One of the first questions I am asked by parents registering their kids for piano lessons is- "do we need a piano to start out?". My answer is always "yes". Yes, you will need a piano for piano lessons to be worth paying for. Yes, you can start out and get by for a couple of weeks while you look for a piano, but by the end of the first month, if you don't have a piano, lessons are a waste of time and money. Having spent many years teaching in rural Appalachia, one of the biggest concerns about getting a piano is cost- so my answer is always (and still is)- check Craigslist, check your local freecycle page (I don't care where you are- there's one on Facebook), check your local classifieds, and call your local church. There is a free piano somewhere- someone is ALWAYS getting rid of a piano.
A decent piano will last forever. When Grandma passes away, and the kids don't play anymore, families everywhere are looking to unload old pianos- they're heavy and take up a lot of space. Oftentimes they're donated to churches (trust me, I've accepted many a donated piano- and passed it along to students who needed one), I'm sure sometimes they end up in a landfill. Finding a free piano can be difficult, but rewarding because you are 1. Helping out a neighbor by taking this big awkward piece of furniture they no longer want and 2. Continuing to use an instrument that has years of use left and keeping it out of a landfill. Again- decent piano will outlive me.
Case in point- this lovely Wurlitzer console piano. I found it for free on Craigslist. Here's the story: an older woman had just lost her husband. She was putting her house on the market and was preparing to move somewhere smaller and more manageable. Her kids took lessons on it, but no one plays anymore, and she just needed to get rid of it. The tuning records marked on it show that the last tuning was in 1967- but it was in pretty good shape. The worst part was the chipped and yellowed keys on the keyboard- and that is fixable. And at under $50- a relatively cheap fix. But be prepared to spend some time on it.
First of all- you will need to order new key tops. I found these on eBay for $14.99 plus $1.99 in shipping.
New 52 Pcs White ABS Plastic Piano Keytops Kit with Fronts Replacement Key Tops
Depending on your tool inventory, the other thing you'll need to purchase is PVC-E glue- at least that is what the Piano Technicians Guild recommends. I could not find it without special ordering it, so I went to my local hardware store (shout out to McDaniel's Do-It Center in Snohomish- I love that place!) and asked about it. They recommended E6000 Industrial Strength Adhesive. It was less then $5 and has been working great. Make sure you have plenty of ventilation though- the vapor warning is NO JOKE!
In order to do this job, you will need:
1. A fairly large flat-head screwdriver. I use 2 other screwdrivers to prop open the top as well, but you can use anything you've got as a prop for the piano top.
2. A chisel for removing the old key top.
3. Sandpaper for cleaning/sanding the glue and debris off the key.
4. A knife for separating the new key tops. I just used a regular old kitchen knife
5. A rag for wiping away excess glue
6. A metal file. The Piano Technician's Guild recommends grinding off one of the edges- I didn't do that. Just be careful that you don't file where you shouldn't.
7. A grinder. The excess plastic will need to be removed- the key top must conform to the key perfectly. You could spend the time filing it with the metal file, but I found that entirely too time consuming. Besides, it's sort of fun to use the grinder. :)
Once you have your tools and supplies in order, it is time to begin opening up the piano. Each piano is a little different, so take the time to look at how it is put together. For this Wurlitzer, I started by removing the front rail that is in front of and below the keys. It's held in place by 5 screws underneath the piano.
Next, lift the top. I use two screwdrivers on either side to keep it open.
Next, remove the fall board (also known as the key cover). It's the part that either falls, or folds to cover the keys. On this instrument, it's attached to a metal brace held by two screws.
Lastly, remove the wooden brace that the fall board was attached to by removing the two screws on either end.
Now the piano is completely open!
First of all, observe that the keys are all individually numbered. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT! Each key fits in a very specific location- one D cannot be replaced with another D just because it's the same shape. They must go back in the same order. If you do not see numbers on each key, number them as you pull them out. The picture below shows the numbers from 69-86.
Now, the key is attached to a part called the whippen and a rail by a small screw. Remove the screw, carefully fold back the whippen to behind the rail, and lift out the key to work on. I've been working on an octave at a time.
Here is what the key will look like once you're removed it:
Once you have the keys removed, you will need to use the chisel to remove the old key top. As best as you can, keep the wood of the key below the key top from splintering- you'll want a clean, solid surface to glue the new key top to. I started with the chisel from the back end of the key- the narrowest part, and slid the chisel forward to the widest part. The top typically popped right off, and then I removed the front of the key top- also using the chisel. Next, sand off all the glue and smooth out any other unevenness in the key.
Once the keys are prepped for the new key tops, you'll have to get the new set ready. I found breaking up the new set difficult- I broke several keys in the beginning and did end up needing to buy a new set to complete the job. The new key tops will come in several sets of octaves which will need to be broken up into each individual key. What I found that worked for me was to use a knife to separate the front of the key tops, then snapped the the key tops apart by hand while still keeping them joined by the protective coating.
So, within the octave, select the correct key top to replace (use a D for a D), remove it from the new set, and use your glue to glue it to the key. Wipe away any excess and allow the glue to set. According to the glue I used, it needed a 15 minute set period.
Once your glue has set, you can look at your key and see that the key top does NOT fit the key perfectly AT ALL. There will be significant overhang- plus the pick points of the plastic will be clearly visible. Here is where you get to use the grinder to grind off all the excess plastic. If you remember looking at the original key, you'll recall that the plastic fit the wood perfectly. This is your goal to shave off all the excess until the new key top is a perfect fit. Make sure you get all sides- 3 sides on the front, 2-4 sides on the top (depending on the notches), plus the the notch. On the bench grinder I used, there are 6 possible sides to use on the two rotating wheels- the front of each, plus 2 sides. The keys all bend in different directions, so use the wheel, and the side that works best for you- there are many options. What I also found worked best was being aware of the angle the key was being held- you don't want to tilt the key top toward the grinder- you want the key and the key top to be the same, so keep the key flush to the grinder- even though you don't want to grind the wood. Perhaps a video would've been better. :)
Once you've finished grinding off the excess plastic, you'll need to file off all the bumps and inconsistencies with a metal file by hand. Again, make sure you're getting all sides of the key- once you've replaced the keys, sit down and play a bit and see where the sharp spots are and then go back and re-file them. At least I had to re-file a bunch- which is why I keep going on about the many sides of the keys!
Now you're ready to put the key(s) back in the piano. First of all, I like to vacuum out the hole where the octave that I'm replacing was. There was a ton of dust and dirt in the hole- which is not surprising considering the age of the piano, and the amount of felt inside, which does tend to attract dust. Then, you'll want to put the key in. The key will need to make contact in three different spots- There is a pin in the front which fits in the hole in the front under the key top. There is a pin that fits all the way through a red felted hole in the center of the key. Then there is the capstan screw- which is the screw that sticks up on the back of the key. There is a leather pice of the whippen which fits on top of the capstan screw. Feed the whippen back underneath the wooden rail, making sure the leather and capstan screw are fit together correctly. Then screw the whippen back into place.
Whenever you're done, it's time to put the piano back together. Reattach the brace holding the fall board. Reattach the fall board, lower the top, and reattach the front rail. Congratulations! Your piano now has nice, new white keys!
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is a professional pianist, teacher, singer, and Music Director currently residing in Snohomish, Washington. She is the Director of Music at Peace Lutheran Church in Monroe, WA, and also teaches private piano, voice and ukulele lessons at The ARK in Snohomish, WA.