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 the David Stanley U.K. (before 2017) or Brown International, 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.
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.
The tool on the right was made by Boston Tuner’s Outfit, not to be confused with Tuners Supply Company, in Somerville, MA. Boston Tuners’ Outfit was established by Charles P. Dolan circa 1904. Dolan did more than approximately copy the name Tuners Supply; he made some of his tuning tools with removable tips, very similar those made by Hale. E. Herman Gumpright (1865-1933) German: Gumprecht), a tuner and piano-factory technician, bought Boston Tuners’ Outlet from Charles P. Dolan in 1913. Gumpright continued to run Boston Tuner’s Outfit until 1928, and by 1930, Gumprecht listed his profession as a private piano tuner.
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.
Starrett tools that are presently used by some piano technicians include various micrometers, jeweler’s screwdriver, No. 280 Music Wire Gauge, pin vise for action center pin fitting, and portable bottle jack for supporting wrestplank when hammering tuning pins.
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 pliers’ 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.
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 an early plier-type hammer extractor on the market, but this tool was not often offered 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.
Julius N. Brown applied to patent his Multi-Pliers in 1903, and was granted a patent for them on 1 January, 1907. Brown’s Multi-Pliers were popular with piano technicians from c. 1910 to 1930, but they are not in use today.
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; using heat and steam to bend wood is more standard practice. Brown’s combination pliers are a substantial and well made nickel plated tool, however.
Julius N. Brown developed, produced, and sold a number of tools, which are described here. His Multi-Pliers were a big seller.
Because $7.50 for a set of Multi-pliers was a lot of money in the early 1920s, a number of piano tuners asked Julius Brown to make pliers specialized for bending hammershanks cold, only–at a lower price. In 1924, Brown consented, and made a simplified version of his pliers for $3.75. I will leave it to you to assess how Julius felt about this, based on his salutation in this advertisement.
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.
Frankly, I was surprised to learn that Hale plier-type hammer extracting tool shown below was developed as early as circa 1948-1950.
The upright and grand hammer extractor functions worked pretty well on this tool. The knuckle and center pin extraction functions never gained much traction. Not having tried the center pin function, but being familiar with the other functions, I’d think that the center pin 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.
H.S. 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 84 B1 was the least sharp bend in the 1903 catalog.
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.
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.
Some dental extraction pliers have similar handles to the pliers on the left (above), and directly on the left, 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. 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.
After some consideration, 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.