Piano Pliers

For many collectors, pliers are typically thought of as strictly utilitarian, sometimes rather crude, and not holding much value as compared with other vintage or antique tool categories. Exceptions to this would include pliers from the 18th century and earlier, or unusually interesting patented examples. Often, pliers are paired with wrenches in large quantities as lots in antique tool auctions. Higher-end antique tool auctions, such as Stanley or Brown, generally do not include pliers at all.

On the other hand, within the piano specialist’s user community, pliers have a rather elevated position, and some of today’s piano technicians will pay the $150 or more price tag for a specialized set of piano pliers, such as voicing pliers, either for needling or for compression. The various types of specialized pliers used within piano technology rivals that of earlier dentistry, in my opinion. Piano pliers are used for a wide range of tasks, from approximate and preliminary ones, to highly refined procedures.

Late 19th century duckbill pliers, made in Germany.

Late 19th century duckbill pliers, made in Germany.

Extensive use was made of standard pliers as well, such as needle nose, small flush cutter, duckbill, parallel duckbill, round nose, leather punch, and more recently, vise-grip types. Pincers were used for grand knuckle extraction, and gas and burner pliers were used for shank knurling. After WWII, a new crop of specialized piano pliers were introduced for the following purposes: dowel capstan adjustment, damper creasing, hammerfelt compression. and grand hammer extraction. Plier-type hammer extractors were introduced circa 1902 by Franklin Hoover, shown further down on this page, and other designs soon followed. Various grand extractor types became important tools as more grand hammer replacement jobs were performed after WWII, and productivity was essential.

Grand hammer extracting pliers, based on glazier’s glass breaking pliers. During the late 1990s, I was in search of an extractor that was hefty and would remove the old grand hammers quickly without damaging them. A number of local piano technicians got together, myself included, and paid a machine shop for a limited run of this tool. The result was a set of pliers that enabled efficiency with a minimum amount of damage to hammers or shanks, and was easier on the hands than some extractor designs made heretofore.

Grand hammers are drilled all the way through, and upright hammers are drilled approximately 7/8ths of the way through, so different types of extractors were used for vertical piano actions.

Hammerfelt compression pliers, modern example

Hammerfelt compression pliers, modern example

Unfamiliar today, these are upright bridle strap inserters. They reach behind the the hammer butt, hold and insert a bridle tack to attach the bridle tape underneath the catcher dowel, right behind the butt.

The tool on the right was made by Boston Tuner’s Outfit, not to be confused with Tuners Supply Company, Boston. Tuner’s Outfit was established by E. Herman Gumpright (German: Gumprecht), a tuner and piano-factory technician, sometime after 1910. Boston Tuner’s Outfit remained in business until the late 1920s, or the Great Depression, and by 1930, Gumprecht listed his profession as a private piano tuner.

Bridal strap inserting pliers, download version.

Bridal strap inserting pliers, download version.

Schley Co. 1905.

Music wire cutters. Starrett (bottom) and E. A. Berg of Sweden.

These pliers are still available today from Starrett. Starrett also makes a music wire gauge, and a portable bottle jack, used to support the pinblock when stringing grand pianos.

American Felt Co. 1911.

Close-up of Starrett engraving. This example was found in a tuner’s toolkit in Jonesport, Maine, in August, 1979:

Another example from the pianomaker Hornung estate in 1990:

Starrett factory. Starrett was established in 1880 and is mostly known for their measuring tools, especially micrometers.

Hall’s cutting nippers with close view of patents, May 1867 to Jan. 1890. These were commonly used by tuners in the late 19th century and it is obvious that the Starrett design, which came later, was derived to a significant extent from the design features of these early compound action pliers.

H. S. catalog, 1885. Before Utica took over production of the Hall’s pliers, they were made by the Interchangeable Tool Co. of New York, N.Y., which was connected to the Hall family. This was a reference to the interchangeability of the plier’s parts, a concept not fully taken for granted in the 1860s. Extra jaws were available, as they would sometimes break under very heavy compression. Screws would also work loose, and many of these are found with one or more replaced screws. I’ve cobbled together a few of these broken pliers, dealing with flying parts resulting from the strong internal butterfly spring. Experience has shown me that they are not fully interchangeable: a small amount of hand finishing was done to every set of pliers.

Key easing pliers, nickel plated. Lyon and Healy, on the top, with C.H. Lang swivel plate, and H. S. Co.:

C.H. Lang’s, showing patent.

H. S. and Co. 1903.

An early type of key easing pliers, similar to an illustration in Seiver’s “Il Pianoforte…” 1868. Box-joint design.

Combination parallel pliers and hammer head extractor, made in Germany. It was the first plier-type hammer extractor on the market, but I’ve never seen this tool in the catalogs. For uprights, but also works on grands. Parallel as far as piano pliers are concerned, means that the jaws are parallel at the width of a typical piano action part, such as a damper head or action flange. Inventor Franklin Hoover also authored two other patents in this website: the screw holder on the Miscellaneous page, and the voicing pliers on the Voicing Tools page.

Another multi-purpose tool. Parallel pliers, shank cutters, key spacer, and string coil lifter. Alfred Dolge, 1892:

Brown’s combination pliers.

This tool was sold by H. S. Co., Lyon and Healy, and Tuner’s Supply in the 1920s. At $7.50, these were expensive pliers indeed.

Lyon and Healy, 1926. I’ve been around the piano business long enough to see various ideas come and go. This looks like one of them. It’s because the notion of bending maple shanks cold makes me uncomfortable; I’m accustomed to using heat and steam. Brown’s combination pliers are a substantial and well made nickel plated tool, however.

Hale advertisement for their combination pliers in the Piano Technician’s Journal in 1986. Clearly, the writers of this ad were not very aware of their end readers, who would have been a mix of older technicians who entered the field shortly after WWII, and the first wave of baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1953. Many boomers entered the piano technology field between 1970 and 1975, and, as a group, were intent on raising the general standard of piano work within the profession. By 1986, many of these folks had become established, and were gaining entry into the closely held institutions, venues, and private work indicative of a burgeoning dominance within the piano technology field. Pulling off a “piano caper” would not have appealed, generally, to this emerging group of boomers, but was more in line with the orientation of some of the older technicians, certainly not all of them however.

The upright and grand hammer extractor functions worked pretty well on this tool. The knuckle and centerpin extraction functions never gained much traction. Not having tried the centerpin function, but being familiar with the other functions, I’d think that the centerpin function would not be sufficiently precise. This multi-pliers design, developed by Hale, is still available from Baumgaertel in Germany and from piano suppliers in China.

Wire bending pliers, both Erlandsen-made. Bottom one is H.S. Co, this model was available in three different bending sweeps. Apparently, the choice was important to piano workers at the time; to my knowledge, no current piano supply company offers several sweeps within one set of pliers. Stock number 24 B1 was the least sharp bend in the 1903 catalog.

From American Felt Co. 1911.

A group of standard production pliers, all made in upstate, Western tier, New York, which have been skillfully modified for specialized piano work applications, most likely in the 1930s:

  • Bridle tape inserter.
  • Altered needle nose–for contact at tip.  Profile similar to modern felt compression pliers.
  • Center-pin extractor (lacking parallel action).
  • Key-easing pliers.

Close-up of bridle-tape inserter.

Close-up of a center-pin extractor, based on Bernard compound action parallel pliers, with May 6, 1890 patent:

English version of a center pin extractor, based on Wynn Timmins pliers.

Boston Tuner’s Outfit hammershank bending pliers. Pliers would be heated with an alcohol lamp, sometimes with a wet rag added to create steam, and then clamped onto a hammershank and moved to correct hammer positioning.

Hammershank tongs. H. S. Co. 1903.

Expanding pliers. Used for the kapsels in Viennese piano actions. Alfred Dolge, 1892.

Original kapsel pliers.

It was not unusual to have custom tools made.

These are customized tools, maybe having to do with music wire, but that is just a guess (as of 05/2010); I found these pliers along with other piano tools. Close-ups of the jaws of the three mystery pliers.

Some dental extraction pliers have similar handles to the pliers on the left (above), and on the left (below), so these pliers may have been based on a set of them. The round jaw has a groove or notch, and the jaws do not touch when the pliers are closed. I’ve seen these H.S. pliers, r. shown in other old piano tool kits.
UPDATE (11/2011): the H.S. pliers were made for spreading the loops in bridal wires to allow for easier installation and removal of the the bridal tape tips. Thanks to Joseph Garrett for this information.

Here is a patent for another bridal wire spreader:

H. S. Catalogue, 1925.

“Patent applied for”—Hammershank cutter, screwdriver blade at end of grip, and grooved jaw extensions.

After some consideration (03/2015), these appear to be bridal wire pliers, as the angled jaw extensions have a groove perfectly sized for the diameter of these wires. Plier position for illustration purposes only; lining up or straightening the bridal wires would be done at the base of the wire, near the wippen.

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