Detroit Pianoworks

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In a bar, at noon, just outside of Detroit would probably be the last place you’d expect to hear two guys having a spirited conversation about Bach, piano keyboards, and CNC machines...but here we are.

I’m sitting next to Richard Cromwell, the owner of Detroit Pianoworks. Richard and his team are the only people in the Western Hemisphere who build custom piano keyboards, and the keys they create are played in homes, concert halls, and universities around the world. He is one of the last keymakers in the world, but if he's nervous about watching his trade march off the edge of the cliff to its demise, it doesn't show - he talks like someone who would grab some sticks and rocks on the way down and figure out how to make a parachute. 

“Steinway used to have an ad that said that a Steinway piano had 12,116 parts. If you think about it, 9,000 of those parts are all in the action. The action is the engine of the piano - it’s the keyboard and all the moving parts connected to it that enable a key to make a sound. If the soundboard is the heart of a piano, then the action is like the brain. You know what I mean? It’s a complex mechanical computer, in a way. It’s the engine, it’s the brain—and it’s also the most important thing because, as a player, that’s the tactile connection to yourself and the instrument,” he says. We’re shamelessly drinking before lunch as our conversation immediately goes to pianos.

“It’s the only the thing the pianist is going to touch, so it better be good.”

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But Richard’s life wasn’t always about tuning pins, damper levers, and regulating screws, and like most kids in college, was going to school for one thing but really wanted to do something else.

“I wanted to be a rock star,” he says, “just like everybody in college that plays music. I was in a FISH cover band with my cousin at Michigan State: my cousin was a botany major I was a biotechnology major. I was like, ‘I way more like playing the piano than I like anything else.’ and he’s like, “I way more like playing the guitar more than anything else.” He was a junior and I was a sophomore in college. We’re like, ‘Let’s quit. We’re gonna quit. We’re gonna quit.’

So we quit, and we both went to Wayne and majored in jazz studies.

Then I got hired by Steinway the first semester, so I’m like, “Dude, I’m out. I’m making more money than I could when I graduate. This is the way to go.”

But eventually, a combination of professional fatigue and the recession led him to get interested in rebuilding the different parts of the piano.

“It’s kinda weird because, at the time, I was really tired of the piano business. In 2008, the economy was down, and piano tuning had slipped. If people can’t pay their mortgage, they don’t care about tuning their piano...especially in Detroit. We got hit pretty hard.

I was tired of being in the piano business, and I wanted to quit. But an interesting thing about Detroit is we have one of the largest piano supply houses in the entire country in Clawson, Michigan.

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"They sell stuff all over the world. If someone’s rebuilding a piano in Japan, they’re probably gonna buy something from Pianotek. Because I had this rebuilding shop, and I was like literally a half mile from their building, I was one of their walk-in customers. So I got to know them really well.

One day, I sent my assistant apprentice guy over there to pick something up. He didn’t know that I wasn’t telling anybody that I was getting out of the piano business, so he just made a comment, offhand, to one of the people who were there. Word got to Bob Marinelli, who is the president of that company, and he was like, ‘Oh, no. That’s not good.’

He called me. I thought he was calling me because I owed him money, so I figured I should take the call!. But he was like, ‘No, man. I wanna offer you a job. We can’t have you leave the piano business. You’ve got talent.’ They were the only company in really North America that was specializing in custom replacement piano actions. There was one other guy, over in Washington State, and another little player, but they were really the big key manufacturers for custom key manufacturing, North America.

They said, ‘Look, we’ll give you this department. You can take it over.’

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"Here’s the thing - the guy that actually invented all the machines and stuff they were using to make their actions—that guy, super brilliant dude, hates pianos. He wanted to be a baker. He wanted to go back cupcakes in upstate New York. That’s what he does. He owns a beautiful artisanal bakery in the mountains.

So, they brought me over there, and had me study with him for two pianos. He showed me how to make two keyboards, and then he left. I worked with him for about six weeks, making these two keyboards. And then, that was it. I started running it.

I had to change everything, cuz they were basically making keyboards like people make them in the Victorian Era, except for they had electricity, instead of steam. Essentially, the tools were all the same. They were drawing out every keyboard, with a pencil, on wood. Sometimes, if you do things that way, and it’s one guy doing it, and there’s an order of operations that you can’t deviate from, you would make a mistake on Monday, and you wouldn’t even know it until the following Wednesday, and you’ve already put all this time." 

"It was just a disaster. It would take four to six weeks to make a keyboard.

So I went back to school and studied computer-aided engineering, while working at Pianotek full-time, so that I could try to see what technological innovations we could bring to the game. Ultimately, it ended up being I wanted to buy a CNC machine, and do all this kinda crazy stuff, and they weren’t into it. I was like, well, I’ll tell you what, I’ll just buy their company from you, and take it on my own.

So, that’s what we did. That was three years ago. We’ve increased our output by 400%. It was taking six weeks to build a keyboard, but now we’re banging out one a week."

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"It’s been great, having these two guys work with me now.”

“Are they recent hires?” I ask.

“Yeah. They’ve only been working—I’ve known Pat, the woodworking guy, I’ve known him for decades. He was one of the first guys to help me set up my original shop. We used to go to Japan together. We both were lifelong martial artists, so we would go to—he was the uchi-deshi, or the live-in student, kinda like the apprentice of our master kinda, this little Japanese dude. He would take us to Japan, where we would be teaching martial arts.

It was great to be able to hire him, bring him on board. I trust the guy. He’s the only—he used to swing a three-foot razor blade at my neck, and then stop. I trust him a lot. I let him work on my pianos.”

“That brings the employer/employee relationship to a whole new level,” I say.

He laughs. “A whole new level.”

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When Richard talks about using a CNC machine, increasing production by 400%, and banging out a keyboard a week, you might get the impression that you’d walk into his shop and see three guys smoking a cigarette, watching a CNC carve out a $10 thousand dollar keyboard.

Being one of the last people in his profession, Richard believes that incorporating new technology into his craft is the way to keep moving forward.

“Do you get any blowback from traditionalist from using things like carbon fiber and CNC?” I ask.

“Well, one of the benefits of being the only guy who does something is that nobody can complain,” he says with a chuckle.

“I think, initially, when I first started going on Internet forums and showing off my work, especially on the global piano technicians forum and things like that, then some of the guys, old-school guys, would look at it and be like—they didn’t understand. They think, oh, you just take a piece of wood, throw it on a machine, and oh, look, I got a keyboard. It’s like no. The CNC machine can only do about 30% of the work. The rest is still done by hand.”

I ask, “ So, starting off tuning pianos, rebuilding the whole thing, and now, going into a more specialized part of that, how does your experience doing all of it, doing the grunt work—how does that make you better at what you do now?”

Well, I’ll tell you, people ask me, all of the time, how I figured out how to do a lot of this stuff. The real trick was a lot of trial and error, and doing it yourself, and trying to get it right. There is no substitute. Even using the CNC, and getting into CAD and CAM and laser cutting, and all that kinda stuff, for this work, if you can’t do it the old way—if I didn’t learn how to do it the old way, without all that stuff, and with that basically Victorian element (with electricity, essentially), I would never be able to do what I do now. “

“I would imagine that you’re able to understand everything in a deeper way, because you’ve had to build everything in a very basic, functional way.”

“Yeah, you’ve built it from the ground up.”

“Tell me about the carbon fiber thing.” I say.

When I first walked into Richard's shop, lying on a table was the frame of a keyboard...made from carbon fiber. 

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“There’s a company called Wessell, Nickel & Gross,” he says. "Other than Steinway & Sons, they’re one of the last American piano manufacturers. They’re in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Super cool, in this old piano factory.

Their engineering department has been cutting edge. Other manufacturers, like Kawai and stuff, have been utilizing carbon fiber, or carbon-impregnated ABS, in piano parts, for a long time. These guys have pushed it to a totally different level. They have started—really, the only part of their assembly that is made out of carbon fiber is the hammer shank itself, the tube. There’s a carbon fiber tube. But the rest of it is a composite material that is injection molded.

The thing about piano actions that has always been a big problem is that they’re incredibly susceptible to fluctuation, environmental humidity and temperature.”

“And if they’re made out of wood, you have 9,000 moving parts changing with the weather," I say. 

“Yeah, and they’re all working within tolerances of 30 thousandths of an inch, or 10 thousandths of an inch, depending on where you are in the piano. Which is, for wood, kind of absurd. The whole thing is made out of organic material, everything from wood, leather, felt. All this stuff breathes.

When I used to tune pianos, people would ask me, “My little kid hasn’t played the piano in two years. Why do I gotta have it tuned?” It’s like the pianos don’t care if your kid comes and plays it. It has to do with you turning on your furnace in the winter and stuff.

A large percentage of my work is not for the general population. It’s mostly institutional. I do work for big universities and conservatories. But one of the things about those churches, or any type of institutional environment, is they are really shoddy, when it comes to environmental control. So, these parts are completely inert. They are not susceptible to any changes. They just stay in regulation. I put those parts on pianos, and then gone and tuned it afterwards, and regulate it locally, just to see. Before I started putting it on my own work that I’m sending to other people, I needed to make sure that I was happy with it, myself. Man, these piano parts are so consistent that it’s almost spooky.”

“Are any musicians worried that carbon fiber might negatively affect the tone of the piano? Because it’s almost a plastic.”

Richard shakes his head. “Some people think it's a novelty with carbon fiber. And it would be if you used carbon fiber for the sound production, for tonal production, for the sides or the back, that would be different. But if you’re using it for mechanical components, where tolerances take precedent, then I think that’s—it’s to the benefit of everything.”

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Having made over two hundred keyboards, you can mostly find Richard work in universities and conservatories: University of Texas, the Curtis Institute, The Colburn School. Harvard, Yale, the University of Michigan, Florida State University, and the Manhattan School of Music.

“And I just did a keyboard for them that was for Capitol Records Studio A.”

“Coooool,” I say.

“Yeah, was killer - Nat King Cole’s piano. He owned that Steinway B. Then, when he died, his estate sold it to Capitol Records. It was in their New York studio for about 20 years, and then they put it in Capitol Records Studio A in LA.. Nobody liked that piano because somebody had replaced the parts at some point. The geometry wasn’t right. They had a Yamaha nine-foot that they were using. Artists are given the option, like which one do you want, the Steinway or the Yamaha. They were always picking the Yamaha. Ever since I did the keyboard, no one’s picked Yamaha.”

We’re cutting ourselves off after beer number two, and it might be the alcohol early in the day, but I feel like I’m talking to the last remaining animal of its species before it goes extinct. I’m not sure how to phrase the question “How does it feel to be staring at the face of the death of profession?” so I keep things general, hoping he takes the bait.

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“Anything else you wanna talk about?” I ask. “Like, being a craftsman, being a businessperson, the future of your business, what you think about the industry?”

“I’ll tell you. Yeah, there is something I wanna say about that. One of the things that I have going on right now is that there are only a handful of guys left that do what I do.As far as being a full-time keymaker, it was just me and this one other guy. Recently, that guy sold his company to somebody else because he’s 70 years old. He wants to retire. He’s spent his whole life building that company.

The thing that sucks, though, is unless he’s gonna stay with that company, for the next four or five years, I know how long it’s gonna take for someone to go from an apprentice, to a journeyman, to a master keymaker, and be able to handle the kinda stuff that we need to handle.

In short order, even though I don’t wish for anybody to fail, it’s not gonna work out. That’s gonna leave me in a position where I’m the last one.

As a guy who—I love the piano business, and I love pianos, but it’s one of those things where I gotta make a living, too. There are people in this industry that believe that the services that I offer are going to be perpetually available from other people. I guarantee you this is not going to be the case, due to the fact that, if it was, I wouldn’t be the last one. It’s an economically unsustainable enterprise unless you incorporate the technological and supply chain innovations that I’ve implemented.

This is just something I want on record, since somebody asked. It’s a time to assimilate. It’s like the Borg and Star Trek. Resistance is futile.”

“What do you see as the future of this whole thing, then?” I ask. “Because you’re looking at this and you’re the last one. What is the future of the work that you do, if there aren't more people, other than you, carrying it on?”

“The industry needs to support me, to make sure that this continues to be available. I’m more than happy to find the right people, and go to North Bennet Street, and all these big trade schools and stuff, and find the right guys that’ll come work for me. I gotta have the business that can support it. Trying to pretend like this isn’t the situation is futile. It really is. And it’s bad for the industry. That’s a serious aspect of it."

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  “When do you think that’s gonna come to a head?”

“Within the next six months.”

“Really?”

“Really. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t have bought this business. I wouldn’t pursue this like I did. I knew that I was gonna end up with a monopoly, to a degree, but I’m not doing that in an evil way. I’m doing it so that it doesn’t die.”

People own businesses for all different reasons and combinations of reasons, but it’s rare to combe across the reason “so that the trade doesn’t die.”

We pay our tab and walk across the street back to the shop.

We’re locked out.

The other guys had gone to lunch, too, so I sat on a parking barrier, ready to wait until they arrived and saved the day. 

Richard, went to his car, got some tools, and broke into his own shop. 

A bit like grabbing some sticks and rocks and making a parachute. 

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