A Change Of Tune: Piano-Finished Items

Copyright © 2001, 2003 by Davis Multimedia, Intl. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in July 2001, Volume 27, No.1 of The Engravers Journal.


    Imagine, for a moment, Liberace playing a piano. You see the man, you see the candelabra — but look closer. Have you ever noticed, during a close-up of his hands, that amazing, mirror-like finish on the piano? A finish so glossy and rich that you can actually see Liberace’s fingernails? That finish is called piano finish, and it’s recently been carving out a niche in the world of corporate gifts and awards.
    Piano finishing is a new twist on an old idea. Nicely finished wooden gifts and awards have been around for ages, but piano-finished products have quietly slipped into center stage in the industry. While so-called “piano finishing” has been around for many years, it has traditionally been applied to musical instruments: pianos, of course, but violins and cellos too.
    The idea of finishing pianos with a high-gloss varnish is relatively new, considering that pianos have been around for nearly three hundred years. Most old pianos were finished with either a shellac or a varnish. In the 1960s, polyester and polyurethane were introduced. These finishes became popular for both their extreme luster and the durability they lend to the piano case.
    According to Peter E. Ilaria, marketing manager at Tropar, piano finishes got their start in the recognition and identification industry from clock cases manufactured in Asia. “Some of our customers looked at those clocks and said, ‘This would make a great plaque,’” says Ilaria. “We were hesitant to try it at first, but people kept requesting it, so we decided to try it. The first three plaque lines we offered in a piano finish were well received by the industry, and that convinced us to expand our offering of the product.”
    The piano-finished look is so rich that it started showing up on desk sets, picture frames, jewelry boxes and plaques. The deep, glossy coat doesn’t come easily, and the work that goes into creating this look ensures its place as a higher-end product that largely appeals (but is not limited to) corporate buyers. No matter who ends up buying them, it’s not likely that piano-finished products will be going away any time soon.

Piano-finished gifts and desk accessories provided by Time Products International, Wheeling, IL. Piano-finished plaques from Tropar Mfg. Co. Inc., Florham Park, NJ.

Creating The Look
    Piano finishes won’t take to just any wood — they must be applied to hard wood. Anything else, according to Jerry Singer at Classic Medallics, doesn’t work as well. “A soft wood like pine doesn’t work because it’s not dense enough,” he says. “The wood keeps absorbing the lacquer. Also, you have to be careful to use a high quality board with no impurities, because with all the coats of lacquer, you’re really picking up the grain of the wood.”
    Maple, ash, walnut and rosewood are often selected for piano finishes, though cedar is sometimes used as well. Rosewood is very popular, because the wood’s deep red color comes through so beautifully when lacquered that it doesn’t need stain. In fact, rosewood stains are often put onto other woods, such as walnut, to create a deeper finish than you would achieve otherwise. Black piano-finished items (called “ebony”) are also growing in popularity.
    But what is the actual process a piece must go through to become piano-finished? It’s all in the lacquer, and there’s a lot of it. Whether it’s a clock, a frame, a pencil holder or something else, the piece is coated with a high-gloss lacquer, then polished, and then the process is repeated. And repeated and repeated. Some pieces take up to 16 coats of lacquer, and the final product can have a lacquer that’s up to 1/16" thick.
    The amount of lacquer that is applied to a piano-finished piece varies between suppliers. Using less lacquer has the benefit of making the item more laser-engravable and less costly to produce. Then again, it might have less shine than a piece having more coats of lacquer. While no industry standards exist to define how much lacquer constitutes a piano-finished product, all piano-finished products have, to one degree or another, a glossy, deep finish that conveys importance, wealth and class.

Bookends, clock and weather clock from Classic Medallics, Long Island City, NY. Rosewood and ebony plaques, as well as trophy with a piano-finished base, are from R.S. Owens, Chicago, IL.

Personalizing The Products
    The effects of engraving on piano-finished items (such as plaques) can be amazing. The shiny finish of a gold relief or a brass plate on the deep, rich tones of the piano-finished plaque creates a strikingly reflective piece. Piano-finished plaques can be lasered, and adding a gold color fill creates the same, reflective effect that adding a gold plate does. “Any color can be used as a color fill,” says George Surprenaut of R.S. Owens, “though gold is probably the most popular.” Ebony-colored plaques with a silver fill are also highly reflective and create the polished, rich look that many buyers are looking for. (A note of caution: while lasering can produce beautiful results with piano-finished products, it can be difficult to achieve the look you’re after. How well the board lasers will depend on the amount and type of lacquer used, so it may take a few tries to master the process. Look for a future EJ article on how to laser engrave piano finishes to help guide you through the process!)
    Ben Roof, president of A-Frame Awards in Flint, Michigan, has joined sublimation and piano finishes together to create a whole new look. “We do a tremendous amount of full-color sublimation,” he says. “If you have the right computer, printer and software, you can reproduce on metal exactly what you see in a photograph. You put that on a piano-finished product, and the result is really magnificent.”

Several variations of piano-finished clocks are provided by The Source, Huntsville, AL. Tropar's plaques show the beauty of gold or silver against piano finished wood.

The Piano Finishes Among Us
    The world of piano-finished products is still somewhat new, but it’s growing, says Ed Gusfield of TPI. “The finish is so good, it’s just about everywhere on upscale award and gift items,” he says.
    When A-Frame’s Ben Roof saw piano-finished products for the first time, he says, nothing had to convince him to start selling the items in his store in Flint. “I’ve been in this business since 1961, and I’ve seen it all. I don’t get excited about anything anymore. But this is totally brand new. When the salesman brought that first piece in — it was a desk clock by Tropar — it was instantaneous. I knew we had a winner, and I became really excited. These pieces are revolutionary.”
    When asked if he was a convert when it comes to piano-finished products, Roof laughs. “Convert is not the word! I’m a charter member.” Roof has been carrying the products for over five years, ever since they first came out. “I carry Tropar’s full line of piano-finished products,” he says. “Plaques, desk accessories, clocks . . . all of it.”
    And because the market is growing, “all of it” includes quite a range of items. Piano-finished name plates, for example, are becoming increasingly popular, as are note holders, pen sets, pencil holders and business card holders. But piano finishing isn’t just for desk sets; the finish is just as popular (if not even more so) in the area of corporate awards. Any honor will feel more honorable when it’s conferred with a glossy piano-finished plaque that boasts an engraved brass plate. The same goes for trophies: a highly polished piano-finish on a wooden trophy base results in a look worthy of royalty.
    Gifts, whether corporate or not, are also being covered in piano finish. Wooden boxes, all sorts of clocks (from gyroscopes to desk clocks), picture frames, picture albums and shadow boxes all take beautifully to the finish.
    Although the price of piano-finished plaques will vary from company to company, piano-finished items generally cost somewhat more than regularly-finished items. According to Tropar’s Ilaria, the price difference is not a problem. “They generally cost more than a walnut plaque,” he says, “but the price difference is not enough to stop people from buying it. If I’m at a show and I do a side-by-side comparison with a walnut finish and a piano finish, people see how nice the piano finish is. If I ask them, ‘Which do you think you could charge and extra dollar, or two dollars, or even five dollars for?’, no one hesitates. They see the luster and shine, and the price is not an issue. Most retail buyers see it that way too.”




  The Source provides many piano-finished items to suit a variety of needs.  

Classy Marketing
    If you venture into the world of piano-finished products, you’ll want to let people know what makes your new line of products different. But how do you go about it?
    Ilaria says that the pieces sell best with a “hands-on” approach. “The end-user needs to see and feel the item,” he says. And whether you’re going to display your products in your store window or take them to meetings with corporate buyers, you might consider comparing a piano-finished item with a regularly-finished plaque as well, so that buyers can truly see the difference between the two. According to Ilaria, “A side-by-side comparison of a walnut plaque and a piano-finished plaque will sell the piano finish 90% of the time, even though the price is a little higher. The best way for dealers to sell the item is to prominently display samples, preferably nice-looking, engraved items.”
    Since piano-finished pieces photograph so well, you might also consider showing them off on your Web site. It’s not as dramatic as letting potential buyers hold the pieces in their hands, but a Web site is a terrific way to let your clients know what’s new, what’s hot and what they need to buy.
    According to Roof, the products literally sell themselves. “It’s very easy to move a customer from an ordinary wall plaque to a piano-finished plaque,” he says. “It’s somewhat the power of suggestion, but it’s really just the look of a piano-finished product. It’s the best. If a plaque is going to a high-profile person who already has lots of plaques on their wall, you don’t want to give the person less than what they already have. So I tell them, ‘Maybe this is what you ought to consider to make your award stand out above the rest.’” Roof adds that it’s not just corporate people who are buying these items. “It’s everyone,” he says. “Churches, you name it. It’s the whole wide spectrum.”
Here To Stay
    Piano-finished products have been quietly making inroads into the world of corporate gifts and awards for the last few years. What started as a beautiful finish for clocks has grown into other areas of awards and gifts, and the horizon looks bright for further growth. Piano finishes aren’t just for pianos anymore; they’re set to become a permanent part of the R & I landscape. “It’s not just a fad,” says Roof. “Piano finishes are here to stay.”