Spinets and Console Pianos

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What is a spinet piano? In a spinet the moving parts, known as the action, are dropped below the keys. When a key is played the action is pulled upwards on rods called “stickers”, which in turn engage the action. To make more room for the stickers, the keys must be shorter, resulting in poor leverage and thus a poor sense of touch and control for the player. Lastly, the very short strings result in a narrow range of harmonics and also poor tone quality. Because of these short comings they are totally unacceptable to many teachers and never recommended for serious students. But they are highly economical when buying a used piano, and still musical. They can also assist the beginning student who is practicing the piano in the early stages of theory and fingering technique. So, if the purpose is to have a tiny piano in the family room and this fits the budget– then go for it!

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What is a console? Console pianos measure from 40″ to 46″ in height, and were actually invented in 1830. Because the console is still a short piano, it is sometimes called an upright spinet. However, unlike a spinet, with its indirect blow action, the console’s action sits above the keys. An improved touch results from this more logical mechanical system. The touch of a console more closely resembles that of the full upright. The console piano has a second important advantage over the spinet. The additional height allows for longer strings and an improvement in tone and tunability.

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How the Spinet Came to Be. The 1920′s presented a rocky climate for piano manufacturers. There was a sudden decline in piano sales with the advent of passive household entertainment devices such as the phonograph and the radio. In 1927 when Atwater Kent and RCA simultaneously introduced radios that ran off of AC current, eliminating the need for wet cell batteries, the player piano company received a devastating blow. Also, the automobile was taking everyone out of the house for fun and fresh air. This was the death knell for the piano as the principal household entertainment unit. By 1929 player pianos sales totaled only 2,100 units, an astronomical drop from the annual 200,000 pianos sold in 1919.

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The depression kicked in, closing many of the famous piano manufacturers’ doors. Piano makers struggled for ways to keep afloat amid a bankrupt economy. In 1935, a modest revival of the piano began with the advent of the spinet. The Haddorff piano company of Rockford, Illinois, introduced the first 36″ spinet piano with a drop action. The low design was hailed as “the epitome of modern styling.” Baldwin also introduced the Acrosonic spinet piano around this time. A large segment of the population in the U.S. lived in small apartments. The compact spinet, with its economical price, was more suitable for tiny quarters and smaller budgets than a large bulky upright. The attractive furniture style, with straight modern lines, also appealed to the newer aesthetic. Even in larger homes, uprights and players, now considered old fashioned, were replaced by their smaller counterparts.

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U.S. hopes of avoiding World War II were shattered with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Days later Hitler declared war on the U.S. President Roosevelt issued an executive order suspending all civilian production, and like all other non-defense related production the music industry was effectively shut down for the four-year duration of the war. Piano makers began producing for the U.S. military. Steinway, Baldwin, Kimball and Wurlitzer made wing components for a variety of military aircraft.

The war ended in August of 1945 when atom bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima; however it took an additional two years before the production of civilian goods returned to pre-war levels. There were severe shortages of material goods as well as government regulations nearly impossible to navigate.

The 1950′s represented the last decade when the total superiority of U.S. music manufacturers was accepted as a basic matter of fact. In the 1960′s there was a huge onslaught of stiff import competition. Also, the popularity of the guitar took over the world. The quality of American goods plummeted.

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Our Spinets. The early spinets, such as The Acrosonic piano, made by the house of Baldwin, had whimsical case designs and were good instruments. But their quality and design ethics declined after WWII, especially with the use of plastic action parts. The spinet remains popular among the public, however piano technicians and tuners have a different view. Spinets are difficult to service because even the smallest repair requiring removal of the action becomes a fretting and fuming elongated task. Eighty-eight connecting rods need to be disconnected and tied up, then all of the keys have to be removed before the action can be lifted out and repaired. Also, they are very hard to tune. For this reason only a select few of the early spinets make it inside the doors of the Immortal Piano Company.

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