Introduction: Antique Piano Shelf

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I had an old Steger & Sons piano from the early 1900s that was completely out of commission. I took the four main 4X4 posts out of it years ago to build a prototype platform bed, and I was left with a lot of other pieces laying around. Though that part of the piano served me well, I wanted to see if I could use more of the pieces, and help others recycle their old pianos as well.

So, in addition to some pieces becoming art on the wall, I decided to make a shelf that would restate what a work of art an old piano can be. I decided to make a piano key shelf.

Step 1: Destroy the Piano and Find Your Pieces

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Naturally, you'll need to find an upright piano that has seen better days. If you happen to find one that has a color or stain you already like, then you'll save time by not stripping and re-staining the pieces.

You'll spend considerable time taking the piano apart. If you'll plan for a day's worth of work, you won't be disappointed. Also, be prepared to handle a lot of slotted screws - no phillips-head screws in those antique pieces! You'll need to have various pliers handy to take out various screwed-in hooks, pins, etc.

WARNING: There are lots of pieces under tension in a piano! Things can snap very easily, even if you're just trying to remove a stubborn screw. Eye protection is highly recommended! I also recommend some steel- or fiberglass-toed work shoes, in case something falls apart before you gave it permission.

Once you strip the piano down to its pieces you'll want to focus on three main sets: one side of the piano (as in left or right), the keys, and the keyboard cover. If you don't have all the keys, no worries! I didn't either. I used wedges to fill in the gaps.

Go ahead and sort the keys into an order that works. The keys I had were numbered, but sometimes that didn't help. The keys were stamped around 1913 (I think), so 38 and 83 looked really similar, for instance. We also ended up with three #19s out of the same piano. Go figure. In any event organize them to fit together in a way that looks good to you as a shelf.

Step 2: Break the Black Keys

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If you want a really funky and decorative shelf, you don;t have to do this step. But if you're looking for a smooth surface for pictures or books, you'll need to snap the black keys off of the tops of their sticks.

Step 3: Getting Ready to Cut the Keys to Length

Picture of Getting Ready to Cut the Keys to Length

You'll want to shorten the keys because they are very long. Shortening the keys will make this shelf a more standard size. To do this we used a table saw. Truth is, you could sit around for a couple of hours and hand saw them if you are completely devoid of power tools.

Regardless of the type of saw, you need to make sure there are no lead weights in your way. In our keys, there were two points on each key containing a lead weight. We removed the one furthest away from the key itself so we could cut through that section without killing our saw blade or ourselves. The good news is that you won't have to remove them on every key. You'll need to measure the keys to length to see which ones have a weight in the way.

We started with a scrap piece of 2 X anything, and drilled a hole in it slightly larger than the lead weight. This serve as a pop-out jig so we could hammer the lead out of the key.

Using an old socket from a socket wrench set, we hammered all of the lead weights out.

Step 4: Time to Trim the Keys

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This is quite time consuming, so if repetitive work isn't your thing, get someone else to do this part for you. :^)

we used a cutting box on a table saw to do this. We clamped a block at a given distance from center, making a jig. One of us cut the keys while the other one took the cut key and handed the cutter the next key to be trimmed. worked pretty well, and we were able to get through the keys in about 15 minutes. If you're hand sawing, allow a full day, unless you're Hercules.

Note that the keys will slant different ways. We had to stop at some point and switch the side our jig was on. Just be aware.

Taking one key at a time, cutting it, and replacing it in the lineup is your best bet for keeping things straight.

Step 5: Prep the Piano Side, and Cut the Slot

Picture of Prep the Piano Side, and Cut the Slot

You'll want to make any minor repairs to the piano side at this point. Ours needed to be squared up, and a board added to one side to make it look even. This is where that spare piano wood comes in handy, too make repairs that match!

Measure the width of the keys, and their height. You'll need to draw a rectangle of that length and height on one of the studs of the piano side. This will become a slot that holds the keys which form the shelf.

Cutting this slot out is a little tricky. You could cut a starter hoe and use a jig saw all the way. We (again) used the table saw, and finished with the jig saw.

To use the table saw, we first set the height of the blade to cut all the way through the thickness of the wood on the piano side piece. Then we set the metal guide fence at the distance required to cut the first line. We then marked on the fence the diameter of the blade (remember - it's the width of the blade at table level that counts when doing this kind of top-down cut). By marking the width of the blade on the fence, we could line up the end of the cut with the end of the blade without even seeing the blade.


Step 6: Fit the Keys to the Slot

Picture of Fit the Keys to the Slot

Now, test fit a few keys to the slot. If they fit - hopefully just barely - then its time to put all the keys into place.

You can use a piece of scrap wood as a straight edge to keep the keys straight as you put them in.

The differing angles of the keys will require some spacers so that the keys don't get loose. We used triangular wedges hammered in from the back to not only space the angles, but to provide tension to hold the keys in.

Step 7: Finishing Touches

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We decided that as a hanging shelf, it might be cool to use the piano key cover knobs to...well...hang stuff! So we attached it to the bottom of the unit, hinge and all. Gravity keeps it in the right place.

Also, there was a piece that had a latch mechanism in it that I used at the top. I gave it a little lip edge over the main back, and it added some nice depth to the piece. It also really helped to finish out that "I am/was a piano" feel that I was going for.

This is my first attempt at recycling an instrument, and it was a lot of fun! My son has already claimed the shelf for his room, so I'm off to locate studs to hang it on.

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