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Turning a piano into a bench

November 24th – Started on a Livingstone piano, built in 1912. The piano had stood in a damp area for several years, probably a place where it was only occasionally wetted down as some of the remaining wood showed signs of dry rot, a repeated wet then dry cycle that decomposes wood in a certain way. Probably stored in a place where spring dampness got to it.

The piano has a lovely upper front board, though it is alligatored across the exposed front. It’s enclosing rails and styles are too large to really use in full as a bench back but the panel removes easily. The panel is simply done, with two onlays, one mounted on each end. The onlays appear to be a variation of an acanthus leaf design, but the pattern is not listed in any of the carving supply houses. Unfortunately, one had so badly cracked up by the stress of the finish alligatoring that as it was removed, it started falling apart. Some pieces were glued back together using aliphatic resin glue but many needed some sort of clamping in order to dry up strong. I used an old marquetry technique and pinned the pieces to softwood, thus using the pins as clamps. I covered the softwood block with saran wrap so that the squizze out would not adhere to the block. I am putting the pieces back together a few at a time as there are so many that getting the onlay completely assembled at one time is too hard to do. For the moment, this seems to be working.

The onlay was mounted in a prepared section that was lightly outlined with small gouge and then the surface was very lightly stippled with some sort of round point punch. The work is very delicately done with no one stipple being very obvious. If fact, the effect of this background is only appreciated if you step away from it. Up close, the shadowing effect is not at all visible, but from a distance it sets off the onlay with a darker backdrop. Very sensitive work.

The alligatored finish responds well to alcohol or lacquer solvent. I did several tests and found a few ways to cut the original finish and establish a solid base to sand and re-coat but the most appealing method came from an accident. I inadvertently let a pool of alcohol stand on one of the pieces and when I returned to the work an hour later the alcohol had softened the finish to the point where it flowed into the blemish and cracks and left a remarkable, high gloss, finish. The pool leaves a noticeable line at the edge but on follow up attempts I was able to push and feather the line out with a gentile flow of compressed air. I could blow as good a finish on by stripping down and re-coating and would do so except that the idea of reusing the original finish and getting a high gloss means that we can get to see what this piano looked like the day it came out of the shop in 1913. The alcohol has to evaporate off on its own accord and it must be level so that it does not flow out and spread too thin. This means that the non-planer surfaces allow the alcohol to run off and those areas that do get a good coat have to sit open to air borne dust for almost 30 minutes. I think, however, that the opportunity to see this veneer and panel work as it was done more than a 100 years ago is worth the effort. The edge lines on the pools were greatly reduced by pushing with air at application, but the most effective method was to let dry, sand with 1000, 1500 and 2000 grit sandpaper and then buff the surface. Once a waxless polish is applied and rubbed in, the surface takes on a more planer, flatter look. I had very good results with backing soda mixed in mineral oil. Although it left a slight oil sheen, it was easily wiped off and it cut very fast and finely. The finish is awfully soft for at least a day and does not sand out easily. I am not sure how durable the old lacquer is, but for now, it looks good. I am assembling the piece with the possibility of the finish failing in mind. If I have to, I can disassemble, strip off the old finish and blow a new on.

The pedals were nice. They were made of cast iron with brass rosettes on the pad where the foot contacts it. The brass on the far right one, the one that attenuates the sound, had been used so often that it was noticeably worn. As I worked with the material I could not help but think of the Mrs. Crouse and the old piano in the first Baptist church on upper Maine street in Dexter, the church were I spent every sunday of my youth. I can still hear her hammering out the chords to “Band of Angels” on that old thing. I bet her attenuation pedal was worn as well.

The pedals were cast with an iron that had very high carbon content and were, consequently quite brittle. I managed to break one when machining on an overhead milling machine. I did not trust my welding skills so had it done in town in a welding shop by a guy who has been doing this for years. I had not got it back for five minutes when it fell off my drill press and broke again … in a different place. Once more I took it back to the shop and had it re-welded. From then on it got the royal treatment. I used the hardware from the piano and some springs I found in the shop to build a mechanism so the pedals worked. After I enclosed in a wooden compartment.

The company name was done in a 2 part silkscreen but was placed on the free drops anchor. A nice location to display the name but the piece it was painted on was almost three inches thick and extended the length of the piano. I chopped the section with the logo out and then cut it to about a half inch thickness on the band saw. Then I jointed the piece repeatedly until it was 3/32″ thick. I had originally planned on inlaying the piece but the best location on the bench, the front rail, was too narrow to set up the jig and fixture I would need to do it so I carved a “holder” on a separate of yellow birch and mounted that. I carved out two pegs and used them to secure it. Came off ok I think.

The piano hinge that held the cover had taken on a lovely patina. Not much green/blue but the old copper tone was almost perfect. The free drop had a nicely curved section so I shortened both the free drop and the hinge and installed them on the back. Although the ratio of seat to back got very small (i.e., the back looked more like a church pew then a household bench). I did not really like the proportion at first but when I measured it out, it fit the original proportion of key board to top of piano almost perfectly. I was sure providence was sending me a message so I went with it.

I made the arm rest to mimic the keys. It actually seems a triffle too harrow but the visual effect is strong. The rest is slightly undercut and grooves resembling the lines between keys were incised into the surface. I placed a piece of black walnut to mimic the sharps on the key board. I think the the next time I build this type of thing I am going to tilt the arms out of horizontal and make them more circular as seen from the top.

Here is what the bench looked like when I completed.

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