“Talk about the life in Massachusetts, speak about the people I’ve seen” (1)
I am on an Amtrak train bound for New York after spending a day in Haverhill, MA. Haverhill is about an hours train ride from Boston. The scenery of this area is stunning with its wooden buildings, impressive landscapes and greenery.
Haverhill is a small city of around 61,000 and used to be the women’s shoe manufacturing centre for the world. The shoe manufacturing business eventually collapsed leaving a number of factory buildings dormant. One building has been redesigned into condos, however the quaint six story red brick building on Duncan Street is home to the Mason and Hamlin piano factory.
For some history, Mason and Hamlin is well regarded as the birthplace of American piano design and manufacture, started in 1854 by Henry Mason, the son of a famous composer and pianist in his own right, and his business partner, Emmons Hamlin, a mechanic and inventor, with little money but a determination to produce quality musical instruments of the highest standard. Surviving the Great Depression, war time and other hardships throughout the 19th & 20th centuries, including a few changes in ownership, the company was purchased by the owners of PianoDisc in 1996 with a commitment to continue building the Mason & Hamlin pianos to the same if not better standard that has been expected throughout the company’s history. (2)
I was greeted at the train station by the company Plant Manager Chris Blouin and led to a building with old wooden floors, wooden beams and of course those red bricks. Taking in the aroma of timber that was in the air I was taken up to the sixth floor in the piano lift where I met up with Bruce Clark, Lead Design Engineer.
I met Bruce earlier this year on the Gold Coast at a seminar on Mason & Hamlin and the WNG piano actions. Bruce is a man with a lot of knowledge about design and manufacture and is willing to impart with that knowledge to an eager ear. I thought I would be in the factory for about 2-3 hours however after 6 hours, I thought I had better leave and return to New York. Bruce was intent in showing me all details of their piano manufacturing process plus their jigs that have been designed in-house to streamline the process plus their methods of placement of all the parts in the exact position and building up on these methods to completion. These pianos are very close to being what I call handmade as the processes they use are designed and tested and produced in the factory with precision that many other manufacturers would envy.
The quality of the veneer work is beyond belief. Where other factories have large sections and dedicated staff to complete this work, Mason & Hamlin perform this all in one small section in the factory. The case finishes, either polyester gloss or satin lacquer is of a high standard. Without sounding critical of the designs, these pianos are almost over engineered. They are finished well and credit must be given to these dedicated craftsmen.
If you haven’t played a Mason & Hamlin, you have to try one out. Try playing pianissimo and gradually build up to a fortissimo and appreciate the quality. I judge a piano on its ability to give me a large dynamic range. These pianos do that. Judging tone is subjective and personal however these pianos produce what is generally described as the American sound. It’s different than the Asian and European pianos that we generally see and hear. They project the sound well and that is what most performers demand from a performance instrument. You just have to try one……
(1) Bee Gees