A number of years ago (maybe in 2009?) a friend offered me an 1890s Mathushek Square Grand Piano. However, many keys barely played or didn’t play at all, and it sounded terrible – but I couldn’t resist! My poor wife wondered where in the world the beast would go. And, would I really do the work to make it play again? Yes, I assured her, but I didn’t know when (and had no clue how either).
(If you are impatient and just want to hear it, scroll down to the video.)
When we were given this elephant we were still living in an RV on the road so that I could play gigs all over the country. The kind folks giving it away lived in Las Cruses, NM, a fer-piece from Murphysboro, IL, my home town. But, one summer my dad and I converged on CO, and I figured that was close enough and coerced him into spinning by southern NM with me. We removed the legs and pedals and slid the thing into the back of a Dodge minivan. It looked like a coffin, and the minivan was none too happy about the prospect of carrying that thing all the way back to IL. But it made it, and Dad slid the piano (with the help of several very strong men) into the basement of my childhood church home. There is sat for several years waiting for some tender loving care.
Fast forward to 2013. We had moved to Franklin, TN into a home quite a bit larger than a 34 foot motorhome, and dad dutifully brought me the piano. I think he hauled that thing close to 2000 miles for me! What a great dad. Then, I started researching and my heart sank. Everything I read said these things were junk. They don’t sound good, won’t stay in tune, and piano tuners won’t touch them.
Essentially, I found that they belong in a museum.
Perhaps museums won’t let you play them not because they are valuable, but because the staff can’t stand hearing them. Even so, I kept reading and finally found an older gentlemen in Texas who, upon hearing I had an old square grand, told me to “throw it away – give it way – run away!” Then after his little rant he said, “tell me what model it is.” “A Mathushek Orchestra,” I said. “Hold on!” was the reply, “that one of just a few models that are worth keeping around! That thing can sound great if you get it rolling again.” It turns out that the good makers (like Steinway and Knabe and Mathushek) were building with full plates (the cast iron frame that deals with the tension of the strings). Simply put, this means it can be tuned!
Hoorah! I had strummed the strings and could hear it had huge tone and long sustain, but oh the work… I was headed to TX soon on tour and the piano-gentlemen told me to stop by his shop for an hour crash course on all the pitfalls and problems I would run into. He showed me how to deal with broken hammers, missing hammers, shaving hammers, what kind of old style fishing line to use in place of the wax spring thread, and so on and so on… I think the hour ended up being three. It was great fun!
But now came the work, the fabricating of parts (you can’t order parts off amazon for this…), the tracking down of ivory, rail felt, drilling out old holes and filling with new maple toothpicks, and the fixing of a myriad of other parts I didn’t even know what to call. But, I launched into it and it was perhaps my favorite winter project to date.
You can read up on these pianos here: Antique Piano Shop
Below is a gallery of pics and a couple videos that show my progress. Truthfully, it’s still a work in progress. Just recently the low F1 string broke, and I need an oversized pin for it as well. But, over all it’s sounding pretty good – and yes – it’s powerful!
If you want to hear what this thing sounds like, just play the video of my 9 yr. old son playing the Bach Invention #1 below. In the second phrase, right near the beginning, you can hear that the D above middle C cuts short. I have a hammer release adjustment set wrong because the adjustment is broken and is very difficult to get to. I may have to drill it out and start over with a new set screw.
Some describe Square Grands as “harp-like.” Some say they just sound bad. Some say they are useless. But, these were the upright grand pianos of the mid 1800s, and thousands of them filled homes with music all across the country.
My opinion? Compared to a modern grand the sound is less focused, and the notes are not as distinct. Compared to a modern upright, it’s much more open with more sustain (at least to the ear). Overall, it’s quite pleasant if you don’t bang. But, it’s less even in volume and tone across the octaves. This may be due to the way it’s strung. Modern grands move to three strings per note sooner than this one. Plus, when you let off the sustain pedal the notes do not fully stop all their ringing and sustain, giving it an almost “reverb” like character. Because of all these factors, it’s just plain hard to tune!
But, no more description — press play on the video.
First, I opened it up and took pics so that I could get it back together again. I didn’t want a humpty-dumpty story. Then I began working on hammers, hammer posts, springs, strings, and other things. Then, I replaced a number of broken ivories and tried to clean the rest (only somewhat successfully).
This portion was not too hard by comparison. All it took was a lot (and I mean a lot) of rubbing. I also had to sand off a very old, and very poor paint job on the back. After some research I found that the back was originally black, while the other three sides were natural wood. So, a couple cans of high quality piano paint later, it was smooth and black again. But, I should have use more filler; it took a lot of paint. I didn’t want to refinish the whole thing, so I just oiled and rubbed until it shone. With the lid close, you can see why folks calls these pianos “table grands.”
Whoa. This thing is heavy – really heavy. But, big guys, young guys, a few wheels, and a couple sheets of thick plywood did the trick. Of course, we moved it in without the legs and action, and installed them once we were in.
Where do you put a thing like this?! We’ve tried several places, and it never quite works. But, oh the satisfaction of seeing it in place and operating as expected! It’s grand to hear my kiddos use it to practice and have great musical fun.
Now, anyone have a 7 to 9 foot Steinway that needs a new home?