(As published in the Jan/Feb 1984 issue of the AMICA Bulletin, journal of the Automatic Musical Instruments Collectors' Association)



To Strip Or Not To Strip

by Terry Smythe


Eons ago when Man decided to use wood as the material for his furniture, little did he know the heritage of beauty he was putting in place. By the teens and 20`s, the use of fine woods for piano cases had reached a magnificent level of proficiency. The hallmark of superior pianos became the artistic use of fine quality woods wherein Mother Nature gave us her most beautiful handiwork. The grain patterns I've seen on some of our pianos is positively stunning.

Key word is "potential", for so very often the finishing materials used in the 20's have darkened over the years, and who knows now what beauty lurks beneath this thin black skin of our prized instruments. While I'm one to support reservation of original finishes wherever possible, there are times when refinishing becomes a no-option situation.

Personally. I'm not well equipped to do proper refinishing , but I have developed an array of modest techniques which for me, using commonly available tools and materials, have worked reasonably well. It's not totally satisfactory, and I'm hopeful this article will not only provide a few ideas, but will also provoke other members to help me overcome it's weaknesses.

Under no circumstances should these techniques be compared to professional refinishing. There is no comparison, as the professionals have tools, facilities, and some very special skills far in excess of most collectors, myself included. These techniques herein do have many compromises, but they are aimed at those of modest means who have an instrument in need of refinishing, and desire acceptable results at low cost.


For the purposes of discussion at this point, I've reduced this array of techniques to critical ingredients:

  1. Absolutely thorough stripping.

  2. Transparent alcohol based aniline dye.

  3. Black paste type wood filler.

  4. Brushed-on polyurethane.


  1. 1 gallon of the most powerful liquid stripper you can find. In Canada, I've been successfully using Sherwin Williams 4-Star Paint & Varnish Remover.

  2. 2 gallons of Methyl Hydrate. I've found it cheapest at my friendly neighbourhood pharmacist,

  3. 2 lbs of medium steel wool.

  4. 2 Ibs of 0000 steel wool.

  5. A selection of powdered aniline dyes, for use with alcohol . Bite the bullet here (it's expensive) and obtain the smallest amounts possible of a selection of colours of your choice from a very long tint list. In Canada, I've been getting mine from a mail order house, Mohawk Finishing Products, Inc.. 8860 Crescent 3. Ville D'Anjou, Montreal, Quebec, HlJ VZ9, (514) 351-8810; or in the U.S., Route 30 N. Perth Rd., Amsterdam, NY, (518) 843-1380. Catalog available on request.

  6. Black paste type wood filler, Mohawk #700-2516.

  7. Selection of various replacement rubber tacks and plugs.

  8. Replacement fallboard decal.

  9. 1 pint each of high gloss and satin polyurethane finish, best quality available, not waterbase.

  10. 1 gallon of common paint thinner (varsol preferred).

  11. 4 rolls of least costly paper towels.

  12. 3 to 6 small finger nail brushes with nylon bristles. Straw bristles are useless for refinishing purposes.

  13. Clean, absorbent rags.

  14. Variety of wood fillers and putty, available from Mohawk.

  15. Surgical gloves to fit (several pairs helpful).

  16. About a dozen or more small clear jars, such as for baby food.


    Before stepping into this very challenging and rewarding venture, it would, I believe, be prudent to review some fundamental precautions:

    1. Be Patient. This task in its magnitude, is not unlike trying to eat an elephant! The trick is to do so a meal at a time. I've done this job in as little as a week, but I feel about 4-5 weeks is more realistic for the average collector.

    2. Be respectful of all chemicals. Some chemicals, like stripper and wood filler, have strong odours, and may be toxic. As a basic rule of thumb, presume all chemicals are toxic and ensure adequate ventilation at all times you're using them. Others, such as contact cement, iosol, lacquer, and alcohol, have low flash points as well as being toxic. So for them, not only good ventilation, but also ensure your shop's fire extinguisher is full charged and serviceable. Don't forget that a cigarette, or even a pilot light is a potential ignitor of some of these chemical vapours.

    3. Above all. have a positive attitude toward the entire task. There is no denying it's a large significant task, with little opportunity for positive feedback as it progresses. Depression is a high, very real risk. Prepare for it. Set yourself a goal of at least one hour daily, and as if by magic one day, it will all start coming together and bring with it a fresh burst of enthusiasm.


    It is important that all parts of the piano be disassembled, right down to the last nut, bolt, and screw. The includes the long piano wire hinges on the lid and fallboard, held in place by a zillion little screws. Have ready your array of small clear glass jars to receive all these miscellaneous bits and pieces, and screws, etc.


    Strip in is often perceived as just a "grunt" task to be dispensed with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is a foul, messy, unpleasant task, but I've found that if done properly, the other tasks become much easier and more effective.

    Never, ever, strip with sandpaper! Use the most powerful liquid stripper you can find. Commercial or professional grade is likely OK. Typical domestic grade strippers found in local discount stores are far too weak, and frustrating to use. Your local paint store will likely have something suitable.

    Use of surgical gloves throughout the stripping procedure will be helpful, and certainly imperative while using the highly caustic stripper. Clip your finger nails short before putting them on, otherwise you'll quickly have holes in a couple of finger tips. While physically weak in the finger tips, I've found that surgical gloves provide a good sense of touch, while providing good protection from all the chemicals I use.

    Initial application of striper (using an old jam can and cheap paint brush) will likely be soaked up almost immediately, so I follow it with another coat immediately. The 2 together will, in about 5 - 10 minutes, loosen the bulk of the old varnish. Large flat surfaces are OK for a large putty knife (5-6") which can slice away about 80% of the old varnish. Otherwise use the medium steel wool in small pads which quickly clog up and can be thrown away immediately. Always use this medium steel wool wi th the grain of the wood, as it will otherwise leave a horrifying maze of fine scratches.

    Next application will seem a little slower and more effective, and is best removed with the medium steel wool. By now, you may think you've got it, but there's lots left and the most important stripping step follows.

    Next (third) application of stripper is applied fast and sloppy, making sure the panel you're working on is totally wet for this step. Using 0000 steel wool dipped in methyl hydrate, slosh it all over the stripper as fast as possible in liberal quantities. Then gently, but quickly scrub this soupy, foul mixture over the entire surface, keeping the entire surface equally wet. Keep adding more methyl hydrate. A chemical reaction is going on here which seems to effectively leech residual varnish right out of the pores.

    Important! Keep the whole surface equally wet. (it will now want to dry quickly). Then with clean methyl hydrate and paper towelling, start cleaning up. Continue keeping it equally wet. By best judgement, switch to another jam can of clean methyl hydrate and more paper towelling until the towels start coming off clean themselves. Then, with one last complete wet-down, dry off with a clean rag quickly and evenly, and allow to dry for about an hour.

    This is a very sloppy process requiring a lot of newspapers around and under your work to catch and soak up the mess. Towards the end of the stripping process, the critical ingredient is to keep he wood equally wet. Letting it dry up in irregular patches will generate streaks and blotches, forcing yet another and another wet down with stripper arid methyl hydrate until you get it right. So, being sloppy and soupy is a desirable and in fact unavoidable rule of thumb.


    This is something that gives me heartburn as I've riot been able to develop a satisfactory method of repairing damaged veneer. Obtaining small quantities of suitable veneer and patching is no real problem. There are several reputable veneer suppliers, and patching is a simple matter of basic woodworking. Heartburn emerges when I try to blend the repair into the rest of the finish.

    With a raw veneer patch in place, some sanding seems unavoidable. Unfortunately, selective sanding of only the repair seems not possible. Inevitably, sanding enlarges the repair area, removes residual coloration (patina), lightening a large circular area around the repair. Sanding the entire case is not an appealing alternative, and so far I've not been able to learn how to satisfactorily bring these light areas back down to the basic coloration of the surrounding areas.

    I`ve spent far too much time horsing around with various mixtures and colours of dyes. I can get it close, but never completely satisfactory. If there are any AMICAns who have found a way of dealing with this situation, I would be pleased to hear from them and report back through this Bulletin.

    There is a little tip I can pass along that I learned from Harold Braker in Vancouver. On most uprights, the feet are usually badly damaged, and consequently become a fine source of veneer craps for repairs elsewhere. I've found it easier, faster, and quite satisfactory to totally replace veneer or the inside of the feet, leaving you with a scrap from which all the correct veneer can be obtained for repairs on other, more visible locations. All that's required to remove the old is a hot iron and a wet rag.


    A few ears ago, during a casual conversation with Bill Maier of Minneapolis, he speculated of the results of reversing the traditional sequence of filling and then staining. Shortly thereafter, I had an occasion to test his idea and the results were beautiful! Basically his idea was:

    1. After stripping, use an alcohol based aniline dye mixed a little lighter than you would ordinarily choose.

    2. Follow it with black paste type wood filler. (More about this in next section.)

    I've been using powdered aniline dyes available from Mohawk., and have found them to be convenient, forgiving, effective, arid as they are truly transparent, do not hide any of the grain pattern. As there are oodles of colours, choice is a little difficult, but a few carefully chosen colours can be mixed to achieve desired tint and strength.

    Generally, I mix up more than I need and keep the leftovers for future touch-ups. For convenience, I use empty clear glass liquor bottles with screw top caps. Their caps are a good tight fit, and at a glance I can see and choose the color I want from the line-up. Add the powder to the alcohol starting with a weak mixture, say about a teaspoonful for starters. It goes into solution almost immediately.

    Initially test for color on scrap lumber until you feel you're close. Then select an obscure part of your piano for a test. Assuming you like the color (A healthy dose of trust and faith will help here), do one small part of the piano. The color test must be completed using the black wood filler, so see the section following on. Wood Filler for details.

    Assuming color satisfaction, the dye may be applied everywhere. Very easy and quick. (Ensure surgical gloves, as otherwise your finger tips will be deeply dyed for several weeks.)

    Dries in minutes. Large areas such as grand lids may appear a little spotty or irregular, but may be easily corrected by washing the entire surface with a clean rag and clean methyl hydrate. Total surface is instantly blended throughout. Black wood filler may be applied immediately.

    If by chance you feel you've overdone it with a color too dark, excess dye may be removed by repeated washings with clean methyl hydrate. Process is slow, uses a lot of methyl hydrate, but is effective.

    The high cost of aniline dyes prompted a friend, Richard Gurevich, to try common household fabric dyes, and his experiments thus far have been encouraging. As a water base will lift the wood fibres, he dissolves the powder in methyl hydrate warmed in a double boiler. He cautions that the dye is very powerful and only a few grains are needed for a two cup batch. The selection of colours is truly infinite and any tone can be mixed to suit the need at hand. The solution in the container appears darker t han finished result, but upon the instant of application, color is reasonably close to finished dry color. If there is anybody else using these dyes, a note about their experiences will be appreciated.


    Mohawk's black paste type wood filler comes far too thick to apply directly. With a new can, I spoon out about 2' into a jam can for later use, and then top up the new can with varsol to obtain a mixture about the consistency of heavy maple syrup that can be brushed out without too much difficulty. Faith and trust are required here, as all your instincts will cry out in opposition. Believe me. Bill Maier's original idea is valid and results are stunning! Simply brush on this filler roughly and slop py, generally at right angles to the grain. Let stand for about 20-30 minutes, and wipe off.

    The `wipe-off' is the critical task. I use about 3 rolls of paper towelling for one piano, a single piece at a time. This seems to be best to both remove the excess filler and squeeze the remainder into the pores of the wood. Basically. the filler settles into the soft wood pores, but does not stick to the hard wood between the pores. It's black color also slightly darkens and mellows the previously dyed wood surface.

    Each piece of paper quickly clogs up and your near-by garbage box will quickly fill up with the "rain" of dirty paper. Keep at it continuously until no more filler comes off on the paper. This is a large `grunt', tiring task, and when finished you may be a little dismayed at the dull, rather dark result you see. Have faith! I've learned that the dye, filler, and final finish are specifically formulated to work in concert with each other. Let stand to dry for about 24 hours (Longer if you've used tu rpentine instead of varsol to thin out the filler.


    I've ruined more $4 decals than I care to remember before a method of installation that is not defined on the decal instruction sheet emerged between my neighbour, Richard Gurevich, and I. Varnish decals are tricky to handle, particularly with Murphy and his laws hovering around ready to pounce when least expected. However, here's a method that now seems to work reasonably well.

    Ensure fallboard is completely refinished. Using a small scrap of cellulose sponge, apply a thin coat of varnish to both the back of the decal and its general location on the fallboard. Let stand to get tacky for about 5-10 minutes, not 20 to 30 as directed, then apply the decal to its exact location, with both of its paper backings still attached. Do not remove the paper backing at this time as directed, but leave it sit undisturbed for at least 24 hours.

    It helps to apply a little pressure with a suitable weight, such as a small paint car, or jar of screws, etc. A piece of sponge rubber (neoprene gasket material is ideal) cut to size will help to evenly distribute the pressure.

    The 24 hour drying period is a minimum. With both backing papers and a piece of sponge rubber in place, air can really only get at the varnish to dry it through the pores of the wood. So, we often leave it for several days to dry.

    When you feel its reasonably safe to remove the paper backings, do so with care. Dampening them with a little water will greatly aid their removal. The heavier paper will fight you only a little, but the flimsy will quickly wrinkle up for easy removal. The varnish under it will likely still be tacky, so remove excess water with care. With a small lint free rag dipped in varsol, ever so carefully remove excess varnish from around the edges, and then let stand for another 24 hours for it to dry thoro ughly.

    For the first hour or so, keep a close watch on the decal, It's possible small corners or edges may not have adhered properly and, as it begins to dry, these may start to curl up and separate from the wood. At the first sign of this, apply a small amount of varnish under the offending part with an artist brush, reapply both the wet tissue arid paper backing. Let stand under light pressure for another 24 hours. Repeat process until you're satisfied that the decal is properly in place. Do not be concer ned at this time about the somewhat unsightly rectangular varnish patch surrounding the decal.

    When you're certain the decal is properly in place and varnish is dry, lightly feather the edges of the varnish patch with 0000 steel wool, and then lightly rub down the entire fallboard with the same steel wool, simply to provide a "tooth' for the lacquer that follows.

    Here use a spray can of clear lacquer and very lightly apply a thin dust coat. Don't overdo it. Let dry for 30 minutes. Apply 3 or 4 more light dust coats similarly. Then with the 0000 steel wool, gently rub down the lacquer just the minimum to smooth it out and provide a another tooth. Apply 2 or 3 more of these light dust coats, rubbing down between each. By now, you can safely apply several normal coats of spray lacquer over the entire fallboard to finally seal and protect the decal. Rub dow n between each of these normal coats of lacquer. A final rubdown with Brasso will restore the fallboard's finish very similar to that on the remainder of the piano.

    While this decal replacement process does work reasonably for us, it is terribly time consuming, labour intensive, and very much more an art that a simple technique. Yet it is sufficiently important that we've been rationalizing our efforts all along. If someone has developed a faster, simpler method, we would be delighted to hear about it and pass it on. Surely the professionals do not do it this way!

    Where you are unable to obtain identical replacement decals. you have 3 options I'm aware of:

    1. Replace with simulated decal using a silk screen process.
    2. Substutite the old one.
    3. Salvage the old one.


    An excellent replica can be had by taking the fallboard to a smaller advertising house that has a modest silkscreen operation. (Large printing and advertising companies typically don't want to be bothered with small jobs like this.) Have them photograph the old decal onto high contrast film. Ensure they take several photos over a range of exposures. This is not a routine job for them, and they could easily blow it.

    When you've confirmed a successful photo, you are then free to refinish the fallboard, destroying the old decal in the process. From the photo they will make a king-size piece of art-work for retouching and clean-up. This will then be rephotographed back down to original size, and a proper silk-screen will emerge, awaiting your return of the fully refinished fallboard. When this neat moment arrives, they will apply a simulated decal using gold paint.

    Results are excellent but pricey. Furthermore, if your original decal has an array of black lines within it, a second silk-screen will be needed at additional cost (one for each color). However. if you consider the overall worth of your instrument, costs in the neighbourhood of $150 - $200 can be rationalized through gritted teeth.

    Grand soundboard decals are a little more difficult, as you must have "house calls" for both the photographing and the silk-screening. The latter is unavoidable, but the former might be avoidable if you do your own photography. High contrast, fine grain B&W film in a 35mm single lens reflex camera is best. Ensure film plane is parallel to soundboard. or distortion will emerge. If available to you. an option here is an older 35mm planetary microfilm camera equipped with a wide angle lens.

    For picture taking. the piano can be on its feet, or on its side (which I prefer). Silk-screening should only be attempted with the soundboard horizontal.

    Substitute Lettering

    If the high cost of silk-screening troubles you, a very low cost, reasonably satisfactory option is available in the form of transfer lettering. I've used FORMATT Gold Old English and found it quite satisfactory as a non-identical substitute. Very easy to apply, and can be obtained from a variety of engineering drafting, or art supply houses. I would suggest ordering in a fresh supply, as old stock tends to break-up and disintegrate during application. Not normally suitable for sound-board decal repl acement.


    This is the least attractive option as results are rarely satisfactory. Simply mask off the old decal under a "baggie" or saran wrap before stripping. Following stripping, the old finish must now be feathered as best as possible into the new finish. Greet patience and skill are needed here to touch up the old finish, repair the old decal, and blend the two finishes. I don't recommend it, but your best judgement on the spot must prevail.


    Assuming original ivory key tops have few chips and are basically salvageable, I've found an approach to clean-up that so far seems to work.

    Over the years, when I've encountered instruments whose keytops are not salvageable. I remove them all, keep the reusable ones, and replace all with new. Out of this process has emerged a large jar full of reusable ivory key tops with an almost infinite array of color, tints, patterns and stains.

    Like most collectors. I try very hard to keep ivory key tops on whatever instrument I'm restoring, and this jar is a useful source of replacements for those few that on this piano at this moment are chipped or broken. They don't always fit perfect, and sometimes I must do some filing and buffing, starting with a fine grindstone (gently), followed by fine wet/dry sandpaper, followed by medium steel wool, followed by 0000 steel wool, followed by Brasso. Usually, results are satisfactory.

    Until recently. I was using contact cement for gluing keytops. However, not long ago, I learned about PPC's #320 plastic glue and it seems to work rather well. I like it because I can move the keytop around on a slippery surface for about 15-30 secs, ample time for correct positioning. It's quick set-up time is very advantageous. Apply sparingly.

    For those keytops not damaged, but stained, I've tried many things over the years with only modest success. Several tuner friends suggested fine sandpaper glued to a piece of plate glass, a very sow process that almost always seemed to leave minute scratches I couldn't remove easily. Others suggested javex or hydrogen peroxide, but neither worked very well. Yet another suggested mounting the keys on a board and leave them out in the sun for a few months to bleach them, with only modest success and it took too long. Toothpaste also surfaced as a solution, but with only limited success.

    In sheer frustration one day about a year ago, with a totally undamaged but badly stained set or. my hands, I tried medium steel wool. It worked liked magic and the stains just melted away with very little effort. I use a small ball of the steel wool with its grain at right angles to the length of the key, press fairly hard, and check results frequently. For me, something less than 5 mins. on each key produces nice clean results.

    Each strand of the steel wool seems to act much like a microscopic plane and collectively skim off a super thin layer of the stained ivory, leaving behind a clean, smooth surface devoid of scratches. The finish is dull at this point, but a few moments with Brasso restores its original lustre.

    I've tried this technique on 2 subsequent pianos and got similar good results. If others try this technique, I would appreciate hearing about their experiences and possibly enhancements.

    A friend and nearby AMICAn, Richard Gurevich, similarly had an undamaged but severely stained keyboard to deal with recently, and he successfully tried a name brand automobile rubbing compound. He too was quite satisfied with his results. It appears that the magic ingredient is a mild abrasive of some kind that will quickly remove a very thin layer without imparting an array of minute scratches in the process.


    With the dampers, strings and harp out of the piano during rebuild, you will never have a better opportunity to do something with the soundboard. First try simply to clean it up with a vacuum cleaner followed by a damp rag. When you've done the best possible, decide to leave it or try harder with diluted Fantastik household cleaner. When you've done the best possible, decide to leave it alone or try harder by proper refinishing.

    This clean-up procedure only occasional produces satisfactory results. All too often, it's obviously a waste of time as the soundboard has been stained by spillage of coffee, tea, soft drinks, martini, or even water out of a flower vase tipped over by a passing curious cat. Parties, pets, and pianos don't always mix too well. However, many manufacturers put beautiful decals on their soundboards, and I do feel that every effort should be made to salvage them if true replacements cannot be found.

    As soundboards must vibrate freely, they should be finished with a flexible product of some kind. I find most have been finished with white shellac or clear lacquer. Shellac is easily removed with methyl hydrate which, with a little luck, will also remove stains.

    Deeply imbedded stains, soundboard cracks, rib separations, etc., are problems I've not been able to deal very well at all. Generally, when encountering these kinds of problems in any degree of severity, I tend to defer to the professionals who are skilled and better equipped to deal with these requirements. There is a limit to what can be achieved with modest means and I believe this is one of them. For those more courageous, Art Reblitz has good advice in chapter 5 of his book.

    Soundboards should not be stained, nor treated in any way with fillers, etc. Flexibility must not be impaired. When I'm satisfied that the soundboard is reduced to a clean, shellac-free surface, I refinish with clear lacquer from a spray can. Easy to do if your soundboard is horizontal. If vertical, take care to apply very thin coats to avoid runs and sags.


    When replacing all strings. you'll never have a better opportunity to refinish the soundboard and regild the harp. So bite the bullet and remove the harp. As each screw is removed, insert it into a piece of cardboard already prepunched with the right number of holes roughly in the same pattern. With 2 or 3 strong people, lift the harp out and set to one side. Usually, I set it up on scrap lumber on a pair of sawhorses, principally to get it up to a convenient working height.

    First step is a decision to protect and preserve any decals there may be on the harp. If none, go on to next step. If present, check condition for potential salvage. Since accidentally defacing one of these irreplaceable decals many years ago. I no longer simply put masking tape on them. I now take the time to cut out of a sheet of thin plastic (like saran wrap or vapour barrier), a patch about 1/16' larger all around than the decal itself. Then on any convenient surface, I put on a strip of masking tape all around the edge. Remove, turn upside down, and trim the tape to leave a slim 1/16' gripping edge. This then become the protective cover for the decal during all operations except final clear lacquer.

    Next is rough cleaning. and my best tool is my little 3/8' electric drill fitted with a fine wire brush. As best I can, stains and heavy dirt are removed with this tool fairly quickly, and is followed by medium steel wool. This steel wool will remove most of the residual dirt and provide a good 'tooth' for what follows.

    For final clean-up, I start by vacuuming the entire surface, and then a fluid clean-up. I use Iosol, which I find excellent, although a little dangerous with its low flash point. However, almost any cleaning fluid will do that won't leave an oily residue.

    For screw heads, I start with my grindstone to remove previously inflicted burrs around their screwdriver slots. Then repeat the entire cleaning process for all screws.

    For painting. I've been successfully using 2 spray bombs each of red oxide automotive primer, gold lacquer, and clear lacquer. Steel wooling provides a 'tooth' for the primer, and the primer provides a 'tooth' for the gold lacquer as it fills in all the minute cavities, scratches, and nicks, etc.

    Before using the gold lacquer, lightly rub down the entire primed surface with 0000 steel wool. This provides a fine opportunity for final inspection and smooth down. Touch up as required with primer, which is easy to apply and very forgiving. Deep damage may be repaired with automobile putty before priming.

    Before using the gold lacquer, vacuum the surface once again. Spray on the gold lacquer in super thin light coats. Sags and runs are very real risks here. Drying time is almost immediate, so I apply each succeeding coat soon after the previous.

    Do not. under any circumstances, touch the dry gold lacquer with bare skin. The unprotected gold lacquer attracts skin oil and much later will discolour wherever it was touched. Surgical gloves OK. This is important because the harp will ultimately become very unsightly wherever touched.

    Now comes the clear lacquer. and one of its attributes becomes a potential impediment. Each layer of lacquer when applied, totally merges with the previous layer to become one. This attribute causes the gold lacquer to rise to the surface and little is gained by applying clear lacquer in a normal fashion.

    It also has the attribute of fast drying which helps this situation. Several (3 to 5) super light dust coats each seem to dry so fast that the old does not have the opportunity to rise to the surface. I typically get about 5 such coats out of 2 spray cans of clear lacquer, and stains and discoloration have never happened thereafter when applied this way.

    Ensure screw heads are included in this entire painting process, simultaneous with each step.

    Assuming soundboard has been refinished, get our strong help again and replace the harp. Here you have a fine opportunity to check and adjust, if necessary, bearing. Good description of this process in Chapter 7 of Art Reblitz' fine book.

    When replacing harp screws, take care to use a large screwdriver, with a freshly dressed tip. It's very easy to inflict fresh damage and mar your freshly painted screw heads, which is certain to happen with a worn screwdriver tip and/or wrong size. Take the time to do it right, as this is one of those neat little finishing touches.


    I'm the first to acknowledge arid support the use of a sprayed-on clear lacquer finish. Results are nearly always gorgeous! However, those like me who don't have a proper spray booth, gun, and ventilation, etc., must make do with a brush and alternate finishing materials. I've been using polyurethane for about 15 years and still get quite satisfactory results.

    I'm very much aware of the controversy over polyurethane vs lacquer, and two companion schools of thoughts. Let there be no doubt that lacquer is the better product, but it requires equipment, facilities and skill most of us mere mortals simply do not have. So I do use polyurethane, albeit through gritted teeth, and have found ways to overcome most of its long term problems.

    My objective is a highly forgiving satin finish, but satin polyurethane as a milky additive which, with about 5-6 coats, will tend to hide your gorgeous grain pattern. So my first 3-5 coats are with perfectly clear high gloss, saving the satin till the very last light coat.

    Thin both about 20-25% with varsol. Using the best quality brush you can buy, apply thin coats quickly. Do not overbrush. I've found that each thinned coat spreads very easily and smooth if done fast, and with the grain. Keep overlaps to an absolute minimum.

    Brushing technique is a little difficult to describe, but basically I apply small quantities quickly, almost recklessly, finishing with long, even, gentle, unbroken strokes to smooth it out before it can set-up. About 1 minute is all the time I have for each brush load, but that's sufficient. If you're still brushing when set-up starts, you'll leave behind brush marks difficult to erase. Bringing a fresh load to the site to try again will intensify the problem, so leave well enough alone.

    Let dry for about 24 hours. At times of high humidity, I've known drying times to stretch out quite a bit longer so be patient. When dry, rub it down lightly with 0000 steel wool, turning and replacing the pad frequently. When finished, vacuum the entire surface thoroughly, and wipe it down with varsol, to totally remove the zillion little fragments of steel wool. Repeat this painting arid rubbing process about 3 times on all surfaces until you're satisfied with the results. Use the satin finish last.

    Hand rubbing with 0000 steel wool not only aids in the smoothing process, but provides a 'tooth' for each successive coat to grip. Unlike lacquer, polyurethane does not blend with itself, but is simply a layer upon Iayer. Without this `tooth', Iayer separation is certain to occur in irregular, unsightly patterns in about 3-5 years. requiring a total re-do.

    For a final touch, I do a final hand rubbing with Brasso, a mild abrasive/polish which does a fine job in quickly delivering that 50 years of hand rubbed look. If you do use it, expect to find little white pin points everywhere when it dries. This is the residual polish itself which settles into the remaining pores that the wood filler did not completely fill.

    Don't waste your time trying to get rid of these annoying white spots. Leave them there. Simply get a small can a of pigment type stain that reasonably matches the color or tint of your instrument. Thin it with a little varsol, brush on everywhere you used Brasso and wipe off immediately. Presto! Those little white spots will become invisible when tinted. Its a good idea to do a final wipe down with a clean rag dampened with varsol. Wipe until rag remains clean.


    Refinishing your piano is never complete until all its metal parts are restored to their original brilliance. Whether brass or plated, different approaches are required.

    If brass, a quick, simple, inexpensive and efficient procedure will provide a gleaming restoration. Start with 0000 steel wool and Brasso to remove bulk of grime and discoloration. Follow this up with a coarse rag and Brasso to bring up a fine shine. A buffing wheel will help a little here, but is not imperative.

    While the brass parts are easy to deal with, all the screws are a real pain. You have, I believe, 2 options - replace with new ones at considerable cost and bother, or cleaning them. I sometimes choose to spend an evening watching an opera or ballet, cleaning their heads with a wire brush chucked into my drill press. (I have a VCR/TV in my workshop) This process has its hazards when you're dealing with brass plated screws, where the thin plating is quickly removed by the wire brush. Here there is litt le option but to replace with new.

    Nickel plated parts can, with a little luck, be polished with a rag and Brasso. If, however, hearts are worn, rusty, or peeling, then replating is the only option. Results are gorgeous! Unless otherwise specified, your local silver plating house will likely clean all your parts by sand-blasting, which can actually remove good metal. I usually specify glass-blasting which is equally effective, but more gentle. Unfortunately, it is also more expensive. In fact, this whole plating process is rather pricey. so discuss total costs up front so there are no unpleasant surprises on delivery.


    Recently I posed a question on our InterNet special interest group, in an appeal for advice on how to clean the escutcheon plates on an Ampico A drawer I'm working on. In the past I had modest success with Brasso, followed by soap and water. This time, the piano I'm working on is particularly dirty and the buildup of scum and crud in the tiny 3D crevices defied removal.

    Several people kindly offered their successful experience and I tried them all. However, everything I tried failed miserably. The stubborn dirt just would not come free. As an experiment I even tried lightly spray painting one of them with gold lacquer, but all that did was fill in the 3D mouldings and obliterate the detail.

    In frustration, I set it aside, had a nap, a bite to eat, then came back at it. Remembering I had a similar escutcheon plate from an old gutted player piano, I experimented with what might be considered extreme measures.

    I used professional grade Sherwin Williams Paint and Varnish Remover (product #7670), hitting it harshly with a nylon bristle fingernail brush. On this left-over part, I had nothing to lose, and fully expected the "gold" (brass?) plating to simply evaporate.

    However, to my surprise, not only did the plating remain intact, but the crap and dirt in the crevices quickly melted away, and I was left with a gleaming "like new" escutcheon plate. With this new burst of courage, I tried one of the Ampico plates with similar delightful results.

    Then I did them all in about a half hour. With each, it took only 3 applications of paint remover, each followed minutes later by harsh striking with the stiff bristle nylon brush, and finishing up with a clean new brush. On general principles, I washed the lot with soap and water to remove any residual paint remover.

    The array of tiny wood and machine screws presented an interesting challenge. I ended up drilling 32 holes 3/32" into a piece of scrap wood, into which I inserted all the screws down to their heads. At that point, it was a simple matter to apply the same technique to the screw heads with similar results.

    The final result is excellent. About 99.99% of the dirt and discoloration is gone, and all have been restored to their original brilliance, with the fine 3D detail fully intact.


    As a basic rule of thumb, I never reuse the old belly cloth. Presence of the old dirty, ragged cover on an otherwise clean, gleaming instrument is clearly a tacky oversight. People do look under and they should see a new. clean, properly fitted cover, preferably made from a good quality quilted vinyl of a color similar to the piano.

    Locally, I've been getting my material from a large discount fabric house called 'Fanny's Fabrics'. In there, they have extra wide rolls of quilted vinyl upholstery material with a thick polyfoam backing, in black and a variety of shades of brown. Surprisingly, this very thick material passes through my 1900 Singer treadle sewing machine with ease, using an extra long stitch setting to minimize risk of tearing along the stitch line.

    If you still have the old belly cloth, making a new duplicate is a breeze. If not, try very hard to make your new one while your instrument is up on its side. If on its feet, the job becomes a monumental aggravation burning up an entire day for a job that shouldn't take more than 2 hours.

    If you do not have the old belly cloth, then the job is somewhat tricky. Start by bringing your sewing machine close to the piano, for you will be making dozens of trips between piano bottom and the sewing machine.

    I've found it safest to do it in segments, starting with the flat side, then the stack edge, and finally fitting in the complete curvature, half at a time. It's a fussy job that must be done with care to ensure neat, clean results.

    Unless you first do that flat side, complete with all its snap fasteners, it's almost impossible to trace out an outline. Now, with that flat side in place, use a bunch of sturdy maptacks to pin up the entire cloth. A felt pen outline at this point should provide enough fabric for a 1" rollover everywhere.

    The 1" rollover (hem?) is necessary not only to make a nice, neat edge, but also to provide a strong enough base for the snaps, to withstand frequent removal over many years. Without it, you are certain to tear out a snap or two within a few short months.

    In most cases, the original screw-male portions of the snap fasteners are still in place, so all you need are the female portions. These can usually be bought in bulk from a local tent and awning maker. However, you will have to buy one little handi-pak repair kit off the rack at your nearby 5 and dime, simply to get the necessary anvil and punch.

    So far, I've not been able to find a source of male fasteners with integral screw threads, similar to original equipment. If someone knows, please advise. As a substitute, I've been using #4 - 5/8" flat head screws with the conventional male fasteners.

    And finally, I've found I really don't need to cut a hole in the new belly for the power cord. There has always enough slack to allow the cord to be inserted at some edge point convenient to the nearest wall outlet. All too often, the original hole in the cloth leaves the power cord hanging fully visible, naked, arid indiscreet.


    Back in the 20's, many otherwise plain case pianos were enhanced with modest effort by the use of appliqué trim. This is still possible and very easy to do. Also, since the techniques and materials are unchanged from that era, I believe these enhancements are appropriate and legitimate.

    Several AMICAns that I'm personally aware of have modified their instruments in this fashion. I draw your attention in particular to Robert R. Perry's article, "How a Make Your Own Louis XV Ampico!", published in the July 78 issue of the AMICA Bulletin.

    Dick Rigg has also done a fine job with his Marshall & Wendell Ampico grand on display at the Pasadena Convention, and subsequently gave a technical workshop on his methods at the Dallas Convention. Perhaps he could be persuaded to write it up for publication, as did Carl Kempf about an upright player piano he totally re-veneered, and is published in AMICA Technicalities III.

    Don & Leilani Leik in Mullikan, MI, and I, have identical Weber Duo-Art grands which have been made very attractive by the technique of applying a decorative panel of exotic veneer on both sides of the case near the keyboard, and on the music rack.

    Recently, I acquired a roll of Carpathian Elm Burl from Constantine in New York, and successfully repeated the process on the plain mahogany case of a Haines Bros. Ampico grand. This product is real wood, but super thin and glued to a paper backing. It is so thin it can be accurately cut with ordinary scissors. I applied it with contact cement, cleaning up the excess with acetone. Result was a handsome enhancement.

    There is very much that can be done to an otherwise plain case piano, perhaps with replacement art case legs and lyre from a destroyed grand, or new ones from MAFC0 in Cincinnati; perhaps by reshaping the music rack, or adding appliqué trim available from Decorators Supply Corp., 3610-12 So. Morgan Street., Chicago 60609; or by adding exotic veneers from a variety of suppliers. The possibilities are truly endless, limited only by your imagination and creativity.


    With each instrument I finish comes an "unveiling" party to celebrate completion of its restoration. I'm never really sure if the party is to honour preservation of another segment of our unique slice of musical heritage, or if it's simply another fine opportunity to rationalize a social gathering to share a truly delightful event. Regardless of the true motive, the instrument on display is exposed to some really close inspection. Some of the nice things that many people seem to notice and comment favourably on are:

    1. Screw heads all in alignment, like soldiers on parade. In particular, the long lines of brass screws holding down the long brass piano wire hinges on lids and fallboards.

    2. Inside of the spoolbox has been refinished, including the take-up spool.

    3. All metal parts and escutcheons are clean and gleaming, including their related screw heads.

    4. Total absence of old varnish residue in even the most difficult to get at nooks and crannies, particularly if carving is present.

    5. New scarlet hitch pin bushings under the strings on every hitch pin.

    6. New scarlet felt strip replacement everywhere.

    7. A new belly cloth made of quilted insulated material.

    8. A big, red bow on the music rest, for the celebration.

    9. Invitation to all your friends to share in the celebration, and leave lying around in strategic locations some information on AMICA and application blanks.


    My objective in pulling together this paper was partly motivated by a realization that its a topic rarely seen in our Bulletin, but largely by numerous friends and visitors who have encouraged me to share what I have learned by trial and error, and from the advice of others who have shared with me that which they have similarly learned.

    While my tools and techniques may be simple, perhaps even primitive, they nevertheless produce good results for me. Hopefully, they will similarly help others to do likewise.

    There is such an abundance of tools, techniques and materials out there that I believe each of us should find an approach that works reasonably well, and stick with it. Certainly do modify it from time to time, but deal with it in small bites and, as if by magic, the elephant one day will have been eaten.

    It has been my experience that in every community there is someone around who has developed good skills at refinishing pianos under modest circumstances. Their tools, techniques, and materials may differ from one another, and that's healthy. What is important is satisfactory results.

    No doubt there are others who have developed approaches better than what I have tried to offer here. To them, I appeal for responses through the pages of our Bulletin, to share knowledge and experience with the many.

    After all, the objective is to turn an ugly duckling into a thin of beauty, and reveal to all that under that thin unsightly skin is proof positive that mother nature is in fact at her finest as she develops those gorgeous fine woods to grace our very special slice of musical heritage.




    (As published in the AMICA Bulletin Jan/Feb 1985)


    Terry Smythe

    In my 3 part series dealing with a variety of considerations in the refinishing of pianos, there were a number of issues where I knew the problems but did not have any answers to offer. Consequently, I extended an open invitation to members who were successful in these areas to let me know, as I planned a follow-up article such as this.

    The response has been very nice, and I'm pleased to share with you the suggestions of others who have developed reasonably successful techniques to overcome some of the stated problems, or simply have something very worthwhile to offer. It goes without saying that if other members have something to contribute but have not yet put it down in writing, then do so now. I will be quite happy to assemble another follow-up article should there be additional response.

    Contributed by Dr. Marvin Dees, Odessa, FL:


    New member, Dr. Marvin Dees, echoed my observations on the health hazards of paint stripping and contributed some additional data written by a professional colleague, Dr. Carl Lawyer of Portland, Oregon, who wrote:

    "As an MD specializing in lungs, I have seen many patients with toxic effects caused by exposure to methylene chloride, the active ingredient in paint strippers.

    The product has two distinct dangers. First inhaled vapour and aerosol of methylene chloride are absorbed into the bloodstream and metabolized to carbon monoxide in the body, leading to carbon monoxide poisoning.

    Second, methylene chloride is converted by an open flame or hot wire, or even a hot surface, into phosgene war gas. If inhaled (as through a cigarette), this can permanently scar the lungs.

    Instead of recommending that stripper be used outdoors, where there is sometimes a temptation for the user to set up a heater to keep warm, it would simply be much better to have an up-front awareness at all times to strictly avoid any inhalation of vapour or fumes. Use only with a cartridge respirator approved for methylene chloride. If outdoors is unavoidable, do so only for brief periods.

    Do not ever use in the presence of an open flame, lighted cigarette. heated surface, or heater of any kind, because of the hiqhly toxic phosgene gas that will be generated.

    Furthermore, avoid exposure to fumes of gasoline or diesel engines, when using this stripper, as increased body levels of carbon monoxide may result.

    Contributed by Carl Kempf, Smyrna, GA:


    There are lots of good removers, but the trick is getting the `gunk" off. The best remover I have found is "KUTZIT". I first use their semi-paste -- let it stand about 10 minutes, then apply their thinner type, and this works real good.

    I have tried everything but ice cream to get the gunk off, but believe it or not the best by far is common wood shavings! Get a sack of them, distribute them generously on the surface to be cleaned, and let stand for a minute or two. With rubber gloves, wash the whole mess in a circular motion, then sweep off into a bag. Repeat as necessary, but one application is usually sufficient. Clean up remainder with lacquer thinner, mineral spirits, or whatever you are using at that moment.

    Try wood shavings, you'll like it!


    As sketched, angle the sides of your patch and it's "home", and after the glue dries, trim and sand flush. Patch may be any shape, but some common shape like square rectangle, etc., is a little easier to work with.

    When finishing, always make your repair a little darker so it will not be seen so readily. Quite often you have new wood in the patch and old wood surrounding it. A stain block from Mohawk, rubbed into the patch, will usually work well.


    I do not recommend polyurethane for a piano. It is plastic, too garish, and artificial looking. I use an alkyd-resin type of varnish, of the type originally used. Three coats sufficient. My objection to polyurethane is much more important than its harsh appearance. The problem, of good adhesion is ever present.

    If you're lucky and do everything just right, it might stick. If unlucky, it will peel off in layers years later. Good for floors, but not furniture

    [ts note: Carl is entirely correct and this risk is pointed out in my article. However, the technique I use of thinned coats, steel woolling after every coat, and finishing with a final coat of "Satin" does seem to work for me, and is easy to use. A final rubdown with Brasso effectively turns that harsh, garish appearance into a warm glow with the appearance of 50 years of hand rubbing. But, do be aware of the risks.]


    You are on the right track using alcohol based aniline dyes. I generally wipe my stains using about 75 to 80%. of the color depth I eventually want. Apply in coats to give depth. Don't ever spray them, they will pile up and make a mess.


    To achieve clarity and depth, you must seal. I use a 50-50 mixture of lacquer sealer, lacquer thinner and spray a medium heavy coat. After a 15-20 minute flash- dry, scuff-sand with grit 180. Be gentle! Too much will remove this protective sealer.

    After this light sanding, apply paste filler with the grain carefully, then wipe it off with burlap or sisal across the grain. To finish use a soft rag with the grain. I use only Star Filler as I've found that Mohawk dries too fast and too hard. Star has the best ease of application, filling properties, wipe off, etc., that I've found.

    Don't forget that first sealer coat. With it, you're filler will go on and come off much better and easier with it in place.

    Now seal it again with another thin coat of lacquer sanding sealer, to prevent this paste filler from bleeding into your top coat.


    Better quality pianos receive a glazing operation at this point. This is largely a hand operation and, while not difficult, it does require some practise. It adds a richness and depth not otherwise possible. Try Mohawk's Dark Provincial Maple, or most any of their darker shades, and apply with a rag. While a frightening looking material, you will be pleasantly surprised at the results.


    Some time ago, I reasoned that automobile rubbing compounds would do a good job of buffing, and they do. I too have used steel wool on key tops successfully. You can also 5 spray brass and other metal parts with oven cleaner, and rinse off. Does the best job I know of. Not too many shortcuts here; even the professionals spend a lot of time on this.


    I pretty much clean them up the way you do, and as a last resort, use paint and varnish remover over the entire soundboard. No matter how nicely a piano performs, a discoloured soundboard is a real eyesore. I never use water, only lacquer thinners or solvents. In a desperation case, I once used a bleach, then tinted a neutral Mohawk filler to produce a slightly yellowish tone. Shellac is a very good finish for sound boards, if you can keep moisture away as is varnish which is also flexible. I do not recommend lacquer.

    [ts note: - Carl, one of our enthused AMICAns, is a professional cabinet maker, has refinished many pianos, and his advice should be considered as it comes from many years of practical experience.)

    Contribution from George Fawkes, Painsville, Ohio:


    Before striping, make repairs to damaged veneer, with minimum sanding only as absolutely necessary into the surrounding wood. Then strip. Use the goopy mess, while you have it on the piano, to work into the new veneer and freshly sanded surrounding area. This "redistribution" of the goop will help very much in bring the tone of the sanded area very close to that of the surrounding area. Follow by normal refinishing.

    Contribution from Harold Braker, Vancouver, B.C.:


    If you have an Air-Brush, you need not be too concerned about the visual discrepancies of tone between original untouched veneer and freshly repaired veneer patches. As you are ready for final finish coats, it is a simple matter to touch up these areas with tinted lacquer about 75% of desired coloration and gently work it up until desired match in color tone is achieved. The Air-Brush provides great accuracy.

    To those who responded to my appeal for help and answers, within my series of articles on refinishing pianos, I extend a sincere thanks. Your responses are very much appreciated.

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