Advice Needed - How can I make this instrument better?

I have a John Morley double manual harpsichord from 1969. 2x8 and 1x4. Built in London. I rescued it from a piano shop in Philadelphia USA a few years ago. I have no idea how it got to the US. It was unplayable, and missing parts. I managed to get it back into playing condition. The key leads (I never knew harpsichords had key leads) had “bloomed” and were rubbing. I shaved those off with a chisel, restrung it, repaired broken plectra, and replaced the dampers, which were moth eaten. I was able to play it, at least.

But then I had to put it in storage because of lack of room. I just got it out of storage today. I am retired, have lots of piano rebuilding experience, and would like to get this instrument back in reliable playing shape, and make it the best it can be. I will keep it for my own use.

I believe it has a laminated soundboard, but if so, I don’t mind. Anyone know if this is true?

The jacks are yellowish plastic, with heavy weights at the bottom. The weights screw into the jacks for adjustment, and many are corroded. I guess the heavy jacks match the heavy key leads?

There are three pedals to change registers. I hate these! There are heavy springs working against the pedals. So if you want to make a change, you must hold the pedal down with your foot.

And I have never been satisfied with the damper performance. I used piano key bushing felt. Is there a tutorial available (maybe youtube?) on replacing dampers?

Here is your chance to give free advice! Any suggestions are welcome, even if it is to cut my losses and start with a different instrument. I probably won’t do that though!

Questions:

  • Should I just try to get it back into original playing condition and live with its quirks?
  • Or can I make drastic changes - wooden jacks, drill out the key leads, eliminate the pedals?

Thanks for any help!
Sam in Georgia, USA

We have people far more expert than me on this forum, but here are a couple of thoughts waiting for more advices.
I’d say a new set of jacks is too much costly for your harpsichord. If they work, stay with them. By all means try and get the action lighter, it’s something you can do yourself. Take away the old leads from the keytails and shave under the keyheads to re-balance the keys.

You should be able to convert the register action from pedals to normal handstops, with some guidance I am sure you’ll find among the many supportive members of Jackrail.

Good luck!

Dom.

Hi Sam,

It’s a question of cost vs potential return.‎

I recently had a major rebuild done on my Hubbard kit instrument from the 1980s. These instruments are ‎structurally strong and can produce very good sound, so I was willing to spend money to get mine into the ‎best shape possible. I am enjoying it now and, when the time comes, it will continue to perform for a new ‎owner.‎

I know nothing about Morley harpsichords, but I’m sure there are people here with experience on them ‎who can advise you. If the design of these instruments is such that they produce only average sound (no ‎matter how carefully voiced) or if they are prone to structural failure, that will probably limit what you ‎want to invest in time and money. Or maybe there is a lot of potential in that instrument; we’ll see what ‎others can tell you.‎

Out of curiosity, I googled ‘Morley harpsichord’ and found that the company is still in business and offers ‎‎(among other services) upgrades to early models. While you probably don’t want to send yours to the UK, ‎you should be able to get advice and, if necessary, parts from them.‎

You didn’t say whether you restrung the harpsichord. If it still has its original strings, a new set would ‎probably be a worthwhile upgrade and not too expensive since you can do it yourself.‎ A lighter action would certainly be desirable. I’d say that if you don’t end up with an instrument you enjoy playing, because of the sound and/or the action, then it would be better to move on.

You can look at the listings on the Harpsichord Clearing House to get an idea of what your instrument might be worth and what it would cost to replace it with a more recent/better designed one. Let us know how this goes!‎

Sam,

I have never met a Morley harpsichord, though I have read praise for their clavichords. The woodwork is said to be good. The design is typical of the later 1950s – not closely based on historical models.

Wolfgang Zuckermann, in his book The Modern Harpsichord (1969), reported that the soundboards are birch plywood topped with pine veneer for looks and sprayed underneath with a white, waterproof paint. Like many instruments of the period the design follows the modern piano in being open at the bottom, and in the days when such were the standard harpsichords used for recordings, we used to place the microphone underneath, so as to get more sound and avoid action noise.

Zuckermann states that the plectra are leather – another departure from historical models, except for the peau de buffle of late French designs. Thus they will sound different from the harpsichords of yesteryear and today that use quill or delrin. The jacks are definitely a modern design, and it is not clear how one would delrin for leather in the plectra, or indeed replace the jacks with wooden ones. As fitted the jacks are part of a complete system that undoubtedly can be made to work: it is just not based on any historical practice.

As far as the lead weights in the keyboard are concerned, such are not necessarily a disaster. I have them in my Flemish Double and also had to file off the expanded oxide after 20 years. Damper material is easily obtained from suppliers. From the size and shape of the dampers, particularly their thickness, and the fact that they appear to be in a hole, rather than a slot, as estimated from Zuckermann’s photos, they look as if they would be inherently too stiff. But this is another design feature that is not easy to change. The heaviness of the jacks may also be necessary to make the leather plectra return.

Should I just try to get it back into original playing condition and live with its quirks?

This depends on whether you like the sound it makes, having worked on a couple of middle octaves.

Or can I make drastic changes - wooden jacks, drill out the key leads, eliminate the pedals?

If you want a project that will keep you busy for a long time. The pedals can probably be removed and the registration changed by other means. One possible major problem is finding suitable strings to replace those that are there.

Perhaps you are more interested in rebuilding and maintaining this instrument than in playing it. There is certainly a justification in doing this for historical purposes as there are probably not many of them around. But if your primary interest is in exploring the repertoire, I would advise you to look around for a second hand instrument based on historical models --such is a very different animal from what you have and by no means a dinosaur! Builders hear of instruments looking for good homes and can advise on quality. Anne Acker () comes to mind. She travels a lot, but has a workshop in Savannah, GA.

David

I have only worked on one Morley, a bent side spinet, but it seemed reasonably well made. Assuming the jacks are intact and will last (plastic that doesn’t become brittle and disintegrate), it would be best to make do with them. At this point, as far as I know, the only sources for plastic jacks are Instrument Workshop (fortepiano.com) and Zuckermann (zhi.net). If someone knows of others, I’d like to know. The jacks on the one I worked on were a yellowish plastic, and seemed fine. I’m attaching a photo.

I’m going to guess the keys are bushed, like piano keys. Hence, there will be a bit more friction than unbushed keys, which is one reason for all the lead. All you need is enough so the keys will return of their own weight (an alternate being to remove wood from the bottoms of the front side of the balance rail - typically done by making the bottom somewhat wedge shaped). Makers of the early and mid 20th century aimed for a heavier touch, to make it feel more natural to piano players. So feel free to remove however much lead will leave the key balanced so it will return.

As for the jack weights, that was also fairly common, done one way or another. As long as your registers are free, the jack doesn’t need extra mass to return, assuming your tongue return springs aren’t too strong (a common error), and the bottoms of the plectra are tapered and smooth. So you should be able to substitute a thin machine screw for whatever you have down there, unless it is also necessary to align the jack within the lower guide. The one I worked on didn’t have something heavy down there.

You say you have to hold down the pedals. Are you sure? Most of them either will catch when you depress them, or you need to depress and pivot to the left or right to make them catch, like practice pedals on upright pianos.

For the dampers, I’d need to see a picture of the design and how it is attached to the jack. It is important that they be just high enough to allow for the plectra to return under the string. But there are many variants of design. Piano key bushing cloth usually works well is slots that allow you to adjust how high the material is held. Harpsichord dampers, especially on double manuals, do not cut off sound as efficiently as grand piano dampers. There is some bleed through resonance. That’s a feature, not a defect. However, if it is a matter of a single string continuing to ring through, that should be a matter of fine adjustment.

it is absolutely most likely that the pedals shift to the side and then catch in a detente. You most likely should not have to hold them down.

One thing to remember is that this is a somewhat important instrument historically. As such, major changes will destroy original intent. Some maintenance replacements are expected, as long as done with appropriate materials, things as restringing with appropriate wire (be sure to measure all string lengths and determine the type of wire required…most of this period use stiff music wire), and replacing the leather plectra.
It is not true that leather was not used historically. Indeed, there are discussions about leather plectra and voicing amongst such luminaries as Francis Hopkinson and Thomas Jefferson. It was a choice at the time. I would try to replace the leather.

Now, one concern is that plastic jacks and tongues do become brittle with age. Indeed, that is the biggest concern. Great care may not be sufficient.

If you want a historically based instrument, acquire a different one. This will be what it was intended to be, a mirror back to the time it was made, provided major changes aren’t made.

My two cents, based on dealing with 200+ year old pianos that were mucked with in the early part of the 20th century by people thinking they were making improvements.

There is a place for these, people who will love having something for a very modest budget.

AA

Dear Sam

I’ve had a number of Morley instrument pass through my Sydney workshop, and worked on them throughout Australia as well as Hong Kong, Taipei, Muscat, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Morley are indeed still in business and pianos remain the mainstay of their work. I last visited them in London in November 2018. While they haven’t built any new early keyboards for several years, they are heavily involved in buying back their (prodigious) earlier production and restoring them to as new condition for sale at rather high prices:
About Early Keyboard Instruments

As these are heavily-built revival instruments, there is only so much you can expect from their touch and tone. As usual, the smaller instruments are more successful than the large models. Your best course is to make the instrument work as originally intended. There is little point in trying to remove the pedalwork. All the pedal should notch down in the ON position. There needs to be enough adjustment in the pedal transmission to enable this to happen. If they are not locking, in the first instance I would suspect the pedal rods have all been adjusted too long, restricting the total motion.

There is, however, some benefit in converting the leather plectra to Delrin to give a more reliable action. One of my videos shows the process using Morley’s own moulded snap-in Delrin, which fits perfectly into the square tongue mortise when that is vacated of its leather:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cp1HkCiz7gA&feature=channel

You say you have already restrung. For the benefit of other readers, these instruments were invariably strung in phosphor bronze and steel, using the modern piano technique of a single wire looping around a large diameter hitchpin and returning to provide the string for the next note. The bronze is often twisted and gives false beats, and of course, when any string breaks you actually lose two notes. (Anyone desiring the original stringing schedule for all the Morley instruments, please just ask me privately.)

I recently restrung one of their bentside spinets with individually looped Malcolm Rose wire to the tonal pleasure of the owner, but I suspect the Morley harpsichords are longer scaled so confined to steel in the treble.

As for dampers, the Morley plastic jacks used thick green piano action cloth, as Fred’s picture shows. Not obvious from the pic is that the jacks lack the usual damper slot, so the cloth has to be squeezed into the closed-top window provided in the jack.

The more recent Morleys used nice Swainson jacks which are of course a marked improvement on the heavy plastic jacks. But no matter what you do, the base instrument is revival-style with limited possibilities.

Regards

Carey

Thanks for all the replies! My plectra are plastic, not leather - I got replacements from Morley to replace the broken ones, so I have been in contact with them. I would post a photo of the jacks, but that doesn’t seem to work for me.

The keyboard is definitely piano style, with front and balance rail key bushings.

The pedals do not lock down - there is no notch and they cannot move side to side. I actually asked Morley about this some time ago, and they verified that I had to hold the pedal down.

I guess I will try to keep it original, and get it working as well as possible. I want something I can play everyday, solo and accompanying recorder. What I would like to avoid is something that is always in need of repair or adjustment - that may be too much to ask for!

Thanks again for all the advice.

Sam

Here are the jacks from my Morley. You can see the weights at the bottom. On some of the jacks the long threaded rods are corroded and frozen in place.

Sam

I presume that you have tried things like WD-40. If that doesnt work,
you may have to cut a bit off the end and glue a piece of card on for
fine adjustment.

By the way, you might find some damper material that is not three-ply
works better, even though you may have to double it up to stay in the hole.

Best wishes,

David

I would guess the bottom metal is more of a cylindrical cross section to fit cleanly in a round hole in the bottom guide, as opposed to being extra mass. Perhaps both at once. Applying heat can also help free frozen joints. Hold a soldering iron on it. Patience is key. Some kind of liquid (there are various brands and formulations for the purpose), applied repeatedly, heat, try to work in either direction, repeat. I’m guessing it’s the front 8’ jacks where that is the problem, with the retaining nuts.

Dear Sam

I guess your Morley has non-locking wooden pedals to match the casework, rather than the usually-seen revival metal pedals either on a lyre arrangement, or on the bottom stretcher of the front stand assembly?

It’s rather inconvenient to have pedals that you have to keep depressed to play, besides being contrary to a historic norm that Morley was trying to emulate.

For example, the simple machine stop pedal on my 1773 Kirckman single retracts the 4⁠´ then the front 8⁠´ in turn, but you must hold your left foot in the desired position. It was clearly usual practice to play with all three choirs on. For those musicians who didn’t keep their 4´ in decent tune, that register could be wedged OFF with a brass stylus tethered to the soundboard moulding, thereby defaulting to 2 x 8⁠´ and avoiding the need to keep the pedal depressed.

Of interest in your jack picture is the Lute jack on the left: This shows the usual Morley arrangement of the threaded brass rod which fits tightly in a corresponding hole in the keylever. The hexagonal plastic nut can be used to adjust the jack height. The jack being permanently attached to the key means that rather than relying on gravity to return, the key drags the jack down.

Regards

Carey