Friday, June 29, 2012

Why to not drink while taking a piano apart

Because you might hit your hand with a hammer.

Yes, I did.
See it? Under the index finger connector knuckle. Frozen hamburgers, ibuprofen, and cold Diet Cokes kept it from being a lot worse.

Tomorrow it’s out to the garage. I’ve got a 5K race in the morning (before it hits 106 like it did today), but the rest of the day is for me to get intimate with my piano and my as yet unused Porter and Cable oscillating tool. I haven’t exactly figured out how I’m going to get the thing out to the garage, but I have some vague idea of using a graduated system of plastic totes from work to build progressively smaller stands until I can just set the piano on a rug and move it outside. It shouldn’t be too hard. We’ll see.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Animal hide glue, spar varnish, a silver dime, and me

I have succeeded in removing the sound board from the piano. I don’t know if every square grand piano from the 1800’s was built like mine, but this piano is a very robust piece of furniture. As I said in an earlier entry, the screws are not what holds the piano parts together, it’s glue. And not just any glue: natural animal hide glue made from connective tissue (skin, tendons, ligaments, hooves) of animals (usually horses). This stuff gets down into the grain of the wood, adheres to the wood on a cellular level, then hardens into a chunk. Good luck pulling apart any two pieces of wood bound with this stuff after it dries. In fact, the only thing that is saving me during this project is the wood of my piano is so dried out, it splinters and fragments all around the glue, more or less allowing me to separate everything piece by piece.

It's not history, but it's mine.
 As for the sound board itself, it too fragmented at crucial junctures, and once it had loosened, I was able to pry it out. It is another impressive piece of work. Heartening was the fact that my varnish job was as solid as the original varnish job. I used authentic ‘spar’ varnish and when pieces of the sound board cracked and splintered, pointy little “nails” of hardened varnish flew everywhere, sharp as needles. Again, when they were building these pianos back in the day, they really knew what they were doing.

Check out the spar varnish splintering, bottom right...
 Once the sound board was removed, I was able to see the entire inside of the piano case in the light of day for the first time. A small glimmer in a pile of detritus caught my eye, and lo and behold, good news is, it’s money. Bad news is, it was just a dime. Good news is it’s a silver dime (1957). Bad news is, there’s nowhere left for money to be hiding in my piano case.

Animal ligaments are strong? Well, stronger than wood, anyway!
 Tonight, Mrs. S and I are going to put the piano up on saw horses so I can remove the legs. Then Mrs. S and I are going to see if she is strong enough to hold up one end of the empty case so that she and I can move it ourselves. (She doesn’t know any of this yet.) If not, I’ll need to recruit some bodies to move the thing out to the garage for the hollowing out for the digital conversion or bar (depending on how the hollowing out goes). I have an oscillating power tool that I received from Amazon and haven’t written a review for yet, so I’m using this project to kill two birds with one stone. I’m sure hollowing out an antique piano is more than sufficient enough to put a cutting and sanding tool through its paces.

 This project is taking shape rapidly and smoothly, and I’m still joyous and inspired as the work progresses. How could I not be?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How your brain works

Yesterday and today, I tackled the removal of the sound board (and am still working on it). Although I pretty much expected it was glued into the frame, I sort of thought there might be some screws that secured portions of it to the frame. Because I have been removing a number of screws but the sound board is still firmly and securely attached to the piano, I’m beginning to suspect this is not the case. In fact, it seems to me that the purpose of any screws was probably to hold the wood together while the glue set. In any event, to make everything come apart as easily as possible, I’m removing the screws. In the space between the deck and the frame – a gap of about 6-8 inches – there are a number of screws in the bottom of the sound board. Their removal, as I detailed yesterday, requires a special short screw driver. It also requires a mirror and a flexible brain.

Pedal lyre, anyone? I hear they make great lamps...
See, in order to fit the tiny head of the screw driver into the slot, you need to see the slot and screw. My head, however, is not tiny and does not fit into that space, and even if it did, my 48-year old eyes could not possibly focus on anything so small in such a dark space, reading glasses, bifocals, regular glasses, or no. So, I borrowed one of Mrs. S’s compacts, shoved a flashlight into the cabinet, and tried to loosen the most accessible screw.

There are the levers that are operated by the pedals and move the stuff inside the piano. (Not anymore.)

Long story short: your brain is not equipped to do anything while looking in a mirror, other than brush your teeth, comb your hair, shave, or put on and take off make up. It took me a full five minutes to get the first screw out. “Righty tighty, lefty loosy” is critical when unscrewing 130 year old screws in a mirror. What your hands are doing, what your eyes are seeing, and what your brain interprets to be happening, are all three completely different things. Then, when the screw driver slips out, your brain has a predetermined approach for reinserting the driver in the screw slot, but again, the mirror tells a 180-degree lie, and your brain struggles. Eventually, you get it back in the slot. Then you do the “lefty loosy” drill again, then your brain fights, then the driver slips. But, after five minutes of repeating this, the screw comes out.

Now you move to the second screw. You make the mistake of trying to slot the driver looking straight on from under and in front of the piano, and your brain goes back to normal, and you struggle. You move the mirror, try again. Three minutes later, the screw is out. The third screw takes about a minute and twenty seconds. The next ten or fifteen screws take about five minutes total. Really, it’s amazing how quickly your brain adapts to the new requirements of screw removal in the dark narrow space with a mirror. After a half dozen or so, you can slot the screw by feel and don’t even need the mirror, and when you use the mirror to locate the next screw, your driver-grasping-hand goes straight to the hole with the screw. This morning, I feel like the single most dexterous person on the planet.
Possibly the serial number of my piano. Gotta admit: my freehand Sharpie work is pretty good!

Today, we’re doing carry-out Greek for dinner, so I’m expecting to have time to take lots of pictures and weigh parts, including the sound board, which I’m expecting to have enough time to completely remove tonight. And there’ve been no takers for the harp, so I think we need to find a scrap yard before the weekend, too. There isn’t much metal left in that behemoth any more. And, I still feel very wonderful about this project. Once I extract more of the wood and move the piano to the garage, I’ll feel even better.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Feeling the joy of breaking something

Day two of the dismantling of my piano went smoothly and as planned, succeeding in getting down to the harp and removing it. I can’t tell you how much easier everything is when you know you are not going to be putting the piano back together again. You just tear, unscrew, pry, twist, pull, whatever you want to do on whatever part you want to, and you keep doing it until it comes off, pops out, breaks away, or whatever. I even removed the pedals and most of the accoutrements underneath the piano that supported and moved with the pedals, finally getting stopped by some smallish screws that are going to require a special screw driver (which I borrowed from work today) to remove.

Tuning pins
The sound board, too, has come loose and it is being held by some screws that require a short screw driver to get to. I borrowed that from work today, too.  

The harp is for sale on craigslist. I’ll probably put the pedal lyre up for sale as well. I’m keeping all the metal together to hopefully gather up enough to make a run to a scrap yard (if I don’t sell the harp). I’m going to wring every penny out of the thing that I can.

 And I really can’t wait to see how light the piano is when all the insides have been pulled out. Maybe Mrs. S and I will be able to move it ourselves, though I’m planning to get some large bodies from work to assist me to get it out to the garage so I can work on it over the long holiday weekend coming up. There’s going to be a lot more cutting, sawing, hacking, shredding, sanding, and finishing done to it. Yep, it feels really, really good to be taking this piano apart, knowing it will never be a piano ever again. At least, not an acoustic piano, as I still plan to try and insert my Yamaha in it first. I’m keeping the old keys for now. Those will be the centerpiece of the bar, if that’s the route I end up taking. I really didn’t think destruction of this piano could make me feel this good. I had no idea.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

So begins the ending

I have begun to take my piano apart for the second (and last) time. I can’t tell you how good I feel. Having that big chunky case stare at me every time I played my little Yamaha, it’s just purely cathartic to rip the insides of the case out again. By dinner time yesterday, I was giddy, and I don’t think it was from drinking two afternoon cocktails.
Lid, arms, trim, and dampers are off!
 This time around I’m actually measuring and weighing all the individual parts. (Lid: 53 pounds, damper push pins: 6 ounces, etc.) I will make myself an expert on putting together square grand pianos without ever actually successfully re-assembling one. Like this:

Step 157: Regulate the keys as you would for a normal piano.

Call me if you need damper rods for an 1880's piano.
Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-HAH, ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho-ho. Yeah, good luck. That’s a good one! He-he-heee.

Oh, this is genuine fun.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Restoration by destruction

I want to buy a real piano. In order to do that, I need real space. Since I can’t sell the square grand I 90% restored, I've decided to dismantle it. Careful readers of this blog will recall my intention to turn the monster into a bar, but I've started considering another idea: I may do a digital conversion and shove my Yamaha P-70 into the Stone square grand case. The first phase for either project is dismantling and gutting the piano. For my bar idea, I want to preserve the keys, maybe even seal them in acrylic to use as a glass holder or something. If I do a digital conversion, however, the keys become redundant. Anyway, if I do keep the keys, I’ll cut off the long bits underneath to make space in the cabinet if it ends up being a bar.
My innocent square grand piano, awaiting its fate
I’m going to be much more careful about the destruction part, too, if that makes any sense. I plan to write a “how to” manual on restoring and converting square grands, so this is my road map back to realizing that potential. Who knows? Electronic publication may lead to sales that allow me to recover some of my investment in the resulting fiasco.

Yeah, I’m going to start this weekend. I’m excited.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Speak to me…

In my search for my next and last piano, I’ve come to realize something. The realization is not revolutionary. In fact, it’s kind of common sense, almost to the point of being nonsensical. On Saturday, Mrs. S. and I went to the local music shop, which is basically the only music store in town reputable enough and large enough to sell a decent selection of pianos. When I walked in the door and the salesman (who turned out to be not pushy at all and very, very knowledgeable) asked, “Can I help you?”, I merely said, “Yeah, I’m here to play your pianos.” Not “buy”, not “look at”, not “price up”, “PLAY”. To which, the sales guy said, “Okay, what do you play?” And from there, I laid hands on two Steinways, a Kohler & Campbell, some kind of antique Baldwin, two or three Yamahas, and one more that I’m going to tell you about in a moment.

After playing the second Steinway, I noticed my not-revolutionary idea: price and brand are pretty irrelevant factors in deciding if you like a piano or not. Just because it’s a big, expensive, name brand piano doesn’t mean it will work for you. I can say this because, the first Yamaha I played did not thrill me, even though I’m a self declared Yamaha guy. So the sales guy put me on a Kohler, and, no. It’s nice, it’s better than 90% of pianos I’ve ever touched, but, no. Then Mrs. S, over by the lovely used mahogany Steinway said, try this one. And this one is better than 93% of the pianos I’m ever going to touch, but, no. “You don’t like it?” she asked. “I like it just fine,” I explained, “but I’m not going to buy it.”

My second time in a piano shop, and I was getting no closer to my goal.

The sales guy and I talked: about music, about what I played at UAH, about how big a room I had to put a piano in, about my obsession with Yamaha. His eyes widened, “Did you try the C7?” I looked at him. “I don’t know, did I?” He walked me over to it. I thought maybe I had played it. Sure I had. No wait, maybe not. Let’s try our standard test song: Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower”.

There. That’s it. Hear it? I do. The Yamaha C7, eleven years old, well-used by a local church, spoke. It spoke directly to me. Mrs. S of course saw all the dust and scratches. She didn’t hear what I heard. I also saw the worn hammers, the dust bunnies under the harp, and a few other imperfections, but the voice of that piano was scintillating. It was a sound I’d not heard in a long time. It was the sound I want to hear every time I hit a piano key. Unfortunately, I’m not sure about hitting up the home equity line for the piano. I’m just not sure about it. There was something satisfying about paying an annual fee because the HELOC balance was $0.

Oh, well. We walked around some more. Looked at a new C7 which, surprisingly, did not sound quite as sweet as the old one. It was, however, situated on tile, so the harmonics were bouncing all over the place, but I still felt differently about it, compared to the used one. Couldn’t help but notice the price tag of the new one was more than double the used one, too. Next to it was an elaborate mahogany inlaid, squat little baby grand. It had a little gold bird on it and said, Vogel. The sales guy said it was hand crafted in Poland. He said, we’ve all been surprised at how good it sounds. Really? Poland? Hand crafted? “It’s pretty,” Mrs. S said. Okay. Let’s cut to the chase and try some Miles Davis on this one. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on a piano that sounds like it came from Toys R’Us.

But, believe it or not, I heard it again. In fact, I was stunned. I played some more. I could hear it, plain as day. The Vogel spoke mellifluously in the same tongue and tone of the C7. It was incredible. I looked into the casing. How could that voice be coming out of that little box? Doesn’t matter. If it’s going to talk to me, I’m going to listen. And with apologies to the fine companies of Steinway and Yamaha, whose pianos I love, I’ll take the Vogel action every day of the week. It was smooth, even, strong, fluid, precise, and (I’ll say it) beautiful. There could be no better translator for the voice of that piano, another reason (I guess) why it spoke to me.

I will give some other pianos chances to speak to me, but my realization is, I’ll not buy a piano that doesn’t speak to me.

Vogels and C7s and I are going to be having more conversations in the future. Hopefully, a lot of them.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Fire Sale

My original plan for financing my grand piano purchase fell through. The stamp collection that I have kept and fostered and insured and cared for over the last forty years turned out to be worth far less than I thought it would. The buyer, who was very professional, knowledgeable and courteous told me what I already knew: the hobby is dying. Kids have Facebook, Nintendo, X-box, and their phone, and many of them have never seen a piece of mail with a stamp on it. No surprise then that young people are not taking up the hobby and there is not market for stamps, even for some as nice and relatively rare as mine.

I dove into Craiglist and it wasn’t long before I found a Yamaha C3 (very nice piano, that) for $2000. After two days of fervently trying to contact the seller, I finally heard back from them. Unfortunately, I quickly realized something was amiss, and a cursory search with the text showed up number one on a website called No C3 for me!
Speaking of C3's: Here's a C15 stamp, one of many I will be selling soon.
I’ve been watching two pianos in the north Alabama area on ebay. Both are Yamaha’s under six feet. Both are being sold by families with some kind of vague need. Both have a disclavier attached (not something I want). Both are at least one hour from my house. So far, I’m just watching those.

A trip to the Steinway Piano Gallery in Nashville turned up a relatively affordable new piano made by Samick. I wasn’t impressed with its feel, but it looks and sounds good. Still, something about, “What’s a Samick?” and “Well, it’s a German company, owned by a Korean company...I think.” Then, “So it’s a Korean piano?” “No, Indonesian.” I don’t know. I mean, Yamaha makes pianos in Indonesia, too, no big deal there, but, nobody’s going to ask me about my Yamaha.

Next phase: Try one more time to sell my ginormous, semi-refurbished square grand piano, start piecing out my stamp collection on ebay, and use the proceeds to buy a nice Yamaha baby grand, used. Wish me luck. Or better yet, buy my piano and stamps.