by Hannah Beckett, RPT
It’s hard to process the visual cacophony of machines, boxes, wires, tools, strips of felt and blocks of wood that fill the large shop nestled in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It’s even harder to imagine 23 people bustling with activity at all the stations over forty years ago. The quiet, slow pace of mountain life seems to have seeped through beams supporting the last piano hammer-making shop in the United States.
It isn’t chaos inside the shop. Ray Negron knows exactly where everything is and goes about his work with quiet efficiency. His movements are instinctive. Making piano hammers is in his muscle memory, which is naturally the case after over 50 years of supplying pianos with their voice. Ray made his first set of hammers when he was 12 years old. Ray’s father worked at Pfriemer Piano Hammer Company, the suppliers of hammers for brands like Kohler & Campbell and Story & Clark. After nearly twenty years of working in the hammer business, he and his colleague at Pfriemer, Bill Johansen, decided to open their own hammer-making company. Combining their two last names to make the name, “Ronsen,” the Ronsen Piano Hammer Company was born in 1958.
“This was my summer job since 1961. During the six weeks of summer, I’d hop on the train to get into New York City. You could do that back then when you were 12. I worked for six weeks and would get a ten-dollar allowance from my dad — the rest of the money I brought in went to the family. Dad was still trying to get the new business set up and recover financially from the restaurant he’d tried to open. That didn’t go so well. He always wanted to own his business, but he didn’t know anything about the restaurant industry. Anyway, back then, ten dollars was a fortune! You could get a candy bar for five cents. The tricky part was trying to make money last until Christmas, so I learned to budget at an early age. My parents grew up in the Depression Era, so it was important to them that their kids were responsible with their money.”
Ray is hand-sanding hammer moldings gripped tightly in a clamp. The moldings are made from Sapele wood, a hardwood from Africa that has many musical uses. After a quick finish with an orbital sander, he turns his attention to preparing the felt. “There was about a twenty-year stretch where business was pretty tough. Once we started ordering German-made felt from Abel, business got a lot better.” He pulls out a slab of pre-cut felt and points out the layering structure that distinguishes it from other types of felt. “Back when we were a much bigger company, we had about 14 types of felt. Now that it’s just me making a few sets a day, there are only about four options of felt available. And I’m still making hammers for square pianos… Although I don’t like making them any more than the techs like working on them!”
The felt is soft and firm to the touch, tapered from bass to treble. Ray trims it to the correct length, then begins shaving the surface. “You can somewhat control the weight of the hammer with this process. It’s better to take felt off before you make the hammers rather than after. These hammers are for a small set, so I’m going to take off a bit more than normal to make them lighter. You have to develop an eye for estimating the weight of the felt. Hammer weight used not to matter as much. No one cared about weight in the old days.”
The expendable felt falls from the slab in long, thin pieces. Ray does a quick pass with the orbital sander, then begins setting up one of the five presses poised for duty. After installing the hammer moldings in the press, he carefully lays the felt directly under the moldings with an equal amount of felt on either side, then puts a thin layer of underfelt on top. The bold fuchsia-colored underfelt is a burst of color in a room mostly filled with wood and cardboard boxes. The next step is slathering glue on the felt just before the moldings are pressed into the center of the strip.
“My father used hide glue at Pfriemer before World War II. They’d put a round on in the morning, and one in the afternoon. It had to cure for a bit, but the humidity in New York City made that an unreliable process. Ronsen uses urea-based glue because of its high-heat tolerance and low water-absorption properties.” He lowers the moldings into the felt, then sets up the metal bars that will act as heat conductors on the shoulders of the hammers. “People call our hammers cold-pressed. I don’t. I call them lukewarm. If you go too high with the heat, (which we used to do), up to maybe 180 degrees, you take away the resiliency of the hammer. All the other hammer makers who used to be our competitors were making hard hammers, so there was no point in us making more hard hammers. We wanted our niche to be softer hammers, similar to the ones manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s. That’s why we use heat, but not high heat, and the hammers stay in the presses longer.”
We move on to a set of hammers that are finished in the press and ready for the next step. Ray takes a radial plane blade and smooths the section of the hammer where the felt melts into the hammer molding. “You have to know how to sharpen things around here,” he notes wryly. Ray isn’t one to mess around in a shop. The scars on his hands are a testament to his fair share of injuries on the job. “My dad lost an eye making hammers. A piece of wood flew up from his saw and shattered his glasses into tiny bits which got in his eye. The doctors couldn’t get all the pieces out. My brother lost a chunk of hair one time when it got caught in some machinery. It happened during the ’70s when guys were growing their hair out. Of course, we all laughed profusely when it happened. He didn’t hear the end of it after that!”
Ray takes the hammers over to a cutting station with an enormous razor blade. The felt is still one long strip glued onto individually sliced hammer moldings. Carefully lining up the blade between the first two moldings, he leans into the handle, and the first hammer pops free of the set. After demonstrating several more, Ray lets me try my hand at the station with a caution about keeping my fingers clear of the slicing area. The blade cuts like butter, and after several more slices, we move over to the stapling station, fingers intact.
After a quick staple gun tutorial, I put staples in several hammers. “It’s just reinforcement of the glue,” Ray explains, “It would never be enough to keep the felt on the molding. Oh look, what did you do over there?” Ray points to the line of hammers I just finished stapling. At first glance, nothing is off. I take a second look, and thanking my grandmother for the many hours she spent playing “one of these things is not like the other” with me, I pick out the hammer that I placed in the wrong order. “See, you can get all discombobulated by not having the hammers numbered. People think there’s no way to keep track of which hammer is which if you don’t number them. But it’s simple really, all of the hammers going up to the treble get smaller and smaller. You just have to look and feel them to figure out which is which.”
It’s a minute variance that only a practiced eye would catch. Ray continues eyeing all shapes, sizes, and angles as he works through the boring, trimming, and tapering of the hammers, which soon leads to a finished product. “You know, I didn’t want to do this. I went to college and was in the army for a while. My older brother was the plant manager for the company when they moved to the Catskills, and I planned to help him get settled and then go back to Long Island. Then he had a terrible motorcycle accident. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and was in a coma for forty days. It took him about three years to recover. I had to stay here and help him. I tried to get away again in 1974. I went to Europe, bought a bicycle and rode around for four months. Once I came back, I got a couple of jobs working in community centers with kids, which is what I really wanted to do, but my brother just couldn’t keep up with the business by himself. He passed away about seven years ago, and by then it was too late for me to do anything else.”
Ray is the last one standing in a line of family members including parents, siblings, cousins, and his own children, who have seen the business through thick and thin. Ray discouraged his kids from taking on the business, so when he retires, it will be the end of the Negron family’s involvement with Ronsen Hammers. In his typical dedicated fashion, he won’t leave the business stranded. He’s working on training an apprentice to eventually take over Ronsen Hammers when he’s ready to make his last set. Although Ray’s fingerprints were worn off long ago, you could still say that pianos all over the world bear the mark of his craftsmanship. In spite of Ray’s desire to be elsewhere, his commitment to his craft and resilient support of the family business has kept Ronsen alive for decades after all other American competitors closed their doors.