An Open Letter About Ivory

Dear friends:

I feel compelled to write this letter due to the fact that not a day goes by when my inbox is not inundated with some very angry letters shaming me, the piano industry of yesteryear, African poachers, the oil industry, my uncle Carl, etc for the use of Ivory in piano keys, harvested from elephants.

Let me be perfectly clear in saying this: Ivory has not been used in pianos for decades. No animals have been killed to make piano keys in as many years. It is illegal to do anything to harm an animal to buy, sell, or trade Ivory. Treaties have been signed, laws have been passed. Yes, I’m sure there are still folks out there who don’t play by the rules and sell Ivory as fast as they can get their hands on it, but you can all rest assured: they aren’t manufacturing piano keys out of it.

I like animals. Very much so. I have two dogs, and I love them both. I think elephants are neat, and I enjoy seeing them at the zoo. But for you folks who come here, to my blog, which I have intended as a source of information and education, to spew angry rhetoric about how “killing elephants is bad;” you only succeed in making yourselves look misinformed and ignorant.

Yes, elephants were killed for their Ivory. Yes, elephant ivory was used to make piano keys. (About 5,000 pianos could he made out of one set of tusks, but that’s beside the point…) It wasn’t because some piano magnate was a fan of killing as many elephants as possible. It’s because Ivory was the best material up until that time to make piano keys, with many ideal properties that facilitated proper piano technique. Beethoven probably wrote most of his music on pianos with Ivory keys. Yet I don’t see you folks writing angry letters to him and leaving them on his grave.
Things change. We learn and grow as humans. We don’t do things the way they used to be done. Doctors aren’t on television commercials anymore, touting one brand of cigarettes over another to promote healthy lung function. We know better. And since elephants have been hunted to the point of endangerment and near extinction, we don’t use their Ivory to make piano keys. We haven’t for many many years.

You couldn’t buy a new piano with Ivory keys today. If you tried, the dealer would laugh in your face, and he would have every right to. If you are some eccentric billionaire who has paid someone to poach an elephant to make a custom set of Ivory keys for your new piano, I wish you’d find some other use for your bankroll. But the preceding situation is so ludicrous, I regret even entertaining the possibility of its existence.

Many pianos have Ivory keysets that are still in lovely form and functioning and looking as well as they did when the pianos first were rolled onto a showroom floor. But they all share one common thread: the elephants killed to make their keys are dead. They have been dead for decades. They are dead, and no matter how much you may weep over their deaths, they are not ever coming back. Coming onto the Internet to chastise me for acknowledging the former uses of Ivory will not bring them back. Clogging up my email with angry dribble will not bring them back.

So, if you feel so inclined, please: go home and set your piano with Ivory keys on fire. Just remember to evacuate yourself and your loved ones out of your house before it burns down with you in it. If I might suggest a more productive outlet for your passion, before you set fire to your Steinway, or before you begin an angry comment to me calling me a monster: go outside. Hug a tree. Travel to your local zoo and ask if you can hug an elephant. I doubt you’ll be able to, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. While you’re hugging that elephant please give him my apologies that his great great great great uncle Hubert was killed to make my piano.

Or maybe you could take the five minutes you planned to use to yell at me and make a donation to the WWF, greenpeace, peta, or the save the poor baby elephants fund instead. It’d do so much more good.

Finally, if you’ve read all of this and see things from my view, thank you. If you still feel inclined to write to me and complain about the “senseless murder of elephants” know this: I will not engage you. I will not argue with you. I will not put you ramblings on my blog for other normal people to see. I will not even read what you have to say. I will simply hit the “delete” button.

This is all I have to say on the subject, and will ever have to say on the subject.

I wish you all, as always, the very best.



Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Disassembling an Upright Piano (But Were Too Afraid to Ask)

There are a number of things the common person with knowledge of how to use a screwdriver can do to their piano. If that rare coin from your collection (that for some reason you are studying at the piano) falls in between two keys–you can go get it. If your child spills a drink over your keyboard, you can get in there and do damage control before a cluster of six keys decides to stick together. Whatever the reason may be, if you feel the need to open your piano, even just for a peek, here’s your comprehensive guide on how to do so SAFELY.

In this article, I will be focusing on full upright pianos. Not grands, baby grands, upright spinnet or smaller console pianos. The aforementioned models I either don’t currently have in my shop, or are currently undergoing restoration in varying stages, so much so that I’m unable to reassemble them to disassemble them. Some guidelines I will discuss here may be applicable to spinnets or console pianos, but keep in mind that not every piano is going to be the same. The wide variations in manufacturing techniques and overall designs mean there will be discrepancies. This article is intended to give you a general overview, but you will have to do your own detective work.

Tools needed: Screwdriver. Extra pair of hands.

Before we begin, allow me to cover my behind. These are a set of general instructions. I make no guarantee that every piano comes apart as easily as mine. I will give you an example on how to take apart a common garden variety upright grand piano cabinet, but unless you also happen to have a 1909 Hobart M. Cable upright grand with a serial number in the high 20,000’s, this guide wont be exactly spot on. You will have to use common sense to see how your piano comes apart, but you must swear to the following rules, which I have etched in stone after years of experience.

1. Don’t force anything. If it doesn’t move easily, it’s probably not stuck. There may be another screw holding it in somewhere. Take your time and look it over again. Most of these pianos were made so well, all the parts were made to fit together perfectly. Go slow, or you risk scratching/dinging/pitting/bending/breaking etc. something.

2. Don’t be a hero. If at any time something makes you feel uncomfortable (that little voice that says “should I really be doing this?”), please, for the love of all that is holy: stop. Consult a qualified piano technician. Let them screw things up. It’s called “shifting liability.”

Okay here we go, with hopefully helpful pictures included.

1. If your piano key-cover is closed: open it.


2. If your piano is equipped with a movable desk: close it.


3. Open the top lid


4. All upright pianos will have a latch of some sort holding the desk to the side-rails of the piano. Locate these latches and open them.


5. Remove the desk by pulling it towards you and then upwards. An extra pair of hands helps in this instance, as they can be heavy. Set the desk aside in a safe place so it doesn’t get scratched.


6. The piece of wood that supports the desk is called the “shelf.” Mine is held onto the arms of the piano with one screw on either side. Remove the screws. This particular shelf is also held on with two more screws below, and is slid forward for removal. Remember what I said earlier? Every piano is different. Go slow.


7. Remove the shelf and set it aside.


8. Locate the screws holding the fallboard assembly onto the side blocks. Mine has one screw on either side. Remove the screws.


9. Lift the fallboard assembly STRAIGHT UP out of the piano. An extra pair of hands is handy here. Lift up and avoid tilting to avoid damaging any wooden parts. (Speaking from experience folks) Set the fallboard aside.


10. If you’ve done things right, this is what you should be staring at.


Removing the action. (Standard upright grand action only. I’ll get to drop actions (spinet pianos) in another article)

I recommend you only do so if absolutely necessary. I.E: you’ve sent me an email, I’ve told you to do so, and you feel comfortable doing so. Your best bet is to use another person in this instance, as actions are heavy, awkward, and more or less fragile. If you bump something unintentionally, you may break off a hammer or a felt, bend a damper wire, jar a spring loose, or crack a piece of wood. Don’t do those things if you can help it.

1. Find any attachments that are fastened to the action. The soft and damper pedals are attached to the action by means of wooden dowels. Unscrew them, label the rods (very important) and then set them in a safe place.


2. Upright actions are held onto the piano by means of four thumbscrews that attach to their counterpart threaded longscrews mounted into the backplate. Remove the INNER two screws first, then the outer two. If the screws are difficult to turn, as they usually are, apply inward pressure (towards the piano) with your thumb to the “fork” that surrounds the long screw, as you try and remove the thumbscrew. Make sure you hold the action in place as you remove the final two screws to avoid the action falling forward (and likely doing a bunch of damage.)


3. Here’s where your friend comes in handy. This is an instance of “do as I say, not as I do.” I can remove piano actions by myself, but I’ve had plenty of practice. The piano action sits on four little knobby screws at the bottom of the keybed. Grip the METAL RAILS ONLY of the action. Not the hammers, not the felts, not the soft rail (sometimes shiny, sometimes not) behind the hammers. THE METAL RAILS ONLY. Avoid touching the hammers or felts, as the oils in your hands can cause them to harden with excessive handling. Gently pull the action towards you, until it reaches about a 30-45 degree angle to the rear of the piano, and then gently lift out. You may set the action on its metal “feet” on a smooth, flat surface. The floor next to a wall would work, as it would help prevent the action from falling over.



Insertion of the action is the reverse of removal. Make sure you have your friend help you, so you can more easily line up the feet of the metal rails to the knobby screws in the keybed. You will have to apply a good deal of inward pressure to the rails on the top of the action in order to get the thumbscrews to a tension where they will hold the dampers against the strings. After you’ve threaded the thumbscrews, try playing a few notes on the action. If you hear a ringing, as though the damper pedal was depressed, the screws are not tight enough. Apply inward pressure and tighten the thumbscrews until no more latent ringing is heard.

As always, feel free to email with questions!

If Pianos Could Talk…

Actually, they can! Well–sort of.

Whenever I do a restoration, or even a simple tuning, I’m always intrigued to see what may turn up hidden within the depths of the innards of each piano. Every little fragment, no matter how small, gives another clue to the story surrounding the instrument.

I was extraordinarily fortunate to recover a great deal of interesting artifacts from the 1924 Haines Brothers’ that I recently restored. The main article featuring the process of restoration can be found here, just in case you missed it:

And now a showcasing of the interesting bits found within the dust and muck that was the inner keybed:


Lincoln-head wheat penny. 1921. San Francisco Mint


Lincoln-head wheat penny. 1925. San Francisco Mint


Lincoln-head wheat penny. 1938 Philadelphia Mint


Lincoln-head wheat penny. 1942. Denver Mint


Lincoln-head wheat penny. 1944. Philadelphia Mint


Lincoln-head wheat penny. 1944. San Francisco Mint


Lincoln-head wheat penny. 1950. Denver Mint


Mercury-head dime. 1943. Philadelphia Mint


Roosevelt dime. 1970. Denver Mint


Canadian Dime 1989

Magic Mysto Magic coin. Circa WWII era.

Colorado Sales Tax Token. Used from 1935 to 1945. Plastic coins like this one were used instead of aluminum during WWII

A lonely broken off ring leader from the end of a music roll made by the US Music Co.

At first, I thought this was a piece of a bottle. I now know that this is part of a broken end flange on a piano roll made by the QRS Corporation.

About 30 of these sulfur head matches were scatted around the bottom of the keybed. I kept one.

I always had difficulty losing my marbles under the piano…never IN the piano.

Finally: these three stamps. As far as I can figure, they may have belonged to some sort of “book of the month” club at some point. We may never know…

What are these things worth? Not much. What do they tell us about the piano? We can infer from these items a great many things, with a bit of imagination. Judging from the Colorado Sales Tax token, we can infer that this piano has been in Colorado since at least the 1940’s –which makes sense, seeing as how it’s the same place from which I found the piano. It also told me (thankfully) that the piano has likely never been completely opened during its life, apart from normal tunings, since none of this stuff was found or removed. As for the rest: we can only guess…

An Even More Amazing Machine: The Great Player Piano Restoration

Although my summer’s project came to a very satisfactory completion almost four months ago, I haven’t had the time until now to showcase a complete debriefing of the transformation. I could blither on forever about the particulars, but I’ll let the before and after photos speak for themselves. I’ll also put in here a link to a couple of videos that pretty thoroughly explain the intricacies of how this thing works. First, some stats:

Manufacturer: Haines Piano Co. Rochester, New York

Serial No: 72790

Year of Completion: 1924

Date of Keybed Manufacture: 1919

Weight: ~850 lbs.

Scale: 88 note, A0: 54 inches.

Backplate Pressure: ~24 tonnes (53,760 lbs.)

Action: Haines Accu-Point Action ®

Center Pedal: Bass Dampers.

Player Action: Manufactured by the Armstrong Player Action Co. Rochester, New York

Player Action Serial No. 50613

Player Action Type: Full Scale 88 Note, dual valve (176 valves, 2 per key); Auto Center; Mechanical Rewind.

2 main bellows, 2 reservoirs, adjustable governor pneumatic, automatic cutout cock.


Cabinet: Oak; Oak Veneer

Keys: Ivory, Ebony.

Backplate: Bronzed cast iron

Labels: Gold Leaf

Soundboard: Spruce, 5 piece.

Original Finish: Dark Walnut Brown

Strings: Bass: Wound Bronze;

Treble: Steel

Pinblock: 15 Layer Hard Rock Maple

Tuning Pins: Steel,

New finish: Natural, Lindseed oil, #490002 Pigment

Four coats Water Based, oil modified semi-gloss polyurethane

Oil Based Acrylic Black Paint

Original fabrics: Rubberized cotton nansook key pneumatics, rubberized canvas bellows. Leather gaskets.  Pneumatic clearance: 1-3/4”

New Fabrics: polyurethane covered nylon key pneumatics and governor pneumatics. Bellows left original. All leather gaskets replaced with 1/16” cork gaskets. (better longevity) PVC-E glue, hot animal hide glue, 3M spray adhesive.

Cabinet Overhauled: May-October 2012

Player action overhauled: October 2012

Key Action Overhauled: September 2012

Piano Restoration Completed: October 2012

And now…some before and after:

The piano arrives at the workshop…Note the illustrious Phil Kramer telepathically cursing the new PSO (Piano Shaped Object…)

Things initially looked bleak…I was starting to think that Phil was right in saying that this gal was beyond help. It looks as though some animal got his paws on the cabinet…Image


The Amount of rubbish I recovered from inside the piano was astonishing…but kind of neat. More about that later.


See what I mean? Yuck…


This poor old gal had more scars than the Black Knight from Monty Python…


This gives a pretty good idea of exactly how badly the veneer and finish were ruined.


To Make matters worse, the bottom of the piano was cracked nearly end to end. Repair was impossible…the entire bottom would have to be refabricated, along with the left leg of the piano.


Luckily, my father is masterfully brilliant at these kinds of things, and always eager to help. After a short trip to the Home Depot, he had adroitly recreated the new bottom for the piano, along with a replacement foot.


After returning the new foot to Laramie and test fitting it, I found that my dad had again masterfully duplicated the part, and absolutely no further adjustment was needed.


Meanwhile, I had set to work removing the destroyed finish from the rest of the cabinet. Once the 80+ year old varnish was sanded through, one could really appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the wood below.


After all the varnish was removed, the new finish, which consisted of lindseed oil and very light pigment was applied. Here you can see the first stages of wood conditioning. Note the black painted trim that would be used over the entire cabinet.


I wanted to keep as much of the wood’s original tint as possible. I didn’t like the orignal dark finish, and I wanted the instrument to contrast with the Hobart Cable piano I have in my living room, which is a dark reddish color.


While waiting for the finish to dry, I set my sights on the mechanical aspects of the piano. Here are the ruined felt circles of the end rails.

A view of the player action after it was removed from the piano. The action itself has almost 150 feet of rubber tubing and eight square feet of leather gaskets.


And now the fun part…disassembling the player action…


Which made a disgusting mess of the workshop…


…and my hands…


Here’s a good view of the primary valve chamber with corresponding pouch board. Not much in terms of refurbishment was needed here–the valves were all brushed, cleaned and re-glued to their stems. I had to be maniacally careful not to damage any of the paper thin leather pouches on the pouch board. To replace any of them was an expensive proposition.


Since this entire project was figured out by trial and error, I was bound to make a few mistakes. Here’s my biggest one by far…without knowing how the pneumatic decks separated from the valve body, I let brute force and impatience take over. The result? A gouged and damaged valve body. Wood filler can work wonders, however, and soon I had it back up to snuff…


Many of the materials originally used to manufacture these instruments are sub-par to modern materials, and extremely (prohibitively) expensive. Leather was originally used as gasket material, however for as much leather as I would’ve needed, I was faced with a decision: Go broke buying a prepared hide, or turn to cattle rustling. I chose neither and decided upon using good old fashioned cheap cork as an alternative. Here I am perfecting my trimming system, and attempting to keep my fingers…


I knew I needed to be uncharacteristically diligent as I disassembled these intricate machines in order to make reassembly less of a pain. Here you see my numbering system as to the order of each key pneumatic.


After the pneumatics were recovered with new fabric, they were reattached to their respective decks, using the stinkiest glue I’ve ever used. It made the entire house smell like burning, rotting, dead cow…much to the dismay of my roommates.


After the glue had dried, the decks were reattached to the valve bodies, via the use of 176 tiny screws. Note the recovered pneumatics on the top shelf, ready to be attached to the deck on the desk in the background.


By this point, the piano had been moved inside, and I began replacing the various bits as I pushed to the finish. Here we see the refurbished keybed and cleaned keys. I didn’t mark the order of the keys as well as I should have, so it took longer than needed. Note the brand new bottom with re-mounted pedal system and bellows supports.


While cleaning the keys, this was found scrawled in pencil on one of the lower keys. 12/9/1919–the date the keybed was manufactured.


The standard action was reinstalled and regulated, along with the refurbished lower bellows and all associated hardware and “plumbing.” This picture was taken in the middle of the initial tuning after moving. The piano is almost ready to have the player action reinstalled and regulated.


After many hours of labor, the lower action is finally refurbished and ready to be reinstalled in the piano. The most difficult aspect of the entire project was the adjustment and regulation of the lower pneumatic action as it related to the manual action already installed in the piano. Again, trial and error lent itself to many hours of toil.


The end result, cabinet closed.


Refurbished bottom bellows.



Remember how badly the legs were damaged? This is the end result. Incidentally, this is the foot that was remanufactured by my dad.


Here’s a good view of the piano’s serial number and intricate backplate designs. 72790–1924.


The air motor…refurbished and in perfect running order. The chain and sprockets on the left side were salvaged from an old micrographics machine and retrofitted to the system.


The refurbished drive system (chain on the right) and the rewind system (left).


A convenience for the modern piano tuner.


Which works as described…


The tracker bar–the precursor of the modern day computer. The roll is loaded on the spindle above, passes over the tracker bar, onto the take up roll. The take-up roll is driven by the motor drive via a gear system.


A closeup of the tempo indicator set via a one of the levers beneath the key bed. Because of the way this piano’s drive system is geared, you must set the tempo to half of what is indicated on the piano roll. Ex: Tempo=100 is set to 50 on this piano.


This system is intended to center the roll on the spindle, so the correct paper punchings line up with the proper tracking holes on the tracker bar. It doesn’t exactly….work. At least not with 100% accuracy. I’m constantly working on improving it.


The controls on this piano are strikingly simple. The lever on the left controls tempo–faster as it travels to the right. The lever on the right controls the drive system–in the rightmost position it puts the system in “drive” or “play” and when pushed to the left position, engages the rewind mechanism, driving the top roll in reverse.


These three levers replicate the function of the foot pedals on the piano. Since you use your feet to create suction in the bellows chambers, you can use your left hand to control expressions. The leftmost lever removes the dampers, like the damper pedal. The other levers are set up opposite of each other so you can use one or both by “pinching” them together. The middle lever moves the bass hammers closer to the strings, and the rightmost lever moves the treble hammers.


These pedals are used by the operator to create suction in the bellows chambers to drive the piano.


…and when not in use are neatly folded up into the body of the piano and hidden by this “trap door.”


When I perform a piano restoration, the one part I refuse to touch is the original fallboard label. I feel as though replacing the original with a reproduction takes away some of the personality, character, and history of the instrument. I instead prefer to merge the original label and finish with the new finish, usually by encasing it in a matching border.


Here’s a side view with a good look at the black trim I added on the corner, bottom and middle in order to hide badly damaged veneer.

ImageImageAnd here are the links to the videos with demonstrations of the piano’s capabilities and an explanation of how things work. The top video is roughly ten minutes, with me giving an in depth tour as to how the piano functions. The second is a song that no one has ever heard of. The YouTube link brings you to Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2,” the ultimate “torture test” for any piano (or pianist for that matter.)

Here’s the *NEW* FULL version of the above video!

As always, feel free to comment or message with questions! Cheers!

My Piano’s Soundboard is Cracked! Push The Panic Button!

So you’ve noticed the soundboard of your piano has a crack…or perhaps many cracks. Perhaps it looks less like a smooth, machined piece of carpentry and more like a freight pallet.

I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me: “I don’t think my piano is worth anything…the soundboard is cracked.” Or: “I need you to take a look at this piano and tell me if I should buy it. I want to be sure the soundboard isn’t cracked–I don’t want a heavy piece of junk in my living room.”

Mind you, these statements usually come from the mouths of pianists–and while some of them may be very good musicians, they tend to be suckers to the old myth that cracked piano soundboards equal immediate piano death.

For those of you wondering what the heck a “soundboard” is–don’t worry. You aren’t unobservant or ignorant, soundboards, as important as they are, hide within the belly of the piano.

What is a Soundboard, and Where is it?

If you crack open the lid of either your grand or upright piano and look down, you will see a shiny piece of wood behind the iron plate that runs the entire area of the bottom (or back) of the instrument. This is the soundboard. The soundboard is imperative for the projection of any piano, seeing as how it is the part of the instrument that actually turns the vibrations of the strings into sound. This is accomplished by creating the movement of air through wave vibrations. The physics behind this are complex, but just know this–music boxes work around the exact same concept.

See that mass of wood behind the piano's vertical bracing? That's the soundboard.

See that mass of wood behind the piano’s vertical bracing? That’s the soundboard.

Remember when you were a kid and undoubtedly got to play with a little tinny crank music box? These boxes involve the turning of a cylinder with small raised bumps that strike small metallic tines in order to produce a tune, much like the one pictured below. Perhaps during the course of playing with one of these contraptions, you may have noticed that the sound it produced got much louder when you placed it on a table top or other hard surface.


Remember These?

The same holds true for pianos. The strings  within the instrument do not produce much sound by themselves when stuck by the hammers. The soundboard acts as the “table top” from the music box example. It takes the vibrations from the strings and greatly amplifies them in order to produce sound that can be projected.

So how is a soundboard constructed? Well, it’s simple enough in theory. Soundboards are constructed with 4 or 5 pieces of 5/8 of an inch thick spruce, glued together and attached to the back bracing of the piano. The pin block and iron plate are then mounted on top of the soundboard, and the piano is strung. The tolerance for perfect balance throughout the soundboard has to be very strict, and the wood cannot contain any knots or other imperfections that could potentially have a negative effect on the sound. In the early 1900’s, Steinway and Sons introduced their “diaphramatic” sound board–a board that stands at around 5/8″ thick in the middle, and gradually tapers to around 1/4″ at the sides, allowing greater air movement and projection. Other piano makers followed suit with many different conceptual designs.

So what’s the big deal with cracked soundboards? The truth is, I can name about 100 worse things that could potentially happen to grandma’s upright.

Oh No! Is That a Crack I See!? Help!

Nearly all pianos develop cracks in the soundboard over the course of their lives, and rarely are these cracks serious enough to cause any bother. Small cracks, especially along the seams where the wood pieces are joined together, occur after the board has had many years of vibration coupled with cyclical changes in the weather, usually accompanied by the drying of the  wood and the glue used to hold the wood together. Split seams are quite common, and usually do not become a worry. The boards themselves may also crack along the grain of the wood between seams.

More serious cracks may occur when the piano has received substantial shock, as in a drop or particularly rough relocation. These cracks may be cause for concern; however, a crack only becomes a problem when the separated pieces of wood pull far enough apart to rattle or buzz against each other or against the rear bracing of the piano. Usually, the diagnosis is easy. If an instrument has a pronounced rattle or buzz when played, a deep crack may have split the soundboard into different pieces. These cracks are usually roughly the width of a penny or wider.

Even in this case, a quick and easy repair may be done using little more than wood wedges and screws in order to prevent extraneous noise.

When the soundboard has received extensive damage, i.e. in a drop, flood, or other major incident, the only way the sound can be preserved would be to remove the plate from the piano and replace the soundboard with a newly manufactured one that closely mimics the original construction.

Cracks in the soundboard, like this one in a Baldwin baby grand, usually aren’t a cause for any undue distress.

So ultimately, does a cracked soundboard sound any different from one that isn’t? The answer is yes…however, the change in the sound is so slight, it is all but imperceptible to the human ear. The overall construction and materials used in a soundboard are more important than anything else, including decaying integrity.