Secondhand Piano Shop

Mason & Hamlin


Released: 11/10/2009 12:29:28 PM    Source: Singapore Piano Shop

(Mason & Hamlin's Official Website)
The Mason & Hamlin piano, like the Steinway, or like certain expensive European brands, is an extremely limited production instrument. On the average, fewer than 900 Mason & Hamlins were produced each year during the years 1885-1985, and after that, even fewer.). The quality of the Mason and Hamlin is considered equivalent to, or (some feel), better than that of the Steinway. In the early part of this century, the name Mason & Hamlin was well-known. It was at that time considered to be one of the finest, if not THE finest instrument made. During the first 45 years or so of its existence, no expense was spared in its construction. At one time it was actually advertised by a prominent East Coast piano dealer as the most expensive piano made. Because of its quality and construction it actually became a serious challenger to Steinway. Myriads of prominent artists performed on the Mason & Hamlin, adored the piano, and were fiercely loyal to the brand.
Over a span of many years, Mason and Hamlin made many different models of pianos. Like other manufacturers, they built many very successful upright models, but the most enduring and successful designs were in their grands. There were originally 3 different concert grands: The first two, known simply as the model CC and the CC1, were 9' 4" long and were enormously large and heavily built pianos, with an extremely powerful tone. The CC differed from the CC1 in that the latter model included a tension resonator, which is a web of steel bracing underneath the piano, designed to keep the rim from flexing and to help maintain the crown of the soundboard, especially critical in a piano of this size. This patented device was ultimately incorporated in all of their instruments, and became a hallmark of the M&H design. Later (most likely as a result of complaints from piano movers, who often had to show up in teams of 4 to move these beasts) Mason and Hamlin came out with the model CC2, which was somewhat shorter (9 feet) but still didn't weigh a whole lot less. (Mason and Hamlin has enjoyed (or endured) a reputation over the years as being one of the heaviest pianos made. Before agreeing to move a piano, most piano movers will first ask "is it a Mason & Hamlin?" If it is, they will usually send an extra man, or two, and charge additional.) This last model concert grand (the CC2) was considered by some to be (at least superficially) similar in design to the Steinway Model D, but close inspection reveals many significant differences, including, among other things, a far more massive iron casting, and, of course, the tension resonator.
In addition to these concert grands, M&H made a 7' grand (the model BB), a 6'2" grand (the model AA) and a very popular 5'8" grand (the model A). Later there was also a smaller grand, the model "B" (5' 4"). The author of this article has at one time or another either owned, or had in his possession, all of these different models, including the 9'4" CC and CC1, and can attest that they are indeed phenomenal instruments. All of the Mason & Hamlin pianos are massively built, and are sometimes referred to, by both pianists and piano technicians, as "heavy-duty Steinways".
The most prized instruments are those which were made before, or shortly after 1930. After 1930 there was a gradual decline in the quality of the instruments, apparently brought about by an effort to cut the cost of production (in order to stay in business!) during the Great Depression and in the years following, when very few people could afford to buy such an expensive instrument. In addition, in the years following, Mason & Hamlin was sold to a succession of different piano conglomerates, (as were many other piano firms who could no longer keep their doors open). During this time the quality of the piano was further diluted as a result of the mergers and changes of ownership. Many ill-considered design changes were made during those years, owing mainly to the absence of any one party responsible for maintaining and preserving the original plan and vision, (or who knew what they were doing). In other words, too often there was no chief engineer who came along with the piano, and no master plan: Each successive factory foreman did the best he knew how, with his limited knowledge.
In spite of these problems, a Mason & Hamlin grand of any vintage is still, generally speaking, a superior instrument. Many of the design flaws introduced in the later models can usually be rectified by competent technicians during a restringing or restoration.
Around 1989 or 90 Mason & Hamlin finally came into the possession of some investors who were truly concerned with restoring the instrument to its former glory. As a result, vintage Mason & Hamlins from the 1920's and before, (ideally those that had never been rebuilt or altered), were brought in, disassembled, and studied; notes and measurements were taken, and drawings were made. From this study of the original instruments, redesigned models, more faithful to the original execution, were constructed. These newer Mason & Hamlins follow more closely the original plan, and are superior in many ways to their immediate predecessors.
It is a tremendous challenge to restore an original piano design, simply because much piano making experience and knowledge has vanished with the passing of the original engineers and factory personnel; or else plans and drawings have become lost or misplaced through multiple moves. Besides having to reconstruct the original plan, dimensions, and drawings, those attempting to restore the original design must also try to reproduce the original factory procedures and processes, which is no mean feat. Because all this takes time, and because the factory as yet produces no more than a few hundred pianos annually, many folks still opt for a vintage Mason & Hamlin, even if it means restoring or rebuilding it.
Mason and Hamlin was a well-known brand in the early decades of the twentieth century, but the frequent sale or merger of the company inevitably caused gaps, not only in quality, but in production as well, so that the pianos were not always available to the dealers who sold them. This caused many dealers to lose faith in, or ultimately abandon, the brand over time, which in turn weakened its public image and presence. As a result, fewer people today are familiar with the Mason & Hamlin name, at least among the general public. But whenever the latest edition or incarnation of the Mason & Hamlin Co. folds or is sold, there seems to be no dearth of piano firms anxious to acquire and carry on the name.
The Mason & Hamlin piano, like the Steinway, is an excellent, time-tested and proven design as originally conceived, and so far, all those who have taken over the company have exhibited, or at least, expressed, a determination to preserve the original design so far as possible, or financially practical, or insofar as they were capable. The problem across the years seems to have been that, even priced as high as it was, the piano was even more costly to build, hence the company was perpetually going through receivership or mergers. This, incidentally, has been the problem with most high-quality, limited production concert instruments, e.g. they cost more to build than they sell for; and piano companies typically rely on second and even third-line pianos, less-expensive and sold in large volume, which bounce off the reputation of the higher-quality instruments, to help subsidize the building of the more expensive, more publicly visible, but less profitable, pianos. The 2nd and 3rd line pianos associated with Mason & Hamlin are Knabe and George Steck, with pianos produced most recently in South Korea and China.) Update: WM. Knabe and George Steck have recently been sold again, to piano companies in Korea, and China, respectively. Knabe is now owned by Samick.
Currently the list price of new Mason & Hamlin pianos seems to be running slightly less than what Steinway is asking for theirs, and the Mason & Hamlins, like the Baldwins, currently still seem to be susceptible to more discounting off the suggested retail price than the Steinway. That may change, as more people buy the Mason & Hamlin instruments, as the name becomes better known again, and as the factory achieves and maintains the original quality level of the instrument during its heyday back in the early 20th century. So for the present, like Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin pianos may present a significant value over the Steinway.
Presently Mason & Hamlin is expanding their offerings. For many years only a few models were produced: a 50" upright (model 50), a 5'8" grand (model A), and a 7' grand (model BB), in various finishes. A 9'4" concert grand has recently been added to their line, as also a remake of the 6'2" AA model, which has been redesigned to be longer (6'4"), completely different, better, and more similar in design to the A and BB models, according to a factory spokesperson. (The original Mason & Hamlin AA was similar in design to Steinway's early model A's in that it had, like the Steinway, a round tail and an extra bridge for copper-wound strings above the bass-tenor break. The new model AA will be reportedly more like the later model Steinway A's, with only two bridges and a more squared-off tail). Mason & Hamlin production is too limited at present to provide concert pianists and performing artists with a worldwide supply network (Concert and Artists Division) like those of Baldwin or Steinway. Such a network will probably not be feasible until the new 9'4" concert grand has been in production, and available to artists, for a time(and has undergone real-world testing and feedback from the artists.) Like Steinway and Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin has a legacy of famous artists and pianists who have performed on their pianos over the years.
The Mason & Hamlin sound has often been described as having an enormous bass and a "sweeter treble," whereas Steinways and Baldwins tend to be a little more even, albeit neutral, across their range. It is of note that Mason & Hamlin originally started out building organs in 1854, and became a piano maker in 1884. Some feel that, possibly as a result of these roots, the Mason & Hamlin sound tends to be more orchestral, with more variation in timbres as one progresses from bass to treble, than that of Steinway or Baldwin.