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Old Upright Piano Restoration: Taming the Inner Monster

By May 23, 2012Uncategorized

You might be surprised at the number of people out there who have a vintage upright piano in need of piano restoration, refurbishing, refinishing or other work. Then again, maybe you wouldn’t.

The fact is that there are vintage pianos out there, and for a variety of reasons, their owners want to restore them. Many have been inherited due to recent deaths in the family, some have been around with their owner for years in need of work, and others have been acquired recently through other means like want-ads or craigslist.

All this is great news! After all, vintage upright pianos produced around the time of the early 20th century offer some of the best quality construction and workmanship you will ever find. Picture artisans and craftsman using their hands to produce the piano from over 100 years ago. Craftsman carefully selecting cuts of solid wood (and paying very close attention to grain patterns both for appearance and for structural integrity) as they build the outer cabinet that houses the upright piano mechanics, also know as the "Inner Monster".

Most of us look at these vintage uprights as if they were some oddity by today’s standards.

Odd in that their stature is very large–sometimes more than 5 feet tall and over 2 feet wide from rear to front. Their monstrous presence in a room intimidating, yet alluring. Many have very ornate, hand-crafted legs and scroll work and in-lays/on-lays on the upper panel. When you admire this monster, you could be looking at a solid piece of elegant mahogany or even a solid piece of tiger oak (which is rarely seen today).

If you are like me, you might look at this monster and try to image who played it or where it was played back in it’s prime. Perhaps it was a saloon piano, or maybe it was used in a home setting. Whatever it was, there is definitely some history there! And, if you are looking at a piano that has been in your family for generations, going back in time, likely family gather around for Christmas carols or maybe for just entertainment and the pleasure of playing. Back when these pianos were built, there was no television, no radio–it was a different time.

Children played, parents played, grandparents played. Everybody played. Maybe the vintage upright was even a player piano, the ancestor to the modern day iPod. Think about that.Consider walking to a piano, setting up a roll with your favorite ragtime of the day, and listening to your hearts content.

Anyway, the truth is that these types of vintage uprights are oddities by today’s standards. Today’s standards of piano making are much different that those used over 100 years ago in the Golden Era of Piano Manufacturing. Today, particle board is sometimes used, lines are defined and square, rarely does one encounter a visible wood grain on a recently produced piano.

But these are appearances only.

What about the insides?

The mechanics and action of a vintage American-made upright are no different that the mechanics and action in use today. Yes, that’s right. But, there is a catch. The catch is that over time, felt, buckskin, wood, and steel wire are all subject to the environment. After 100 years of exposure to season changes and just normal environmental conditions, the vast majority of the large vintage uprights need some form of piano restoration in order to operate and play as intended.

Rarely will you find a “want-ad” or “craigslist” piano from this time period that does not need work. And, in most instances, even “family” pianos of this age need something done in the form of piano restoration, whether full or partial, to restore function.

But, don’t let that discourage your quest to tame the Inner Monster.

In my experience, unless very serious issues exist within the critical components of the piano, function and playability can be restored rather well. Felts, buckskins, bushings, pins, and other moving parts can be replaced or refurbished. Strings can be replaced, and worn key tops and broken pedals can be replaced/repaired.

Ok, so what about the outer cabinet? It really looks tired!

Once the inner monster is tamed, the outer cabinet can be addressed. This area of the piano is relatively easy compared to the inner mechanicals. Finishes can be touched up, completely redone, or something in between. Worn decals can be replaced, and damaged wood and veneer can be repaired.

So, let’s get started with piano restoration.

If you want to tame the inner monster (and outer one, too), give us a call. We can look at your piano, and provide you with a complete list of options to start taming!

9 Comments

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  • Jennifer says:

    I have an old upright Grand that needs some work. Tuning and resurfacing the keys at the very least. Was wondering if someone might come out and take a look at it and give me an estimate on what it would cost to do some restoration on it. My kids have been playing it for a couple years.

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