Taking a piano apart

We bought an old upright piano about 15 years ago–it was in questionable condition when we bought it, and although it served us pretty well for a while, while our kids were taking piano lessons, a few years ago it pretty much gave up the ghost, and we finally decided it was just taking up too much space.  Tried to sell it–couldn’t find a buyer. Paying someone to haul it off would have cost more than I paid for it in the first place.  But I kept thinking that there is reclaimable wood in the thing that shouldn’t go to waste, so I decided to take it apart and salvage what wood I could from it.

I tried a few years back to find information about the piano’s manufacturer (Kloman & Nord) and age, but little information is available.  I’m guessing that it was built no later than the mid-1950s, and maybe as early as the late 1930s or 1940s.  The carcase appears to be mostly oak, but there are other hardwoods used in certain mechanical pieces (pedal linkages and such), and in the shelf that supported the keyboard. Some of the larger panels on the front appear to be made from lumber-core board, which, I am guessing, would date the instrument a bit later, but I don’t know much about this.

The first step was to remove all of the loose pieces–the top lid, the upper front panel, and the lower front panel all came off easily.  The top was made from two long boards, hinged together. The one in the rear was glued to the top of the carcase and the front part of the lid was easily removed by simply removing the hinges.  A couple of taps with a dead-blow mallet and the top popped right off.  The upper front panel, which has the tray for holding music, was easily to lift out and off of a pair of pins on the sides.  The lower panel was removed by compressing a metal spring catch and tilting the panel outward. A few more screws and a long piano hinge were removed from the keyboard cover, and it was easily removed.

At this point, the keys and levers and hammers were all exposed, and by removing a few key screws in the hammer support frame, we were able to remove all of the hammers and levers at once.  The individual keys could be lifted from some registration pins in what I’m calling the “keyboard deck,” and I saved all of them.  I doubt that there’s real ivory and ebony there, but we’ll see.

There were a few screws holding the keyboard deck to the carcase, and once those were removed, I could lift the deck assembly out.  It was a frame-and-panel affair, made with fairly thick hardwood.

Now I had full access to the “harp”–the cast-iron frame that the piano strings (wires) are attached to.  The harp was bolted to the rear frame of the piano, which was made from heavy wooden beams. Those beams supported the weight of the harp (a few hundred pounds!) and the harp itself was connected to the soundboard at the top, through thick beam that supported the tuning pins.  All of the strings passed over a long, curved bridge that was bolted to the soundboard.  The soundboard appears to be made of spruce, but that’s really a guess.

Up to this stage, the entire disassembly process was accomplished by my wife and me with the use of nothing more than a couple of screwdrivers and a dead-blow hammer.  Removing the strings required a pair of side cutters.  I can’t imagine how much string tension a piano harp has to bear, but I’m sure it’s hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds. In some cases there was a spark when the wire was cut.

After we removed the strings, I realized that all of the tuning pins had to be removed before we could remove the harp from the piano frame. Each pin was in a hole about two inches deep in the top beam of the frame. There were massive lag screws holding the harp to the frame, but the harp wasn’t going anywhere until those tuning pins were removed.  Unfortunately, I don’t own a piano tuning hammer (wrench), and nothing from my socket sets would work as a substitute, so I improvised with a pair of cheap vise-grips.  It took several hours to remove all of the pins (three pins per note for about two-thirds of the strings), but when I was done, I removed one last lag screw, and the harp was free.

It took me, my 20-year-old son and my very fit wife to lift the harp out of the carcase.  We managed to carry the harp outside to the driveway, where we simply let it fall over, hoping it would shatter into a few smaller, lighter pieces.  It clanged to the ground with hardly a scratch, so the next step was to break it up a bit with an eight-pound sledge hammer.  In fairly short order, it was reduced to two or three smaller pieces, which only required two people to carry to the curb (trash pickup was the following day).  By the time the garbage truck arrived, the cast iron was already gone (scrappers got it, I’m guessing).

My wife and I managed to roll the carcase out to the driveway where I knocked it apart with a dead-blow mallet, a pry bar, and a reciprocating saw (when all else failed).  I was disappointed to find out that the large squarish pillars that made up the back frame were not milled from a single board, but rather glued up from several thinner boards.  There is still salvageable lumber there, just not the big, thick, future table legs that I had hoped they would be.

I had hoped to salvage the sound board in one piece–it appears to be made from 3/8″ thick spruce, but I haven’t verified that. I was seeing mandolin tops or maybe even a guitar top in it, but unfortunately it was already cracked, and in taking the assembly apart, I broke it up a bit more.  There is still usable wood there, but not the large pieces I was hoping for.

Upon closer examination of some of the pieces of the piano it is clear that some components are lower-quality wood that has been veneered on the finished faces. It makes a lot of sense, because those pieces are typically pretty thick, and there’s probably no point in using finer wood that is that thick when only a couple of the faces will be finished and seen.

There is one bit of the piano that I really can’t do anything with–the pin block–it’s a very thick, broad slab made of glued-up solid hardwood and a bit of plywood–I’m guessing it weighs somewhere between 55 and 70 pounds. The uprights from the back frame were sort of through-mortised into this block; I had to cut them off, so the tenons are still there, which means I can’t just plane this slab down and make a fireplace mantel out of it (although it’s big enough for that).  It will probably go to my son-in-law (who heats with wood)–a couple of slices with a chain saw, and he’ll have some big chunks for cold winter nights.

Although this piano was clearly not an expensive model, and although there are places where I’ve seen a bit of haste or sloppiness in the construction, one of the things I do appreciate about it is the quality of the hardware they used.  Most of the screws are flat-head slotted wood screws, and the quality seems to be very high. Maybe all screws were that way back in the day, but next to most of the hardware I see today, these screws are really quite well-made.  And some of them are massive.  I’ll try to get some photos together soon.

Just a word of caution, should you ever decide to do something like this yourself: piano strings are under great tension, so exercise caution and common sense when you loosen/cut them.  And if you can get your hands on a real tuning hammer, removing the tuning pins will be much easier.

One funny story: when we were taking it apart, we found a lot of little things inside, but the most amusing thing was a packet of cigarette papers.  At first we thought they might be old, left by a previous owner, but then we realized that the packet had a UPC barcode on it, and barcodes have only been in wide use since the mid-1970s.  Then we began to wonder if perhaps one of our children had hidden them there when they were teenagers (they’re all grown now). After mulling it over a while, we figured it out: my wife had taken up the oboe not long after we got the piano, and she occasionally practiced while sitting in front of the piano; she had bought the papers herself, because cigarette papers were recommended by several oboists as useful materials for cleaning the valves (or some such thing).  At least that’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

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7 thoughts on “Taking a piano apart

  1. Was it necessary to completely loosen up the strings from the pins before removing the harp? And when you lifted out the harp, did the pins come with it?

    Thanks!

    1. Doc: I really don’t recall whether removing the strings was absolutely necessary, but it seemed like the risk of a string breaking was high enough to warrant removing them all before I went further. Didn’t want to risk getting in the path of a broken piano string.

  2. @Doc: Actually, it’s been so long now (and I’m so old) that I can’t recall some of the details now, but I believe that the strings had to be removed before I could move the harp–if I recall correctly, the pins went through holes in the harp and into the soundboard, which was attached to the frame. So I’m assuming that the only way I could have done it was to remove the strings and tuning pins.

  3. Hello thanks for the story. Im gutting the inside of one for my Senior pictures and i was so lost on how to even begin. You saved me ALOT of time. How long did it take you and your wife?

    1. Courtney: It took about two evenings to get it to the point where we could take the harp outside. The most laborious part was removing the strings and tuning pegs. I’m guessing that for your application it could be done a lot faster. Thanks for stopping by!
      –Doug

  4. I used a drill with a small socket piece reversed. Fits pretty well perfectly for taking out the steel pegs. I found near the end that if you pull on the string while extracting the peg with the drill, the string usually pulls out. Watch out for spiders/insects. Never saw any but heard they sometimes make homes in there. Still not sure how I will take the rest of the wood apart without damaging it, being glued and all.

    1. Sounds like a great idea, Frank–I might have tried it early on with a nutdriver, but ended up using a wrench because it took so much torque to turn the pegs. I think you’d have to have some extra leverage, in any case.

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