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  • Writer's pictureelizabethhoenig

Needle in a haystack

In order to find pianos to restore, I am always on the lookout for possible candidates. Luckily, there are pianos out there that I consider worth saving. Unfortunately, I have to sort through a lot of instruments in order to find serious contenders.

During the past five years, I've probably found only four or five pianos that actually pique my interest. I usually try to stick to pianos within a reasonable distance from my home because those I can inspect first before purchasing and also move myself without having to spend a lot of money on a mover. It is a big gamble to buy an instrument without inspecting it in person. The last thing I want is to be encumbered by a 700-pound behemoth that is past the point of no return. It's not worth the time, trouble, and cost to move a piano if I'm unable to restore it.

In general, almost everything that is wrong with a piano can be fixed except for a broken plate, which is also sometimes referred to as the "harp". If the cast-iron plate has a crack, it's time to pull the plug on that piano because the plate has to be strong enough to withstand approximately 15 plus tons of tension from the strings. Any deformity in the plate will preclude this and the piano will never stay in tune. Some have attempted to weld cracked plates with limited success. Sure, these pianos can be repurposed into desks or bars or bookshelves, but that's not really the reason I'm in this business, although I do reserve the right to do so in the future. I could really use a desk.

The cast-iron plate of a grand piano (above) is painted to resemble brass or bronze metal.

One day a few years ago, I opened one of my daily email notifications and was pleasantly surprised to find a piano that immediately caught my eye. The things that initially interest me are the brand name, the amount of detail on the case, the price, and the location of the piano.

This particular piano was a 1915 Starck upright with exquisite detail at a low price located only about an hour away from where I live. The very first piano I ever restored was a Starck, and I know them to be good instruments. The seller was even willing to reimburse the cost to me, so essentially all I had to pay for was the gas to retrieve it and bring it home.

Hold on! Here's where I have to try to contain my excitement on what could be a great deal. One very important thing to consider when moving a piano is how many stairs or steps will need to be navigated in order to remove the piano from its current location. If the piano's currently in a basement and would have to be carried up a flight of stairs, that could potentially be a deal breaker.

This particular piano was located on the first floor of a house, but we would have to navigate four or five wooden porch steps in order to get it into my trailer. I was hoping to be able to back the trailer up to the base of the steps and lower the ramp right onto the porch, bypassing the steps altogether, but unfortunately that wasn't feasible in this situation. Luckily, the owner called some friends and we were able to carry it down the steps without any problems.

The right tools always make things easier. Moving a piano can either be done the hard way or the easy way. I prefer the easy way. Most will just use brute strength, which is understandable if they don't have the necessary equipment to do the work for them.

The first few times I tried moving a piano were good lessons in how NOT to move a piano. Ultimately, I discovered that using a giant lever, some long wooden blocks, a cart, and some ratchet straps is the easiest and safest way to move a piano, most of which I can do by myself. The only time I need another person or two to help is if there are stairs or steps to maneuver, although I do like to have someone else around to stabilize a grand when it's on its side because they tend to tip.

Here's a video to show you how I do it. This works well for both grands and uprights. I use a six-foot pry bar with wheels to lift up one end of the piano at a time. Then I position long wooden blocks (4x4s or 6x6s) underneath to elevate it high enough to slide a heavy-duty moving cart under the base. After the cart is in position, I lift each end up again and remove the wooden blocks. Finally, I secure the piano to the cart with a ratchet strap, although I skipped this step in the video.

Having this piano stair-climbing machine shown below would make moving pianos so much easier! Maybe some day when I have a spare $20,000 lying around. In the meantime, I will stick with what I know and call the professionals when necessary.

My next installment will chronicle the restoration process of the 1915 Starck upright, starting with tearing down the piano and ultimately finishing with the reassembly and finishing touches of a like-new instrument. You won't want to miss it!

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