National Geographic : 1951 Jul
Versatile Wood Waits on Man that wood-and-metal miracle, the fine piano. "Apart from the cast-iron frame, wood still is the basic material of piano parts," Mr. Henry Z. Steinway, vice president of Steinway & Sons, told me. "Total tension on a piano is approximately 18 to 20 tons, supported at one side by steel pins gripped by a 5-ply tuning pin block of hard maple. "Our sounding boards are made from quar tered spruce," Mr. Steinway explained. "We've patented a 'diaphragmatic sound board,' tapering from less than a third of an inch at the center to less than a fifth of an inch at the edge. This shaping allows the sounding board to vibrate as a whole and throw off more tone. "We build up our grand piano rims of bent maple laminations," he continued. "All case parts, such as top, desk, and keylid cover, are of laminated wood. Fine mahogany or walnut veneers finish off our instruments." During the late war Steinway manufactured hundreds of wooden wings for troop-carrying gliders. But the famous firm still managed to produce about 2,500 diminutive "GI pianos"; some of them were played for under sea audiences-in big submarines. Ever since the ancient Greeks strummed the cithara and blew the aulos, wood has been favored for musical instruments (page 113). The National Symphony Orchestra of Wash ington, D. C., a typical major orchestral group, usually plays 73 wooden instruments. All the strings-violins, violas, cellos, and contra basses (bull fiddles)-are wood. Maple and spruce, aged from 25 to 40 years, are pre ferred for their construction. Finger boards, pegs, and tailpieces are made of black ebony. The pipelike wood winds-clarinets, oboes, English horn, and bassoons-are fashioned from wood, most often African blackwood and granadilla. The harp's frame is spruce or maple, the xylophone's bars Honduras rosewood. Bass drum and tambourine have shells and hoops of mahogany or maple. Players of the strings wield bows of Pernambuco wood, and the conductor one-two-three's with a maple or holly baton. Sports Equipment Takes a Beating Whether you sail, bowl, fish, shoot, or play baseball, tennis, golf, hockey, or croquet, wood implements your sport or game (page 135). "Sporting goods get constant abuse from im pact, torsion, abrasion, or all three at the same time," said J. N. Tynan of A. G. Spalding & Bros., Inc. "Our problem is to build equip ment that will hold size, shape, and life for long periods." Lamination imparts wiry backbone to rack ets for all court games. Early rackets were steam-bent from a single piece of ash, hickory, or oak. Spalding workers shape their rackets from 8 to 12 sawed laminations of ash. When a powerful tennis player hits a serv ice blow, his racket may bend as much as two and a half inches. Shoulder overlays dis tribute the resultant severe strains from tip of frame to handle. "In Spalding's frame-whacking test," Mr. Tynan told me, "we rotate two rackets at a time at very high speed. A special timing device drops a tennis ball that hits each racket in exactly the right spot as it reaches the top of the arc. "The force of this whacking-machine blow is 70 percent harder than the most powerful man-made service," he added. "One hour's test is roughly equal to a season of hard court use. We've broken inferior laminated rackets in five minutes, while better frames have sur vived four hours' whacking without injury." Bats Give the "Bang" to Baseball One sunny afternoon in 1884, Bud Hillerich, a young wood turner playing hooky from his father's shop, was watching a baseball game in the Louisville, Kentucky, ball park. A groan went up as the home-town slugger, Pete Browning, broke his favorite bat. Young Bud persuaded Browning to go to his father's plant and let the youth try to make a replacement bat. Wielding the new swat stick, Browning next day got "three for three"-and the Hillerichs were in the bat business! Today the name Hillerich & Bradsby, mak ers of famous Louisville Slugger baseball bats, evokes all the tense thrill of America's national game. H & B's fame brings mail addressed simply to "The Bat Man," "The Bat Fac tory," or "The Bat People." When Honus Wagner in 1905 agreed to use of his signature on Louisville Slugger bats, it was the first of a long line of baseball's im mortal names to appear on H & B's auto graphed bats. "Every single club in organized baseball, we believe, uses Louisville Sluggers," Jack Mc GrathofH&Btoldme. "We've made bats to the personal measure of every great star of the past 50 or 60 years. Babe Ruth notched one of our bats 21 times and another 27 times to record the home runs he hit with each." Hillerich & Bradsby Co. easily leads the world in baseball and softball bat production. In 1950 the firm turned out more than three million bats. H & B makes bats from ash and hickory, with ash far ahead in popularity.