I got a piano! Help! (Longish)

I just inherited an older than dirt upright piano. How old? No clue. Made by CA Smith of Chicago (beneath that is proclaimed “Upright Grand”). I understand this company later became Smith and Barnes.

The soundboard seems OK (and appears to be maple) but some of the dowels supporting the hammers are broken clean off, plus it has some aesthetic defects. The front has wood filigree, the veneer of which is chipped off in a few places and some parts of the filigree are broken off (but I have the pieces). The keys are ivory and quite yellowed, but again chipped in a few places (and it looks like someone wrote on them with a pink highlighter :mad: ). 11 of the keys do not work (mostly because the dowels are broken like I mentioned) but everything else seems pretty solid.

It appears to be made of mahogany but this is a WAG. I’m basing my guess on some mahogany furniture that my grandmother has that looks very similar; the piano is near-black although it appears the finish has chipped or worn away in some places revealing a reddish grain.

I did a little research and found that it is of a type known as “overstrung”. I’m having a hell of a time finding info about the company that made it. I don’t care how much it’s worth (it’s a family heirloom of my husband’s) but I would like information about the maker and the age of the piano. Also, how should I clean it? I’ve dusted it off and vacuumed out the bottom of it and it is still filthy. Should I use something like Murphy’s Oil Soap? I would really like to have it restored, restrung and tuned, but it just isn’t possible until The Highwayman and I are all done with school. Should it be refinished? I’m worried about doing that as I don’t want to jack with the patina but OTOH it badly needs sanding in some places due to the damage.

I’ll try to get a flash reader for my digital camera so I can post pics (it’s a really beautiful instrument). Sorry for the long question(s) but I’m really clueless about this sort of thing.

for cleaning, if you can take it outside and blow it out with an aircompressor that would save you some work.

murphys oil soap should be fine as well, be gentile and save anything that breaks off.
for the resoration…it wont be cheap but it can be fixed. I cant quote a price without alot more specific info (and a phone call to my uncle who does player piano repair) but the bits you describe arent to bad, the keys will have to be recovered in plastic no more ivory :frowning:

Thanks for the swift reply. I know it won’t be cheap to fix but I think that as a piece of family history it would be worth it. I kinda figured that we couldn’t get new ivory (although I was sort of hoping that maybe some restorers had stockpiled pieces cannibalized from “totalled” instruments. Ah well). We’re getting a couple of cans of air (no compressor) to blow it off tomorrow.

And I’m just gonna say, after looks at watch five hours of hijinks, I now know why there’s a whole profession known as “piano movers”. I’ve moved a spinnet before and that was rough enough!

I can’t help you with restoration tips, but as for cleaning the ivory keys, my dad used to use carbon tetrachloride on them, and it works like a charm. The next question would be, where do you get some carbon tet? There is no way to repair the chipped ones, they’d have to be replaced with plastic, but they’d feel different from the rest, obviously. You may wish to contact a number of piano restorationists, to see if they have any leftover ivory for the keys. There must still be some hanging around somewhere. I like old pianos, so I wish you luck in getting it restored someday.

Ah ha! Thanks for that, Fishbicycle. Restored. Yes, someday. :slight_smile:

one more thing about the restore. it will probably involve someone who can repair old pianos and someone who can do the work on the outside…while you would think the 2 go hand in hand its not always the case. I did alot of work for my uncle and it was normal on a restore to get a piano that had been restored on the outside, then shipped to us to be restored on the inside.

Thanks for the info, Critical1.

Oh and I got a few things wrong on it: it is made by CA Smith and Co, and is a “Cabinet Grand” not an “Upright Grand”. I don’t know if it makes any difference but I thought I’d clarify. Anyone know of any resources for finding old American makers? I tried googling but I think I am using Google-Do instead of Google-Fu or something. :wink:


give a few a call, thats the best bet I can think of…keep in mind your piano predates the internet by a couple decades and was already long outdated…not alot of info to be found.

That should be one hell of a nice-sounding piano if and when you do get it restored. It should also look beautiful if you sand off the black paint and give it a light mahogany stain and laquer, if that’s to your furniture taste (I have a thing about painted wood and it’s not a pleasant thing).

So what this you’re saying, you want that only the goyim save anything that breaks off? Oy gevalt! :j

One resource for piano parts is piano tuners. They usually have a collection of parts, and the older the tuner is, the more parts she’ll have.

Carbon tetrachloride is illegal now. The safer equivalent is called chlorothene by mechanics, but it has a much longer name, and it ends in 1,1,1. It’s safer, but not harmless. Use in a well-ventilated place, and avoid long-term exposure. Ivory is made from elephant teeth (tusks,) so toothpaste might work.

Well, you can get carbon tetrachloride for lab use, but good luck finding it at Wal-Mart. Gotta be careful with the stuff in any case, though I think the risk is overstated as long as you’re using it in a well-ventilated place and don’t go pouring it down the drain. Chlorothene is probably 1,1,1,-trichloroethane and not the other hit I get in ChemFinder, 5-chloro-N-(2-(dimethylamino)ethyl)-N-(2-pyridyl)-2-thenylamine (hit comes up as chlorothen.) I wonder if chloroform or methylene chloride would work.

I don’t see this explicitly in the thread, but call around and find someone who has done a lot of piano tuning over the years. Their experience is invaluable. When they come over, have them tell you all they can about it, what the chances are of making it sing again, etc. If you’re not going to have them tune it right then, make some sort of arrangement to pay them for their time. Some of the older guys have been around zillions of different types of pianos, and have worked on machines from crap to the finest Boesendorfer or Steinway. They should be able to tell you what you want to know about its past and its future. xo C.

Here’s a very informative, if shall we say colorful, site about piano maintenance (warning: background music on that page).

Thanks for all the good information everyone. A little more creative googling has lead me to believe that I’ve got a Victorian era piano although I am going to have to get a copy of Pierce’s Piano Atlas to be sure. In the meantime though I’m just going to have to keep it clean and from getting any more damage.

Depends. Some places will pull old ivory. A store I knew of in Seattle had a bin of them. They would try to match the colouring with their scraps and replace sections of the keys.

It cost more then plastic through.

Your first step, before you do anything else, should be to call a registered piano technician to inspect and tune the instrument. Based on what you’ve said, he may be able to repair the broken hammers on the spot and put the instrument into basically playable condition. He will also be able to advise you on additional work that would be needed and give you an estimate. The initial visit will probably cost about $100-$150.

Two of the most important factors in determining the quality of an older piano are the sound board and the pin block. If the sound board is cracked the tone may be affected, although it’s not always a fatal problem. However, the pin block is much more important. It is the piece of wood into which the tuning pegs are driven. A crack in it can keep the instrument from ever being able to hold a tuning. There are ways to repair a pin block that is not too badly cracked, but they are generally unsatisfactory. A cracked pin block is usually the kiss of death. Your technician will be able determine the condition of the sound board and pin block, and many other important points. (You won’t be able to do this on your own.)

Assuming it passes on these and other critical points, it is highly likely that the action will need to be rebuilt. This is a task that the technician can do in his shop, without moving the piano out of your house. (The action lifts out as a single piece.) He will repair and replace worn and broken parts, including the hundreds of felt, leather, wood, and cork bits and pieces. It can take a few weeks and cost a thousand or two, but once it’s done your instrument will play as well and sound about as good as it can.

As for the outward appearance, your technician can also advise you about refinishing the casework and make suggestions about what you might do yourself, and what you’re better off having done professionally.

However it’s possible, even likely, that this piano is not worth the $2,000 - $4,000 that might be spent in restoring it internally and externally. As you’ve found in your Googling, the brand is quite obscure, and that’s usually bad news with an instrument this old. (It is apparently pre-1900.) The famous names (Steinway, Baldwin, etc.) are often worth restoring, but more obscure brands usually aren’t, at least in terms of someday recouping the money you’ve spent on it.

But that’s not the only consideration. If this piano has serious sentimental value to you and plan to keep it, but can’t spend a fortune, you might simply restore the outside so it looks nice, without making it really playable. Conversely, if you just want something to play, you could make it sound good (as good as it can) without worrying about the looks.

But if it doesn’t really matter to you that it was dear Aunt Sadie’s piano, and are just interested in having a good sounding, nice looking piano to play or learn on, your best bet might be to junk this one and buy a different instrument altogether. Chances are that for less than $1,000 you could find an old upright from the '20s or '30s that would sound and play better that this one ever will. Or for about $4,000 - $5,000 you could buy a used modern upright (I’m partial to Yamaha, myself) that will be far superior in tone and play than your legacy, no matter what you spend on it.

You can discuss all of these options with your technician, and he can probably give you a line on those alternative instruments, too, if you decide go that route.

If you’re really serious about learning more about pianos, I highly recommend Larry Fine’s “The Piano Book.” (You don’t need to buy the supplement, which provides additional detail about various brands: neither C.A. Smith nor any of its successor companies are listed, at least not in the 1999-2000 edition that I have.)

BTW, you don’t need carbon tetrachloride to clean the keys: Windex, Formula 409, or a little soapy water will work just fine. And clean the outside, if you want, but apart from vaccuuming dust out of the bottom, I’d suggest you not attempt to clean the innards. Not worth the possible damage you might do.

Good luck.

Thanks for the detailed reply, Commasense. I’ll have to see if I can squeeze a visit from a tech into the budget. Right now our main goal is to stabilize it before it gets any further damage until we’ve got the moolah to refurbish it. The monetary value of the piano is not an issue; we just want to preserve it as a piece of family history, to have something both nice to look at and maybe to play casually once in a while (My husband has had lessons, I have not - I would like to eventually though). I’ll have to look into that book you linked as well as the Pierce’s. Thanks alot!

Oh and since I haven’t got pictures, here’s a few to give a general idea. The leg are nearly identical to this model although mine is slightly more ornate. The lower part (I’m going to call it a kickplate, although I’m sure that isn’t what it is) of mine is in two pieces (well three, the front piece is broken in half and appears to have been repaired once already with a few dowels). The back piece of the kickplate is solid, but the front is a bevelled out scroll design. My mother in law said she remembered something else in the center of it; if so, it’s long gone.

The top of the piano resembles this one somewhat but the cutouts and music holder. . . thingie are all rectangular with a floral-design filigree. My husband’s aunt backed it with red velvet (which I’m not too sure about - might a synthetic fabric have a bad reaction with the wood?) so the visual effect is similar to the linked picture.

A corner of the keyboard cover also appears to have been gnawed on by a dog ( :eek: ). I imagine that piece will have to be cut out and a new one created by a proficient woodworker and reassembled.

I know basically that this will cost a mint, but the day will come in the next five years or so that we can have it done.

You don’t need to buy anything to find out what your piano’s age is. If you can get the required information, you can find it out here: http://www.pianos.co.uk/info/pianos/

Been there, done that. My maker isn’t listed. Thanks though. :slight_smile: