Monday, December 27, 2010

Days 71 and 72 –Saturday and Sunday, December 25 and 26 – Why piano wire makes a good murder weapon

Goals: Blow up the piano (nah, I’m kidding – just keep restringing)

Music: Art Pepper’s “Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section”; Joe Pass’s “Virtuoso”; Freddie Hubbard’s “Open Sesame”; George Lewis’s “Jazz in the Classic New Orleans Tradition”.

I continue to work hard at the restringing. It takes about an hour to do four or five strings, depending. Sometimes it goes a little faster, but rarely. As the strings have gotten longer, I’ve been having a hell of time getting the wire the correct length, because it is not possible to use the whole coil while doing the stringing, due to the proximity of the strings, and all the stuff that is in the way. One wire, I swear to God, I measured four times, cut it two inches longer than I thought I needed, and it was too short, so I measured again, got the same number, cut it four inches longer than I thought I needed, and that was too short. I decided to use string to measure actual lengths between pins, around string supports, etc, but there wasn’t a piece of string in the house long enough to do that. Mrs. S. has since supplied me with ribbon, which I used to measure the last of the five strings. I’ve decided to cut all five to that extra length and trim them down, because I really will blow up the piano in frustration if I keep getting short strings.

I really want the spare parts I found on ebay from a seller in Canada to arrive so I can work on something other than the strings. And anyway, I have to get some larger diameter pins, as I continue to have problems with untunable pins (probably five or six of them by now, and more to be expected). Since there are two layers of strings, I have to get the first layer complete before I can move on to the second layer.

Much to consider. I just want this project to be over. 

And why does piano wire make a good murder weapon? I don't know. Maybe because you can still use it in your piano after you pull some guy's head off with it...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Time out for work

I worked a lot on my piano yesterday, but ran into a few more roadblocks. I’ll be happy to tell everyone about those tomorrow, but today I’m going to take time out to review some software I had the opportunity to download for free – in exchange for this review.

The software is a registry cleaner from Now, if you’re like me, when you hear “registry cleaner”, you start thinking Russian hackers, Trojans, worms, and a whole lot of bad stuff. My computer, however, has been running bad enough of late that it was worth a shot, figuring if anything really untoward happened, I could always do a system restore and get back on my feet.

I’m happy to report, digeus did nothing bad to my computer, and probably did some good. The software downloaded quickly and easily, and I had no problem running it. The initial scan said it found over 1600 registry errors, and it fixed them all (I guess) in less than a minute. I wouldn’t say that my computer is noticeably faster or anything like that, but it does seem to not freeze as much when surfing the Internet, and email seems a little faster, too.

All in all, I think digeus’s registry cleaner is a good product and worth giving a try. And it’s free if you click here. (Note that I am not endorsing this product and will not accept any responsibility for anything bad that happens to your computer because you use this software. Not saying anything will, just a disclaimer.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Days 69 and 70 –Saturday and Sunday, December 18 and 19 – Trouble

Goals: Pain and torture (seems like)

Music: Joe Henderson’s “The State of the Tenor” (both discs)

Things have, well, not been going, um, well.

On Saturday, I felt quite happy with the appearance of the inlay board, so I was ready to give it a clear top coat to seal in all my work and call it complete. With three possible options – spar varnish, water-based poly urethane, and oil based acrylic – I thought a little experimentation was called for. So on the reverse side of the board, I carved out an “E” (for “experiment” or “Eric”) and filled it with the colored wood filler that I used on the front. When that dried, I coated over it with the three stripes of the coatings in close proximity and allowed them to dry. Here's the before and after of that:

Before - no coatings
After - poly urethane, oil poly, varnish (top to bottom)
Both the oil based products looked a little too shiny for me, and one of them (the varnish) was still a bit tacky even after two hours or so. I also had some concern that the oil-based products would be too strong and would probably take off some of the lighter touches of ‘art’ that I had done on the board. It seemed that the water-based poly urethane was the way to go.

So I put the board on some newspapers and coated it. The result was 80% of the artwork that I had done on the mother-of-pearl pieces came off in the process. Since I don’t have a means to spray coat the thing, that was always going to be the result, in hindsight. Still I was amazed at how easily things like lines drawn by a Sharpie, charcoal pencil ground into the crevices, and make up powder, just came right off. That’s the bad news. The good news is, the dullness of the finish improved the overall appearance enough that the loss of detail is not that significant.

I’m still considering my option of replacing that board entirely and using the brass letters to do an inlay on the piano that will make up for the loss of the mother-of-pearl work. We’ll see.

On Sunday, it was back to stringing. I wouldn’t say that it didn’t go well, but the issue is I’m having more and more pins end up being loose and untunable, and it has been a struggle to get the length of the longer wires correct. I’ve resorted to laying out a tape measure on the floor and making all the wires two inches longer than I calculate, and even at that I’ve had one come up short somehow. As for the untunable pins, I still haven’t decided what to do and none of my consultants have dropped me a line, so I’ll have to call one today to get the low down. I think I’m just going to get two dozen larger pins and if that doesn’t work, do some shims.

Bottom line: the piano will not be finished by Christmas, and I will have to continue to listen to Mrs. S complain about the lack of a dining room/music room every time I point out I have nowhere to store my burgeoning CD collection.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Recent New Orleans trip schedule = Beginner's guide to the "Big Easy"

Oddly enough, it took me five trips to New Orleans before I finally got around to doing all the things that tourists are supposed to do when they visit there. So my most recent NOLA travelogue is really a list of stuff that you should do if you’re visiting “the Big Easy” for the first time:

See the inside of St. Louis Cathedral – It is the oldest continually operating Catholic church in the United States, and the inside is far nicer and just as photo-worthy as the often depicted outside. Mrs. S and I went inside to hear Ellis Marsalis play a free Christmas concert, accompanied by the rest of his quartet including his drummer son, Jason. The chords that Mr. Marsalis played when he tackled “Oh Tannenbaum” were spine tingling. During the concert, filming and photography were not allowed, so we came back the next day to take photos. Don’t miss it. (Keep your distance from the guys on the bench outside with the 16-ounce malt liquor cans in paper bags.)

Have beignets and coffee at Café Du Monde – This is probably the staple of the New Orleans tourist experience, and again, we had never done it. The beignets were tasty and a plate of three with two large coffees was just the right amount of food and drink for Mrs. S and I to go away satisfied, yet craving more. We went back on our second morning of the trip as well. Bring cash. It helps if you speak Thai (but since you can only order one thing to eat and maybe five to drink, communication is not an issue).

Eat a meal at the Acme Oyster House – This we had actually done before, but not in a while. We went on our first full day for lunch. We had some char-grilled Gulf oysters that were phenomenal, along with two different Po-boys and a glass of local beer. We enjoyed it so much, we decided to do it again the next day, doubled up on the oyster order, and got two different Po-boys and another local beer to wash everything down. Highly likely that in future trips to NOLA, we will eat all our lunches here.

Tour a rum distillery – Yes, there is a rum distillery in New Orleans. It’s not much of one, but it is a rum distillery. (Okay, it’s a shabby warehouse with some tanks that can be used to make booze.) They do three tours daily (call ahead) and they are a little out of the way in a seedy neighborhood by a cement factory, but the rum is tasty, they serve samples, and although the tour is pricy at $10, you get $5 off a bottle of rum if you buy one (and you will). Definitely something different to  do, especially if you are newly devoted to spirits, as I am. Which leads to our next tourist “must-do”:

Have a cocktail at the carousel bar at The Monteleone – If you are not up on your cocktails, you can order the signature drink, The Monteleone, which is a variation on a martini (I think). That’s what Mrs. S had. Made her drunk enough to lose her scarf. I had a Sazerac, another New Orleans cocktail. It takes about 15 minutes for the bar to go around once, so drink slowly or have two.
Me and my Sazerac (photo © Mrs. S)

Listen to jazz at Snug Harbor – There’s nothing like real live jazz, and all I can say is, you may want to do Preservation Hall for the tourist’s touristy jazz, but I would recommend Snug for the “in-the-know” tourist’s jazz. We heard Delfeayo Marsalis lead the Uptown Jazz Ensemble, a 17-piece band that played on a stage that wasn’t more than 15 by 20 feet in a room that couldn’t have been more than 50 x 20 total. An awesome experience and only an $8 cab ride to and from just about anywhere in the French Quarter. You can keep your costs down by not ordering too many $8 drinks.

Dinner at Stella – I’m pretty sure this is the best restaurant in New Orleans. If you buy the cheapest wine on the list, two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts, you won’t get away for much less than $250 – 300. The tasting menu is something like $125, plus another $95 for the flight of paired wines. If you’ve hit the lottery, you can try one of their $150 vodkas or the $3000/ounce caviar.  With the Acme Oyster House, this is the only other thing on the list we did not do for the first time (and hopefully not for the last, either).

That’s it. Two and a half days, three nights. Really, the perfect trip. Geaux, geaux, geaux to New Orleans! (Author is not provided with compensation by any party affiliated with the city of New Orleans.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day 68 –Tuesday, December 14 – Now, I’m an artiste:

Goals: Try out my paint pen on the inlay board

Music: Percy Faith’s “Music of Christmas”.

My Sharpie extra-fine point gold paint marker arrived, so I couldn’t wait to try it out on the inlay board. I was hoping and praying that the gold was opaque and non-metallic so that it would match what was on the board already, and I was praying that the point was fine enough to get the detailing to look right. Imagine my surprise and delight when it succeeded on both counts. I spent about one hour doing the detailing, entirely by free hand, and entirely with my mind’s eye – no stencils, overlays, copying of something similar, or anything like that. Mrs. S was not impressed, but I’m quite happy with the result. Here’s a sample:
After (sorry, slightly out of focus)

The only thing I have to do now is “age” some of the new mother-of-pearl pieces and then seal the board with urethane or some other clear coating. The sealing part is going to have to be trial and error, but since I just need something to get me to a uniform appearance, I think urethane is the way to go, but I may try lacquer as well. I think lacquer may give it more of an antique look with its slight yellow tint. Well have to see when I do the test piece.

I haven’t had any response to my inquiries about the untunable pin, but it doesn’t matter because I’m unlikely to have time to work on the piano tonight or tomorrow or Friday, due to having to work late, my piano lesson, and working as a casino dealer at a Christmas party, respectively. I will have the weekend, though, so hopefully my consultants will weigh in with their opinion pretty soon.

The big development today was that I found some replacement parts that I need on e-bay, so I snapped them up and sent an inquiry if he has any more of the parts that I need. I’m hoping he does and he sells them to me at a reasonable price. We’ll see.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Day 67 –Monday, December 13 – Slipping...slipping...and slipping again:

Goals: Continue restringing

Music: Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure”.

Did a couple more strings – not bad for a working week night It’s getting hard(er) now because the strings are stretching to up to six or seven feet in total length. It takes serious concentration and focus to keep a handle on the wire ends, especially when cutting. I also have some concern about there being enough wire to complete the project. Individual notes eat up a lot more wire when you’ve got to run seven foot lengths instead of ten or fifteen inches.

Now that I’m about halfway through, I started to wonder: will the piano be tunable? I tried to pluck the strings to at least see if they continue to go up in tone as you pluck them from left to right. As I did so, I found that most were doing fine as far as a semblance of accurate tonal direction, except for one. So I tightened and plucked and no change. So I tightened again and noticed that as soon as I pulled the tuning wrench off, it slipped back. There it was: my first un-tunable string. As I understand it, my options for making this string tunable are many:
1) Use a bushing
2) Use a chemical that expands the wood
3) Use a larger pin
I have just a little leeway at this point, so I plan to start by seeing if I can drive the pin deeper and get it to catch before it pulls the string too low. I figure this is a good gamble to make, since it’s not working right now as is. I might just save myself having to install a bushing or messing with chemicals.

I made some inquiries to my group of “consultants” as to what they recommend. Fortunately, because it is only one string, it shouldn’t hold me up too much. (In fact, I plan to do some more work on the piano tonight.)

Again, wish me luck.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Day 66 –Sunday, December 12 – Getting strung out:

Goals: Install the lock, continue restringing

Music: Roy Hargrove’s Quintet’s “Earfood”; Coleman Hawkins’ “The Stanley Dance Sessions”; Barry Harris Trio’s “Magnificent”.

If you did not read yesterday’s entry – and even if you did – let me start off by reiterating: stringing a piano is hard, hard work. Stringing a finicky square grand piano for the first time ever, with five different types of wire and an assortment of harp frame obstacles, not to mention 130-year old parts, is even harder than that. So, although you may not be impressed when I say I’m about at the halfway point of the restringing, I assure you, you should be. That represents a vast amount of tough physical labor, mental gymnastics, and eye strain.

I broke up stages in the restringing by installing the lock, which required custom fitting, and a touchy wood filler job. The escutcheon is still not quite right, and that will require precision gluing and refitting. There will be much surface refinishing in the area as well.

I ordered some more things for finishing up the piano, and with school out and TV still boring as hell, I’m planning to spend some evenings working on the piano. And yes, I’ve said that before and nothing became of it, but if I’m going to finish that sucker this year, I’m going to have to be serious about working on it in the evenings as well between now and Christmas. The finished product would make a great present to give myself on my 47th birthday, just eleven days from now.

Here’s a photo of where I’m at with the restringing now.
Halfway there
Here's a “guts pose” that came out of me unexpectedly. 
Just glad I still have both my eyes and no new scars...
I shall see you all back here again tomorrow. Still got a New Orleans’ travelogue to share, you know.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 65 –Saturday, December 11 – Dealing with antiques:

Goals: Install the soft board, re-start the restringing

Music: Grant Green’s “The Complete Quartets with Sonny Clark” (both discs); Vince Guaraldi’s “Greatest Hits”; Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters” and “Maiden Voyage”; Roy Hargrove’s Big Band’s “Emergence”.

I had an opportunity while in New Orleans this past week to actually learn a little about antiques. Mrs. S likes to visit all the places we can only dream of ever buying something from, and so, we tour those places just like a tourist would: with our eyes and mouths wide open. But usually, the shop owners are friendly and helpful, and you can talk to them about the pieces and the Saints and shrimp po-boys, and antiques in general, and they will indulge you.

So at one of the places, I’m noticing how furniture that is as old as my piano looks shiny and new. I asked the guy what they used on their furniture to make the finish look so bright and lustrous, and he gives me some BS line about “special wax imported from Wales – we use it on all our pieces”. I asked him about some of the things I’ve been using on my piano, mainly lemon and orange oil, and he explained those products cause the wood to soak it up, but eventually it evaporates and you’re left with the same old dried wood. As we’re walking around the store as we’re talking, there are three cans of what turns out to be this "wax imported from Wales", sitting on a table, with a price tag of $35 (each) on them. Is this it? I ask. Oh yes, he says. (Why he didn’t grab one up and try to sell it to me right away, I have no idea.) So anyway, the best thing to come out of our recent trip to New Orleans for me is an antique preservative product to try on my piano and a couple of blog entries that I will write later this week.

One more thing about the antiques store guy: we were commenting on a less than well kept piece and how it looked a little rough, and he says, "Well, it’s old." That’s the bottom line with my piano. Things that are 130 years old don’t look new, and that’s that. Yes, I’ve made some mistakes, and yes, the veneer on the back is a bit bubbly, but overall, the piece is in much better shape for all the work I’ve put in, and if anyone is expecting something different, well that will be their tough luck.

Yesterday, I set out to install the soft board, having bought the screws necessary for the job right before leaving for NOLA. Right away, I put one screw in, and it split the wood. I had to glue it, wait for it to dry, and while that was going on, I cleaned the hammer assembly and shanks and heads, cleaned the support frame, pulled off the old felt and washed it, cleaned off the old glue, and cleaned the wood of both of the support pieces. During those processes, one of the stop buttons split, so I had to repair that too.

After all that, I put a support screw in the soft board where it split, cleaned and polished the swivel support (you can see what 130 years’ worth of patina/dirt looks like in the before and after photos, below), and put the board in. Of course, the screws I bought were just a little different than the ones that came out, and they extended through and were scratching the soundboard, not to mention not allowing the soft arm to move freely, so I took the screws out and cut them. I also put some felt pads under the soft board for better support.
Swivel tab - before

Swivel tab - after
By this time, the felt that I removed from the hammer support frame was washed and dried, so I used my contact cement to stick it to the bottom of my sock when I stepped on it accidentally while trying out the lock in the lock slot. After I got the felt off my sock, I put it back on the support frame to avoid any further problems with it. I filled the lock slot with acrylic filler because (of course) the lock I purchased doesn’t fit quite right. I used bamboo to fill the extra wide hole to fit the new escutcheon, and then I had to wait for all that to dry.

It was time to do some stringing, again.

It took me a long time to get to actual stringing. I had to count how many spaces were left, which string widths went where, and because I didn’t know quite what I was doing back when I was taking off the strings, the numbers weren’t working out quite right. All I really knew was that I had 33 custom strings for the low end, and five different widths for the high, and that was it. Try as I might, I couldn’t make the numbers come out, but, I had one note that I wrote down that made it come together. It said “0.8 mm that side of frame, 0.86 this side of frame”. By using the numbers I had for the four string widths on this side of the frame, I was able to find the correct positions for all the width ranges.

Now I really was ready to string.

I could only do two more strings over the next 45 minutes, because the pins were all under the support arm and I have 47 year old eyes. I had to shine a flashlight, take my glasses off, put them back on, check the wire position, remove my glasses, recheck, replace, put my glasses back on, move the light, hold the wire, insert it in the pin, remove my glasses, check the wire position, move the light, replace my glasses, ... like that. Did I mention I was working with 0.86mm wire? You know, where if you let go of it, or it slips, it springs and snaps backs, and if you’re holding you head right over it with your glasses off, it’s really dangerous? I did mention that? You get the idea. Here's what it looks like now:

Seriously: Stringing antique square pianos is not for the timid.

But I finished the two really hard ones yesterday, so now I’m set to keep stringing all day tomorrow. Wish me luck. I'm going to do that while baking a chocolate Cajun-spiced rum cake to keep the house (and me and Mrs. S) warm.