High-tech engineering meets traditional craftsmanship at a British farm that’s fast becoming a global centre for design innovation in piano manufacturing. James Bacon reports Breaking the mould
Phoenix Pianos founder Richard Dain is an engineer who has spent the past 20 years focusing his creativity on improving the design and acoustic performance of boutique, handmade pianos. Drawing on a lifetime of expertise in fields as diverse as gas turbines, diesel engines, agricultural machinery, oil refineries and railways – coupled with a lifelong passion for music and piano sound – Dain is breaking the mould with new concepts that have the potential to disrupt what he sees as a stagnating, change-resistant industry.
Dain’s early piano design innovations included patented Phoenix bridge agraffes and computer-designed carbon fibre soundboards. His company Hurstwood Farm Pianos enjoys a longstanding manufacturing collaboration with Steingraeber. The latest innovations to emerge from Dain’s Kent workshop include 3D-printed hammer assemblies, carbon fibre bridge caps and Kevlar soundboards. What advantages do these designs have over traditionally manufactured pianos, and how might they change the way instruments are built in the future?
D3D HAMMER ASSEMBLIES In early 2018, Dain turned his attention to one of the most critical parts of the piano – the ‘hammer rail assembly’, broadly defined as the hammer flange, knuckle and shank, upon which the hammer itself is mounted. The traditional wooden hammer assembly is a series of ‘accidents waiting to happen’, says Dain. Hornbeam – used for the shanks – was originally chosen for its superior strength, fine grain and durability, but like all woods it changes shape with the weather. When warping occurs, even a small change in hammer alignment leads to a poor match with the strings, compromising acoustic performance. Misaligned hammers must be regulated by a technician to restore evenness of tone. Wooden shanks also flex and twist when a note is played. This twisting results in a chaotic flight path for the hammer. With vigorous playing, the twisting of the shank can be so serious that the hammer only strikes one or two strings of each trichord in the tenor, middle and upper registers. This can result in a loss of power and may give rise to unpleasant tonal effects caused by a glancing or wrongly positioned strike. The ‘hinge’ of a traditional hammer assembly comprises a thin metal pin plus a felt ‘bushing’, or bearing
Tireless innovator: Richard Dain www.international-piano.com
International Piano Guide to Instruments & Accessories 45