Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

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Joel Hatch
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Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

Post by Joel Hatch »

I'm curious about the woods used the manufacture of pianos. I keep seeing pianos being given away for free and wonder if they can be repurposed and turned into other stringed instruments. The sound boards must be similar to the tops of guitars, mandolins, etc., the keys, especially from older pianos, are probably ivory for inlays and turners and the bodies of many pianos are manufactured form high quality woods that could be repurposed and used for sides, backs and necks. Is this more viable than the junk yard for unwanted pianos?

Alan Carruth
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Re: Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

Post by Alan Carruth »

Most of the pianos you see are uprights. The soundboards are laid up from fairly narrow strips (4"-5" wide) with the gain running diagonally. They didn't pay as much attention to perfect quartering as we tend to these day with guitars. There tend to be lots of holes where things got bolted/screwed on. Getting the soundboard out of the carcass is a chore.

It's hard to say how much good B&S wood you'd be likely to get from salvaging a piano. A lot of what you see is veneer, which can range from the old 'standard' thickness of 1/28" (before it gets sanded down)up to maybe 1/8". Keep in mind the difficulty of removing even thick veneer without trashing it. would not count on getting much even from the thick legs.

Plastic key caps go 'way back. Do you really want to take the chance of getting a visit from Fish & Wildlife just to get some ivory veneer for inlay? Yeah, I know, that elephant died a long time ago, but ivory is ivory, and there's no de minibus exemption.

Good pianos will have ebony sharps.

I have salvaged a couple of uprights. In neither case was it worth the effort. About 30 years ago I went to a 'salvage' store that had just bought up a failed piano shop. There was a small Steinway grand in Brazilian rosewood, ca 1880? The soundboard was in good shape, and there were no cracks I could see in the casting. All it lacked was the action (all of the key mechanism), and strings. Details details. I must have spent the better part of an hour crawling around on that thing. The fluted and carved legs were made of mahogany, and expertly faux painted to look like BRW. The 1/8" sawn veneer still had saw marks on the under side, so getting anything thick enough for a back would have been hard, even assuming it didn't warp and check being steamed off. When I got home I called a piano tuner friend to see if he'd be interested. The effort of making a new action and re-stringing from scratch as well as restoring and refinishing the case, made it not a viable proposition. However, he said he would call the piano tech program at the school he went to, to see if they could use it as a student project. A couple of days later when I went back the piano was gone. I hope they did restore it: it would have made a beautiful instrument, and the kids would have learned a lot.

Dan Kellaway
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Re: Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

Post by Dan Kellaway »

I have demolished a few pianos for timber. I found on the Lippman from Leipzig that the braces on the soundboard were fine grained quarter sawn Spruce and I used them for many braces in my guitars. The body is often made of Lime or Walnut and makes very good head and tailblocks. I have recently found one with quite a bit of Sycamore which I'm using for rails on a Hammered Dulcimer and there's a fair bit of English Oak on that one as well which will be useful. The keys are usually Lime because it's very stable and I'm considering that for braces too.
Then if you decide to save the main outside panels they can be reconfigured to make very nice roll topped desks.
It takes about an hour to take a player piano to bits enough to make transport much easier for two people but the biggest problem I find is storage of all these odd shapes, so I won't demolish one until I've used most of the one already dismantled.
I found that dismantling the soundboard was facilitated greatly by leaving it out in the rain and sun which allowed it to fall apart easily and as long as you keep an eye on it the wood doesn't deteriorate for a few weeks.
For a hammered dulcimer the soundboard could be used but as Alan says the amount of work to get it isn't really worth the effort, because you first have to remove the strings and that takes ages. So if you have the time and the space then yes there's a lot of nice wood that otherwise goes into landfill and that's a big shame.

David King
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Re: Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

Post by David King »

You can cut the strings off in a hurry if you loosen them each one turn and cut them with articulated music wire cutters like Starrett #7s. Wear gloves for this job.

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Jo Dusepo
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Re: Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

Post by Jo Dusepo »

I've heard of many luthiers using old piano soundboards for soundboards of guitars and mandolins. It can be quite a bit of work to take apart the original piano though.
I specialise in historical & world instruments.
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Mario Proulx
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Re: Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

Post by Mario Proulx »

Many of the better ones had BRW veneer, even the benches. While it's doubtful that you could reuse it as backs and sides, it makes fantastic headplates!

JC Whitney
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Re: Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

Post by JC Whitney »

In my experience, the hardest part is disposing of the significant (and mighty heavy) portions left over after salvaging the good stuff. Apparently a smoky bonfire followed by metal burial is one way to go, but that wouldn’t have gone over well with my neighbors.

I’ve disassembled one piano and an organ, and that was enough anguish for one lifetime. Now if I can just keep my darn head from turning every time I see a “free piano” sign...

Clay Schaeffer
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Re: Can woods used in the manufacture of pianos be repurposed?

Post by Clay Schaeffer »

The spruce in most piano soundboards wouldn't be much more than an "A" grade by guitar standards. It can be O.K. for brace material (well dried). In most cases there isn't enough good wood to make the effort of taking a piano apart worth it. Sometimes they are worth restoring to playable instruments.

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