COMMENTARY: One skill leads to another

Sketch: a Church Organ dating from 1868 awaits restoration. Photo: the piano in the final stage of restoration

In the first world war my grandfather won medals for “Work at the Forge”. In peace time he repaired clocks, church organs and steam traction engines. His lifetime’s work epitomized how one skill leads to another. Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, poet, musician, sculptor, architect, engineer, inventor and diplomat.

My introduction to craftmanship began at my grandfather’s workbench and then progressed to my father’s workbench. When, at the age of fifteen, I began a seven-year apprenticeship in mechanical engineering, I was already an old hand at many of the skills that have been essential to my life’s work.

The skills and specialist tools I inherited from my grandfather came in useful for a project that is the subject of this commentary.

Last year, a neighbour offered my wife a piano for nothing more than the cost of taking it away. It entered my workshop in a similar depressed state as the church organ in the opening sketch. Had I known in advance the extent of the damage caused by rats, woodworm and ravages of the Caribbean climate, I doubt that I would have attempted the task. Thankfully, the invaders stopped short at the sound board, otherwise all would have been lost. Neither could they get their teeth into the cast iron frame.

I traced the maker’s name and model to a London piano factory that had gone out of business in the 1950’s. The piano has a good pedigree and by an amazing coincidence, two of the machines in my workshop began life in the very factory where it was built. Thus, the piano and the machines that made it, were reunited after seventy years right here in Dominica!

I have worked on pianos in the past, but nothing anywhere near as involved as this.

The restoration involved dismantling and re-assembling 1,200 parts that make up the piano’s action – an intricate mechanism that transfers the motion of each depressed key to the strings. I also had to make a replacement key bed and key frame. This is the base on which the 88 keys sit. The original had crumbled to dust, leaving me without reference to its dimensions and the precise position of 176 steel pins on which the keys locate and pivot. I designed this crucial component from scratch and constructed it to a tolerance of a few thousands of an inch. The smooth playing of a piano depends upon its accuracy.

There are no replacement piano parts available in Dominica and importing items from overseas is expensive and time consuming. Hence, the need to improvise and replicate parts in my workshop. This included making a machine for winding replacement bass strings. The inner steel piano wire I had to import, but for the outer windings I recycled copper from the old strings and from electric motor armatures. A disused washing motor provided the exact copper wire diameter for A2 sharp. Regardless of improvised materials, my “Made in Dominica” strings tune to an acceptable tone and pitch.

Alas, seven-year apprenticeships and handing down skills from one generation to the next are things of the past. Years ago, when I suggested a scheme for training mechanical engineers, the government was taken aback to learn that an apprenticeship takes no less than six years. They expected that it could be done in six weeks!

The moral of this story is that skills and creativity are a necessary component for our economic and social wellbeing. If they are given the attention they deserve, Dominica would be less dependent on imports and foreign aid.

You can learn more about the writer and his work at:

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  1. If we knew better
    August 10, 2022

    Mr. Burnette, you need to pass your skill and knowledge on to much needed minds.

    • Roger Burnett
      August 10, 2022

      No one could have tried harder than I have.

      But until it is understood that learning a skill requires at least the same amount of time as learning a profession, and in turn, deserves equal recognition, we will get nowhere.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

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