Secondhand Piano Shop

Piano Styles and Finishes


Released: 11/10/2009 12:49:59 PM    Source: Singapore Piano Shop

There are myriad different options available to the customer in piano finishes and styling, and we can only hope to touch on a few of the basics here. Generally, however, pianos are available in either "wood" or "wood grain" finishes (also called "clear" finishes, where you can see the type of wood and wood grain through the finish), and opaque finishes, (where you can't see the wood through the finish coats). The opaque finish you see the most often, of course, is ebony or black, but pianos are also available, or have been in recent years, in white, ivory, red, blue, yellow, pink, and just about any other color you can name.
Wood grain (or clear) finishes, (where the name of the "finish" refers not to the actual finish coats but to the wood underneath) most commonly available are walnut and mahogany, oak, cherry, and something generic called "fruitwood" (which can be a number of things). As recently as ten years ago, a number of U.S. manufacturers were also still using pecan, a very beautiful, but brittle and difficult wood to work with. Its use has now apparently been discontinued, by all but Kawai. Other woods, such as rosewood or other exotics, are sometimes available by special order. With more and more nations contributing now to what has become a world piano market, some additional "old world" and "tropical woods" are now available: yew, ash, imbuia, beechwood, hazlenut, and birchwood, among others. The actual surface wood you see in a wood finish piano is usually only a thin veneer no more than about 1/20" thick. (This has been the general method of piano construction for over a hundred years. This type of construction, known as "laminated," is actually stronger and more resistant to warping than using solid wood.) Some manufacturers, including Kawai and Schimmel, have even come out with plexiglass pianos, so you can see what's going on inside.
With new, and used pianos, the terms "mahogany finish" or "walnut finish" sometimes refer only to the stain color, and not to the wood underneath, so don't automatically assume that's the type of wood you're getting. On cheaper pianos and also, in places on more expensive ones, sometimes the wood underneath the finish is not walnut or mahogany or cherry, but is finished over with a stain or colored lacquer that makes it look the color of that wood. In addition, on older pianos, artificial graining was sometimes used to make less expensive woods look like something more expensive or exotic. Even the best makers of pianos, like Steinway or Mason & Hamlin did not always make all the case parts of their grands or uprights out of the same wood. Mahogany or Rosewood Steinways from the vintage period are often found to have maple, poplar, or birch legs and /or pedal lyres that were artificially grained to look like rosewood or mahogany. One of the reasons for this, of course, is that grand legs need to be strong. Maple is one of the strongest woods, but mahogany is not very strong structurally. The other reason is that if every piece on the piano were made out of solid rosewood or mahogany, the instrument would be prohibitively expensive for most people. On most all pianos, of course, very few parts of the instrument are solid walnut, rosewood, or mahogany. These woods are only used as the face or decorative veneers, except in instances where it is more economical to simply make the piece out of solid wood (such as with lid props, trim pieces or music desk ledges.) For the last 150 years or so, most pianos have been made of laminated construction with face veneers. This is by far the strongest type of piano construction, because laminated wood is usually structurally superior, and does not warp or crack anywhere near to the extent solid wood does.
In the past, ebony finishes were usually considered the "practical" or "functional" finishes, for schools, churches and institutions, and the wood finishes were for the home. Over the years, however, people have bought the ebony finishes for home as well, and wood finishes for institutions. Popular taste changes, and fashions go in cycles, so during the last few decades we have seen, variously, walnut, oak, ebony and now mahogany finishes come and go in popularity. In the new piano market, at least, ebony pianos generally cost less than those with wood finishes, and are less expensive for the manufacturer to make, and it seems when you walk into most piano stores these days, the pianos on the floor are predominantly black. When looking at vintage pianos as a group, however, or used pianos from the not-so-recent past, there appear to be many more wood grain pianos available.
On the less expensive verticals and also on some grands, different styles (i.e. "mediterranean," "hepplewhite,""french provincial," "renaissance" or "colonial") are achieved by using interchangeable sets of legs and music desks on the same piano body. On such pianos there usually isn't much price difference between the different style choices, unless you're going up to the next size piano. More expensive pianos usually undergo much more substantial alterations between styles, in the lids and case as well, and a lot more additional work. So if you want, say, a Steinway or Baldwin grand in a "Louis XV" style, or a Schimmel "Empire" style grand, or a Seiler "Woodminster" style grand, be prepared to pay several thousand dollars more for it over the plain version. But believe me, for the amount of extra work they have to do, it's still a bargain.
Colors: There is a rather loose correspondence between color and wood in piano finishes. Any wood can actually be stained a number of different colors, and even bleached or "toned" to make it lighter or darker. But as a (very) general rule for pianos: Walnut finishes are usually medium to dark brown with a hint of blue or green. When faded they can actually look almost orange-brown. Oak is usually light to medium golden- or yellow-brown. Mahogany is usually a medium to dark reddish or purplish-brown. If the wood underneath a finish isn't well-matched or high quality, a very dark finish will often be applied, to obscure the wood grain.
Sheen: Sheen is the type of lustre or polish on the piano's finish. Most pianos imported from Europe or Asia have a high gloss or high polish finish. The traditional American piano finish is satin or hand rubbed, sort of a softer, matte effect, where the finish is actually rubbed, by hand, with fine abrasives to dull or soften the sheen. Hand rubbing usually adds substantially to the cost of the piano's production. Frequently, today, piano manufacturers and refinishers will attempt to cut costs by doing what is called a sprayed finish, in which a flatting or dulling agent is mixed in with the finish coats before they are applied, giving the piano a dull, rubbed effect look without having to do the hand rubbing. However, it doesn't look the same as a genuine handrubbed finish.
In addition to these variations is open pore, where the pores in the wood are not filled and show through the finish, and closed pore, where the wood pores are filled, leaving a finish surface that is completely smooth and flat. The better quality piano finishes are generally expected to be closed pore; in the refinishing industry, a "piano grade" finish is often synonymous with closed pore. Open pore finishes, at least in the past, were regarded as being those found on less expensive instruments, or ones that had "budget" refinishing jobs. However, everything changes. Now some rather upscale European piano makers are offering open pore finishes on their verticals and more expensive grands. Some people feel that letting the pores show through gives a wood finish a more natural look, although this really depends on how thick the finish is, and whether the minute depressions that are left end up truly looking like pores, or just a poor finishing job.
Some European and Asian manufacturers, in attempting satin or open pore finishes for the American market, have had some rather strange-looking results, because (being accustomed to doing high gloss finishes) they were unfamiliar with the conventional finishing or rubbing techniques used in our country, or because they tried to make a piano look satinized with a sprayed finish (see above). Some woods with fewer or tighter pores, such as walnut and oak, lend themselves better to open grain finishes than do others that have many large or deep pores, such as mahogany. If you want a piano you can polish, open pore is usually not the way to go. Unless you know exactly what you're doing the polish can get stuck in the pores and cause problems like white spots.
Sometimes, a piano's finish will not have been given adequate time to dry, or settle, before the final sanding or rubbing, and pores or depressions will appear in the surface some time afterward. This is what I call a non-deliberate open pore finish.