Tinkertunes : Upright Furniture Story

Upright Furniture Co. – The Story

There was a time before compact discs, miniature satellite dishes, and chat rooms on the internet, when the “home entertainment center” was an upright piano. Instead of picking up a rental video, or buying the latest CD, people would buy the sheet music of the latest hit song. Since “the wireless” was still in it’s infancy, popular songs only traveled as fast as the vaudeville performers who went from town to town. Once you’d heard a song performed live, you’d go down to a store, maybe try out the sheet music (or have a clerk play it for you) and then take it home for the whole family to sing around the upright piano in the parlor.

It was the golden years of the acoustic piano business. In “The Piano Book,” author Larry Fine writes, “The period from about 1900–1930 was the heyday of the piano. Thousands of small firms turned out millions of pianos during this time; in fact, far more pianos were made per annum then than are made today.” The evidence of this era still exists in crates of sheet music in grandparents’ attics, and in millions of old upright pianos in varying states of disrepair in basements, garages and cottages all over the country.

When my friends call to ask my advice about buying an old upright for their children to learn to play on, I always explain that even though the piano itself may be very inexpensive, or even free for the taking, the cost of reconditioning the instrument to make it playable, and keeping it in tune could add up to several hundred dollars in no time. And unless you have several strong, agreeable friends who have chiropractic coverage on their insurance policy, and a truck, moving those uprights can easily cost a couple hundred more.

I usually tell them about the advantages of the digital piano and synthesizers on the market. For a few hundred bucks you get an instrument that is easily portable, never needs tuning, and you can use headphones with it. A simple interface and a couple of cables let you hook it up to your home computer, and there’s a growing catalog of software available that helps you compose and score music… programs that can even teach you how to play.

Now don’t get me wrong… as a full-time working musician I prefer to play acoustic pianos so much that for the past fifteen years I’ve moved my own grand pianos to restaurants and clubs that didn’t have one… but unless you’re committed to the care and maintenance of one of those old upright beasts, even a free piano is no bargain.

So, what do we do with these beautiful old relics of the piano’s Golden Age? I’ve heard horror stories of piano stores that take old uprights in on trade towards new instruments, and then roll them into a dumpster. The thought of those noble old instrument with their ornate carved cabinets, prized possessions that had given so many families so much joy, now rotting in a landfill, was an unconscionable waste, even in our disposable society.

The solution came to me while I was looking for furniture for the equipment in my studio. The marriage of computers and music has opened up a new world of possibilities for musicians, but also created a new headache; finding a desk that allows convenient access to both the synthesizer keyboard and the computer.

Since I wasn’t too impressed with the furniture I saw advertised in musicians’ catalogs, I decided to design my own furniture, and hit upon the idea of salvaging the cabinet from an otherwise valueless instrument. The synthesizer would be in the same ergonomically perfect position as the old piano keyboard, and the computer monitor would sit on the same shelf that had held sheet music a hundred years ago.

The process of turning the idea into reality proved to be an amazing learning experience for me. Dismantling an upright piano is kind of like an archeological dig… you find all kinds of treasures inside those old cabinets, and you develop a real appreciation for the workmanship of those times. You also find a lot of garbage, mouse nests, and very old dust… and you get really dirty.

After I’d finished my first desk, I was so delighted with the results and encouraged by the responses it drew from people who saw it, that I built several more. In the process, I developed a very efficient system for dismantling the pianos and rebuilding the cabinets. I also made several design changes, including shortening a beautiful old oak cabinet to about two thirds it’s original length so it would fit into my son’s bedroom.

At first, all my desks were designed as work stations for musicians, but after a friend asked me to build a writing desk for her, I realized the possibility for customizing the cabinets for a number of different uses, and greatly expanding my potential customer base.

It was then that I enlisted the help of an old friend who had become quite successful in the custom cabinet and furniture business, Brian Feldkamp of Feldkamp Designs in Lansing Michigan. Our first collaboration was a desk which was built from an old upright that had been in the Traverse City Opera House . Originally commissioned by a private individual, it was donated and returned to the Opera House.

We decided to form a partnership to build and market the furniture, and we named our venture “The Upright Furniture Company”. Brian has since finished several more desks, including a beautiful African tiger-striped mahogany piece, and a music workstation cabinet made of Claro Oak, a stunning piece which was a commissioned by a client from Windsor, Ontario. This was our first piece that could be closed, to look like the original upright piano, when not in use.

If you have an old unplayable piano which is a family heirloom, and can’t bear to part with it, we can give it a new life as a beautiful and functional piece of furniture. Or you could choose from our inventory… we currently have several cabinets in a variety of styles in walnut, oak and mahogany.

We are currently developing a cabinet for a television and stereo components, and plan to produce an instructional video with step by step directions for the do-it yourselfer on how to build furniture from upright pianos.