Posts tagged wood

Art Case Pianos – Part 1 Steinway #1225

A friend of mine (who will remain nameless) is a bit of a legend in the piano industry.  One day we started talking Steinway and he asked if he ever told me about “Twelve Twenty-Five”.  “1225? What’s that?”  He proceeded to tell me about this piano that is the oldest known “Art Case” Steinway ever found.  He and a business partner bought it! (before it entered into Steinway museum).  Here it is if you want to take a look. So art case refers to anything aside from standard traditional looking grand piano. “Traditional” means straight legs, no frills cabinet in either black, walnut or mahogany. “Art case” refers to paintings, carvings, fancy legs, scroll work, inlays, exotic woods and recognized designers.
But let me first continue with the 1225 story. So… apparently (as legends take on a life of their own…) this piano was part of an estate. But here is where it gets tricky because the piano didn’t say STEINWAY anywhere on it. Well… how do you know if you have a Steinway if it doesn’t have those letters anywhere on the cabinet? There were only 2 clues: One was that the music rack was carved with the same pattern as Steinway. The second clue was that the designer was definitively the same designer Steinway had used in later projects. On a gamble, these two men bought the Steinway… or what they THOUGHT was a Steinway. Some time later an entourage came from the factory to authenticate the piano and… sure enough it is the oldest art case piano presently in existence from Steinway & Sons. By the way… 1225 is the serial number of the piano dating it to 1856.


Down and Dirty… the basics of refinishing pianos

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!

Well those are the basic facts about the finishes on pianos…stay tuned for more info on the HOW-TO’s of refinishing…

If These Walls Could Speak

Grand in an 'anechoic' chamber (no echo)

Piano in 'anechoic' chamber (no echo)

Well… in  fact, the walls DO speak.  They make up a significant part of what we hear when we play the piano.  Let me give you some examples: I moved this HUGE grand piano – a Kawai 7’6″ piano to a church once for a special event, a concert.  The piano sounded fantastic in my store.  When we moved it on location, the tone was nearly lost.  The poor acoustics of this gym-come-church completely lost all sense of presense and volume.  Example 2, a customer asked me to come and look at his piano placement in his new house.  The room designated for the grand was only slightly larger than the grand (another 7’6″ Yamaha).  It was deafening in the room.  So out of these two examples, what changed?  The pianos didn’t.  They were still the same instruments.  The rooms however made the difference of the world.  In the first case, the church had 30 foot high ceilings and hard tile floor.  The tone seemed to evaporate.  The closeness of the ceiling and walls play an integral part to perceived tone.  In the second case, not only the distance, but surface material also changes tone considerably.  Glass and plaster walls with hardwood floors sound incredibly different than drapes and thick carpet.  The harder the material, the more the soundwaves bounce off the walls and we hear an echo.  The general rule of thumb is the more porous the material, the more the sound will be absorbed rather than reflected.  My oldest son did a science fair project on the stealth bomber.  What was fascinating was that much of the materials of the bomber are made to absorb radar waves and not reflect.  So what is the perfect material? That becomes a subjective thing.  I will tell you what i find pleasing however:  Natural wood always sounds great.  Note: shiny floors are covered with many layers of finish and so what you’re hearing is actually the ‘finish’ and not the wood underneath.  Porous concrete is also nice.  At our University, the music recital hall which holds 300ish people is made from plain concrete and wood.  Now if you paint that surface, it no longer is concrete you’re ‘listening’ to but rather paint which is very bright.  Painted concrete and plain porous concrete are incredibly different.  Generally, i also find that 10 or 11 foot ceilings are nicer to listen to rather than 8 foot ceiling when it comes to larger grands (larger than 6’1″).  As well, pianos need to ‘breathe’ a little.  So if you have a more open floor plan, i find that the reflections are more complimentary.  Oh and one last thing – personally i like the sound of grand pianos facing a corner.  There is a beautiful and natural reflection of tone.  So next time you sit at a piano and you love the tone, take note also to the surroundings as well.

When Green does NOT mean Go!

Grand ActionRecently i had the privilege of working on a brand new piano which will remain nameless.  The instrument was adequate but one problem kept cropping up – and that is that the necessary friction was all over the map.  When you play a piano, in the 6000 moving parts, friction accounts for about 15 grams of touch on the instrument on average.  You might think that absence of all friction would be ideal but that is not true.  Some resistance is required.  So what happens if the friction is excessive or absent?  You get a poor playing piano with a VERY inconsistent touch.  On this particular piano, the joint at what is called the flange was completely out of line.  In addition, key bushings were WAY too sloppy.  How does that happen when a piano is brand new?  Simple.  Use green lumber during the manufacturing process.  Wood that has not been dried properly is known as “green”.  If the wood contains too much humidity and has not been thoroughly dried naturally or in a kiln, the wood eventually will dry out and also warp.  In this case, the once fitting joints obviously were not made with properly cured wood.  It is difficult from the consumer’s point of view to determine this.  Reputable companies cure their wood for up to 2 years before manufacturing.  Companies of ill repute simply mill the wood and insert into the piano.  What ensues is a whole raft of issues to deal with later.  My advice? Be REALLY discerning on a new piano with regards to touch.  If it feels ‘sloppy’ or wiggly or tight, there’s a good chance it has substandard parts – ones that are not correctly fitting.  And word to the wise: if the wood isn’t right, there’s a good chance the felt is poor, the design is poor and other materials are also cheaply made.  Buyer beware: you DO get what you pay for.

PS… the picture is one of a grand action.  The red circles are joints – a steel pin surrounded by cloth inserted into wood.

Piano Cosmetics – the Basics of Refinishing Part 1

steinwayLet’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…

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