Introduction: Free Stealth Piano Workbench

Create your own attractive and functional Stealth Workspace for your apartment!  This project solves the dilemma of not having adequate workspace in an apartment or other venue in which an unsightly workbench would look out of place.

I'm a DIY'er at heart and have always had access to workspaces - both formal and informal.  I'm also a university student and this spring I will be graduating after years of on again off again school.   The problem with this, however, is that I will be moving into an apartment----and away from the large and handy workshop that I have had access to at my parents house my whole life. 

Fortunately for me, while helping build a garage storage loft, my friend told me he was getting rid of his ancient and far from musically sound upright piano.  This piano has since taken the form of a hidden workbench that when not in use looks like a regular piano, but when the front is removed, it reveals a pleasant and useful space to work on various projects.

The idea came partly from this site that showed some of the fine conversions a group of woodworkers in Oregon were doing with similar pianos: and partly from my infatuation with up-cycling and re-purposing things.

The best part about this project is that it's FREE!  This was accomplished by taking the large and heavy cast iron pieces of the piano to the scrap yard which will pay for all of the parts and hardware that you need to build the workbench.  In addition to this, reusing it saves it from going into a landfill and opens doors to other projects that can come from the parts not used in the bench itself (like a ukulele built from the old sound board and back bracing-->more on that one after I get some time this summer).

Step 1: What's in a Workspace?

I knew that I wanted this workbench to serve three purposes.  First it needed to be a functional space to work on small electronics and hobby projects.  Second it had to be a great tool bench for fixing bicycles which is my first love as far as DIY stuff goes.  I already have a free-standing bike stand so this bench just needs to hold tools and be a handy work surface. Third, it needed to blend into it's urban surroundings.

Necessary features:

•   Plenty of workspace to spread out
•   Source of power (in this case a power strip-I will wire a more permanent solution when I move during the summer)
•   Good tool storage
         -pegboard in the upper half
         -larger cabinet storage in the lower half
•   Good lighting
•   Low cost (this project was free after scrapping the harp)
•   Relatively easy transport (final product weighs in around 60-70lbs and can be moved up and down flights of stairs by two normal sized people)

Step 2: Find Yourself a Piano

I was lucky because my friend was already throwing his piano away.  If you are in the states and live near any metro area you can find a near endless supply of cheap or free pianos on websites like Craigslist or Freecycle.  Please do me and every other instrument lover in the world a huge favor - only convert pianos that aren't feasible to repair.  It would be a shame to destroy great instruments for a project like this. 

Keep in mind that skilled repair on a piano that has problems with its action or major string problems can run into the thousands of dollars. This free piano is a pre 1900's (I think as early as 1880's) Mathushek upright.  It has Mahogany veneered sides, real ivory overlay on the keys and is predominantly maple, birch and poplar in construction.  With the exception of a couple of rare models, the Mathushek piano company made a long line of good functional and visually pleasing pianos that did not hold their value very well over the years.  This piano in perfect shape musically and aesthetically would cost about 2,500USD at a retail store.  The repairs on this particular piano would run at minimum 4,000USD so it made a great candidate. For those that are interested, it needed a new set of hammers and dampers as well as all new leather bits in the action, strings, a good tuning and the pedals needed reworked

Once you locate and negotiate the price of your new piano (hopefully that price has only zeros in it) you will need to transport the thing home or to a place you can work on it.  I used my parents garage, but if you don't have access to a space to modify your piano (ask friends if they have a garage you could borrow for an afternoon) You can unload the piano, remove the harp, move the piano inside and scrap the harp in a few hours if you have a good sawzall and some motivated helpers.  This would require a coordinated effort and good friends.

Step 3: Moving Day

Moving day can prove to be a daunting event.  Conventional wisdom suggests that you need to call someone to do it.  Following are the methods I would recommend:

You could hire a professional moving company but that would cost around 200USD in my area. 
You could get a few strong friends (5-6 ideally) on a pleasant Saturday and bribe them with a case of beer and a "thank you for your hard work" barbecue.  This method would have been ideal for me if I could have gotten the truck on a weekend or in the evening.  But, because I could only get it on a weekday when I wasn't working or in class, my friends were all at work.   Also, if you plan this one early enough in the day everyone can help you remove the cast-iron harp once it's cut out! 
If you find yourself in my situation though, don't despair!  You can still accomplish this task with a little ingenuity and the right tools

*Note: This method works well if the piano is easy to get to.  Mine was in the back of a garage.  If you need to remove it from a house or especially if you need to move it up or down stairs, use one of the first two methods and be careful.

Tools required for this step:
•   A truck
•   A hoist of some sort.  In this case a folding 1 ton engine hoist from harbor freight
•   Rope, chain, or ratchet straps
•   Some one to help back up the truck

Be certain that all of your hardware can handle the weight you intend to lift.  This piano weighs between 450 and 700 lbs.  My ratchet straps are rated at 4,000lb and the lift arm is set to 1/4 ton (500lb) and since I'm only lifting one side at a time it was within this limit as well.

Steps involved in moving a piano with an engine hoist and a truck :

•   Once you have all of the tools you need, go to where the piano is located and get it out where you can work on it.  Remove some of the main panels on the front for transport (so they don't blow off on the highway) after you roll it out (it should be on small caster wheels)

•   Remove the truck tailgate so the weight of the piano doesn't damage it. (Check your owners manual for this part, but it's easy to do)

•   Loop straps underneath the front end of the piano being sure to go through the front leg so the strap won't slip off the front.

•   Attach a wooden block to the back of the piano so the strap won't slip off of the backside.

•   Lift the end of the piano high enough to clear the back of the truck.  Then swing the lift sideways to make room for the truck to back up.

•   Back the truck under the lifted piano.  The low end of the piano should be off of its casters and immobile at this point, but put a block down behind it if you aren't sure it will stay.  Then, lower the piano onto the bed of the truck and remove the straps.

•   Move the lift to the low end of the piano and strap it up like you did before.  You wont need to put another block in because the strap won't want to slip off.  Then, lift it until the wheels of the piano are touching the bed of the truck.

•   At this point you can push the piano into the truck because the hoist is on wheels and the piano wheels should be rolling as well

•   Once it is in, put the tailgate back on and strap the piano down really well because it is a tall and heavy load and has potential to be dangerous.  Drive home carefully!

•   Once the piano is back home, unloading is the same thing as loading but in reverse:  strap it up, roll it back, lower it down, re-strap it, lift, drive, lower, and done!

Now on to the fun part!

Step 4: Commence Deconstruction

The deconstruction phase can be a great experience or a bit of a headache.  I spent quite a bit of time figuring out how things were originally put together (read: headache) because I, much like the American Indians, want to re-use as much of the piano for future projects as I can. 

 With the exception of the strings and the harp, I was surprised at how easy it was to break down the piano.

Tools required for this step:

•   Straight-slot screwdriver
•   Pliers
•   Dremel Multi-max or another saw or router that can cut out the soundboard
•   Pry bar

Steps involved in deconstruction:

•   Remove all of the easily detached pieces on the front of the piano taking special care not to damage them as they will be re-used later.

•   Remove almost all of the brackets and random bits of hardware and wood these pieces were previously mounted to.

•   Remove the action assembly by removing the large thumbscrews and lifting it out

•   Disassemble and remove the foot pedal assemblies inside the bottom of the piano.  Leave the pedals in place though because they are pretty.

•   Remove the screws from and pry off the rail that spans the middle of the piano back

•   The soundboard on the back is the next to go.  I had to cut this one out using a dremel multimax which made quick work of it.  My friend is an avid ukulele player and much of this piece is going to get turned into a uke for her (keep an eye out for that instructable)

•   Next will be the strings and the harp.

Step 5: Removing the Strings

A quick internet search and you can find any number of theories and warnings about how to remove the strings on a piano.  Uprights will have anywhere between 15 and 20 tons of tension on the harp and not handled properly, could  break and release all of that force at one time.  Obviously this would be a less than ideal situation so with a little common sense, proper tools and some protective clothing, most anyone can handle this task.

Method #1: (potentially the safest method)  You could, if you were patient and had the right wrench, loosen each of the strings evenly across the harp gradually lowering the tension.  If you decide you don't want to buy a special wrench and still want to go this route, I found that even if you have no regard for the tuning pins and find a socket to fit, you will almost certainly strip the square pins because they're tapered and are made with soft metal that deforms without the correct size of wrench

Method #2: (Outright dangerous and I strongly warn you not to do it!) An adventurous person who had the right combination of testosterone and stupidity might find it entertaining to remove the harp with the strings intact (more on that later) and bash it with something heavy and hard like a sledge hammer to release the tension.  The metal is brittle and will break for you if you are tough enough with it, BUT you will also send 180 or so sharp bronze wires flying about whatever space you are working in and potentially hurt yourself or others severely.  So don't do it!

Method #3: (Method that I actually used) Loosening the strings slowly would have taken me a couple of days (even with the right wrench) so I decided to cut the strings with cable cutters.  You can't just go cutting all willy-nilly because doing so could cause the tension on the harp to become unbalanced enough to break the brittle metal.  To keep it all safe I cut the strings at intervals, spacing the cuts about every 15-20 strings, thus keeping the tension relatively even across the harp.  This worked really well and the whole process took roughly an hour once I got going.  After the strings are cut and removed you can use a pair of pliers to pull out the short ends from the tuning pins.  Also note the strings don't go too far when they are cut but they definitely have potential to hurt you so safety is essential during this step and I highly recommend full protective clothing.  Side-note: I have a friend who took a piano out of his basement and decided to just cut the strings straight across w/o staggering the cuts and the harp did not break on him.  While the harp is brittle, it's also quite strong.

Required gear for this method:

•   sturdy long sleeves (think carhart, thick shirt or possibly welding jackets)
•   leather work gloves
•   EYE PROTECTION! goggles and a face shield are ideal.  Glasses are OK but wires could get behind them.
•   good shoes
•   good pair of wire cutters.  ( I'm a bicycle mechanic and I had a pair of bike cable cutters that worked perfectly for this job.  Side cutting pliers or other cable cutters will work as well, just keep in mind the strings are close together and may be hard to access.)

**You'll find that when you cut one wire the ones next to it or a couple down will go slack.  That's because the wires are wrapped from one tuning pin down around a pin at the bottom of the harp back up to another tuning pin.  Keep this in mind when you are spacing out your cuts.

Steps for cutting the strings:

•   Cut the strings evenly across the harp.

•   Remove the cut strings and bundle them carefully

•   You can then remove the short bits of wire from the tuning pins if you don't want to risk sticking yourself later on. (Just a thought)

Step 6: Removing the Harp

Removing the harp is another instance where an engine hoist (or couple of strong able friends and a case of beer) will go a long way.  I spent a number of hours trying to remove this thing without damaging the wood it was mounted to because, again I want to reuse as much as I could, but the original builders did an exceptional job of attaching things.  This necessitated a more vigorous approach...

Materials for this step:

•   Safety gear: gloves, good shoes, long pants EYE PROTECTION!
•   Sledge hammer
•   Sawzall with long and sharp blades
•   Engine hoist or strong friends
•   Good big straight-slot screwdriver(s)
•   Locking pliers

I found out the hard way that the top of the harp is very securely mounted to hard maple boards by quite a few large dastardly screws whose metal is soft enough to make you regret using the wrong size of screwdriver.  In addition to that, each of the 184 tuning pins is firmly planted into said board making nearly every attempt at removing the harp from its backer-board impossible(short of burning the piano-which I had pondered a few times by this point).  This being said it is much easier to cut it all out and disassemble the box-like structure of the upper brace on the floor. 

Steps involved in removing the harp:

•   Remove the large dastardly screws from the bottom of the harp by whatever means necessary (I believe there were 5 in mine)

•   Remove the lid of the piano both the swinging part and the part that is glued down.  This part was difficult because it was glued down quite well.  For this step I used a combination of flat screwdrivers and pry-bars to break the joint loose. 

•   Spend an exorbitant amount of time trying to remove the tuning pins and the large dastardly screws at the top of the harp so you can remove the upper brace in one piece (*not really necessary)

•   Yell and swear (*not really necessary)

•   Next hit something with a sledge hammer to make you feel better about wasting all that time on taking the tuning pins out when all you needed was a couple of quick cuts(*not really necessary) (you will need to remove 2 of the the tuning pins though for a later step)

•   Now use the sawzall to cut the upper brace along the sides of the harp (see photo)

•   Use your engine hoist or your burly friends to help lift the harp from the rest of the piano.  A prybar on the bottom helped dislodge it for me.

•   Take the harp and the strings to a scrapyard and collect the money you'll need for the remaining supplies. (I got about 45USD for it)

Step 7: Build: the Removable Front

This step combines the different components of the piano front to make one removable assembly that once removed gives you access to the whole work bench.  I tried various ways to get it to hinge open and slide out of the way but that proved too difficult(I would like to know if you have any ideas). I used MS Paint to color code the parts and (hopefully) make things clearer.

Tools and materials required:

•   Cordless drill and assorted wood screws amd 1/4" drill bit
•   Dremel Multimax with wood blade and metal blade
•   2 each  1/2"x1-1/2"x25" pieces of wood that you saved from the pedal assemblies
•   2 tuning pins that you removed and saved from earlier
•   Also needed is a piece of roughly 3/16"x1/2" metal to bend into a hook that the center assembly attaches with.
•   Assorted pieces of scrap wood

Steps to construct the removable front:

•   Begin by removing the music rest(green), the frame surrounding it(red and blue) and the board that sits underneath the two(brown)

•   Cut the music rest frame where the top and bottom(red) and sides(blue) meet with the multimax. (The cuts are vertical i.e the sides should remain their original length)

•   The bottom board (brown) gets cut the same as the frame so all of the parts in the center are the same width

•   The top and bottom of the frame get attached to the music rest along with the center portion of the bottom board with braces (black vertical bars) on each end.  The braces go on the back and are affixed with 2-2.5" screws (note the black bars in the 2nd MS Paint picture)

•   Screw the frame sides(blue) back where they came from using some scraps of wood to make it sturdy

•   Mount wood blocks to the inside wall of the piano just behind the freshly attached frame sides.  These will be where the tuning pins are inserted so that the center assembly has a place to hook on to.

•   Next bend the pieces of metal into two hooks the diameter of the tuning pins.  Drill holes for screws and mount them to the back of the center assembly making sure everything stays aligned and square.

•   Use the block plane to shave down the sides of the center assembly to get a good fit

•   Set all this aside because now we are going to turn our attention to the work surface

Step 8: Build: Work Surface

This step shows how to fill in the rear section of the work top as well as how to mount the peg board in the back.

Tools required:

•   Cordless drill and screws
•   Dremel Multimax

•   2'x4' sheet of pegboard
•   Assorted pieces of wood removed in earlier steps. 
•   Scraps of 2"x2" wood to support rear of table
•   Piece of wood suitable for filling the rear of the table top

Stepsinvolved in building work surface:

•   Measure the space behind what used to be the keyboard area and cut a suitable piece to fit it (I used an old oak shelf)

•   Cut 2"x2" braces to support the table top.  These get screwed to the bottom of the keyboard area and into the board that runs horizontally across the back of the piano (If it's not installed because I forgot to tell you to do that, go ahead and do it now)

•   Set the shelf piece in place (shimming it if necessary)and screw it down from the bottom. 

Installing the pegboard:

•   The pegboard is supported by longer strips of 1/2x1-1/4" boards taken from other parts of the piano as well as my dads scrap wood pile.  You'll need 3 that can bridge the whole back and 4 shorter pieces that are about 2 feet long for the vertical supports.

•   Screw the three horizontal supports to the back of the piano.

•   Attach the four vertical supports to the horizontal ones with short screws.

•   Screw the pegboard to the vertical supports with short screws

•   You can use trim pieces or other odd boards to fill gaps or dress it up.

•   Also at this point you can reattach the piano lid with some black drywall screws or with glue if you haven't done so already.

Step 9: Making a Cabinet in the Base

This step will show you how to convert the knee panel into cabinet doors to conceal larger, bulkier tools.

Tools Required:

•   Cordless drill and assorted screws
•   Circular saw and guide fence
•   Block plane if needed
•   Chisel


•   4 hinges and screws for each

Steps involved in making the cabinet base:

•   Remove the knee board.  Turn it face down and place it on blocks to elevate it.

•   Set the guide fence to make a cut vertically down the center of the knee board and clamp it down.

•   Cut it.  Be sure you continue to wear proper safety equipment and no loose clothing either.

•   Mark placement for hinges, chisel out mortises for them and mount them to the door.

•   Mount the doors to the piano sides taking care to align the doors properly.

•   Install the decorative pedal surround low enough to clear the doors if you haven't done so already.

Step 10: Conclusion

This project was a great time.  All told, it took about 3 days to complete and would have been half that if I hadn't spent so much time fiddling with the tuning pins and such.

Later down the road I plan to install power outlets but for now a power strip will have to do.   I also installed some fluorescent lighting which has a simple mount to the bottom of the lid and plugs straight into the wall behind the piano.  The vacuum in the bottom cabinet's hose slips up through a hole in the side of the work top and works well for vacuuming the top.

This workbench will certainly evolve with use and I welcome suggestions for future improvements.  Please post pictures if you undertake your own!

Thanks for reading!

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