Claire McEwen, hopeful romantic.

An Old Piano Gets a Romantic Refinish

I haven’t written a word for a week. That’s a bit terrifying to say out loud because I have a book due in a month. But my lack of writing isn’t my fault. I put the blame squarely on the piano!

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My husband is very musical, so for years now, he’s been keeping an eye on Craig’s List, hoping for a free, or very-cheap piano. Finally, about ten days ago, he found one that looked promising. He was at work when he saw the ad, so he asked his mother, who is also very musical, to go play it. She said it was fine, so although we hadn’t seen it, we agreed to take it. It was free, we just had to pay to move it.

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So for $150, we got two very sweet movers and a VERY large piano.

I wanted to cry when it arrived on our doorstep. Our house is small – the piano looked completely out of scale with the rest of our furniture. It was too big to go into the room we’d planned for it, so we had to put in our living room. We’ve worked hard to make our home light and airy, decorating with pale colors and a cottage, beach-like theme. This piano, which we immediately nicknamed The Beast, was completely the opposite. Dark, huge and covered with bubbling old varnish, it hulked in a corner looking totally out of place.

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Even my husband, who doesn’t pay too much attention to decor, was unsettled by The Beast. “We can just give it to someone else,” he told me. “It’s kind of stressing me out.”

And it was stressing me out too! Until I took a closer look. The Beast, it turned out, was gorgeous. Covered in floral carvings and ornate detail.

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We did some research and discovered it was built in Chicago in 1918.

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I imagined all the people who’d played it over the years – kids practicing, Christmas carols joyfully sung. Its carvings were so elaborate that we wondered if it has been a part of a music hall – or even a brothel! All that hidden beauty and history had the furniture-loving, project-obsessed part of my brain lighting up. “Let me paint it.” I told my husband. “Then we’ll see.”

I scoured Pinterest for images of painted pianos. I found many, and some good advice as well. “Don’t be afraid. It seems sacrilegious to paint a piano,” someone blogged. “But just do it.”

So I pulled out a can of primer and I primed The Beast. I was planning to use Annie Sloan’s Old White Chalk Paint, which can go straight onto dark furniture, but after reading a few horror stories about pianos that had bled their dark color right through the chalk paint, I figured I’d need that extra layer.

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Disaster. The primer hated the bubbly old varnish, and when I applied the first coat of paint, I had a goopy mess. Using a wet rag, I wiped off as much of the primer as I could. It was frustrating to have to undo an entire day’s work! But such is the life of an aspiring piano painter.

Thank goodness that, once the primer was off, the chalk paint stuck beautifully to the varnish!

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After many hours, I had a white piano. The relief in our house was palpable. We now knew we could tame The Beast. It didn’t feel quite as dominant in the room. It didn’t take over our vision and our sense of space in quite the same way. But its whiteness looked too new, especially because all of the keys are old and chipped and its feet are cracked.

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It was clear that the paint needed to be aged. But I didn’t quite know how to do it.

I took a deep breath and Googled furniture distressing. Then I got out my sandpaper and went for it. I tried to imagine where the piano might have been bumped over the years, or where it would experience wear from use. Then I sanded the paint off there. It was scary, but also kind of fun to mess up the pristine coat of paint.

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Then I went back to my computer and looked up Annie Sloan’s Dark Wax. I knew about this magic substance from the hours I’d spent browsing in painted furniture stores, though I’d never had the courage to actually use it. But I knew it was the right thing for The Beast.

There are zillions of furniture painting blogs on the Internet, and most bloggers advise practicing using dark wax on something small. An end table as your first project, perhaps. I laughed rather maniacally upon reading that advice, because I was about to start my first distressed, dark wax project in quite the opposite way – with an enormous and extremely detailed piano. If I messed up, my mistakes would dominate my living room.

Go big or go home, right? Or in this case, go big and hope you don’t fail miserably. I watched and re-watched You Tube video tutorials like this one. I trekked across town to the one store in my county that sells Annie Sloan products and got some dark wax and some good advice. “Use a tiny amount,” the kind woman said, handing me a tiny can. “Go buy a tiny brush. Mix it with clear wax. A little goes a very long way.”

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After a stop at the art supply store for tiny brushes, and the hardware store for some steel wool, I was set to start. Intimidated but determined, I picked a spot on the side of the piano, the least visible side that faced the window, and put some wax on the trim I’d previously distressed. It was very disconcerting to see the wax, about the same color and consistency as mascara, cover up my pretty white paint! I ran my steel wool gently over it. It was distressing all right… distressing to me! It looked so messy!

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But once I rubbed most of it off with some clear wax, I could see I’d made the right decision. The stark white was gone and the trim looked old and worn, just the way a vintage 1918 piano with old broken keys should be!

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Eventually I got up the courage to try one of the legs.

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I loved the result!

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Over the next couple of days and nights, I worked on the piano as much as possible. It took a long time because once I applied the dark wax, I had to rub most of it off again, and that takes a lot of elbow grease. I portioned out the piano in my mind so as not to get overwhelmed. Tonight I’ll do the top. This morning I’ll do the side and the leg.

The front panel was the most terrifying and it took forever to get it right.

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I stayed up almost all night working on it and I absolutely love it.

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Eventually, miraculously, I was on my last panel, down by the pedals! I let the wax dry for a day or so and then buffed it with a soft cloth.

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I’ve fallen in love with The Beast. My husband and I both have. We keep stopping to stare at it. Even our little son, who originally voted to paint it red and black, his two favorite colors right now, has decided that he likes it.

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The painting goes on. Yesterday, I used my favorite duck egg blue on the underside of the lid, as well as on the rough wood underneath the keyboard. My final steps will be to use my old white chalk paint and wax on the wood around the keyboard and the front of the lid (the part that’s visible when the piano is open.) Then I’ll be done!

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The results of all this work have been more wonderful than I could have imagined. Rather than destroying the ambiance in the room, the piano contributes to the pretty and peaceful feeling of our home. It amazes me how just a few notes of its music fills the air with magic. Plus, it is delicious to look at. With a little paint and wax, The Beast has become so very beautiful!

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7 thoughts on “An Old Piano Gets a Romantic Refinish

    1. Claire McEwen Post author

      SchoolhouseKat, Thank you very much! You are one of my inspirations and (true story) when I got really intimidated I thought, “well, they did a whole house. Surely I can manage a piano!” The paint and wax are both very forgiving so it’s good for someone like me who lacks a steady hand with a paintbrush. The only problem is that they are expensive. But the paint goes a long way.

  1. Alexandra Florimonte

    I am continuously amazed at your resourcefulness and creatitvity. What an amazing metamorphosis!

    1. Claire McEwen Post author

      Hi Diana, I just saw this comment! I don’t know how I missed it and I apologize for the late reply. I didn’t take it apart, though I know a lot of people do. I just painted it one section at a time and it worked well. The only trick was that I had to think it through first to make sure I didn’t paint myself into any difficulties. So for example, when I painted the edges on the front panel, I then propped it up on a stack of books so they could dry without touching anything. So I had to make sure that the area the books were stacked on was all dry before I painted the edges of that front panel. I may be too late to be helpful but I’d love to know how your piano project turned out!

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