Human Hands

For the past week I've had a lot of fun at work. One job was figuring out how to cut 50 tennis balls in half. My boss--always the volunteer for community activities, bless his heart--is evidently teaching kids how to ride bicycles--specifically technical riding, or riding that will eventually allow them to negotiate busy, tricky city streets. The way he was going to go about this was to set up an obstacle course, the layout of which was created by half tennis balls. It's a great idea, but it leaves you with the problem of actually cutting tennis balls in half. Not content to just do a half ass job with a box cutter or something, i made a little jig--in this case a four-sided divet lined with sandpaper--and cut them on the bandsaw.

One of the other jobs i got to do was to rebuild an old square grand piano. Here's a picture of it ( i took with my cell phone):

Both the invention and demise of the square grand fall within the Victorian period, so all of them are ornate like this one. The reason they didn't stick around any longer than this is because they sound like crap. They're also exceptionally heavy--i was hard-pressed to even lift one end of this one.

Bad sound notwithstanding some folks still like to have them around. The folks who bought this one just wanted it as a cool piece of furniture, so my job was to put it back into good-looking condition. It was veneered in what was most likely Brazilian Rosewood--the excellent (and now nearly extinct) tonewood used in the really valuable pre-war Martin guitars. I had to repair lots of broken places. To do it i sawed my own little veneer patches from a tiny little chunk of rosewood i found in the shop. It was fun finding the matching grain and getting to smell the sweet spicy smell of the wood while i was sawing it.

A pretty important cosmetic piece was missing at the back of the keys. Without it there one could just see right inside the piano. I had to fabricate one of those--and i used a real strange looking piece of mahogany and dyed it really dark, leaving some streaks in the color to produce a fairly accurate copy of the rosewood. I also got to come up with little molding edges for this piece so that it would match the rest of the piano.

Even though the thing didn't play at all and the pedals weren't hooked up, i put little springs inside the pedal box so that at least they'd feel like they were connected to something. This piano didn't have its music rack with it, so i had to go find one that matched and alter it so that it would lay down properly when the piano was closed and hold itself upright when open.

Shellac was used as the finish. Since lacquer hadn't been invented in 1888 i figured that shellac was the proper route. Besides, i didn't want to pass up the opportunity to get to use the world's best finish: shellac is derived from secretions of the wings of the Lac bug. The bugs don't even have to die to provide it. These secretions are then dissolved in alcohol and then can be rubbed or sprayed onto stuff to create a beautiful--and food safe--finish. Beats hell out of poisonous old lacquer for sure.

The best part about doing all this work was uncovering some of the old, original marks that had been left on it by the makers. It's always fun finding things like that. I had a friend who once discovered an area in his 100 year old house that couldn't be accounted for in drawing the floor plan--in other words, there was just this enclosed closet-sized space in his house that wasn't being used. Upon opening it up, he found a 100 year old note tacked to the wall that read:

What the hell are you doing in here?

I didn't find anything near that fun, but i did get to see little arrows and notes for what piece of veneer went where and beautifully incised lines that laid off where screw holes were to be drilled. They were always perfectly centered.


Kevin O'Mara said...

This is my favorite kind of entry. I love to hear about the making, fixing, sustaining, and otherwise -ing of things.

Maig said...

I've never seen a piano like that...that's really cool. Finding all the little marks of history in furniture is one of the reasons why I love antiques.

Quiche said...

I agree with Kevin! I enjoy hearing about other people's creative processes, and I find if I am asked how I created a piece of art, I learn a lot in having to rethink and describe what I did in retrospect, details and methods for which in the moment of creating aren't consciously apparent (: Lovely work! Sad such a lovely thing with all of that fine wood would have an inferior sound to it.

PS. I am reading This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of A Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin, which I thought you might appreciate. Levitin, a rocker/ producer turned neuroscientist, explores the connection between music and the brain. Here's the website:


I am enjoying it immensely!

b said...

Walter - I may direct some of the St. Louis Rehabber's folks to your post - they would love reading about the piano and your choice of finish. Your effort to match the rosewood with the back piece behind the keys was genuis!

Nice work on the tennis balls, too.


Heather said...

we had a piano like this in my museum in paris, tn. they make beautiful pieces of furniture and florists seem to like to use them for display pieces (with proper protection against water). but when people asked why there weren't pianos like that anymore, i would tell them exactly what you just said. they weren't good instruments, but they are ornate and tend to use beautiful wood.

and here's my story about finding an old note. i was helping out with the restoration of a 19th century school building and when they went to put in a new HVAC system, they discovered a covered over old slate chalk board. it had the date (1918) and a list of the kids in that class and what sandwiches they wanted. we recognized the names and wondered why one of them needed two sandwiches.

they decided to go along with recommendation and we took several high quality digital pics of it (to record the information and discovery), then covered it back over to protect the original, but also left it as a possible rediscovery in another century. :)