Repair 1999

After completing the harpsichord in 1983, I was feeling quite satisfied at having survived such a difficult and demanding project.  But there were problems.  In my dedication to get the instrument done, I had taken a couple of shortcuts that would come back as serious problems.  The first and most visible problem was what started out as a small crack in the soundboard.  The crack actually appeared in Great Bend, around 1973, long before the strings were added.  Removing the soundboard to repair the 12 inch crack that only seemed to appear during the driest months of winter, would be a formidable task.  A call to Frank Hubbard assured me that the crack would not affect the sound and Derwood agreed that I should just leave it alone.

A second problem became apparent shortly after it's completion.  The front register, which has a crisper more sharp sound became unusable for a variety of reasons.  The most obvious problem was the fact that during the summer months the humidity caused the wooden parts of the registers to swell and become immovable.  Using a large screwdriver I pried the register into the off position and left it there for many years.

Another unpleasant surprise awoke me in the middle of the night.  I was roused up about 2am, with the sound of strings snapping in the living room.  The next morning an investigation proved that the strings hadn't actually broken but had merely slipped off the hitch pins as the glue gave out in the tail molding piece.  A hasty weekend project replaced the dozen strings affected and I simply replaced the hitch pins without the underlying molding piece.

A minor problem resulted from a major mistake I made when constructing the buff stop.  The buff stop is a series of leather pads that can be moved into position to damp the strings to produce a soft muted sound.  In 1983, as I glued the 61 quarter inch pads to the top of the buff-stop lever, I mistakenly aligned them with the back register.  The stop worked fine but unfortunately sounded terrible as it should have been installed on the front register.  After several weeks of trying to re-trim the pads to the opposite strings, I finally gave up the effort as not worth the amount of work required.

I had become accustomed to the missing molding, the non working front register and the unsightly soundboard gap that had since grown to about 20 inches long.  Finally one day I went to play a little Mozart and several of the notes made no sound at all.  Opening the lid confirmed my worst fears.  The crack was now nearly four feet long and an inch wide.  Additionally, instead of an even gap, one side bowed up and the other down.  The down side also supported the bridge and as it dipped, a couple dozen strings slipped off their pins and became useless.

So after a long talk with Derwood, the following plans were made:

  1. Remove all the strings.
  2. Take the instrument to Derwood to repair the crack.
  3. Re-fit each jack to it's upper and lower jack slides to eliminate binding during the high humidity months.
  4. Reduce the width of the upper jack slides to allow for a larger gap and reduce the chance of register binding.
  5. Construct three aluminum I-beams to enforce the opening between the wrest plank and the belly rail to further reduce the chance of jack slide binding.
  6. Replace the two hand carved walnut stop levers with stronger solid brass ones.
  7. Replace all of the strings including the original steel piano wire strings with new tin plated wire.
  8. And finally recreate the buff stop by gluing 61 new pads to the correct side of the lever.

In April of 99, my nephew Mike Howland and I transported the harpsichord, wrapped in several blankets and plastic to Derwood's shop.  A few weeks  later the repair was complete and another trip returned the instrument to New Jersey.  Derwood patched the soundboard and I replaced the broken sound board molding, re-fitted the upper and lower jack slides, constructed and installed three aluminum "I" beams, reduced the width of both upper slides, built new register levers from brass and removed the 61 Buff Stop pads, to be re-installed later.

Here are some pictures of the repair.  (click on picture to enlarge)

This is a contact sheet I sent to Derwood to give him an idea of what he was in for.  I was totally intimidated by the project and knew it was best to hire a professional for this one.
The gap opened vertically which is what caused the failure of the bridge.
The first job was to determine the position of the internal braces so that we could cut working holes in the bottom without affecting the integrity of the bracing system.
The first hole was carefully cut using a saber saw and we peered into a section of the harpsichord that had not been seen in thirty years.
The view from the inside shows how close the soundboard cutoff bar (above) comes to the frame braces.
By this time Derwood had already figured out how he would bring the two halves of the soundboard back into alignment and finish the job with epoxy while still preserving the sound qualities of the original wood.
The lower jack guides have had all the openings refitted to allow the jacks more "shuck".
The upper jack registers simply rest on the end blocks and are guided by a cherry separator bar.  The registers were narrowed about 1/32 inch to reduce the chance of binding
Using some small screws from my model railroading supplies, I was able to construct I-beams to reinforce the opening for the jack slides.
The three I-beams in place
Four screws secure the braces so they won't vibrate or come loose.
The original walnut levers were not strong enough to move the slides during humid weather.  
This is the molding piece that gave out in the middle of the night.
I replaced the wide molding with a smaller piece that lies behind the hitch pins rather than underneath them.
The job was completed with small hand fitted pieces at the corners.

Continue with Restringing and voicing, 2000

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