There are a number of things that give this piano a sound very different from that of a 9-foot concert grand, which I'll go through in an arbitrary order.

First of all, the piano is straight-strung. This, as I mentioned earlier, means that all of the strings are essentially parallel, rather than being "overstrung" and thereby having two sections that overlap each other; just look inside most pianos and you'll see what I mean. The reason why straight-strung pianos sound different is clear once you know why most pianos are overstrung: it allows for longer (especially bass) strings in the same case size. Having longer strings, which have to be under higher tension to produce the same pitch as shorter strings, results in less inharmonicity of the resulting note. Just think about what the very lowest notes on a piano sound like, because these are the most inharmonic, and then think about a harmonic series where the harmonics are forced higher or lower than their ideal values (integer multiples of the fundamental frequency), essentially "compressing" or "stretching" the frequencies of the harmonic series. In the case of piano bass strings, the resulting "harmonics" are higher in frequency than perfect harmonics, so in order for the string to sound most in tune with the rest of the piano, it has to be tuned so that the fundamental frequency is lower than the normal fundamental of the note. The very high end of the piano also exhibits inharmonicity, but with a compressed harmonic series rather than a stretched one, so they have to be tuned higher than normal for the piano to sound "right". Anyway, the point is, this straight-strung beast exhibits the most inharmonicity I've ever seen in a piano. In fact, trying to tune the very lowest notes was hilarious, because they sounded fine at a number of completely different tensions!

Secondly, the strings are over 110 years old. They're pretty dusty and with some inevitable oxidization, but actually, considering their age, they're not too bad, and surprisingly they all look to be original. In any case though, the dirtiness and corrosion and possibly other factors mean that they don't sound like relatively new strings, as would be found on a well-maintained 9-foot concert grand. The sound has less intense high frequencies, though this is compensated for a little by a thing I'll mention later, and the notes don't sustain for as long. I'll mention the third thing here as well, and that is that the soundboard is cracked and quite small, so the result there is that it doesn't have much bass, and isn't particularly loud.

Fourthly, the overdamper system means that the dampening of the notes isn't very effective. When a note is played and then released, it tends to ring for about a second or more before becoming "silent", and if you put your ear close, you can hear the undamped high strings resonating for quite a time after you play a note. This is partially because the damper pads are worn out, but really, the design is just fundamentally not as effective as underdampers, since the strings are being dampened closer to the top, and also the dampers are held onto the strings by gravitational force on the damper mechanisms, rather than the force of springs.

Finally, the hammers are so worn that many of them have nearly flat faces. In effect, this adds more high frequencies to the notes than if the hammers were nicely shaped, resulting in a "plunky" or "honky-tonk" tone. One last last thing, which is that the action itself influences the sound in the sense that it's a simplistic action that makes it hard to play softly. It's really a funny-feeling thing to play; the forces that the keys apply to your fingers over a keypress are different than on a typical piano.

In any case, it should be clear now what makes this quite a unique instrument.

Prior to being tuned at all, it was used in the S.F.A.T.B.H.S. release The Age of Nusic. In fairly good tune, it has been used on Jesse Acorn's release Demos, or perhaps not... and a few months after that (once the tuning had drifted somewhat) the S.F.A.T.B.H.S. release Novoful Vyffm. If you remove the action and swipe your finger across all the strings, it gives a sound like a humongous reverberating cavern.

Links

Forum Discussion on Pianotech - Amongst the disdain for pianos such as this, there's an interesting bit of history concerning how many of these English pianos wound up in Canada.

Howard Piano Industries - The source of most of my piano supplies. For this project, I got the PVC-E glue, replacement front rail felts, and Cory Care "All Brite" polish from this site.

If you notice any errors or have additional information that you would like to add, please contact me!


Last Updated: 7/21/2016