As a largely self-taught pianist, I often lamented the learning process of the piano vs. the guitar. The guitar is portable and requires little to no amplification. Conversely, the piano traditionally requires a large financial investment and offers zero portability. Even full-size keyboards are difficult to move, require amplification and for the most part, do not have the same key weighting as traditional pianos. After a few months of learning on a Yamaha keyboard, however, I was certain that piano was something I was going to stick with and decided to purchase the real deal. This was my journey.
When I went about looking for a piano, I immediately went to Craigslist. I expected a panoply of pianos in shapes, sizes and makes sold by family members. I decided on an upright, not a baby grand or grand piano, because I was living in a shared space and needed to save room. When it came time to move a year later, I was glad for this decision. Ultimately, the upright provided a warm, intimate sound and I never found myself wanting for more.
I found an abundance of upright pianos on Craiglist sold not by individuals, but by companies. It seems that it is a common occurrence for moving companies to take possession of large, unwanted items and then resell these items to a third party from their warehouse. This meant I had 5 pianos within 10 miles of my house all listed at $100 or less. After some email bartering, I pulled the trigger on a vintage Baldwin Hamilton Upright for $75, $100 total including moving and tuning. If you live near a large city, I expect that you’d have similar success with this method.
I decided on the Baldwin Hamilton upright because it’s truly the workhorse of old upright pianos. Mass manufactured under the supervision of Baldwin, considier the Hamilton upright the “Old Navy” to Baldwin’s “Banana Republic”. You’re not buying the label, you’re buying the workmanship. I have seen identical sweaters from those brands, the only difference being some extra detailing around the neck, otherwise identical. With a Hamilton, Baldwin didn’t include ivory keys or their finest mahogany, but they built a solid piano with a pleasing sound.
Many of you might be lucky enough to find a piano that suits your visual aesthetic. For me, while I found a piano that sounded great, I knew immediately that there was a great deal of work to be done on the exterior. Your first step should be to investigate the condition of the wood and finish. I suspect that my piano was previously housed at a school, as Sharpie marks and water marks had penetrated the glossy varnish someone had coated the wood with. For me, this meant sanding the entire body, save for the back of the piano which remained in flawless condition, probably hiding against the wall from uninterested adolescents who pounded on the keys.
After sanding, twice around the entire body for good measure, take a shop towel and rub water or diluted paint thinner across the body of the piano, removing dust and dirt. Next, Simple painter’s tape will suffice when taping off the keys, but take time to do this step right. The keys are a section of the piano that eyes are immediately drawn to, and if you have masked them off well, your restoration will have added value. Now, you’re ready to stain!
I considered what the proper stain for this piano would be. I decided on a Dark Mahogany stain color, something to dark the already bleached tan color that I had taken delivery of. When choosing your stain, make sure that you pick an oil-based stain, like those made by Minwax. Make sure you open all of your windows in your work space and place a fan nearby to help ventilation.
I recommend using two brushes, one wide for large sections of the body, and one small for detailed sections, around the legs and keys, for example. Try to keep your brush strokes long and even when possible. You’ll be painting two coats, but it is still important to avoid streaking. I found it easier to start with the lid of the piano and work downwards. If you start the project in the morning, return in the late afternoon for a second coat. By morning the next day, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where you stand. I say this because I personally decided against adding a varnish coat. I enjoyed how the wood looked worn and vintage, as if I’d built it myself from scratch like the protagonist from The Notebook. Those wanting a more polished appearance, however, could easily add one or two coats of clear varnish to their piano, really making it shine.
I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of my piano restoration series. With a small $100 investment and some “wrench time”, you can enjoy having a beautiful upright piano in your home. Beyond the benefits of playing an actual instrument versus the electronic counterpart, I’ve found my piano to be a wonderful piece of furniture. I certainly don’t lose my keys as much anymore.
In the future, I’ll be writing an article on replacing piano keys, but first I have to learn how to do that, and I’ve been a little busy making music with my beautiful refinished piano!