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Reconditioning of the Knabe Piano

This piano was a gift from my great great grandfather to his daughter, Stella Wing Martinelli, on the occasion of her marriage to Clarence Harrison Mowry in 1899. It has been in my family since that time. When I was young, I had a few lessons on this piano, but never kept it up. My mother, Barbara La Favre, granddaughter of Stella, did play this piano on occasion.

Photos above: Russell Merritt Wing (1852 - 1919) and his daughter Stella (1881 - 1961). Russell Wing was a prominent trial lawyer and judge during the 1890's in Chicago. Stella was my dear great grandmother and I was very close to her during my childhood.

The piano has seen many homes during its life, and I cannot be sure of all of them. Early in their marriage, I believe Stella and Clarence lived in or near Chicago, which may have been the first home of the piano. Then they moved to a farm in Hartford, MIchigan, where I believe they lived for about 18 years. After that they moved to a rural area about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles (known as North Whittier Heights when I was a child, now as Hacienda Heights). Stella lived in two houses during her life in North Whittier Heights and after her death, the piano passed to my mother. At some point (during the early 1980's I think), the piano was given to my brother, who lives in Southern California. I took possession of the piano sometime during the late 1980's while residing in Escalon, California. In December of 1991 the piano was moved back to Chesterland, Ohio, where I am sad to say it was stored in a garage for 6 months (although the garage was heated to about 45 - 50 degrees). In the summer of 1992, the piano was moved into our new home in Chesterland, where it currently resides. There is no doubt that all of the moving of this piano, and the different climates where it was housed have contributed to its present condition. I suspect that its last tuning was sometime in the 1960's.

The photos below show that the piano is in need of work. Shortly before my mother's death, on July 11, 2005, she said to me that she would like me to repair the piano. And so I started work in ernest. I put up this page for my mother to see as we lived far from each other. That way she could monitor my progress.

As of August 16, 2005, I have completed the disassembly of the piano. All strings have been removed and the tuning pins and pin block have been evaluated. The pin block appears to be in good condition, which is a relief. I have tested the torque required to turn each tuning pin and they all require more than 50 inch pounds. In a complete rebuild of a piano, new pin blocks are commonly installed, at least on grand pianos. But fabricating and installing a new pin block on an upright piano is quite difficult. Since the pin block appears to be in good condition, I will leave it in place.

Currently, I have in hand most of the parts and materials needed to do the work: 1) new set of strings 2) new set of hammer heads 3) new set of key tops 4) felt and buckskin for all parts 5) new damper felts. I have also acquired tools necessary to do the work. All this, thanks in most part, to funds supplied by my mother.

The back of the hammer rest rail appeared to be nickel plated, but I could not clean up the corrosion (see bottom photo). So I spent quite a bit of time with a buffing wheel and compound until all the plating was removed, to show the brass underneath. Then I applied several coats of clear finish to prevent the brass from tarnishing (photo not available). The four cast iron frame members of the action were also nickel plated and also corroded. I wire wheeled these to remove the plating and then applied three coats of metallic brass colored paint (no photo). And this is pretty much where the work stands at this point. The rest of the page below is the part that I created originally for my mother.

Piano serial number is 46838. A list of serial numbers found on the Internet lists serial number 43000 manufactured in 1895 and serial number 47000 manufactured in 1900. The bottom key of the keyboard (key 1) appears to have the date of 6 - 1899 as illustrated in the photo below.

The name of A. Vilmann is also on key 1, which I believe is the name of the craftsman responsible for building the piano.

Piano with keys removed. Keys are on top of piano. The key tops and fronts are ivory but are in poor condition. New ivory is not available anymore (due to ban on killing elephants in Africa). The options are to try and find recycled ivory tops or just go to a synthetic keytop. Ivory will be removed from all keys and saved. New synthetic keytops will replace the ivory.

Close up of the piano action. Some of the hammer shafts are crooked, causing neighboring hammers to touch. These need to be repaired. Two keys on the piano have broken bridle straps (one of these keys does not sound when struck). The action will be completely reconditioned with all new felt, new bridle straps, all new hammer heads, new damper felts, etc.

A cursory examination of the pin block (wood that has tuning pins) revealed no obvious problems (cracks). It appears that some type of solution (chemical) was applied to some of the holes in the pin block, perhaps to keep problem tuning pins from turning due to string tension. A complete piano restoration usually includes replacing the pin block, but this will not be done unless required (i.e. if some of the tuning pins will not hold after tuning) since it must be custom-built . A quick look at the sound board revealed no serious problems but there are some small cracks. If necessary, work will be done on the sound board to glue the cracks closed. On a complete restoration, the soundboard is sometimes replaced. However, I doubt that I will consider doing this. I believe the soundboard is OK and since the soundboard is part of the character of the piano, I don't believe replacing it is justified unless it is not serviceable (the piano repair manual I have describes in detail how to repair cracks in the soundboard).

Knabe pianos are still manufactured today and are made by hand. The Knabe company is currently owned by Samick Music Corp. You can find out more about modern Knabe pianos at this web site: http://www.knabepianos.com It appears to me that our piano is similar to the current model WKV 131E (judging just by the photo at the web site).