How to simply refinish an old piano
June 11, 2007 2:30 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible for me to refinish my cheap piano (pics inside)

I have an upright piano of unknown provenance that has had a hard life. I bought it from a school a couple of years ago, and the finish is extremely battered - lots of dings and scratches - but I like the sound. In a couple of weeks I'll be moving it to a new house, which is going to be empty for a few more weeks until I move in. Hence, I've got the idea of doing a simple refinishing job while there's no-one in the new house to be annoyed by dust, varnish fumes etc.

Now, on to the beast itself. The construction is very simple; as far as I can tell there are no fancy veneers or scrollwork or anything like that. Here are some photos (one,two, three ). I've found some online articles about piano refinishing but they all seem to be dealing with veneer finishes and are consequently more complicated than I think I need. As far I can tell, my piano is just stained pine/maple/something. So, my proposed scheme would be:

1. Take off the bits that will come off easily and do them separately
2. mask of the non-wood bits (i.e. the keys) to stop them getting dusty
3. Sand down to bare wood.
4. Stain/varnish

Does this sound like a do-able plan, given a couple of weeks of evenings to work in? For bonus points, can anyone ID the wood, in case it makes a difference?
posted by primer_dimer to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
They call it "piano finish" for a reason. Reproducing that requires extensive coats of lacquer, each one hand rubbed (wet grit sanded) in between. It is called a French polish.
posted by caddis at 3:35 AM on June 11, 2007

It's a funky old thing... I'd be tempted to just sand it down and paint it black.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:29 AM on June 11, 2007

They call it "piano finish" for a reason.

Sure, but high-gloss solid lacquer isn't the only finish you can put on a piano. They don't call it "piano finish" because it's required, they call it that because it's common. You could sand and oil (tung, linseed, etc) a piano and still have a perfectly functional instrument, just one that looked untraditional (and which wouldn't stand up to moisture as well).

Many a pit piano has seen house paint.
posted by mendel at 5:58 AM on June 11, 2007

If it's lacquered, or there a thick clearcoat of anything on there, you might want to use stripper before you hit it with sandpaper-- if there's something on there, it'll gum up the sandpaper and make it much harder and more time-consuming than it needs to be.

If it sands right through, you're golden. Just sand it with 100 and then maybe 120, stain and seal with whatever.
posted by exlotuseater at 6:08 AM on June 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Are you sure it's not veneered? The light patch in the third pic looks as though the veneer has come off and you can see the substrate.

If it is veneer go easy with the sanding, may want to try a chemical stripper first to see if that will do the job. But in principal there is no reason why you can't do what you are trying to do.
posted by zeoslap at 6:27 AM on June 11, 2007

Thanks for all the replies. The really obvious light patch in the third pic is from where a sheet of paper has been glued to the side and subsequently ripped off. mendel is quite right; I'm not bothered about restoring the original finish, just something that looks slightly neater. I suppose I could paint it, but if I'm sanding it down anyway, I'd rather use a nice stain. Obviously I'll try sanding a test patch first to check if I have to use stripper.
posted by primer_dimer at 6:34 AM on June 11, 2007

Before using a chemical stripper or sanding, I'd try using a card scraper. It doesn't take long to learn to use one, and it leaves a very clean surface that doesn't need as much preparation before refinishing. A holder is nice but not necessary, and you can either buy a few blades if you don't plan on making a habit of refinishing stuff, or you can buy a burnisher and reuse the same blades forever. I bought a maple desk at a school auction once, and after scraping (and sanding and then scraping a few deep scratches), I just waxed the bare wood. There are probably good reasons not to do this, but I hate finishing. The wood figure shows nicely and the desk seems to be holding up.
posted by Killick at 7:06 AM on June 11, 2007

first of all, if you open the top of the piano and look at the badge on the pinblock (where the serial number is) you might could learn about its provenance. It likely won't list a brand name, but SN will telll you a lot if you consult the right person/book.

Once you do that, call a local piano store with that info, and ask to speak to their finish person--they'll be able to suggest not only methods and techniques, but brands of finish etc. It's very dificult to refinish a piano without breaking it down piece by piece, which is A LOT HARDER THAN IT LOOKS. pulling the action out is very scary, and sound boards are fragile.

based on the photos you're probably dealing with a medium quality american made joint from the late 1940s early 1950s. Value-wise, i doubt you're going to ruin a priceless antique, but it's worth checking.

good luck!
posted by markovitch at 7:10 AM on June 11, 2007

The wood is nothing that special, I would lightly sand and prime and paint it. Have the primer tinted to match the topcoat so chips will be less noticeable. I am not so sure that your piano is solid wood, it looks like a blond mahogany veneer to me.

If you insist on refinishing you might consider using old fashioned shellac. It sticks to anything and has a nice warm glow, especially the amber shellac. It also dries super quick, you can do multiple coats in a day. However it is not very good at standing up to water, so keep a bunch of coasters on top of the piano.

I know nothing about taking apart a piano, but Markovitch's advice is worth listening to. Maybe you should start by seeing how easily it comes apart before you commit to refinishing?
posted by LarryC at 10:25 AM on June 11, 2007

Why not paint it bright colors -- aqua, hot pink, sunny yellow, fire engine red, etc. -- with no two wood parts the same color? Maybe some psychedlic-type flowers? Stripes, polka-dots, waves, stars. Man, the sky is the limit. Why stick to old wood colors (not that there's anything wrong with shades of brown...)
posted by Smalltown Girl at 10:27 AM on June 11, 2007

With regards the card scraper if you do go that route you'll definitely need a burnisher because even new blades need to be burnished (you scrape a piece of metal harder than the blade along the edge which creates a small hook of metal on the edge, it's the hook that cuts, and if your card scraper makes dust and not shavings then it isn't working right, a nicely tuned card scraper will indeed make short order of stripping the old finish)
posted by zeoslap at 10:52 AM on June 11, 2007

If you paint, please use a sanding sealer before you paint it. The numbnuts who previously owned our player piano stripped the original finish and painted it a lighter shade of goat vomit green with an oil paint that soaked very nicely into the mahogany, making it impossible to remove.
posted by plinth at 11:52 AM on June 11, 2007

Thanks for all the comments. After a quick test-run dismantling the piano after work today, I'm pretty sure most of the wood is mahogany, although it looks like parts of it have been rebuilt with a lighter wood inside. The action and keys came out without a hitch. The inside faces of the desk, bottom board etc look quite nice - in stark contrast to the outside ones, so I think I'll pass on the painting and aim for a stained finish.
posted by primer_dimer at 12:05 PM on June 11, 2007

« Older Kvas recipe?   |   Help me queue smarter... Where do I begin learning... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.