My Visit to the Abel factory
The last time I was in Europe, I decided to make a detour into the heart of the German countryside to visit the Abel Factory, where the family business make piano hammers to suit pretty much all of the current and historical pianos in existence, as well as a number of action replacement parts. I had met Norbert Abel a couple of times at Australian Piano Technicians Conferences, and he welcomed me warmlyand introduced me to his brother, who manages technical production processes, his father, who still works in the factory at 80 years of age, and his son Alex, who has completed an extensive course in piano building, design and repair, and is now working his way through all the various tasks and positions in the factory, with a view to maybe taking over at some future point. We then went on a tour of the production process.
1) Incoming packets of different woods (mahogany, hornbeam, walnut & bamboo), are brought in on pallets, pre-cut and dressed to roughly 1cm thickness. Felt comes also in large bales, and is pre-cut to approximately 5cm thickness. Also contained in a corner of this room, is a separate area containing a state of the art heating system which burns large pellets made from the sawdust waste produced by all the various machines in the other parts of the factory.
2) In the next room sit two types of machine. The first cuts the large squares of wood up into appropriate widths for the type of hammer under production. The profile of the tail of the hammer, if any, is also applied at this point. The second machine cuts up the (approximately one metre) squares of felt into alternate interlocking half moons, automatically profiling the required taper. Each individual felt strip is then given a code to identify from which sheet it came from, so it can be traced back if any quality issues arise.
3) Next come a few different machines, contained in sealed cabinets, the first of which trims the wood strips to the exact correct length, cuts them to the appropriate width, and saws them up into individual rectangular core blocks. The next machine numbers the blocks from 1 to 88. The ‘Abel Hammers’ logo is then laser cut onto the side of each hammer. The hammer cores are then securely clamped between 2 thick metal plates, and the next few processes are performed with these units as a whole.
4) In the same (noisy!) area is an amazing C & C machine that sands the hammers to the correct profile, using two banks of sanding discs or wheels, each making 2 passes in each direction. It reminded me a bit of an automatic car wash! All dust and waste is collected by an extraction system, and made into the pellets which provide the heating in winter. They also have a large solar array on the roof which provides all their power needs.
5) In the next room are the gluing presses. The cores are held in the machine and the felt strips and underfelt carefully placed underneath them, and then hydraulically pressed and glued into place. The hammers, now joined by the felt, are placed into the next machine, also in a sealed cabinet, which automatically aligns each hammer and cuts it perfectly.
6) After a rough sanding of the felt to eliminate any cupping that might have occurred, two additional machines then trim the edges of the felt and either staple the hammer felt to the core, or insert a T staple, depending on requirements.
7) The hammers are then fed into the last machine, which automatically drills the hammer heads at the correct depth and angle, ready to glue onto the shanks. The finished hammer sets are then packed ready for shipping. They can produce up to 180 sets of hammers a day.
I also saw two other extremely sophisticated machines, one of which made hammer shanks from dowel stock, and the other manufactured flanges.
These machines, with the exception of various stock-standard belt sanders and thicknessers, were all designed by the Abel family and manufactured by various local engineering specialists. The surrounding area is renowned as a world centre for packaging machine manufacturers.
All in all, it was a very informative and inspirational visit, and I look forward to meeting up with Norbert and Alex at some future Australian convention. They regularly present seminars or classes about hammer production and the various services they offer at Piano Technicians Conventions all over the world, and told me how much they had enjoyed previous visits to Australia, and would welcome being invited back.