I have an old british piano from the 1950s with some kind of varnish/lacquer/shellac finish. I wasn't thinking and sanded it down (which messed it up but that's another story), and now I'm worried I might have created lead dust. I read that lead acetate was used as a drying agent in certain finishes up to the 1970s. Is there legitimate reason for me to be worried?
Could there be lead in the finish of a mid-century piano?
The short answer is yes, some lead might be present.
Not with shellac
If in its original finish the piano is unlikely to be coated in shellac because it was obsolete as a commercial finish long before the 50s. However its use is still a possibility and since it is very easy to test for shellac that should be the first thing you should do. Of the three finish possibilities only shellac is soluble in alcohol.
- If you discover it is shellac on all parts of the piano you're done.
If you find it's not shellac there's no point in trying to distinguish further if it is varnish or lacquer because both might contain some lead drier.
If it's not shellac, then what?
As @Max rightly points out in the Comments the next step would to buy a lead-test kit and use as directed. If the instructions don't specify be sure to test multiple spots as there could have been local, or complete, refinishing during the piano's lifetime.
If the test is positive for lead, don't panic
Unless there are infants or young children (under 5) in the house, or you or your partner are pregnant, there's no need for excessive concern.
I'm not suggesting you be cavalier about the dust (which you'll want to clean up carefully, wearing a mask!) but do be realistic.
- This is a one-time exposure to a small amount of sanding dust.
- Second, the lead compound would represent only a tiny proportion of this small quantity of sanding dust — possibly as low as 0.25% — so this situation is not at all like sanding lead-white paint which is packed full of lead (it was a primary ingredient, not an additive).
- To further put your mind at rest, bear in mind that old varnish or lacquer don't have regs concerning their removal as there are with lead-white paint. This does tell us something.
According to a Wikipedia article on lead-based paint in the United Kingdom:
Lead (lead naphthenate) was added as a drying agent to some types of paint to ensure the paint surface hardened. In the 1960s this practice was phased out for ordinary paint available to the general public, however its use has not (so far) been banned by legislation.
So it's certainly possible that the finish on your piano might contain lead, even if the piano were brand new. Whether to worry at this point is a matter of opinion, but I think there's reason to be concerned enough to take the next step and find out for certain.
While it might help to know more about the type of finish on the piano in question, the only way to know for certain whether there is a problem is to test using a lead test kit. They're inexpensive and available at any home center (Lowes, Home Depot, etc.).