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  • Andrea Hackbarth

Emerson Action Disassembly

The first part of this piano restoration project I decided to tackle is the action. For those who aren't familiar with the term, in the piano world, "action" refers to the collection of parts that interact and move to create sound from the strings when you press a key. It includes wippens, which the keys contact and move, hammers, which hit the strings, and dampers, which stop the strings from ringing. Each of these main parts contains many smaller parts, including springs, small metal pins, felts, and leathers, which all work together to make the piano work.


Needless to say, the action is pretty important! And the one in this piano needs some work. Really, it's not in terrible condition for its age, but over time, parts get worn and dirty and just need a little love. Here's the mid-section of the action before disassembly:

As mentioned in my previous post, I was pleasantly surprised to see the name "Wessell, Nickel, & Gross" (WNG) stamped on the rail. They're known today for their forward-looking approach to action parts manufacturing, using new materials like carbon fiber and composites, and I had no idea they'd been around so long. From their website, I learned that WNG was actually founded in 1874 by three men who had been working in Steinway's factory and wanted to try out some new ideas in piano action design, so set off on their own. The regulating rail on this action has a patent date stamped on it of 1878, so I'm guessing this whole action would have been one of their earliest designs.

As I began the disassembly process, I found that it's a rather unique action design, at least compared to the standard upright actions we usually see today. It seems the guys from WNG really did have some new ideas, and they ran with them! The first interesting design feature I found is that the hammers and dampers are connected to the action rail by one shared flange, shown here:

Usually, the hammer has its own flange that connects to the front of the action rail, and the flange pictured here would only connect to the damper and the top of the action rail. (You can see a standard vertical action and learn more about how it works here: https://rennerusa.com/resources/upright-piano-action-guide/) This action's unique 2-in-1 design uses half the screws and so took half the time to disassemble as compared to a standard action, which is certainly a benefit. However, because it's unusual, finding replacement parts will be difficult if I should need to do that. Thankfully, all of this action's parts are intact (aside from one hammer head, which will be replaced anyway). I'll just have to be extra careful not to damage anything in the cleaning and restoration process!


Here are all the hammer/damper assemblies removed from the action rail, numbered, and organized, ready for the next step:

Removing the hammer/damper assemblies revealed these lovely curved damper spoons. These are attached to the back of the wippen and push on the bottom (the red-felted part) of the damper when the key is played, lifting the damper from the strings to let the them vibrate and sing. Usually, these are straight and angled off to the side a bit (contacting dampers that are also a bit offset). This curved design allows access to the wippen flange screw, while still keeping the spoon in line with the damper. It's also quite pretty.

After turning all those little screws, numbering each wippen, organizing them, and turning a few more screws on the action rails, I had this:

One last "unique" aspect of this action is that the brackets (those big cast iron parts) each only have one foot, rather than two, meaning that the action won't stand up by itself, which is a bit of a pain. I do generally use an action cradle to support actions when working on them outside the piano, but it's nice to be able to set an action down briefly without support if needed. It makes me wonder why the designers put only one foot on the brackets. Maybe for weight savings? I'm not sure it's worth it, but I guess I'll have to deal with it.


Now that I have the action taken apart, the next step will be cleaning all the parts. I'm not entirely sure how to do this yet, as I'm waiting for the next lesson in the action restoration class. In the meantime, I'll just admire these beautiful old piano parts, and leave you all with this final photo to show just how dirty a piano action can get. Yes, a piano's insides need occasional cleaning (and yes, it can be done without taking it completely apart)!


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