String breaking

I have a question that is not primarily related to Grimaldi stringing but has the similartiy of braking strings.
I have a 1973 Hubbard Taskin (kit # 625) which came with all the required strings. Lately, after about 45 years I have experienced some brass string failures in the base (0.014 inch dia = 0.35 mm). What really got my attention with the wire, that I believe is still from that time, was that in the final phase of winding the end loops—where Frank Hubbard had taught to end with a closely helical set of about 3 tight turns— I could never get past one turn before the string broke at that location. At the construction-time of the instrument, I never experienced any of that difficulty, which made me ask whether age has caused the brass to embrittle. Strings are highly drawn/workhardened with a fine-grained microstructure; however I know nothing about the stability of this microstructure over long periods of time. Recrystallization is a common occurrence in many metals. I have inquired from a material science colleague (Caltech, I have an aero-engineering background) but the Virus has crimped the communications channels, so there is no answer from that angle, yet.
I just thought it would be useful in the meantime to ask about ageing experience by knowledgeable builders before running into an experiment with purchasing all new brass strings for my instrument.
I am a newcomer: WGK

I don’t know too much about the metallurgy of brass instrument wire, but practice and experience says that it does tend to go ‘off’ after 20 to 30 years. Apart from becoming more brittle, the tone seems to me to go somewhat dull. Generally a full restring is required after a couple of decades. For you to get 45 years is pretty good mileage.

You could experiment by buying a reel of one gauge and fitting a few strings. I am sure you would hear a large improvement in tone. Then you can decide to do the lot.

I have no doubt that brass wire changes with time. Perhaps internal stresses relieve after decades. Many possible mechanisms. Although this is not a pipe organ forum, I am pretty sure I have read that metal organ pipes change over the centuries in various metallurgical ways - and sound better for it!

Dear Andrew. I am not sure about the conduct in your organization. I assume it is far from informal, so that I may address members by the first name. A few things I have to learn even if I am not that good at surfing web sites.

Thank you very much for your reply. (1) When I started typing my message a message came up that seemed not to like my starting a new topic and “sent me” to the Grimaldi one as being similar. That is how I got there. Sorry.

But also thank you for your input to the aging question. I was sure there was a time scale for aging, but I had no idea of its length. I would have thought that it was a bit longer, but nothing beats experience (professionally I was an experimentist). After your first message I had already started to develop a replacement scheme, similar to what you suggested. I’d hate to do all of them at once at my age. With Hubbard gone where would the best supplier be inthronisiert US, would you know?

Dear Andrew.

Only an apology about the gobble-de-goog at the end of my previous message. My cell phone (and now my new computer) make funny unauthorized changes that I do not understand.


Each maker has their own personal and usually strong preferences about wire. I’d say the best iron wire is the so called P-wire from Dr Steven Birkett. He is a professor of metallurgy and has spent more than 30 years researching old music wire, and has determined that it appears much of the 18c iron had high levels of phosphorus in it - an element steelmakers since the 19c have gone to great lengths to remove. Birkett has set up to make and sell P-wire himself, a one man part time thing. It’s the finest sound I have ever heard. But his operation is not a commercial business, He is unresponsive to emails most of the time, and I have a suspicion he only sells wire to certain people he likes or knows. As said, sadly, not a commercial business. It’s a pity because there is nothing like it. He has also been working on brass, about which I know little, but select makers and customers have some pre-release samples and say it is also wonderful, but I don’t know what makes it so, as it is not related to the phosphorus content, which is only pertinent to iron.

David Pickett on this group has wire from Birkett, and seems to be among the favoured few, so you could contact him to see how to obtain this wonderful wire.

Zuckermann Harpsichords have music wire that is pretty nice actually, and no problems with commercial arrangements. I know a lot of people disparage Zuckerman but our experience with the wire is nice. Many people are happy with Rose wire from Malcolm Rose. Then there is wire from Marc Vogel, but I have never used it. They seem very savvy about the metallurgical properties of the brass and iron. Finally, as for brass, the Little Falls company in America makes brass wire that is, I think. universally regarded as excellent, and various people selling brass wire seem to source it from them.

This is a hot topic amongst makers. You will get a lot of replies!

I agree with Andrew: we all have our preferences concerning wire. Personally, I don’t like the Zuckermann iron: they do have a bright tone but after a while the buzz they have is somewhat tiresome. Most of my stringing has been done using Rose wire (red/yellow brass & iron). Occasionally I’ve used steel wire on harpsichords which were of good quality but unfortunately had a scaling which was too long for iron.

Apparently, I’m the lucky one as this week I’ve received a batch of P-wire (including yellow brass) to restring a Grimaldi. I don’t think Mr. Birkett has preferences concerning his customers, he’s just too busy teaching/publishing which impacts his wire production and of course the Corona virus had a huge impact on production also. I think he should hire someone to help him with setting up a decent shop.

At the other side of the pond: Vogel also sells different kinds of wire. I must admit that I don’t have much experience with these. Recently I bought some diameters of Stolberg yellow brass as this brass can withstand more tension than Rose/P-wire. They also sell other kinds of wire and they have no problem sharing the physical properties of these so that one can calculate if this kind of string can withstand a certain tension.

I know some makers have used Microfil wire but this is a commercial wire with no intention of being made for musical instruments. Also, I heard they no longer sell it in reels of 50 m: one has to buy quite a large batch of the same diameter. For me this is a dead end.

What I dislike most are bronze strings: they produce a dull tone and have no projection. As far as I know, no historical harpsichord has ever been strung with this material.

This is indeed a can of worms. Anyway, at the end of day we are stuck with an instrument which needs strings and we have to choose the ones that have the best characteristics for the job.



P Wire refers only to Stephen Birkett’s iron wire. I think he himself named it thus; but so far there is no equivalent name for his brass wire. So we should for the time being refer to this as Birkett Brass, and not P wire. I believe that the historical features of BIrkett Brass are a function of the drawing and annealing process that he uses: they certainly have nothing to do with phosphorous, which is where the P in P Wire comes from.

As to why Stephen’s wire is not readily available, this is not down to whether he likes you or not; but a question of him not devoting himself full time to making and supplying it. It is devoutly to be hoped that he will get organised so that it can be easily obtained. For the time being, the only thing to do is to write to him, telling him what you need, and trust that he will respond when he is able. It may even be that a large number of enquiries will convince him of the worth of establishing a way of supplying the wire that will not prevent him from leading a normal life.

My own instruments were initially strung with ZHI iron and brass. The iron is galvanised with a coating of zinc to prevent corrosion. [Correction: my memory was at fault here. As Carey points out below, ZHI iron wire is tinned, not galvanised.] This is not an historical process, but it has advantages for those living in inhospitable parts of the world. I do not know whether it is this covering of zinc that affects the tone, but when I changed to Rose A wire I preferred the sound. Now 20 years on, I have restrung with P Wire and find it even better. I had changed the ZHI Brass to Lutz Brass. This was produced by Little Falls Alloys in New Jersey , and I concur with others that it is good, but find that Birkett Brass, with which I have now restrung my Italian and the bass of my Flemish instruments sounds better to me. It appears that this may be due to less inharmonicity.

I often think that the search for the perfect wire is akin to the search for the holy grail – a bit like the phenomenon of players of modern instruments, many of whom seem to believe that getting the right make of string on their instrument, or having the right bow will perform wonders that practice cannot achieve. I stuck with Rose Iron and ZHI Brass for over 20 years, and changed it because it sounded tired, and because some of the brass loops were unwinding themselves after such a long time. Restringing five registers, as I did, is not a trivial task; but it was worth the effort. I am satisfied with what I have, although I believe that Stephen may continue to make incremental improvements to his manfacturing processes.


Dear All

There are a few things I’d like to contribute to this interesting discussion:

  1. Wolfgang related his difficulty of finishing the normal hitchpin loop with its several close turns around the core, because his old brass wire seemed to have turned fragile and would break at that point. There are two things to consider trying before splashing out on new replacement wire. Firstly, to preserve matching appearance of your existing strings, just anneal the area of wire you are twisting. A few seconds in the flame of a cigarette lighter—or even a candle—will do this. Otherwise, you could try Broadwood loops, where instead of close turns around the core, the termination arches back on itself in a broad “S”. It’s quite handsome when well done, and has less possibility of damaging the wire at that point. One of my videos discusses this:
    CBH Winding a string loop IV — Broadwood loop - YouTube

  2. I think Chris is probably correct that no historic instruments were originally strung with phosphor bronze. (Wasn’t it only available from early C19th?) I would describe the sound from bronze as fizzy rather than dull. It has been useful for instruments which are scaled too long for brass, but it’s hardly been used in the bass since the mid-1980s when red brass became better available.

  3. We should be careful about making immediate sound judgement of a newly-fitted string. Beware the Köster effect, described by Goodway & Odell. This is the well-known phenomenon of the sound brightening after a string has been fitted. They observed that some weeks or even months should be allowed for soft materials like brass to reveal their final sound. It’s much quicker—perhaps an hour or less—for stiff wire like steel.

  4. Finally, to delay corrosion, ZHI iron is tinned, rather than zinc plated. I would agree with David this wire does have a brighter tone than Rose or P-wire. It’s been produced since the mid-1970s, but in the early 1980s, the half sizes were done away with, and a softer drawing retained for whole sizes. The ZHI brass actually comes from Little Falls, along with the Lutz brass. I’m not aware of any difference in the drawing.



I’m glad to see the string discussion. At some point in the next couple of years I plan to restring my 5 octave Italian (expanded to GG g"’ from the anonymous GG c"’ in the Smithsonian). I made it in 1980 and used Lutz/Little Falls brass. BTW, this is the last instrument I completed, giving up on a harpsichord making career after 6 instruments.

It seems this brass is still a well respected wire, and I don’t think I’m likely to ever see any Birkett wire, so my question is: is it reasonable to assume that replacing 40 year old strings with the same thing is worth the trouble? This would also be an opportunity to deal with a couple of side bearing issues I never fixed.

Here is the harpsichord I am talking about.

Hi Philip, lovely instrument up there in the organ loft (a big advantage of Italians - you can get 'em up stairs).

On the one had you could say regarding stringing it it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but I feel in relation to harpsichords that brass due to whatever profoundly interesting metallurgical consideration in music wire under tension for decades just starts to sound sub optimal. Like Wolfgang your strings are forty years old. I am confident that a complete restring in new brass would add a new layer of zing to the instrument. i think Italians are all about zing!

I’ll mention that many electric guitarists change a new set of strings every gig. But they have a slightly different use case to us. I’ll also mention that I have met guitarists who swear by the string set they put on in 1970 and they are not coming off (in all seriousness!).

Apologies! Carey is indeed correct and I should have checked. It was my fault for quoting from a faulty memory. No excuse, except to say that I believe I am in good company with Donald F.Tovey, who was in the habit of dictating his essays and occasionally falling into the same trap.

I have edited my post above.


Let’s move the wire discussion to the new category Materials I have created for the purpose.