Piano Action Parts: Wood vs. PlasticOne area that has become very emotional during the past several decades has been the wood vs. plastic debate used in action parts. There is no other issue that creates more confusion and is probably more important for the potential purchaser to understand. This issue speaks to the long term sustained responsiveness and stability in an action. After servicing literally thousands of concert grade pianos some of which are used by many of the worlds' foremost musicians, I have come to the steadfast conclusion that the way of the future in piano actions is without question the use of appropriate composite materials in all non-speaking parts (everything but the hammers and shanks). Although there are many wood actions of very high quality and should not be avoided, there is in my opinion absolutely no advantage or rational justification that can be credibly argued any longer to imply that wood actions provide any real advantages. The jury is out and they agree that it has been proven in the field for over 30 years, and by credible detailed scientific studies that certain composites in non-speaking parts of the action are far superior in terms of enhancing responsiveness (musicality) and longevity (durability). Wood actions have been chosen by most manufacturers for years and I am at the stage where I can see no other reason for this other than simply cutting costs.
That wood is an inferior material to high grade composites was never a question. Most of the service problems in a piano action come from the expansion and contraction of wood, creating loose flanges and unresponsive touch. The Rippen Piano Co. from the Netherlands used plastic in their actions in the 60's to overcome this problem, but failed to properly test their materials. The plastic parts worked beautifully other than where the plastic fused with metal parts and they literally fell apart within a few years! This of course frightened the entire industry for over a decade. Then Steinway in the 70's decided that the concept was sound and therefore started using Teflon in their bushings to reduce the effects of wearing and fluctuations in humidity. The bushings worked well. What Steinway however, failed to understand was that a composite material lodged in a wood part would soon become loose and then make a "clicking" sound. This second experiment not only came close to destroying Steinway's credibility as a reliable innovator and leader, but created almost a sense of hysteria amongst technicians, manufacturers and end users. It also frightened most manufacturers from going down this path of innovation for fear of failure and lack of acceptance from dealers and end users.
Kawai like Steinway obviously realized that the principle was logical and was in fact the only way to improve an action's durability and responsiveness; what was lacking was sufficient research and development to ensure a successful outcome. However, in a small industry like ours, this was a gigantic financial risk. After years of expensive and extensive testing and experimentation, Kawai introduced the first real "composite" action in the 70's made of a material called ABS (Acetyl-Butadiene Styran). Although I still come across 40 year old Kawai's with ABS actions that are outperforming wood actions, I have had a very hard time accepting them as a real alternative to wood simply because of my inherent bias. The only time I have witnessed a composite action fail was in a university where someone spilled Coke inside the piano. The dampers fused to the strings and needed to be replaced. If Coke had been poured over a wood action, the damage would have been as extensive and cost as much to repair. I don't recommend spilling Coke on any piano.
As I look back now, it seems, and I may be wrong, that manufacturers have watched Kawai over the years as I have with a "let's wait and see" attitude, criticizing them along the way and capitalizing on technicians, musicians and consumers fear. Not having to pay for expensive research and development, invest in very expensive new equipment like injection moulds and other assembly line technology, and by using the fear ("plastic is cheap and unreliable") concept to their advantage tremendously reduced cost and even also risk. The way I look at it now is that if using composites in most action parts has been proven superior by credible scientific studies and practical experience, which it has, one would expect every manufacturer that professes dedication to high standards would relentlessly pursue the technology to improve rather than continually perpetuate the myth that wood is superior. In my opinion cost cutting is the only plausible explanation why others haven't followed Kawai's lead.
I think another reason some technicians perpetuate the wood myth is simply because of sheer ignorance of the significant advantages that appropriate composites provide over wood. Others I believe follow the path of least resistance being unwilling to lead and create "waves". All, including myself, have an advantage to do so. To not take a stand is easier, and since wood action parts require significantly more service, more regulation, and more attention, it is in many ways in all our best interests to keep the status quo and stay silent. I remember well when MIDI technology was introduced in the early 80's, many musicians feared their livelihoods and for years and years harshly criticized this technology worried that their jobs might be eliminated. Although MIDI has made it possible to do more with less musicians, it is almost impossible to find anyone criticizing MIDI today. The benefits are absolute and unquestioned.
In my opinion, carbon fiber actions are here to stay. I also now believe without question, that one day, probably not too far in the distant future, manufacturers will be forced to produce this standard of quality to stay competitive and viable. When international competitions are won on carbon fiber actions, when some of the worlds' finest pianists have become converts to the enhanced responsiveness and longevity of carbon fiber actions it will be time to give credit where credit is due. When technicians like myself can no longer, in good conscience, criticize those who have stuck their neck out and have made a real difference in piano design and technology, is time for us to finally accept it as the new standard; at the very least acknowledge the significant benefits.