Phoenix Pianos introduces 3D-printed hammer assembly9:21, 2nd August 2019
Phoenix Pianos, pioneering UK piano manufacturer, has developed a 3D-printed hammer assembly which aims to solve the problems traditionally associated with this piece of equipment. Owen Mortimer visited Phoenix’s workshop to find out more
Deep in the Kent countryside, near Sevenoaks at the edge of the North Downs, a quiet revolution in piano design is taking place. Hurstwood Farm, which doubles as a commercial producer of hazelnuts, has been home to Phoenix Pianos since 2005. Both enterprises are the brainchild of engineer and inventor extraordinaire Richard Dain.
Dain’s engineering career encompassed a wide range of innovations, ranging from road transport refrigeration units, gas turbines and chemical refineries to reforming furnaces, fertiliser plants and grape harvesters. His work on rail traction led to developments still in use today – including the widespread intercity HS225.
Dain is an accomplished pianist but had let playing fall by the wayside until he ‘retired’ – a term he eschews. With more time to focus on practising, however, he quickly became obsessed with piano design and construction. Phoenix was born out of Dain’s dual passions for music and engineering and has already produced a series of ground-breaking innovations: ultra-thin carbon fibre and Kevlar soundboards, bridge agraffes that transfer sound energy from the string to the soundboard with almost doubled efficiency, and use of climate-resistant materials.
The company’s latest new product is a 3D-printed hammer assembly that seeks to solve many of the problems traditionally associated with this delicate piece of equipment. Typical issues include warping and bending of the hammer shanks, causing irregular strikes and unpleasant overtones, and looseness in the hinged hammer flange, resulting in rattling and loss of control.
Dain’s solution is a complex-weave carbon fibre shank to replace traditional hornbeam wood, plus a new hinge unit made from robust ‘tribopolymer’ material that will not work loose over time. Dubbed the D3D Hammer System, it offers all the advantages of a traditional system in prime condition, as well as climate resistance and enormous longevity. ‘Indeed, we expect these assemblies may well exceed the lifespan of the piano itself,’ says Dain.
A further innovation in the new assembly is the use of roller bearings as centre pins for the hinged flange. Dain explains: ‘These ultra-high-grade pins offer buttery-smooth operation, and with approximately a 30 percent increased diameter, are stronger, smoother and more dimensionally precise than traditional wire centre pins.’
A prototype of the D3D Hammer System has already been fitted to a Phoenix test piano. The result is a much greater sense of control and immediacy combined with pinpoint accurate hammer flight. Pianist James Bacon, who has helped to build the prototype, says the D3D action makes a big difference for performers: ‘Artists who have tried it say “it’s like stepping into a Ferrari after driving an Austin Seven”.’
Once acclimatised, pianists find that they can produce more power with less effort. The new assembly also fosters an unprecedented sense of connection with the instrument. ‘All of us on the Phoenix team are confident that we have not only remedied the age-old limitations of hammer assemblies, but that we have produced a world-beating system that is a joy for pianists to use,’ enthuses Dain.
This enthusiasm is echoed by the Russian pianist Anton Lyakhovsky, who has developed a close association with Phoenix Pianos and regularly visits Hurstwood Farm to test Dain’s inventions. ‘At first the D3D action feels strange because the keys are responsive,’ explains Lyakhovsky, ‘but once you’ve adjusted to it, the sound and consistency of tone are fantastic.’