Go ahead… ask me. Ask how many different products i’ve used over the years trying to find the best polish and cleaner for pianos. Well the answer would be about 15. Generally there are 2 types of finishes on pianos – lacquer and polyester. Polyester is usually the mirror finish on grands and uprights. Although lacquer can achieve the sheen, polyester resin is by far the product of choice to obtain that look due to its intrinsic properties. While lacquer is somewhat hard, it also is thin and brittle. Poly (as they say in the biz) is thick and durable. I usually tell people that is has similar properties to glass – looks beautiful for a very long time. Chip it and it doesn’t really repair well. Lacquer however can be easily touched up but doesn’t have the same long term durability. I’ve seen 20 and 30 year old poly pianos that look showroom condition but i can’t honestly say that about lacquer. Regardless, the do-all product that seems to work well for both is Cory Polish. It cleans, it polishes and most important, it doesn’t leave a greasy residual film. Keep rubbing with a soft cloth and it can even burnish the top layer to rub out superficial scratches. To boot, it smells nice. Now if you have a satin piano… Cory also makes a polish for that as well. Give it a go… it’s the best i’ve found over the last 14 years.
I wish, i wish, i wish i would’ve had someone guide me through the process of refinishing when i was young. A friend of mine says “Good judgement comes from good experience. However, good experience comes from bad experience.” Hahaaaa and he also says “The difficult we can do… the impossible may take some time”. lol… so refinishing has been years (read 15) of learning what NOT to do. And in an ever changing world of finishing… (ie products are now switching from solvent base to water base) there is still a lot of trial and error involved.
Why refinish old pianos? Well i consider pianos about the same size as small elephants in a living room. So who wants to look at a crusty old elephant every day. And besides, the manufacturers of yesteryear took GREAT pride in beautifying these instruments. I remember this one time buying an old piano that they couldn’t GIVE away because it was so ugly. Below is the picture of this piano. I had NO idea that under layers of darkened ‘alligatored’ finish – where it becomes rough and bumpy – was this BEAUTIFUL wood. Presently i’m working on yet another beautifully carved instrument (top left and bottom pics).
So if you want to get into refinishing… i just want to say that you need to know some facts.
1. 99% of pianos are veneered – meaning the decorative wood on the outside is only about 1/16″ thick. Now before you start blathering on about how your piano is solid blah blah blah… i just want you to know that i’ve heard it all before. And i’ve only seen 4 pianos in my life that are solid wood. Decorative woods are generally not great structural woods. So if your piano is beautiful… it probably is not the core wood but rather laminated to another firm wood like oak. The oldest grand piano i’ve had in my shop dated 1855… and yep, it was veneered rosewood. Believe it or not, they had the technology back then. And i doubt whether many of you have older pianos than that. FYI, it was a Broadwood 8′ straight strung piano – a 30 year newer version of Beethoven’s. It’s now in a museum.
2. Piano finishes consist of layers. What you SEE consists of 3 layers – veneer base, color coat and clear coat. So our eyes see through the clear coat to the color layer on top of the wood (veneer). When you refinish a piano, what is happening is that you’re actually removing the top clear layer (which has gone bad – cracked, chipped, alligatored) and with that quite often comes off most of the color layer down to the veneer.
3. There are ONLY 2 ways to effectively remove finish: chemical and scraping. I have seen TONS of mishaps by people who think they can sand their way through the finish. In 15 years i’ve NEVER seen a competant job of ANYONE who has successfully done this. Why? Too high a grit paper (220-400) and the finish will melt with friction and clog the paper. Too low grit (50-180) and it’ll not only chew through the finish but right through the veneer as well. So how does one remove the finish? Chemical stripper (nasty stuff) is what is used mainly by furniture refinishers. The alternative is to scrape off the finish using a scraper. Scrapers will only get off about 85% of the finish and the remainder still must be done by chemical washing.
CAUTION: Please please please protect yourself if you ever venture into refinishing. Use gloves and mask to protect your skin and lungs!
Let’s face it, pianos are small elephants. You put them in the room of a house and they will ALWAYS draw attention – whether good or bad. If you have a beat up piano, you already know that it makes the room look blah. On the contrary, a spectacular looking instrument improves the look of a room and makes it more classy. If you’ve been thinking about refinishing your piano, there are some basics that you need to be aware of. First of all, the wood on a piano most likely is veneered. I say most likely because in 20 years, i’ve had 2 solid wood pianos. Now before you start saying to me “OH NOT MINE… mine is SOLID WOOD”… i have to strongly disagree and say that in 20 years in the business i’ve had only 2 solid wood pianos come into my possession. Why is that? I used to employ a french polisher. French polishing is the art of painstakingly applying shellac by hand. It’s an INCREDIBLY slow process but worth every hour. Anyway, he used to own an antique store. This man was at best abrasive… at worst… rude. He would tell me about customers coming in his shop “Yes i have solid wood furniture” to which he would reply “oh i’m so sorry to hear that madame”. They were always taken back by his response. I think it’s in our nature to want something to be solid and sturdy. But he educated me and said “the best furniture in the world is all veneered”. For those who don’t know, veneer is a thin layer of wood glued on to another ‘substrate’ or solid core. Y’see, cosmetically beautiful wood usually is the WORST choice for construction. What makes beautiful cuts of wood are quite often rippled pieces or trunks or trees to create ‘flamed’ or ‘ribboned’ effects. No one in their right mind would think about building out of that. The other problem is also warpage. Solid wood will warp whereas veneered wood glued cross grain can be made straight. And above all that, let’s say you wanted a piano out of rosewood. Rosewood is so scarce and expensive, even small pieces of veneers will run into the hundreds – let alone solid pieces. Well at this point, i usually hear the re-buttal “but my piano is older than that…. long before veneers were used”. Again, not to pick a fight, but the oldest piano i’ve had in my shop was 1855 – brilliant rosewood cabinet on an Broadwood 8 foot grand (30 years newer only than Beethoven’s!) And guess what? it was VENEERED! In 1855! So to recap… pianos are built with a solid CORE…they’re made beautiful using lovely cuts of veneer – usually about 1/16th of an inch thick. Oh and BTW, those 2 pianos i had in that were solid? They were so utterly BORING in the cuts of wood, you would have passed by them without batting an eye.
OK one more story from the french polisher… i love this one. This lady comes into his antique shop… would like her Louis XV chairs refinished. She says in a whisper “they’re authentic”…. hoping to get at least a raised eyebrow from him. He so much as threw her out of the shop stating “no they’re not. You mean to tell me that you have chairs dating back from the 1700’s – each one worth into the hundreds of thousands? possibly museum worthy? Well if you do, you sure don’t want to be refinishing them now do you? Good day, Madam”… oh he was feisty, i must say…lol. Anyway… onward to the next part of piano refinishing…