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Replacing a Carved Walnut Steinway Piano Cabriole Leg

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Project by Mark A. DeCou posted 04-16-2007 02:48 AM 3723 views 1 time favorited 23 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Project Story:

This was a challenging and stressful project. Now that it is behind me, I can add this project to my list of odd, unique, and crazy items that I have tried to build over the years.

Why the stress? First off, I wasn’t completely sure that I was up to the challenge. I went to the home and shot some photos and emailed them to my fellow lumberjock friend Duand Kohles and asked if he thought I could do it. He said to “go for it”.

Secondly, I had to cut off the existing leg from the piano, as it was glued in place. Thirdly, the only other man in Kansas that was called to do the job declined it, saying it couldn’t be done. After he heard I was selected to do the job, he called me to sort of “interview” me to get his impression of my abilities. After all, I had never worked on a piano before. I was probably naive, (I was) and so I came across that way on the phone.

After talking with the man on the phone I offered to let him do the color matching and finishing, as he said that it was his expertise. In addition, I suggested that he repair the second Steinway that had been damaged in this move, it just needed some joints reglued, and any repairman could do that. The customer later told me that the other repair man was convinced after talking to me on the phone, that making a new leg still couldn’t be done, and that they would be sorry they hadn’t just had him repair the old leg with glue and repair the finish.

Whew, that’s some pressure, I had to prove him wrong.

Basically what happened is that there were two Steinways in this family and when the company the husband worked for transferred him, the moving company broke one of the legs off of this piano. The other piano the leg was also broken off, but it was at the joint and was just glued back on.

On this piano however, the leg snapped in a really rough fracture line. The moving company was pretty desperate to make this upset customer happy, as nothing else seemed to be working, and they eagerly agreed to let me do the job, if I said I could do it.

Whew, that’s some pressure, I had to help them out.

The walnut Steinway piano was built in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, and was a cherished family heirloom. The woman that bought the piano new in New York had died, and left it, and the 2nd one, to her daughter a very accomplished player, who was absolutely devasted by the leg being snapped off.

Steinway told her that they didn’t have any of the leg blanks available in either their Kansas City, New York, or German factories, and that the “master” carving blanks had been destroyed (why? who knows). Steinway also said that they did not have any names of people that they could recommend that could carve the leg, and told the customer that it couldn’t be done.

Whew, that’s some pressure, was I really up to this challenge? I was starting to wonder.

During the months that passed from the time the leg was broken and the arguing insued over the repairs and compensation with the moving company, the family was becoming quite desperate and insisted that they did not want the broken leg repaired, but they demanded it be replaced.

The moving company flew an executive in to meet with them, and he assured them that he would make sure that whatever they wanted, it would be done and paid for by the moving company. But, the customer family had to find the craftsperson themselves that could do the work, and the moving company would pay after the family signed an affidavit that they were completely happy with the repair work.

A couple of days after the Exec’s visit, the family decided to have family portraits taken and were relaying the sad saga of their heirloom piano to their portrait taker, Trey Allen, in Wichita. He listened to their sad story, and since he had photographed several of my furniture pieces over the previous months, he suggested that they call and talk to me about the project. Gotta love a photographer like that! And, he takes great photos too.

So, I got the call, took the job, and did the work.

I was more nervous about matching the existing color of the yellowed finish than I was matching the carving and shape of the leg, so the other piano repairman was hired to take my raw walnut leg and side wings and make the finish match. He however, refused to cut off the old leg, or install the new leg (remember, he said it couldn’t be done). After seeing the final product with the “expertly matched” finish, I should have agreed to do the work myself, but I didn’t know then what I know now. Next time something like this occurs, I will do the finish myself.

Here is a photo of the leg installed. The new leg is on the left side as you look at the photo.

The carved wings that are natural in color have been installed, but the wings were not yet stained to match the leg that had already been stained.

What happened, is that after I glued the leg in place, the side wings that I had made in my first attempt, were not quite right. Most people would have glued them on and headed out for home, but not me. I headed back the 1.5 hour drive to my shop, and spent another day making two more wings that fit better, and then I went back to install them. During that day I was gone, the other repairman had been out to do the first coat of stain on the installed leg, and so the natural wood wings looks sort of strange in this photo.

I don’t have any photos of the completed finish by the other repairman. Someday I will stop by the family’s house and take a photo for my files.

For the good photos and reference for the work, credit goes to: www.treyallen.com

Thanks, hope you enjoyed the “saga.”
Mark DeCou
www.decoustudio.com

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com





23 comments so far

View WayneC's profile

WayneC

12302 posts in 2852 days


#1 posted 04-16-2007 02:53 AM

Great Job. Where is the DeCou tag?

-- We must guard our enthusiasm as we would our life - James Krenov

View Karson's profile

Karson

34916 posts in 3155 days


#2 posted 04-16-2007 02:57 AM

We are waiting Mark.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware karson_morrison@bigfoot.com †

View Obi's profile

Obi

2213 posts in 2992 days


#3 posted 04-16-2007 03:20 AM

If I break my leg will you build me a new one… and a matching cane to go with it?

View Karson's profile

Karson

34916 posts in 3155 days


#4 posted 04-16-2007 04:10 AM

Obi: I’ve got some wood that is called water Willow. It is the color of flesh. That is if you are a white man and not one of the other nationalities that have darker skin tone. It was mainly used after the 2nd World War to carve artificial arms and legs out of. Almost all of the trees were cut down to supply to the prosthetic makers.

It’s not like Debbie’s wood its light pink and quite light in weight. Just what you’d need for an artificial leg.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware karson_morrison@bigfoot.com †

View oscorner's profile

oscorner

4564 posts in 3065 days


#5 posted 04-16-2007 04:26 AM

Great carving and nice repair.

-- Jesus is Lord!

View David's profile

David

1970 posts in 2893 days


#6 posted 04-16-2007 04:45 AM

Mark – absolutely awesome! The family should have surveyed the LumberJocks site and everyone would have told them you are more than up to the job. Hope Steinway is paying attention for future reference!

-- http://foldingrule.blogspot.com

View PanamaJack's profile

PanamaJack

4473 posts in 2832 days


#7 posted 04-16-2007 05:23 AM

This is cool. Really good work. My brother who is a piano tuner, actually a pretty good one at that, in Indianapolis could use you some time. He also refurbishes pianos.

-- Carpe Lignum; Tornare Lignum (Seize the wood, to Turn the wood)

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 3069 days


#8 posted 04-16-2007 05:24 AM

Beautiful work! I hope it was T & M. That job would intimidate me a little. Excellent!

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 3054 days


#9 posted 04-16-2007 05:51 AM

Beautiful job Mark.
It looks like you’ll be getting more jobs like this if the word gets around.
You’d think that legs like that would be removable.
I have a friend of who restores pianos, & I used to help him move them.
With that style we had to be real careful.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN. http://www.woodcarvingillustrated.com/gallery/member.php?uid=3627&protype=1

View bkhop's profile

bkhop

68 posts in 2822 days


#10 posted 04-16-2007 06:13 AM

Wow! All I can say is “wow” – I have never tried carving of any sort… it has always mystified me. Maybe I’ll sign up for a class at Woodcraft the next time they come around. Great job!

-- † Hops †

View Roger Strautman's profile

Roger Strautman

649 posts in 2888 days


#11 posted 04-16-2007 11:28 AM

Great job!!!

-- " All Things At First Appear Difficult"

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

18615 posts in 2915 days


#12 posted 04-16-2007 11:51 AM

you should have called me—I knew that you could do it!!

the family must be thrilled. I don’t think you can tell that it has been replaced.

Bravo. Bravo

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (https://www.facebook.com/DebbiePribeleENJOConsultant)

View netized's profile

netized

33 posts in 2829 days


#13 posted 04-16-2007 01:34 PM

Wow- what a story! I have done a lot of antique repair over the years, but nothing like that! The emotional upheaval alone makes me cringe. This must be a great boost to your confidence. I hope I have your nerve the next time I face a challenge I know I am up to but don’t want to take any chances. You did a great job!

-- Jeff, Santa Fe

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

1999 posts in 3160 days


#14 posted 04-16-2007 02:08 PM

Hey folks, you are all so kind.

To answer a few questions, here is some more information:

Reinforcement: In the first photo, you can see the end of birch dowels coming out of the top of the leg. In the orginal leg, Steinway built it with a piece of wood in the middle of the carving, sort of like a mortise, that they put a cross grain piece of reinforcement wood. When the leg broke, it appeared like it first broke on the glue line of the cross grain reinforcement inside the leg, and then traveled on out of the leg, breaking it clear across. I decided to make the leg out of two pieces of wood, making a match grain glue line go right up the middle of the front of the leg. Then, to reinforce the top of the leg, I drilled and epoxied two big birch dowels. I took care not to get the dowels too close together, or too close to the edge, keeping enough wood “meat” so that it wouldn’t propagate another fracture line, like it did on the Steinway-made Leg.

Detaching The Leg: I used blue tape to protect the surface of the piano, and the leg. Then, I carefully cut the leg off flush with the bottom of the keyboard frame with a thin kerf pull saw. I think it was a “Shark Saw” brand. In the middle of the leg joint, there was a lag screw that reinforced the joint. Once I cut into the leg and hit the lag screw, I moved carefully around the leg, until I had slowly cut all the wood around the surface of the glue joint, and then I could lift the piano a little and spin the leg off of the lag screw. The whole process took me about 2 hours and a lot of sweat. The customer took a seat in the living room and watched the process. Whew-nothing like pressure.

Cost: I charged $40 per hour, Time and Material, which was $20 per hour less than the other repairman. Live and learn. The whole process ran me a little over 100 hours, I did this job a couple of years ago, and I can’t remember the exact cost. The moving company was a little surprised at the high cost, but they paid my bill and thanked me. A nationally known furniture repair Franchise company had been called for an estimate, and of course, their “highly trained” 20-year old technician kids, declined the job. They did do the 8-10 other pieces of furniture that needed scratches and dents repaired, which I declined. The only other part of the job that I was close to getting was a smashed heirloom pine blanket box on spindle legs. It was totally destroyed, and would have been a suitable challenge for me, but I didn’t get that bid. I don’t know who fixed it, maybe the family just took the money as a settlement.

Reattaching The Leg: To reattach the leg, I again had an audience, and the process took about 2 more hours. I reinserted the threaded lag screw, which centered the leg back into position. Then, I used a 30-minute epoxy glue to hold the leg in place. I mixed it a little light on hardener so that it would stay a little bit soft in full cure. This process was not quite as stressful as the removing of the leg, nor the duplicating the carving. I decided to use this installation process without any dowels, since it was the way Steinway had installed the leg, and I wanted the leg to break at the glue joint if possible, should it ever be moved with force again. The customer was most concerned about every aspect of the reattachment, especially the exact height of the leg, the look, the carving, and the installed carved wings at the top of the leg. Since I wasn’t doing the stain and finish, I left that worry to the other guy. The customer phoned after the project me and told me that they wished I had done the finish work as well. Next time, I will.

Carving Duplication: This was sort of interesting. The Leg looked to me to be carved with some sort of machine, as it wasn’t as detailed and precise as a master carver would have done. I had to duplicate the exact manner, and lack of detail as the old leg, including the flaws. Copying flaws is sort of hard. Making flaws is easy, I do it all the time without much effort, but copying other people’s flaws was hard work. To make the carving match, I used a piece of wadded up and smoothed out paper (takes the crispness out of it) and pencil rubbed with my finger the carving. Then, I transferred this to the new leg using the rubbing with carbon paper under it. Then, made any adjustments with a pencil line by freehand.

Leg Construction: I carefully made two profile templates of the old leg. Then, I mounted the wood block in my Legacy Ornamental Mill and made a cabriole leg blank using the two side templates and milled the rough shape with a straight cutting 1/2” diameter bit. This gave me the rough shape, and I was assured that I had the right length, width, and taper. The rest of the work was done with a Nicholson #49 Toolmakers Rasp, and a carving set, using measuring instruments to transer the width and taper at each point of the leg. Once I got to the carved curl on the bottom, I just left a hunk of wood and carved it by hand. At the top of the leg, I also left a hunk of wood, and smoothed the surface to transfer the carving template, and then did the relief carving with the palm gouges. I didn’t use any power carving tools on this piece, I wanted the slow and controlled cutting of hand tools. Mostly I used about 6-7 Pfiel Carving gouges, and a set of Palm Sized carving tools. Around the carving, I used riffler files, and sand paper bits to smooth the background around the carving.

If I didn’t answer your question, send me a note, and I will continue.

Mark DeCou
www.decoustudio.com

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

18615 posts in 2915 days


#15 posted 04-16-2007 03:09 PM

amazing process. Sounds like there was a lot of moving damage by this company!!

The audience: I love watching workers do their trade as well. My little “sponge” of a brain just can’t get enough knowledge and is fascinated by watching how someone thinks..
But I know what it is like to be watched so I usually force myself to leave them to work in peace.

If the priceless piano was mine, however, and had already suffered major damage I probably would have been guarding it more so than watching the craftsman at his work.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (https://www.facebook.com/DebbiePribeleENJOConsultant)

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