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I recently purchased an 1885 Allison Arthur & Co upright piano in the Sacramento area for $150, and am looking to have the action almost entirely redone. The piano is absolutely beautiful, and seems like it has historical significance.

An inscription on the bottom says "Made expressly for W.H. Halifax" and on the top it says "Internation music convention 1885 Awarded to Allison Arthur & co. for best tone" The piano is entirely made of burl with ivory keys.

I'm wondering what kind of cost I'm looking at for making it playable again. I noticed a few broken hammers and the "whippens"? seem to be pretty much useless. I also want to replace the strings and tuning pins. So I guess my question now is,

How much would it cost to replace the whippens/jack the hammers, strings and pins?

Also, anything else i should maintenance? Are things like felt and dampeners worth replacing at first? I'm on a tight budget.

There are no low cost fixes for a piano like this. It is an English style piano that probably has tuning stability issues as well as a worn out action. While I think we can all agree that the case is beautiful, you may need to reassess and move on. All these English pianos from the era were stunning to look at, but they are no longer musical instruments and the cost to make them so will far exceed any perceived value.

Sorry for the bad news, though. Anyone telling you differently should be looked on with suspicion.

Again, sorry to give it to you straight like this, but better you know up front.

If you are shopping for a used piano, you might want to get a copy of "The Piano Book" by Larry Fine. Libraries will have it. He describes many of the pitfalls you should be aware of before bringing home an older piano.
I hate to say it, but old upright pianos are pretty much money pits. The best idea I can give you is to chalk up the money you spent to experience and get rid of it in favor of an instrument that can be played as is. Seriously, you could sink thousands into that piano and it would still be a $150 piano.
I appreciate honest advice, and am relieved to not have somebody attempt to simply get business through me, regardless of my pianos condition.

So would it be worth practicing repairs on myself, considering the mechanical state? I am only looking to spend around 1000 dollars on materials, but am willing to take up to a year getting advice, and researching proper techniques for repairing it.

Is the tuning stability on old English pianos really that bad?
Is it considered a wasted effort?

I don't plan on selling it for the record.
Yes, tuning stability on old English pianos like that is that bad. It is a wasted effort.

If you want to restore an old upright, start with a decent quality American upright. You can often find them for free. But it will likely cost more than $1000 in parts. If you do not know what to look for, it can cost a lot more.
I appreciate the advice everyone. I'll be coming back to this site in the future.
Although I have always declined servicing old Allisons because they were so bad, but often old pianos can benefit from minimal repairs and basic reconditioning jobs. Do not expect it to sound very good but it should play reasonably if done well. Going too far with rebuilding will be alot of expense for diminishing gains.

I have for example an old German overdamper of ok quality on my workshop right now and I hope to give it an appropriate level of service for under $3000.
Have you considered making it into a bar or desk?
Bottom line is $1000 is not close to enough money to refinish the cabinet (which looks to be moisture damaged and not in great condition) - let alone do any mechanical repair. A quick google search for W.H. Halifax wasn't productive. These pianos have lovely wood cabinets. I'm glad you didn't over pay for the piano.
The hammers are actually in decent shape. It looks like I would only need to replace the felt on the tips. As far as the functionality, it only looks like they don't work because of a small fabric loop that wore away over time. There's a small metal hook that looks like it was connected to it before, and provided some sort of leverage to pull the hammer back in. Seeing how it isn't worth the money to rebuild, I believe I can salvage the existing action to at least make it a playable piece of furniture for my mom or something. I think I can recreate the function of the broken fabric loop with a small staple or something.

With some new strings, tuning knobs, and felt, I think it should play fine as long as I fix each of the hammers.

The wood isn't water damaged either. The discoloration on the cabinet seems to just be part of the woods natural color. I think it would be worth keeping for aesthetic value at least.

Is there anything I can do other than that to improve its sound?
The bridle straps are not supposed to have to pull the hammers back. That should be done by springs. You can buy bridle straps. They are inexpensive. But if there is something wrong with the springs, they are difficult to replace.

I suggest that you read about piano actions before you leap into trying to repair one.
I'm sorry, I wasn't very descriptive. It isn't the bridal strap. The metal hook is a part of the spring. It looks like the spring used to be connected by hooking on to this small fabric loop, which has since corroded. I have read a small bit about the mechanics of pianos, and believe I can manage to make it playable if I'm properly educated. I can upload some pictures of the action and the hammer I took off if anybody is interested in giving me some direction in what to repair.

Granted, this is a piano technician board, and not a DIY board.
Originally Posted by akosnikowksi
I'm sorry, I wasn't very descriptive. It isn't the bridal strap. The metal hook is a part of the spring. It looks like the spring used to be connected by hooking on to this small fabric loop, which has since corroded. I have read a small bit about the mechanics of pianos, and believe I can manage to make it playable if I'm properly educated. I can upload some pictures of the action and the hammer I took off if anybody is interested in giving me some direction in what to repair.

Granted, this is a piano technician board, and not a DIY board.

Well, before you delve into this rather broad topic of
piano restoration, I would recommend that you get a book
by Arthur Reblitz, which is still considered the bible
of piano servicing.

You should also learn how to tune pianos, which would
greatly help you in assessing the state of an older (or
newer) piano, that you might want to purchase in the future. Learning to tune aurally (without an electronic tuning device) is difficult to learn without a mentor (I still haven't learned how myself), so I would recommend learning to tune with a computer program like Tunelab or Verituner, which would still teach you how to "set" the pins properly, so your tuning is stable and lasts. Don't skimp on a tuning hammer: Get a good one or you'll struggle more.

Once you learn how to tune pianos properly, you'll get a feel for what loose and tight tuning pins feel like, and you'll be able to assess if an old piano's pinblock will hold a tune or not, by doing a quick, rough tuning on it.

Loose tuning pins can also be treated with cyanoacrylate glue (thinner version of Crazy glue), which can tighten an otherwise hopeless pinblock.

Good luck!
Is this a birdcage (overdamper) piano? If it is, then listen to what people are saying and cut your losses.

Be wary of that finish - it may be painted on, as in a faux wood finish. Try to remove it and you are left with nothing.

I agree with everyone's comments here. A bookcase or drinks cabinet is the way to go, if the veneer is really nice.

akosnikowsky, it sounds from your description of fabric loop and metal hook, as if this piano has a spring & loop action. You can check this on my website, half way down this page: http://www.davidboyce.co.uk/buying-a-secondhand-piano.php

In my experience these 1880s spring & loop actions are very brittle, and when you work on broken parts, other parts start to break. I have replaced both broken cord loops and broken springs (the hooks you mention),in the past but it simply isn't worth it.

I find that there is often an overall structural problem with these old English pianos that makes them untenable. They have very little cast iron so there isn't much stability. Even though tuning pins are individually tight, the structure of the piano is unsound and trying to tune them is like trying to sculpt The Three Graces out of a bath sponge.

I once spent two hours on one of these, with quite tight tuning pins, trying to tune just the middle couple of octaves. By the time I did the ends, the middle was out. Repeatedly. I gave up and crept quietly away.

I almost always decline work on these now, as I feel it's unethical to take money for attempting to do what can't be done.

Pianos last longer than cars, but like cars, they do not last forever. Yes, at vast expense, a rich enthusiast can keep a vintage car on the road, by having parts hand-made etc. If it's a fine vehicle that was of interest in the evolution of the motor car, and if you have the money, fair enough. But you wouldn't spend the money restoring a 1976 Ford Fiesta (one of hundreds of thousands)with a seized engine, no electrics and every panel rusted through. Would you?

You mention budget being a significant factor. That is another reason why you must not start spending on this piano. Second-hand pianos are cheaper than they've ever been, and if you look around for a while, you will find a much younger and better instrument, for perhaps even lass than you paid. You might, indeed, get a fine, large old American upright, worth working on, for free. People are throwing them away these days!
If you're set to take on an old upright, I'll second Mr. Boyce. Look around some more for a piano that is already playable. Here's just one example in Marin County, not far from Sacramento. The seller claims it was regularly tuned and plays well. Old upright pianos with SF Bay Area weather sometimes hold up well over the years.

Craigslist Free American Upright for example

I have no connection to the seller.

I'm not a Piano Tech, but I've spent some time working on two old uprights. Including a 2 week rebuilding class, tools and materials I've already spent a few thousand.

- Rick

David, I read the article and it pretty much describes my piano exactly. It is a birdcage piano. I guess I can only cut my losses and be thankful for the experience. As for a cabinet or bar, I like the idea of a cabinet converted from an antique piano.

How would I go about doing something like that?

Also, are the other parts worth anything?

As of right now, I have a full set of 88 Ivory plated keys. Also, the pedals look like they're made of copper. Would those be worth refurbishing?

Rick, I appreciate the find. Marin may be too far for me to organize a practical pick up, but the ad at least made me realize how much of a financial burden owning old pianos and keeping them maintenanced can be. I'll keep my eyes open for a better project for a personal piano.

Anybody have recommendations I should look out for good tone?

I mostly like to play jazz, so I like pianos with a bit of "bite" to the tone. Can piano brands strongly influence the tone, or is it mostly determined by the hammers and strings?

Also Musicdude, whats the title of the book? I am definitely planning on learning more, considering I'll be dealing with piano issues the rest of my life.
akosnikowski, it's not specifically the aspect of being a 'birdcage' piano that's the problem - it's the fact that yours sounds like one with a Spring & Loop action rather than a bridle tape action. Spring & Loop over-damper (birdcage) actions were made in a relatively narrow window of time, and are now all very old and brittle. And the pianos you find them in, were cheap and nasty when they were brand new.

As for how to go about converting to a cabinet of some kind, well, you're going to need woodworking skills!

Because these pianos do not have integrated cast iron plates, you may relatively easily be able to de-string the piano and take some of the iron bits out.

As Sam said, though, be careful that the finish is in fact good enough to take working with - is it a veneer of decent thickness?

If indeed it has ivory key coverings on the white keys, it's worth saving the ivories. They can be removed from the wood of the key sticks. Regulations concerning the sale of ivory in the USA will make things difficult however, in terms of selling them. Perhaps a local piano technician would appreciate having the ivories in return for some work done on whatever piano you eventually go with.
If the cabinet is nice enough, buy a digital stage piano and drop it inside. I've seen a couple examples that turned out well.
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