Shamrockmom’s Continuing Piano Adventures: The “Barn Find” piano upgrade

My three readers know how much Shamrockmom and her family love cars. I often joke that I really do speak another language–it’s called Car! In Car lingo, when you find a very old and valuable car in bad condition, it’s known as “Barn Find”. That’s because many rare and vintage vehicles were stored in old barns and outdoor sheds for years until they were found by someone interested in restoring the car to it’s former glory. After restoration, these cars can be worth some substantial money, plus there’s the thrill of unearthing a hidden treasure. Now I have a “Barn Find” piano, and I’m pretty darn stoked over it!

I knew next to nothing about pianos when I started playing two years ago, and I was exceedingly grateful to have anything with 88 keys that looked and sounded like a piano. The abandoned Wurlitzer Spinet piano that I was given from the 100 year old apartment building my boss owns was a major upgrade from a 61 key Casio keyboard with spring action keys, which was what I started with in June of 2014. I was warned by more knowledgeable SLA Soompi forum members like @docster6 and @gretac that the spinet size came with built in limitations to the sound quality, which I understood. It was fine to start playing on, but now I need a piano that has enough sensitivity that I can work on my volume control, and has a better tone. My current Kawai digital piano is excellent for when I want to play early in the morning or late at night, and takes up minimal space, but the range between soft and loud is not what it is on a piano like the Petrof Grand I play on at the piano studio, and it’s been causing me struggle.

I’ve been saving my pennies toward a large upright for about a year, but it’s been a very slow project. I did not feel confident enough to consider a turn of the century “Golden Age” large upright piano, even though I knew they could sound wonderful, and I could probably get one for around $700-1000 USD. TBH, most of the large ‘vintage’ uprights I’ve seen pictured for sale on Craigslist in my area are in dubious condition:

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Not too shabby. Keys need a little work, but might be a good deal if the cat is included!

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Advertised as playable and in good condition! SMH. I gotta wonder what ate that one key…

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This abused 1924 Lagonda piano just makes me cry. I wonder what happened to the front panel. BTW, that’s a can of ant/cockroach spray on the left side of the piano, next to the cigarette ashes on the keys. Ewww! **headdesk** A huge shame. This is a piano brand with a good reputation that is worth keeping around.

I was considering waiting possibly another year or two (or three) until I had enough money to spring for a decent used upright Yamaha or Kawai from the 1980’s or later (roughly $3500+ USD), like this one:

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For reference, this Kawai piano is about 50″ tall. Asking price $3500 USD

but with the roof of my house needing imminent repair:

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#priorities

and winter rain and wind approaching, a piano was totally out of the question in the immediate future. It wasn’t even on my radar.

Then a few weeks ago, Shamrockmom’s piano teacher Miss Nzuji found out about a piano that had been abandoned twice at a local storage facility. The owners of the storage unit quit paying the rent, so the unit went to auction. The unit was sold, and the new owners took everything out of the unit they wanted….and ditched the piano again. Susan and Joe (the friendly couple who manage the storage facility) felt bad about possibly taking a chainsaw to the piano  **shudder** and throwing it in the dumpster. They had been told repeatedly that a piano like this was worthless and no one would want it, even if it was free for the taking. The managers didn’t know anyone who wanted/needed a piano either. Thankfully, they were from the generation of folks here in the US who were brought up with the mentality of “never throw anything away that could be useful someday”. They offered the piano to Miss Nzuji, who rents a storage unit at the facility. She didn’t have room for it at her house, so Miss Nzuji offered it to Mrs. Tina, the owner of the piano studio where I take lessons. Mrs. Tina didn’t want the hassle of moving it, so the piano was then offered to me. I went to the storage place on a Friday afternoon after work to check it out with Miss Nzuji.

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Please forgive the bad pictures–there was limited room in the storage unit.

Here it is: a 1923 Victor (made by Bush and Lane) upright, made in the USA with real ivory keys. It stands a whopping 57″ tall. In comparison, most large upright pianos made today by Yamaha or Kawai max out at 50″-52″. Basically, it’s a grand piano in a upright form–the soundboards are the same size. Miss Nzuji played it a little bit; the pedals worked, the piano sounded reasonable to us, and most importantly, it would be a huge upgrade from the free Wurlitzer spinet piano my boss gave me in 2014 I mentioned above.

As much as I wanted to immediately say “Yes please I will take it!”, my head overruled my heart. If the piano had some internal workings that were beyond repair, it wouldn’t be a good deal for me even if it was free. I decided to call Adam, the piano tuner I’d used before to come to the storage unit and evaluate the piano before I invested the money, time and effort to move it. I also did extensive research on the internet so I knew something about older upright pianos and specifically this piano brand. Here’s some information I found:

“The Bush & Lane Piano Company was established in 1901. They were originally located in Chicago, Illinois. After several years a factory and offices were constructed in Holland, Michigan. Bush & Lane produced some of the finest upright pianos ever made by an American manufacturer. They produced a few grand pianos but their reputation was established largely upon their upright pianos.

The “Bush” in Bush & Lane referred to the two Bush brothers of Bush and Gerts fame. Those were money men working at the commercial end of the production spectrum. The design genius was Walter Lane, who, like Ernest Knabe, is all but forgotten and relegated to a mere footnote in the history of the American piano. He deserves to be remembered.

Bush & Lane was noted for their massive cases, heavy cupular plate construction, and a series of soundboard, bridge, and framework innovations all designed to give them a quality of tone, projection, and carrying power second to none. In this respect, the Bush & Lane could give similar vintage uprights produced by the likes of Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, Knabe, and Weber a real run for their money. The single best upright that I have heard in terms of tone-quality, projection, and carrying power is this Bush & Lane. In a list of the top 10, three would be Bush & Lanes, the others Steinway, Weber, Knabe, and etc. They were that good!

From first to last, the Bush & Lane company of Walter Lane was a first-class operation. They produced expensive, limited-production instruments of the highest quality. As they lived, so did they die. The crash of 1929 and the ensuing “Great Depression” killed off the piano industry almost overnight. In 1925, 3/4 of all the pianos made were player pianos. By 1930, they were almost all gone. Those companies that survived did so by merging with other companies and corporations such as Aeolian.

In 1930 Walter Lane had a decision to make. He could either return to making non-player pianos once again, and probably have to compromise quality in favor of economic survival like his competitors. He could sell out his corporate soul and reputation to Aeolian, like so many others chose to do. Or, he could simply call it quits, close up shop, and let his reputation rest on what he had accomplished during the preceding thirty years. A class act to the very end, he chose the latter option.”

Note: If you click on that link, you can see before and after photos of an older Bush and Lane piano that was restored, and that’s the one he’s talking about as having excellent tone quality and sound projection. That piano is a bit older, far more ornate, and slightly larger in size. Because it has been completely restored to modern specs, it’s worth a heckuva lot more than my 1923 100% all-original-equipment piano which looks practically spartan in comparison. The styles had changed by that time from the intricate carvings and artistic flourishes to much more plain and simple cabinets. As much as I dig those detailed cabinets, there is something about the relative simplicity of my piano that I find aesthetically appealing.

The Bush & Lane company only made about 64,000 pianos between the years of 1901 and 1930. They produced a limited amount of very high quality pianos, and there are not many still hanging around today.

What really strikes me though is the comparison of the sound of a Bush and Lane piano to high-end upright pianos like Steinway or Mason and Hamlin. That’s encouraging. Even Adam was impressed with the sound of the piano, and how well the pedals and keys worked. Although the piano is 93 years old, it’s in remarkably good shape. Someone took good care of this piano–there was barely any dust when he opened it up.

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Not too grubby and dusty inside. You can see the business card from the 1920’s in the upper center of the picture.

When I remarked that I was saving up for a Yamaha or a Kawai before adopting the homeless Victor piano, Adam said that this piano was superior to either of those brands, even brand new, in terms of sound projection and longevity. My piano has no plastic parts, nothing that will wear out easily, is exceptionally sturdy and well built, and will easily outlast a Yamaha. He said some Yamaha pianos purchased new have problems after 5 to 10 years due to plastic parts and workmanship/quality control issues. Nobody is going to rebuild a Yamaha bought in 2016 a hundred years from now. But rebuilding a high quality ~100 year old piano made from 1870-1930 like the Victor is possible because the initial construction of the piano was so strong. The builders didn’t cut corners or skimp on the details.

It needed some minor work, but nothing special considering its age. One small piece of ivory had been lost on the keys, which Adam replaced easily when he came over and tuned it. He also re-glued another piece of ivory that was about to pop off.

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Replacing the keyboard cover after repairing the ivory keytop that was missing.

Many of the keys have chips; nothing that I would need to repair or that will affect playing. I love the ivory keys–they are all slightly different colors and the texture and feel is nothing like plastic. (Don’t hate me!) The hammers that strike the strings are notched, and will need to be replaced in the future at some considerable cost. This piano was obviously loved and played a lot at some point in the past; it was not someone’s living room decoration. Adam found a receipt inside the piano for a tuning in 1990, when it lived about 2 miles from my current residence, and a business card that was stuck to the inside of the cabinet from a piano tuner in Puyallup, Washington….with a 4 digit phone number! Yep, no area code, and no exchange letters like PEnnsylvania 6-5000  (song link here) which means that was probably a pre-1930’s phone number! Wonder if that was the place it was purchased from? I couldn’t find any info.

The Victor piano won’t tune to the higher standard pitch (A440) of today’s piano–the standard pitch was slightly lower in pianos manufactured prior to 1940. The piano started off at about A436, but after Adam tuned it, it’s now A437. In comparison, the Petrof grand I play on at the studio is A438. That’s very close. The lower the number, the ‘earthier’ the piano sounds. Modern pianos sound ‘bright’ in comparison. The Kawai digital piano for example is a perfect A440.

There’s a lot of debate about the concept of tuning a piano to the standard of A440. Some technicians feel that if an old piano won’t tune to A440, it should be taken to the dumpster. I’m not sure I fully agree with that. If it holds tune, and it’s close and consistent, I think it’s probably okay for someone like me. BTW, the Wurlitzer is going to go live at my daughter’s place…she will probably move closer to her teaching jobs (about 2 hours inland) in early 2017. She wanted it as something for her friends to play when they come for a visit. So it will still have a happy home. I’ve always felt if you have been given something for free and you don’t need it anymore, then you should freely give it to someone else.

Here are some pics from Moving Day. Kudos to Roy and Dennis, the gentlemen from P & O Piano movers in Signal Hill for doing another awesome job in moving the piano gently and carefully to my home:

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These two big strong guys have no trouble moving this very heavy piano

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Making room in the truck

The walnut wood cabinet has some wear and tear as you might imagine, but nothing disastrous. The original finish visible on the piano wood that has not been exposed to light and air is absolutely incredible. The finish is as smooth as glass, and the walnut wood grain is beautiful. The shellac (?) finish on the rest of the piano has cracked almost like craze lines in a china plate. I decided to do what I could to make it look better. First, I thoroughly cleaned it with some Murphy’s oil soap. Then I bought some old-fashioned lemon oil and oiled it every day for a week. The oil seemed to seep into the cracked finish and the result is amazing.

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I used about 400 ml of lemon oil the first week. This is one thirsty piano! I am still oiling it every 2-3 days, and it looks better and better each week as the darker walnut wood grain comes out.  

Yes, it’s the same piano. Just cleaned and oiled. No scratch cover, no fillers. It didn’t come with a bench, but the very next weekend after it was moved in, I found a bench on Craigslist for cheap. It doesn’t quite match, but it’s close enough. I feel sort of sorry toward the people who had this lovely piano and let it go when they couldn’t pay the storage bill. I don’t think they knew or valued what they had. I am also grateful to the persons who bought the storage unit and didn’t bother to take this piano, and that this piano did not end up chopped into pieces and tossed in a dumpster.

It occurred to me one night as I was oiling my new piano that the Hanil piano in Seon Jae’s rooftop home might have looked quite a bit like this one. The Belarus piano at the studio where I take lessons also reminded me of Seon Jae’s piano, but that was because of it’s relative size compared to the spinet I was used to playing on at home. I think this is the closest well lit Google image I could find of a Hanil upright walnut piano:

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Hanil M-300. Found in a classified ad from the Philippines. Asking price close to $1350 USD

although the glossy finish is not like the flat and well worn look of Seon Jae’s piano.

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From Episode 8: The Pots and Pans scene. Enhanced and lightened for clarity

It’s a little different than the Bush and Lane Victor, but it’s relatively close. Same kind of worn finish as mine. Same walnut wood. Also a very tall upright piano that was abandoned as well. Amazing.

After the debacles of this past summer, things had begun to simmer down again at Shamrockmom’s House. My older son has a new job that nets him more money–yay! My panic attacks had dropped to zero with the new Western meds–yay! Then things derailed again when I found out my youngest son has been receiving anti-Semitic hate emails and threats from the crazy church pastor daddy of his (now former) girlfriend. I wonder if crazy daddy missed the day at Seminary where they reviewed Jesus’ family lineage.

I also found out a week ago that someone has stolen my identity–not to go on a shopping spree at Best Buy with my credit card, but to vote in the upcoming US election in Brevard County, Florida! As a 40+ year resident of SoCal, I was immediately suspicious. Multiple emails and phone calls have produced no assurance that anyone in charge is looking into this fiasco, and it’s been dismissed by the TPTB in Brevard County as “a typo by a data entry clerk”. Strange how the ‘typo’ managed to have my secondary email address, full name and correct birth date as well. Hmmmm. Makes me think of this movie clip from “The Breakfast Club”:

I always wondered what exactly “Heard it through the Grapevine” meant when it called it’s style ‘Black Humor’. I think I now have a working definition.  I believe this is also in the Black Humor department:

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This is not just a sentiment in the US. When my son traveled overseas on business recently, he said the guys he was with from Germany, the UK, and Japan felt the same way about their own country’s political situation.

Yet in the middle of this storm, a piano practically lands in my lap. What a gift! I didn’t even spend a tenth of what I was planning to spend on a Yamaha to get the Victor moved, repaired, and tuned. Not only that, but it’s a far better piano in terms of quality and sound, and will probably outlast me!

In Episode 5 of SLA when Seon Jae moved back to his rooftop home and got his piano back (nicely refurbished at a cost of 5 times what a new piano would go for, TYVM Seohan Arts College and Hye Won!) things began to turn around for him. After losing his mom, the debacle with the ballet school pianist, and finding out the woman he fell in love with was married to a soulless bastard, he was starting to lose heart and his future seemed hopeless. Once again, the piano seemed to be there for him when he needed it most; providing a place of peace and refuge. The music was there to bring him hope, and to calm his mind. It reminded him that being able to rise above all the ugliness and focus on the inherent beauty of life is what music is all about.

That’s my lesson for today as well. I need to make the choice every day to not let the threats and hatred of a bigoted control freak or the flippant and blase attitude of idiotic government officials steal my joy–and believe me, they did just that for a few days until I got my head together and decided I would not let them control my life. I often wonder how different my life would be if I had never started watching Kdramas and “Secret Love Affair” in particular. I wouldn’t be playing the piano right now, nor would I have the joy it has brought me in challenging myself to learn something new and the happiness it brings to my life.

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