The William Geib Square Piano (c. 1831)
While Maria Park’s music was being printed by Longman & Broderip in London so, too, was John Geib Sr. building square pianos for the same company. After immigrating to America in 1797, the Geib family became one of the most prestigious piano-making firms. William Geib (1793-1860) began selling pianos under his own name in 1827 and won premiums for his instruments at each of the annual American Fairs in New York City between 1829-1831. The square piano used for this recording, serial number 6714, was meticulously restored in 2013 by Thomas Strange of South Carolina for Patrick Hawkins. It has six octaves and is tuned in equal temperament at A=421. The square contains no metal frame and is built in the same manner as English double-action instruments of the Regency era. Restoring an 1831 William Geib Square Piano Thomas Strange Four years ago a William Geib square piano, the property of Warner Brothers Studio in CA, was de-accessioned and acquired by an individual intent on restoring it. As it was in extremely poor condition at that time (since restored) other similar Geib pianos were sought out for needed examples of decoration and lettering, and the piano described here was found in New York and owned by Ed Swenson, a noted restorer himself. It was during this discovery phase then that I first became acquainted with this William Geib square (serial number 6714), circa 1831. This piano was not then playing but was in extremely good original condition, with all but two strings still original, the dust board (shade) still with the piano, and having all but four of the original hammers. The keyboard was also very nice and the entire piano unusually clean for having sat for many decades and without having ever been deeply cleaned or disturbed. The finish was original and largely intact, although some blistering and minor veneer loss had occurred in local spots. The piano then independently came to the attention of Patrick Hawkins as he cast about for a suitable early piano appropriate to a wide range of music, and I was able to encourage Patrick to acquire this one, based on what I had learned from the former Warner Brother’s instrument which was a near twin (SN 6770). A Short History William Geib (b. 1793, d. 1860) was the youngest son of John Geib Sr., who had made his reputation as a large London piano maker in the last quarter of the 18th C. A full history of John Geib Sr. in London can be found in the literature as written by this author with Jenny Nex . Geib had been highly successful as a provider of square and grand pianos to Longman & Broderip in London, but following their collapse when the French Revolution strangled their export business, he brought his family to America to settle in New York in September 1797, and rapidly established the organ and piano manufacturing firm that would survive for the next 6 decades, and flourish through the period of stewardship under William. Piano production was begun in earnest by John Geib and his oldest son John Jr. in 1800, where the firm produced 60 to 90 pianos per year, selling for between $200 and $400 each. William later performed a number of various duties for the family while still in his early 20s, including resolving a business failure in Lexington KY and handling a large land sale. John Jr. took over the business in 1815 when his father retired, and partnered with his twin brother Adam from 1816 to 1818, when William then joined as a partner, the firm then being styled as J, A, & W Geib. John Jr. died unexpectedly in 1821 and Adam continued as a partner with William until December 1827, after which William took full control of manufacturing the pianos and Adam took control of the music store. William remained conservative in his approach to building pianos, but not so inflexible as the earlier partnerships had proven, relocating the tuning pins to the rear of the piano, introducing the iron string plate to free up soundboard area, and continuing to offer pianos in extravagant styling as well as more straightforward plain designs. He operated the firm under his own name from 1828 until sometime in 1834, with the years of 1829 to 1832 among the highest production volumes the firm ever saw in America, but after which he began to disengage from the business, preferring to spend his time studying homeopathic medicine. By 1838 he had moved to Philadelphia to become a doctor (at age 45!) and although he returned to briefly selling pianos on the side later in life, he never engaged in building them again. He wrote a number of popular tunes of the day, was well published in his particular field of medicine, and was financially well off when he died in 1860. The 6714 piano was bought by the Stark family in New York where it remained until perhaps ten years ago, as described by Ed Swenson: Dear Patrick, Here is a photo of the Geib piano in situ at the house where it was located since its original purchase. You can have the photo. It was owned by the Stark family in Stark, NY. Here is some contradictory information about the Stark family. On the back of the photograph there is the following comment: Mr. Stark built a church in Seneca Falls (NY--only a short drive from here.) From the Internet: Javez Hough Stark, Pioneer Built 1St Presbyterian Church, Seneca Falls, 1807. Came Here 1821; Built House Across Canal 1823-5. Stark, Town in New York: Stark is a town in Herkimer County, New York, United States. The population was 757 at the 2010 census. The town was named after a Revolutionary War General named John Stark. The Town of Stark is in the eastern part of Herkimer County. As I recall, I bought the piano in Stark, N Y. Best wishes, Ed The Restoration As we knew, the hammer hinges on this Geib had failed and Swenson had replaced them but had not returned the hammers to the hammer rack. It therefore arrived in ‘kit’ form, and with a few surprises still to be addressed. The most suitable leather for hammer and action hinges is one that has no stretch, but is still flexible such that it bends without effort but resists any forward or lateral movement. The piano makers specified this sort of leather more and more strongly as the square piano developed, and tanning techniques were scaled up to meet demand, such that the leather that was produced was thin and ultimately brittle, and often failed within a few decades of manufacture. Geib 6714 had already had one campaign of hammer hinge replacement (only) and these second hinges had failed as well, such that this third set was required. Today, better tanning techniques are available and hinges might be expected to last much longer. Indeed, the early Broadwood pianos from the 1780s are frequently found in good original working order, demonstrating that a hinge might last two centuries or more if made correctly. The action of the William Geib is almost unchanged from the pianos made by the Geibs in the first decade of the 19th C, and features a unique claw or ‘C’ shaped key lever end, which acts to draw the damper to the string by use of the key lever weight alone. This gives a very light touch, but is a bit fiddly to adjust compared to the Broadwood approach of a weighted damper lever. The first task was to remove the action frame from the case and evaluate the rest of the action parts. Not unexpectedly, the under lever hinges were also brittle, as well as the damper lever hinges, and all must be replaced. The jack hinges are parchment, very stiff and very long lasting, and only one jack hinge was broken, probably by mishandling at some distant point. Jacks have limited travel and remain quite stiff, so vellum is used there but nowhere else. Four of the hammers were bad replacements; four new hammer shanks and heads were made for the piano to the same specifications as their neighbors. Once the hinge area is fully wetted (about 6 hours) it can easily be disassembled and the parts set aside. The is the main shank, and a lower slip of mahogany, that form a sandwich around the hinge and keep it supported such that only a thin line of leather ever shows to the outside. The shank must be free to pivot, but only just, so we work to keep this joint as nearly perfect as possible. In addition to replacing the hinges, the butt of the under leaver action leather had been rubbed by the Jack during play for many decades, and in the middle 4 octave it was badly worn. The alignment of the hammers and under levers of these pianos is precise to about 0.5 mm tolerance, and the makers had a template that aligned the parts as they built the action. We can avoid a time consuming and one-time-use template by removing the hammers at strategic points first, so we can then fill in the gaps without having to insert and draw out the action for every hammer. On the under levers and dampers, we work by removing and replacing every other one, so that the neighbors provide continuous alignment of our work. If a careful job is done, the action then comes together very neatly, and further adjustment is not too problematic. For this piano, we decided not to replace the hammer coverings, but have worked to reduce the grooving in the leather and plump it back up for service. There are always two minds on this which are easy to understand; the original leather is not at all in the condition it was in when it was new, though it may be serviceable still, and new leather is not the same animal as the original leather so whatever sound it makes cannot be considered as fully authentic either. The resolution of the paradox is the ear. Notes that are bright and melodic without any harshness are probably in line with what was sought originally. Harsh or thudding notes are not. The piano was making rather nice music as it stood, so wholesale replacement of the leather coverings was not advised. This piano also had most of its original strings. Again we know that wire and particularly brass becomes more crystalline and stress work hardened with time, and so alters the sound a little. New wire is not the same metallurgy at all, so it is not any closer to authentic. Two brass wires had been replaced with iron and this mistake from the past was reversed with Rose English Brass wire of the correct diameter. The Finished Instrument The completed instrument was ready for delivery about 2 months after it arrived. As my primary job is distinct from this work, the interval reflects perhaps 100 Hours of effort to bring this piano back. A more complete restoration of a poor condition piano takes many hundreds of hours, and for this reason the cost of restoration is quite high. The case finish issues were attended to in as light a manner as possible. Old wax and oil restorer finish was removed, and where needed, a high quality Tung oil was substituted. The missing veneer bits were cut to shape and matched back in as seamlessly as possible. The legs were cleaned and the finish consolidated and the entire instrument given a light microcrystalline wax final finish. There is a slight warp in the instrument, as with almost all early square pianos, but this does not affect play or stability and was left alone as intervention is usually unsuccessful.