Overview of the Ivory Application Process
In 1798 Phineas Pratt, a clockmaker, invented a saw for cutting elephant tusk. It was originally powered by hand, then by wind, and finally by water. This new invention was initially used for sawing ivory into combs and utensils, which was a flourishing business at the time. It also gave Americans an edge over the more experienced British comb makers. In the present day Ivoryton and Deep River Connecticut, numerous ivory cutting shops opened up around the business potential that Pratt's new saw had created. They produced ivory combs, cutlery handles, letter openers, erasable reminder sheets, business cards, toothpicks, billiard balls and many more items to numerous to list. The ivory scraps were sold to printers whom in turn burned it and used the ashes in their ink and ivory dust was sought after as a prized fertilizer.
The major players in the ivory working trade of that time were Phineas Pratt and George Read, they formed Pratt & Read, while Samuel Comstock and George Cheney formed Comstock, Cheney & Co. These newly formed companies were fiercely competitive in the art of cutting tusk into thin wafers which were glued onto wood, usually sugar pine or basswood, and cut into piano and organ keyboards. From the mid 1850s on, their businesses prospered as a result of the booming piano market, and they nearly eliminated their competitors. The ivory tusk was shipped from Zanzibar Africa via ports in Salem, Mass., and New York then hauled by horse drawn wagons to the factories.
Once the ivory tusk was in the factories, they had to be worked into the shape of keytops. This process was a closely guarded secret then and still is today. Briefly stated, the tusk was cut into sections just over four inches long, it was then studied to determine where cuts should be made to yield the most product. Once the sections were cut, it was sliced into thin veneers about 1/16th of an inch thick. The ivory was then further reduced to ivory heads, tails or fronts. This process required a series of different saw blades that were cooled with water to prevent scoring of the ivory. The ivory then went on to be bleached (originally with kerosene and later with hydrogen peroxide) and then dried out in large bleaching sheds similar to a modern greenhouse until the desired moisture level and color was acquired. The ivory was then matched for grain and glued onto keyboard blanks. The ivory was applied using hot Hide glue and a white linen wafer; this gave the ivory a white uniform appearance. The keyboard blank was then cut into individual keys, sharps were applied, and the ivory was trimmed, shaped and buffed.
Celluloid (an early form of plastic) was offered by Pratt & Read as an alternative to ivory on keytops as early as 1892 but it was considered inferior to ivory and its use was initially limited to the "fronts" of some keys and as keytops on lower priced pianos. Ivory keyboards from a production standpoint ended in the 1950s. Plastics such as implex, pyralin, celluloid and acrylics were now used regularly and ivory tops were still available by request. In the 1960s Frank Stopa (Ct. Chapter) took over as the head of the keyboard department at Pratt & Read. At this point in time Pratt & Read and Comstock, Cheney & Co. had merged their businesses and Peter Comstock presided. Frank was shown the ivory and plastic application process and had a part in refining this process to make it more efficient with modern techniques. Frank was amazed that nothing of the ivory application process was written down; it was a closely guarded secret and passed down by apprenticeship only. After many successful years at keyboard fabrication Pratt & Read closed its doors. Frank was fortunate enough to acquire all of the tooling required to continue covering keyboards on his own, and he did, until the late 1980s.
I had the good fortune of being introduced to Frank Stopa by Jim Birch (RPT, Ct. Chapter). By this time I had "paid my dues" with years of recovering keyboards with plastic and ivory restoration. Frank and I "hit it off well" and he selflessly passed down his valuable secrets and allowed me to acquire his original Pratt & Read tooling for a mere fraction of its value. Included in the original tooling was an ivory planer for surfacing the ivory, an ivory jointer for making the scarf joint on two-piece ivory tops, an ivory clamping fixture for aligning and setting the ivory properly, a mortising machine for making buttons, and several trimming jigs for shaping the ivory. Armed with this new priceless equipment and knowledge, I like Frank at Pratt & Read, made this process more efficient by using my machinist's background and modern milling machines and techniques.
In my search for a reliable source of ivory for application, I ran into David Warther of David Warther Carvings in Dover, Ohio. David is a fifth generation carver of Swiss heritage. David has dedicated his life to intricate museum quality carvings and to supplying African elephant ivory, Ancient Wooly Mammoth ivory and cattle bone to piano and organ builders and rebuilders. After meeting with David, and many in depth conversations with him I came to realize that he has done much research on ivory. David is legally buying ivory in accordance to the strict guidelines set by the U.S. Government and is cutting, bleaching, matching and reselling this ivory in the same manner and quality as was available at the turn of the century. I buy from David exclusively.
My goal as a businessman and professional is to offer the highest quality restoration services available. In addition to offering ivory and bone application, I offer one-piece plastic tops and two-piece custom plastic tops. The custom tops are separate tops and fronts designed for pianos that require a high level of quality without the expense of ivory. Many rebuilders have found a new ivory keyboard or a custom plastic set to be a value added option in selling fine pianos.
Some of the services I have tooled up for are front and balance rail pin replacement and inserts, mortise replacement for sharps and naturals, button fabrication and replacement, key build-up to include fronts, sides and tops, broken key repair, bushings in cloth and leather and I'm one of the few craftsman to replace balance holes using the David Snyder (RPT Pa. Chapter) method. This method of replacing balance holes takes into consideration all factors such as, where the hole was originally; front to back and side to side, and the angle it should be drilled at.
Few key working machines are available, this in a sense has forced me to build many of my own fixtures and I have adapted them for use on modern milling machines with astounding tolerances of plus or minus one-thousandth of an inch. I have resurrected many keyboards by replacing tops, fronts, buttons, mortises, pins and all associated cloth. I have found this is a significant savings to the technician and client when you consider the options. My door is always open to any questions the technician or client may have.Mike Morvan Blackstone Valley Piano
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