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MMD > Archives > December 1997 > 1997.12.20 > 13Prev  Next

Dark Finishes of the 1920's
By Craig Brougher

I was reading the thoughts of others about the dark finishes and
wanted to add something to this discussion, too.  I have refinished
pianos all my rebuilding life because of the typical quality of
furniture refinishers in our area, and the vast differences between
that and a true piano finish.

When I run into a modern grand or many refinished older grands (other
than the way I do them), I notice one thing so often in common-- they
use hardware store type pigment stains.  I call it thinned-down paint,
because that's all it is.  You can save a lot of money by buying
several browns, a red, a yellow, some black and some green, and mixing
them yourself! So if you're into finishing and staining, that's the
cheap and quick way of getting the "lighter" colors so desired by some

Original stains were done with acid based dye stains of a water-soluble
variety, which were quite (but not completely) permanent.  These were
transparent, and allowed the wood to glow through them.

With Honduras quartered mahogany, the silicates contained in the pores,
along with the angle of the pore to the wood causes the wood to change
its hues as you walk around it.  For example, if you were to put down a
color patch exactly matching the wood as you viewed it from a certain
angle and then walked around the patch, there would be no semblance of
matching when viewed from another direction.  This fact creates a
"moveable" flowing ripple of visual interest that "painted" (pigment
stained) pianos will never have.  Such a piano has many facets for
visual impact, just like a diamond, depending on the lighting and the
placement in a room.

This fact also makes surface repairs far more difficult, and slight
imperfections in the finish really show up.  The pigmented piano can be
refinished like bedroom furniture and it doesn't matter much.  You can
also make pores invisible with it, and don't have to really work to
have a completely filled finish!

Another really terrible waste is that when a piano has been pigmented
for stain, it can never again be refinished naturally! You have, in
effect, RUINED it! You have painted a diamond, in effect.

The reason that '20s pianos seem darker is because they actually were.
If you were to strip and refinish one today, it would probably look
like it did in the '20s because its stain is permanent.  But were you
to be able to remove that stain, or bleach it out for a lighter effect,
the visual impact of its natural wood colors changing as you walked
across the room would disappear!  When the wood is bleached, the wood
is no longer richly beautiful.  Instead, it begins to look like a
modern day light pecan (so-called) "Florida Cherry" wood, which looks a
bit like lightened flitch walnut, a fruit wood intended to be used for
shaded cases and carved cases, etc.

The only thing one can say is that Honduras Mahogany, and to a lesser
extent Philippine Mahogany (which isn't true mahogany), to be beautiful
and radiant, require a rather dark transparent stain to achieve what
they are famous for, and since the giant mahogany trees were not
replanted, it is almost all gone.  What we have left is too expensive
now to use for pianos, except for special orders.

So those who own a true Mahogany reproducing piano take heart.  You own
something that they couldn't build again, regardless how much money was
thrown at them to do so.  The fact that it is a bit darker than the
cheaply painted pianos of today (whose grain lines barely prove that it
is actually wood and not lithographed plastic), is actually the most
desirable color of all, as long as that color changes vividly with
lighting and direction.

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Sat 20 Dec 1997, 14:46:06 GMT, from time zone GMT.)

Key Words in Subject:  1920's, Dark, Finishes

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