Step 1: Cleaning

Time to get dirty!

One of the first things to do is get the piano all apart and take a good look at the nooks and crannies. Although I did give it a pretty good looking over before I agreed to take it (so as to not set myself up for guaranteed failure), I just want to really get all components out of the piano and really get in there for a visual confirmation of everything. See previous postings for more detail on how to get the main components out of the piano. Once you get that figured out, you can take a look at the peripherals. These are the smaller parts, such as the pedal pneumatic, the governor, as well as the piano parts like pedal rods. Each piano is different, so you will have to figure out all the fine details for yourself.

Very important: make extensive, accurate notes and take detailed pictures of the following actions, in other words: everything which is to be dismantled. While there is really no such thing as too many notes, there will certainly be unhappiness caused by not taking enough. Unless you are doing this professionally, you are probably doing this (as I am) in your spare time, so it may be months in between the teardown time and final reinstallation. You have been warned!

This disassembly will also allow complete access to the belly of the instrument, which in turn permits the execution of a ho-hum but important first step (it’s on the checklist): cleaning!

When I say cleaning, what I am talking about primarily is a combination of air treatments: compressed air blowing and vacuum. The ideal scenario is to have a compressor with a blowgun attachment, and to be able to take the empty piano outside, as this process is going to generate a lot of dusty gunk.
In my case, due to various circumstances of my setup, I do not fall into this ideal scenario, therefore I have to clean the piano in situ. In the event that you don’t have access to a compressor, you will just have to manage with vacuum alone.

So again, after removing the case parts, the player top action, the piano action, the keys, the bottom pump trunk action, and the peripherals, now I am down to the bare essentials. Since I can’t bring the piano outside, and I do not wish to get dirt over every surface in the room, I have to use a longer protocol. First thing is set up, or preparation. I will tape up some plastic sheeting on the surrounding walls (which are white) to mitigate dirt migration. Also cover whatever else is laying on horizontal surfaces, to avoid getting things covered in a fine layer of dust.

In terms of safety I advise wearing safety glasses, and also ear plugs. A compressor may not seem “loud”, but remember its job is to generate a heck of a lot of air pressure, which is the scientific definition of sound. It may just sound like a low noise, but just because the frequency is low, does not mean the level cannot be harmful if it is intense enough.

Now to the cleaning: start with vacuuming, to do a first pass and get a lot of the heavier stuff, dust bunnies and so on. A crevice tool is helpful to get into tight spaces, and a brush attachment is good as well, for some of the hard surfaces. A vacuum won’t get everything, so after the first pass it is time to switch to the compressor, and watch the dust fly. I found about 80 PSI to be a good level, I recommend not making the pressure too strong, or you could damage some action parts. In an attempt to limit the dispersement of dust, what I try to do is direct the air flow into the vacuum, to get a “tag team” effect. With some angles and positions this will be futile, but it’s worth a shot. Once that’s done, the piano should be good for another 75 years or so, before its next cleaning, hehe.

Note that I am assuming garden variety circumstances of normal dirt accumulation in the piano. In the event that there has been vermin or other animal contamination, these are special (by special I mean rather unpleasant) conditions which require special remedies. These can be looked up elsewhere, or you could contact me if you are stuck.
Another disagreeable possibility is the concentration of mildew or mold in the piano, which sometimes occurs in old pianos which have been stored in damp environments, for a prolonged period. In fact, I did have some on my piano, when I first opened it up, but the nice silver lining was that it was most surface mold, on the darker, hard surfaces. Taking the affected components out of the piano and exposing them to direct sunlight for a couple of days will really knock back the mold. You can wipe off hard surfaces with a rag dampened slightly with hot water diluted with white vinegar. Don’t use too much and dry the same parts right away. For permeable surfaces like felts and cloths (or hammers) which are heavily soiled, there is not much to be done, they must be replaced.

In summary, active vermin or bio-contaminants can pose a real health risk, especially when disturbed, so do take appropriate precautions when getting dirty in such environments.

Getting back to the task at hand, take the piano action outside and give that a good blowing out, and the other components if you feel the need. Again take care with the power of the compressor, you don’t want to make extra work for yourself by damaging components. To be on the safe side wear a dust mask, and if it is really nasty in there, a respirator may be merited. You also won’t want to wear your Sunday best for this job; if your clothes and body are not covered in dust when you are done, you probably have left too much dirt in the piano!

Even the air compressor may not get built-on grime, you will have to go again with the slightly damp rag and wipe down parts like the hammer rail, brackets, and perhaps the plate if it is grimy too. Use the same treatment as described above, for mold. Eventually you will also have to clean the stack and pump parts in the same manner, although it doesn’t have to be on the same day.

Once every thing is fairly cleaned off, make sure the light is good and carefully make an inspection of all the parts to see what needs replacing and what doesn’t. The rationale for deciding what needs doing is made up of several factors, the most important of which is the proper functionality of the instrument. I made reference to this in the previous post “on value”.
In a subsequent post I will give some more details on what it is I discovered with my piano.

On Value

Returning to the big picture, I need to assess what work on the piano part needs doing. In this case, I am both the technician and the customer: I alone determine what my goals are, and how they are to be achieved.

In this business, there are different terms often bandied about, such as restoration, refurbishment, rebuilding, and so on. Restoration is a nebulous term which I tend to avoid, when I wish to talk specifics. A complete rebuilding is the most thorough treatment for a piano, and is supposed to involve new pinblock, tuning pins, strings, soundboard and bridges, action parts, and case refinishing. In other words, the piano is returned to approximately the same condition it was in when it left the factory or showroom.

[Sidebar: Sadly, unscrupulous persons often sell a “complete rebuilding” to unsuspecting customers, when they have really only addressed the cosmetic issues of the piano, and perhaps some superficial action problems as well. But this is really for another post.]

A refurbishment is a less intensive intervention; it may involve replacing strings, hammers, damper felts, perhaps other action parts, as well as keytops. It would likely not entail belly work or cabinet refinishing. No matter what degree of action work is done, it is understood that a complete regulation will follow any significant labour.

I am leaning toward this latter treatment, for several reasons: because the action is serviceable, and because of previous work already having been done; because I am particularly interested in the player action, and finally because I believe I will be adequately satisfied with the piano as is, I am not going to do any major parts replacement, where the piano portion is concerned. And of course, cost.

A proper, full restoration/rebuilding does call for all of the above-mentioned protocols to be followed, however it must be understood that this means investing an incredible amount of time and energy, not to mention the cost of parts. This is where we get into the question of value, as well.  So just what is “value”, anyhow?

The “value” of an instrument is measured in different ways, both monetary and sentimentally. The monetary is determined by standard criteria such as brand, type, rarity, age and present condition. It is a reasonably objective criterion and the standard and immutable rules of supply and demand apply here as well. This is the type of mindset I stick to when I evaluate instruments for sale or purchase, for my clients.

The instrument in question here is ultimately a quality yet garden-variety Canadian piano, in average condition (poor in terms of current playability), nearly 100 years old. The availability of such instruments (with complete player action) is declining, true; but by the same token demand is fairly nil in the current market. Hence I got the piano for “free”.

Sentimental value, on the other hand, is a highly subjective but powerful motivator. If the piano has been in a certain family for several generations, and this family has historically valued music and learned to play on this instrument, then the piano will obviously be held in great esteem and the current generation will be receptive to the idea of spending money to revitalize or at least improve it. In my case this particular piano has no sentimental value, as I have recently acquired it, but certainly my vocation does occasionally bias me with warm feelings toward antique instruments.

The value to me will be in having an educational tool in the short term, and having an enjoyable and functional player piano for the long term. I can achieve this goal without a complete rebuilding of the piano. Not only that, but from an objectively financial point of view, it would be foolhardy to expend thousands of dollars in materials and work hours to marginally increase the market value which is currently next to nothing.

Essentially this post is a simply a lengthy disclaimer of sorts; while I accept without reservation the idea that a century-old piano needs a full rebuilding to perform at its full potential, I also do not feel compelled to undertake a complete piano rebuilding for the reasons outlined above. I furthermore reserve the right to change my mind in future; after all, there is no real penalty or additional complications from waiting to make additional improvements to the instrument.

When the piano is yours, you get to make the rules!