Friday, February 22, 2008

i can has piyanoh?

With a nod to all you lolcat fanciers in Housebloggerdom, that is my cat-got-the-pigeon way of announcing that as of 6:00 o'clock last evening I got my 1911-vintage piano moved safely into the front room of the Sow's Ear.

And that is despite snow and sleet and reports of accidents and weather-related mayhem all round the area; despite slushy hilly winding roads for me, and a long traffic jam that had my piano movers stuck on the Parkway West for nearly a half hour; despite a tight doorway and slick sloping conditions at the church; despite a truck diesel gauge that was riding on Empty and a white-knuckled (on the part of the movers) detour to the nearest station that sells diesel fuel; despite needing to bring the piano up my neighbors' walk due to the tight turn at the foot of my front steps; and despite the severe slope of the floor of my front-porch-turned-front-room, that initially caused the top back edge of the piano to lean a good 3" away from the wall.

Despite all that, it's in.

The piano movers' getting stuck in traffic on the way to the church actually worked out well for me: It gave me more time to vacuum the drywall sanding dust and the cobwebs off the piano and bench. As soon as they arrived, everything was ready to go.

It's really amazing what only two not tremendously big guys can do with just a dolly, a piece of plywood, a metal ramp, and a lot of technique. Despite, I say again, the slope and a lot of ice and snow.

I video'd about the whole process; all but the very end at the house, when I was busy lending a hand shepherding the piano into position and pulling the dolly out from under when that was done. I intend to put the clips all together and make a little movie out of it, but I'd like some music to go with it, and the piece I'm thinking of I only have on cassette.

So the video will have to wait. In the meantime, here are a few stills:

[Photos coming!!!!]

It was really silly of me not to consider the slope of my front room and have something ready to put under the front casters. The movers shoved folded-up cardboard under there for me, but the piano's still leaning out an inch too much.

So there's something else for the project list: Make some decent-looking blocks that'll raise the front casters up a good inch and half. And then figure out how to raise the bench enough to compensate.

Today I cleaned off the rest of the dust and dirt, and moved the bookcase and books that used to be on that wall into the living room.

And sat down and played awhile, as well as I am able.

Now that the piano is in, my ideas for the front room are coalescing. Maybe variations on the theme of light green painted walls with a gold and white stencilled frieze around the top. Something with musical motifs in an Arts and Crafts style, maybe. I'd toy with the idea of doing the trim in a creamy-white marbleized effect-- but I've got the woodwork too far stripped to natural to go back to paint. And the dark wood tone goes well with the dark mahogany of the piano!

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Looks like I've decided to adopt Lester, the 97-year-old piano.

I had a long phone conversation with the local piano tuner last Tuesday evening. Having read the negative opinion of the tech from Jersey and listened to the video of the piano being played that I posted here on my blog, his revised opinion is that the Jersey boy just wants to sell his own used pianos.

And that assuming that I'm not looking to play pounding Lizst all day and all night or make commercial recordings or prepare myself to play in major concerts halls, he gives it that the instrument in question will suit me just fine. Cracked bridge in the bass? No, it'd be making awful noises if so. Slipping pins and imminent failure in the pinblock? It'd be excruciatingly out of intonation if that were the case. No, silly thing just needs tuned.

So, I've arranged with a piano mover to meet me at the church late this coming Wednesday afternoon. They'll bring it up and move it in to the Sow's Ear.

And the piano will probably sound like a squealing pig for a fortnight or more, because it has to settle into the climate here at the house before it can be tuned.

Before it comes, I still have to remove the baseboard from the wall it's going against. No point in pushing that behemoth out of the way more than once. And take down my concert posters, which will now have to be hung higher.

Oh, yes, and sweet talk my neighbors (the ones with the awful aluminum siding) into letting the piano movers cross their yard if that's the only way they can get a straight shot at my front steps.

(I do hope the plywood bedboard in the guest room is big enough to cover next door's grass . . . I'd hate to have to go to Lowe's and buy a new sheet just for this!)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Through snow and slop and slick conditions, the electrician, Harrison Coffey of Coffey Electric (I told him I'd give him a plug-- so to speak) appeared right on time this noon to install the new circuit and outlets in my basement and workshop.

First order of business, get rid of the culprit that'd left my workshop in the dark-- a faulty screw-in recepticle from the workshop pullchain light. It went into the recycling.

Then, install a new 20-amp circuit in the breaker box and run the wire.

Then comes a new recepticle in the workshop.

And two new ones in the main basement.

And a fourth one (on a different circuit) mounted on the furnace, so the condensation pump can be plugged directly into it, and no longer into yet another pullchain light.

Two and a half hours later, all done! I went down to experiment with the new outlets.

I started with my worklight, trying to plug it into the new recepticle on the south basement wall. But it wouldn't go! Maybe the prongs needed to be spread?

"Just give it a shove and push it in," Mr. Coffey said. "Those 20 amp recepticles have tighter slots."

But my fingers were still on the plug prongs as I pushed.

"Hey!" said the electrician.

"Oh! right!" I took them away, just before the plug went in. Whew!

"You make contact with that, you'd know it. It'd throw you across the room!"

Right. Not an experiment I care to make.

After Mr. Coffey went on his way, I did not run downstairs and start stripping woodwork. Took care of some other things this afternoon and evening-- of which more anon.

But I've got me some proper outlets in the basement! I can plug the heatgun in without shorting out the house! Electifying!

Monday, February 11, 2008

See Sharp or Be Flat?

Here's the next installment of the continuing saga of the 1911 Lester piano I'm contemplating giving a good home to (I keep this up, Jeannie and Aaron might question whether this is truly a house blog anymore!):

Last night, I sent a link to my last post, along with a filled-in worksheet, to a piano tech in New Jersey. I made the virtual acquaintance of this person through purchasing a used piano buying guide from him on eBay Thursday night ($2.99 Buy It Now). The price included follow-up advice, so I took advantage of it.

Early this morning, his reply came in. He strongly recommended I not take this piano on, even as a giveaway. The buzz in the one key, he wrote, is a hard damper felt. The lost motion in some others would be missing felts or loose jacks coming unglued. The bottoming out in the bass notes is likely a cracked bass bridge. The same, he said, was likely true for the treble bridge. The fact that the pinblock had been doped (chemically treated to make the wood swell to keep the tuning pins in snugly) was a bad sign that the pins are probably still loose.

It would, he said, cost around $6,600 to regulate and repair the piano to playable condition (including replacing the pinblock to the tune of $4,700). And even then, I'd have a 97 year old piano with mostly 97 year old parts. And that doesn't include moving and tuning.

"Lester pianos," the Jersey tech wrote, "are quite good – but the age and condition is working against this one." I could, he said, buy something much younger and better for a lot cheaper.

With this advice in mind, I've done some objective thinking on the subject.

I'm not dead set on acquiring this particular piano. It just happens to be available. If it doesn't work well enough, it'd be taking up the space of another that'd suit me better.

Late this afternoon, then, I called back the local tech/piano tuner to see about getting a second opinion. I've forwarded him all the info I sent the tech in New Jersey, including the NJ tech's reply, and asked him to quote me a fee to meet me at the church to look at it himself.

But the local guy is a lot more optimistic. He feels the tech in New Jersey has to be painstakingly conservative on the advice he gives me, in order to cover his rear. That is, any one symptom can have any number of causes, more or less critical. Someone giving advice via email has to assume the worst. The local tuner, being able to see the instrument in person, can afford to be more optimistic.

So we'll see. If the local tuner/tech tells me it'd cost me too much to fix, forget it. Hey, if I want to sink thousands of dollars into a handsome piece of woodwork, I'd rather go broke buying the 1698 Jacobean tridarn dresser an antique dealer up the Beaver River has for sale.

And of course if the piano's an outright junker, then it's for the dump. In that case, I'd like to get with the church to see about their allowing me to salvage the wooden casework for reuse in a new project. And try to convince them to recycle the harp and wires and other metal parts. There's a metal scrap yard just up the Ohio River from me I could refer them to.

But all this is contingency thinking. I'll wait to hear what the local tuner/tech says.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Etude on a 97-Year Old Piano

Well. I have spent the weekend up to my eyeballs in Internet research on the acquisition, care, and feeding of used pianos.

On Friday, I also had a productive talk with a piano tuner of my acquaintance.

Amazing the information there is out there. There's a whole world of piano terms and facts and advice I never knew existed a week ago; my head is stuffed quite full of it all and a lot of it has come in through the eyeholes and fallen right back out again.

But I retained enough to make a nice checklist of things to look at when I went to evaluate the old Lester piano again, the one a village church in my presbytery is trying to give away.

This evening, I was met at the church by the wife of the elder who's been my contact on this. Once we found the found the correct key and got in out of the dark and the bitter wind, we went downstairs to the drywall dust-covered, lumber-crammed, once-and-future pastor's office and encountered the Beast.

First objects of study:

  • Verify that the number her husband sent me via email last evening is the serial number and not something else. Check! (Looked it up online last night and learned this piano probably dates from 1910 or 1911.)

  • Verify no water damage from last summer's fire or from high humidity. Check! Some dings and scrapes, as you'd expect from a piano used in the Sunday School department, but no lifted veneer whatsoever. And no mold or red rust. Hurrah!

  • Verify which key it is that's missing the top part of the hammer. It's the F7, not the G7. The C8 is missing most of its hammer assembly. But as the tuner told me the other day, "You can do without those notes."

Then on to the musical bit! My conductress obliged by playing the keys while I took notes and checked off items.

  • Verify that no keys stick. Check! Though a couple are a little irregular to the touch, depending on the angle your finger hits them. Feels kind of like a brake pedal that goes down a bit before it begins to engage. (Note to me: Find out what this means.)

  • Verify no buzzing. Well, sorta check. One key, the D#5, buzzes a little when you release it. But not all the time.

  • Verify no ring-over on any one key or keys (assuming sustain pedal isn't on). Check! None whatsoever.

  • Verify no deviations or restarts in pitch-- like you're starting over again back down the scale. Check! This would have been a deal-breaker-- the tuner told me it's a sign the cast iron harp/plate is broken and the piano is toast. This one is not.

  • Verify no whaa-whaa-whaa beats on any note. Check! None.

  • Verify no loudness variations from note to note. Check!

  • Verify it never sounds like one key is playing two notes at a time (indicative of slipped tuning pins). Check!

  • Verify no weird or odd noises. Check! Barring the little buzz from the D#5 key, that is.

  • Verify no dead tones. Check!

  • Verify no rattles (a sign of broken wires-- or lost pencils). Check!

  • Verify no hammers hit the wires more than once per keystroke. Check!

  • Verify that the pinblock has not separated more than 1/4" from the back frame. Check! In fact, it's nice and tight with no separation at all.
  • Verify that the interesting lever to the right of the treble keys controls the practice mute. Yes, but the mute bar itself is missing. But the control works, which is promising. At least, my neighbors might think so!
And finally, play it a bit to see how it sounds overall. I spoke to the church organist about the piano last night; she didn't think it'd been tuned in fifteen years. It wasn't because the piano was bad, it was just that the kids turned up their noses at singing. And she gave up trying to make them.

So it's surprising how decent it still sounds. Me, I play around on pianos more than I play them. (If I take this one, I'll have to learn properly.) But I can pick out a melody by ear, and this old upright gave it back to me as a coherent, recognisable thing.

And I have to say that the tenor range especially has a full, rich, tone. The bass bottoms out rather, and the treble sounds like, well, like it needs tuned. But I think the potential is definitely there. According to the organist, it can never again be brought up to A440 concert pitch. But in the judgement of this rank amateur, it most likely can be made to agree well with itself. And since I'm not afflicted with perfect pitch, that's enough for me.

So tomorrow I start calling piano movers for bids. Good news-- turns out there's no stairs to speak of to get it out of the church basement. One step at the back door to keep out the water, then it's straight out to grade. Another loud hurrah!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

In the Meantime

I can't strip wood trim down the basement until after the electrician comes next Tuesday.

There's not enough light down there to use the chemical stripper (which arrived safely last Tuesday). There's no outlet to plug in the heat gun.

But I can still make progress. I can chip away-- literally-- at the loose paint on the stair stringers.

Here I present my progress after last night.

Before--Outside wall with previous work:

After--Outside wall stringer, dry-chipped (and pink kitten):

Before--Inside stringer, with beige paint (and tabby kitten):

After--Inside stringer, with progress in de-beigeing:

It's true that the stairway looks narrower with the dark wood than it did with the beige paint. But I'm not going to let that concern me. The house was built with woodwork dark natural, and dark natural it shall be.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Thought

I've been online reading up on do-it-yourself piano moving and why not to do it-- especially with pianos the size of the one I've been offered.

It does rather look as if, by having amateurs do it, I could be risking expense in increased insurance rates-- not to mention damaged friends and friendships--what I would be saving on a professional piano mover.

But if this is the case, the church, unless they want to smash it up and take it out piece by piece, will also have to pay the professionals to get it out of their basement.

Wonder if they'd consider splitting the cost?

(I'll wait and hear what the piano tuner/technician says before getting too deep into the moving issue.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008


I've always wanted a piano.

I've always considered it ironic that I, the most musical of my siblings, should in childhood never have had the chance to take lessons due to lack of family funds.

It always seemed to me a tragedy, if not a sacrilege, that when I was about six my dad traded our piano in on a buzzy electric organ.

So a month or so ago, when a church in my presbytery advertised an upright piano free for the taking to any church or individual that wanted it, I started to dream.

The congregation's in the middle of renovations after a fire last summer and they need the old piano out of the way. I'd like a free piano. What could be more ideal for everyone?

I answered the email directly, stating that of course, a church should have first claim, but if no one else offered for it . . .

No one did. I began to dream more vividly. I talked to some friends who'd recently acquired a used piano of their own to get their help in moving what I hoped soon would be mine. I measured likely walls that the piano could go up against. I reminded myself to make sure it was mounted on wheels, so I could move it when the time comes to refinish the baseboards.

And today I arranged to come out and look at it. I found the instrument pushed out of the way, crowded into what used to be the pastor's office, off the new-laid vinyl tile floor in the fellowship hall.

It is a beauty. Forgot to note down the serial number (idiot!), but it's a Philadelphia Lester, probably at least 100 years old. The carving is lovely without being overdone. Keys all of ebony or of ivory overlay. None of the keys stick or go down without coming back up. True, two of them don't sound-- they're missing their hammers. But they're the G7 and the C8 way at the top, and if in the short term I'm using the piano mainly to teach myself vocal repertoire, repairing those can wait. It's definitely out of tune, but not wildly so. The works are accessible from the front, which should make tuning easier. And the bench comes with it.

However. However. This baby is big. A lot bigger than I expected. Almost five and a half feet wide at the upper cornice and four foot eight inches high and twenty-eight inches deep. A lot bigger than the more modern piano my friends recently used a refrigerator dolly and three guys to move. I showed the pictures to them this evening, and the husband said, "My dad's dolly won't hold that. You'll need six strong men. And a pickup truck."

He did not sound encouraging. Or too eager to volunteer, either.

And my front steps are another nightmare. Five big concrete risers in a stair that goes out sideways. No way a piano that size is making that turn from my walkway to those stairs. I'd have to get permission to shoot at it from the neighbors' yard. If the ground is frozen it might not destroy their grass, but who can really tell?

And it'd need a ramp. Definitely a ramp. I don't see even six strong guys lifting that behemoth up those steps.

And then this evening, I went on eBay to see what pianos like this are being offered for. Didn't find any equivalent, but I did find (and buy) an inexpensive booklet on how to buy used upright pianos, being sold by a piano tech in New Jersey. According to him, tuning and reconditioning an old piano can run into the hundreds or thousands!

Then there's the transport problem at the church end. This was the Sunday School piano, and it's down in the church basement. You'd think that aspect of the problem would have hit me this afternoon when I was over there inspecting it, but no, I was going dreamy over the fluted columns and the applique scrollwork! We walked down a narrow set of stairs with a 180 degree turn at the top to get down to that lower level. Surely there's got to be another exit, but where? Getting the instrument into my house looks easy compared to this!

My piano dreams are rapidly dissipating.

Or are they?

My friend is all for arranging nephews with pickup trucks and all sorts of other help, if, as she says, I've got my heart set on having it.

I told her no, not quite . . . But I'm going to give it a good shot, keeping in mind how broke I am.

First thing is to find out what the local piano tuner would charge to meet me at the church and tell me what I'd be getting into for tuning and repairs.

Then it might be worthwhile finding out what real professional piano movers would want to be paid.

And if that's too rich for my blood, maybe I'll just tell the people at the church that if they really really really want to get their old piano out of the way of their renovation work, they'll have to supply the manpower to get it out of their basement.

I can dream, can't I?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Shape of Things to Come?

This morning I looked out back and saw heavy equipment in the alley. My next door neighbor, I noticed, was in his yard with a saw, cutting limbs off his silver maple tree. Not long after, a section of his fence was removed and some sort of caterpillar-type construction machine drove into his yard, carrying an odd box-shaped thing. Were they going to get rid of the tree? Pull it out by its roots, maybe? Was the box how they were going to carry the limbs out of the yard?

I wanted to know, but had to spend some time minding my own business for a half hour or so.

When I looked out again, the box-shaped thing was in a ditch in the ground, a ditch that the caterpillar-track thing-- backhoe? ditch-digger? you tell me! had obviously dug.

So I put the dog on the leash and moseyed over.

"Getting rid of the tree?" I asked my neighbor.

"Yes, we certainly are," he replied. "But first we're digging up the sewer pipe."

"Storm or sanitary?"

"Sanitary. It's clogged with roots. Our toilets have been backing up the past two weeks."

"Oh, gosh, yes, I saw the plumbers' truck out front the other day! That didn't work?"

"No," my neighbor said grimly. "We have to do this."

Down in the hole, the workman was sheltered by the concrete and steel box thing, which turned out to be a device to keep the walls of the six foot deep ditch from caving in on him. Looking up, he saw me and said, "You live over there?"


"You're next. You've got a maple tree, too."

"I haven't had any trouble so far," I said dubiously.

"Just wait. It's coming. Those roots will work into your sewer line and you won't be able to roto-rooter them out. It'll happen eventually."

"Oh," I said.

"And you'd better get that silver maple of yours taken out soon as possible, too."

"It's not a silver maple, it's a sugar maple."

"Doesn't matter. It's a maple. It'll grow into your sanitary drain and clog it. You'll see."

I watched the excavation work a little while longer, then took the dog, myself, and a new and unpleasant idea home.

Really, don't I have enough to deal with around this house (which is actually a very sound house for its age)? Now I gotta worry about digging up my sanitary sewer line? With a machine that'd destroy all my back garden landscaping?

Buggeration! Absolute buggeration!

But--deep breath!-- I'm going to put panic and fears of imminent bankruptcy on hold. I've had no sewer backup problems whatsoever in the four and a half years I've owned the Sow's Ear. Whereas my neighbor and his family started having plumbing difficulties almost the moment they moved in (two weeks before I did). Heavy equipment is most likely not in order.

But going by what I read on other houseblogs, routine rooting out probably is. And I haven't had it done since I moved in. Didn't even think about having it done!

But I guess I'd better start thinking about it. And get some prices to see about having it done. That ditch in my neighbor's yard is enough to scare the cr@p out of me!

Monday, February 4, 2008


On the 30th I forecast that I should be able to get a good twelve or more pieces of trim stripped and ready to refinish in the next week.

Yeah, right.

For one thing, the refinisher shipment hasn't arrived yet. That's what I get for being cheap and choosing ground freight.

For another, it wouldn't make a whole lot of difference if it had. I was down in my workshop Saturday night, about to switch out the 3/4 extension drawer glides for some 1" overtravel glides on a self-assemble wooden file cabinet I've been meaning to put together since the middle of last fall. All I had plugged in to the screw-in recepticle in the pullchain light was the radio and the fluorescent light over the workbench. And the pullchain light itself was on below it.

Then suddenly, darkness and silence. The connection had gone out on me. Got up on the stool and tried screwing the recepticle fitting in tighter. It was tight already. And warm.

It was fried.

So there will be no using of worklights or heatguns or anything of that nature until the electrician comes and installs my new 20 amp circuit. My usual guy got back with me today and his bid was better than that of the other firm whose rep came out when the connection went dead a couple weeks ago.

But he can't make it till the 12th. He's up to his eyeballs wiring a new house somewhere.

So I'll wait. And in the meantime, I can always dry-chip the loose paint off the stair stringers and upstairs hall trim. It's pleasant, clean, mindless work, as long as you mind not gouging the woodwork and making sure the cats don't eat the paint chips . . .

Friday, February 1, 2008

About Them Baseboards

Did a little exploratory surgery on my baseboards today.

Took off the quarterround shoe on one short piece, expecting to see the new fake wood flooring installed all the way up to the face of the original baseboard. This would make the base difficult to remove for taking down the basement to refinish.

No, there's a 3/8" to 1/2" gap between the finish floor and the baseboard.

This is good.

So I proceeded to take the faceplate off the electric outlet installed in the baseboard, to see if I could just pry the base off the wall and pull it off around the outlet box.

Whoever notched these outlet boxes in was a real craftsman. He (I assume it was a he) cut all round the box and fit it in really tight.

This is good, in re: the crafts- manship.

But not so good, regarding my easily removing the base trim. The actual recepticle screw flanges extend past the cutout for the outlet box. It'll take some twisting and contorting and maybe disconnecting the wires before the recepticle will be out of the way of the woodwork. That means figuring out which circuit controls the dining room recepticles and getting them shut off before I go pulling the baseboard away.

This is not good.

Though maybe it is. I really ought to know what circuit these are on. And I need to replace the ivory-colored recepticles with brown ones, anyway.

And in the end, it may not be feasible to refinish these baseboards down cellar. Two of them measure twelve foot long or so, and I don't see getting them down the basement steps without major damage to walls and paint.

So maybe I'll strip them in place after all.

Once the wallpaper is all removed, that is. No way I'm using the heat gun anywhere close to the wallpaper. Do not want to test what my insurance agent says, about my house being covered for full replacement value.