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Modern materials drive piano design forwards

Modern materials drive piano design forwards

Piano maker Richard Dain is, by any measure, an extraordinary man. To describe him simply as having an engineering background would be to gloss over a career that has driven significant developments in numerous fields: he has developed methods of recovery of copper from impure materials, designed apparatus for feeding a horizontal continuous casting mold, driven advances in all types of engines, and pioneered innovations in agricultural machinery.

He also has a passion for pianos and, as an engineer, wonders why there has been so little innovation in the design of the instrument over the last 100 years. Arguing that the Steinway Centennial Grand, developed in 1876, represented the last real innovation, he says: “The 20th Century has all been about marketing. There has been no real innovation because of fear, but it’s time to review whether modern materials could improve the instrument.”

When he approached traditional piano makers with his ideas for replacing wooden components with alternative materials, all of those companies said no. “That was like a red rag to a bull,” says Dain. “If you look at a traditional hammer assembly, for example, being made of wood means it is subject to temperature and humidity variations. It can twist and warp. The shank can move left or right so that it doesn’t strike evenly. And it’s difficult to look after.”

A desire to buck the traditionalism in the industry and to re-establish experimentation has seen Dain found Phoenix Pianos – a company with innovation at its core. Most recently, he has incorporated tribopolymer components from Igus in a unique hammer system that offers supreme longevity, climate resistance and improved playability and sound performance.

The components from Igus in Phoenix’s D3D Hammer System are 2mm roller bearings that are used as centre points for the bushless system. The pins offer smooth operation and with approximately a 30% increased diameter, are stronger, smoother and more dimensionally precise than traditional wire center pins. Extensive design and 3D printing work with Igus allowed Phoenix to create the new hammer system.

“These ultra-high-grade pins offer buttery-smooth operation, and are stronger, smoother and more dimensionally precise than traditional wire centre pins,’’ says Dain. “Igus was of the utmost help to us in their selection and provision of material for our hammer flange assemblies.” A piano’s hammer assembly consists of a ‘hammer flange’ (the part that is fixed in place within the overall action), a hinged shank which defines the flightpath of the hammer, and the hammer itself. The flange, shank and hinge are traditionally made from hornbeam, a type of hardwood that when well finished is very smooth and often compared to ivory.

No matter how good the regulation of a traditional wooden hammer assembly, the shanks, which are typically about 6mm in diameter and 13cm in length, flex considerably when under the duress of energetic pianism. The hammer wobbles from side to side, and twists chaotically as it is accelerated towards the strings, causing irregular strikes. This chaos gives rise to unpleasant overtones, when the hammer does not contact the strings with precision. The D3D Hammer System offers all the advantages of a traditional system in prime condition, as well as climate resistance and, designers at Phoenix confidently predict, enormous longevity. “Indeed, we expect these assemblies may well exceed the lifespan of the piano itself,” comments Dain.

The defining spirit of Phoenix Pianos is one of recapturing the innovative drive of the 19th century piano builders, specifically in challenging the numerous now-outmoded design limitations found in traditional instruments.

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