1916 Emerson Upright Rebuild

March 1st, 2016

I recently had the pleasure of rebuilding an Emerson upright piano from 1916.  This particular piano had been in one family for the past 100 years.   As is often the case, a treasured family piano still looks wonderful, so my work on the case was simply to clean,  polish and replace some missing knobs.   The musical instrument, inside, however got a rather complete make-over!  With age it really wasn’t sounding good or playing well.

001 Arrival at shop 8-11-15
002 Arrival at shop 8-11-15

Below, I’m doing some preliminary work prior to restringing.  The top section of the treble bridge, had many cracks which were causing poor tonality (false beats) in the sixth and seventh octaves.   Here  I’m preparing a new bridge cap which will provide the proper foundation for a “like new” sound.   (Take me back to 1916)
032 Bridge cap notching

The following photo shows the new bridge cap installed. The piano is now ready for restringing.
034 New bridge cap installed and pinned

Here, the treble sections of the piano are being restrung:
035 Restringing Treble

And restringing is complete!
036 Restringing complete

This photo shows the installation of new key bushings. Well fitted, low friction bushings are important for a good touch response when playing.
037 Installilng new key bushings

039 Rebushed keyset installed

Here I’m reconditioning the hammer catchers with new buckskin. Well, actually though the original material was buckskin, the new material is ecsaine, which replicates the good points of buckskin, while eliminating its imperfections. Restoring this part enables the quick repetition of notes.
040 Installing new catcher leather (ecsaine)

New dampers have been installed in the piano.
042 New dampers installed in restrung piano

New Renner hammers are being prepared for custom boring.
045 Preparing new hammers for installation

Now when we open up the case of the 1916 Emerson, we see a new piano. How does it sound? Well the customer says it’s wonderful! And I believe it’s very close to what it was in 1916.
047 Completed hammer install

Touchstone to 1956

November 14th, 2015

The Janssen Piano Company of New York made about 160,000 pianos from 1901 until 1964, when it sold to the Conn company. I service a number of Janssen console pianos from the 1950s that continue to be good instruments that are loved by their owners.

Today I tuned #134626 from 1956. As I began, I knew that I would like it. I liked it even more when I took the time to read the “Janssen Creed” inside the lid.

2015-11-14 09.13.00

Many pianos of quality are made today, but where do we see this type of statement? Sure, we might say “this was just marketing,” but I see it as a personal commitment to quality. Today we have ISO, CMM, Six-Sigma and scores of other process control and corporate accountability systems. And we’re making excellent pianos. But in 1956 we had personal commitment and worker accountability, and we made excellent pianos.

1920’s Baldwin Baby Grand Reconditioning

September 13th, 2015

Recent reconditioning of a 1920’s Baldwin baby grand included:

  • new key bushings
  • ivory repairs
  • new Renner hammers
  • new Renner shanks and flanges
  • new backchecks
  • new bass strings

The work is complete and getting a very positive response from the customer!

The slideshow below shows some of the work:

Stieff Rebuild – Week 25

September 13th, 2015

I expect to have more time for the rebuild in November, after I finish the rebuild of a fine, old Emerson upright. Customers come first! In the meantime, with the sub-contracted finishing, work does continue! Below, I’m doing the solo work of loading the plate (200+ pounds of iron) into my trailer. It’s going to Heritage restorations for re-guilding.

The plate of Steiff 23334 - on it way to refinishing.

The return trip brought home the case of the piano. The case has received a factory new (or better) hand rubbed lacquer finish. A work of art! The picture below doesn’t quite do it justice, but you’ll get the idea!

The case of 6-3 Stieff 28334 grand piano after refinishing in hand rubbed lacquer

Stieff Rebuild – Week 21

August 2nd, 2015

I am grateful for my customers, and they are taking my time! The Stieff Rebuild is not moving along, but the soundboard has arrived. The custom made soundboard was built by  Erwin’s Piano Restorations. I asked the Erwins to make three identical boards, as I have two more Stieff pianos of the same model. With this level of commitment, progress will continue!

2015-07-21 10.19.48

The Sitka Spruce soundboard panels are beautiful, and one is just stunning with impressive flare in the grain.

Stieff Rebuild – Week 16

June 28th, 2015

The piano was prepared for its trip to the refinishing shop. It’s there now. I anticipate its return late in August. New Wessel Nickel and Gross leg plates were installed. This makes the piano more predictable for movers, and certainly safer for everyone. One of the original leg plates was broken.

Some photos of interest:

The router jig that I used with a straight cutting bit to cut out the recess for the new leg plate. WNG sells a nice template and bit system using a top guided router bit. Not wanting to invest, I worked a little harder.

Leg plate and case plate installed. The old hardware is displayed alongside the new. Stieff used an unusual cast iron plate that twists on. On the right, note that one of those castings had broken some time in the past. The new plate diameter is a quarter inch smaller than the old. After this photo was taken, I filled the gap with epoxy.


Cleaned up the inner rim, paring away old soundboard residue

Stieff Rebuild – Week 15 – Tear Down

June 17th, 2015

Week 15? Yes. I made no progress on the project for the past 10 weeks. Oh my. Interruptions were a lot of customer work, a week at Renner Academy, and reconditioning of a Yamaha P22 for resale.

But on with the story:

I had the time this week to do the major tear down of the piano in preparation for case refinishing, soundboard replacement, and pin block replacement.

Here are photos of interest:

Nice bass strings. It’s a shame they have to go for the sake of the project.


Mapping old soundboard crown prior to releasing string tension.


Completely unstrung.


Plate levitation.


Steiff used plate height adjustement screws at each plate bolt, instead of dowels. I’ll be using Mason & Hamlin plate bolts which allow for height adjustment during assembly without removing the plate.


Recording the position of bridges relative to the case, per techniques described by Nick Gravagne


Cutting out the pinblock with help from a 16″ Makita circular saw. Looking carefully, you’ll see a shoe plate attached to the saw, controlling the position of the cut.


The pinblock cut was finished with a hand saw, and the last bit of glue joint was broken out. Subsequently the 2 mm of material remaining on the stretcher was carefully removed by moistenting, heating with an iron and peeled off with a chisel.


Preparing for soundboard removal. Glue joint was weakened with vinegar. It popped right out with a little dancing on its bottom. Check out the massive rim on this piano!


The point of no return!

Stieff Rebuild – Week 5

April 8th, 2015

It was a vacation week! Terri and I enjoyed a few days in sunny California, and since we were near Modesto, we paid a visit to the shop of Dale Erwin. Dale was a gracious host, who shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for rebuilding and belly work. It’s great to have him as a collaborator. Dale will be supplying the soundboard panel for the Stieff. I plan to do the ribbing. Here’s Dale with a soundboard he made for a Steinway D: Dale Erwin with a soundboard he built

While we were on vacation, FedEx was not. A package of handmade tools was waiting for me on my return:

A collection of hand made tools from Dana Mazzaglia

A collection of hand made tools from Dana Mazzaglia

Click to expand this photo

These tools were made by Dana Mazzaglia. All are used in piano belly work. You go to the head of the class if you can name each and its function.

Despite the vacation, I did squeeze in some time to do work on the key-side resurfacing jig. It’s quite the jig. If these photos do not reveal the ultimate plan … hang on. All secrets of my conniving mind will be revealed. But basically the jig will allow re-dimensioning the width of the white keys to a uniform width with a uniform spacing. A significant step forward in obsessiveness (which I think is justified: the keyboard is the interface for the musician, and these details build success).

Shown below are a few photos of progress on the key side resurfacing jig:

Stieff Rebuild – Week 4

March 31st, 2015

Keyframe Work

Earlier, I completed woodwork and cleanup on the keyframe. This week, I installed new WNG keypins. I installed 88 keypins for the center rail, but just the 52 pins for the whites on the front rail. This will allow me to cut through the area of the sharps key pins when resurfacing the sides of the white keys. The front rail WNG pins are made with a small diameter insertion shaft which apparently matches current European standards, but requires bushing for classic American applications. This required re-boring the front rail holes for nylon bushings, and subsequently boring the nylon bushings for the insertion of the key pin. That obviously was quite a bit of extra work, but produced a really nice result.

Inserting nylon bushings in front rail with drill press arborPressing in key pins with drill press arborAdjustable angle table for drill press, used for pressing center rail pins at a 95 degree angle

Key bed pinning with Wessel, Nickel and Gross pins

Click to see a slideshow of 3 photos

The front rail got new key bushings. They were bushing close to tolerance, as that will be important when resurfacing the key sides.

Front rail bushed uniformly using Spurlock key bushing caulsAlong the way,some  of the fragile sharp key mortises were replaced with new wood inserts and mortised.

Key bushing

Click to see a slideshow of 2 photos

I prepared a phenolic blank for subsequent use in a jig for resurfacing the key sides. More details will follow. I established 52 equal spacing by subdividing the total width of the keyboard. This was facilitated by creating 64 spacings — something that is easier to divide than 52. Click the photo below for two more related to this preliminary setup for the key surfacing jig:

Phenolic blank is trued up with the routerTrammel points were made to aid in dividing the breadth of the keyboard evenly.Final division showing the width of 64 equal spaces scribed on the blank. (52 will be used)

Key side resurfacing jig in progress

Click to see a slideshow of 3 photos

Stieff Rebuild – Week 3

March 23rd, 2015

Key work
I had considered doing ivory repair on this piano, but in the end I decided that there were just too many cracks, chips, and mis-matches for me to be satisfied with the appearance. On the other hand, the ebony sharps are in near perfect condition. For those, I plan to strip, re-stain, and finish with a hard wax. This week I performed preparatory work for key top replacement. My basic procedure is described in this article.

Radial Arm Saw Upgrade

For the key work I will be establishing or re-establishing uniform spacing of key heads.  I’ve admired the work of others as they have addressed this detail.  I’ll be applying carefully sized veneer layers to the sides of the key heads to achieve this uniformity.  For the work, I’ll be creating a jig to use with the radial arm saw.  More details will be forthcoming.   But some serious time went into getting the radial arm saw station ready for this precision work.   The prior table for the saw was inadequate in several ways:

I created a new flat table using torsion box construction.   The table is 8 feet in total width, which will support a keyframe jig on either side of the blade.  The depth from front edge to the fence is now 530 mm,  which will support the full width of a keyframe.  

1952 Delta-Milwaukee Radial Arm Saw in its new table1952 Delta-Milwaukee Radial Arm Saw in its new tableRadial Arm Saw sitting on its new torsion box tableRadial Arm Saw sitting on its new torsion box table

Radial Arm Saw table rebuild

Click to see a slideshow of 4 photos

This finely engineered saw is both special and remarkable.   It was purchased new in 1952 by my Dad, Harvey McGuire. It was  used in his shop until his passing in 2001.   1952 was also the year of my birth, so this saw and I share quite a bit! Happy 63rd birthday, old saw!