“I just inherited Grandma’s grand piano. Her parents bought it for her when she was just 10. My mom also learned on it and so did I. I would love for my daughter to play it. But it is in such bad shape. The last tuner said he couldn’t tune it. Is there anything you can do?” So goes a typical phone call into our rebuilding shop. Sentimental value aside, how do we decide what is the best approach to these family heirlooms. Sometimes, money isn’t an object, but more often we need to figure out how to recreate a musical instrument inside a very dead carcass within a limited budget.
There are several hundred manufactures of pianos from the early twentieth century, some were cheaply made and it is a wonder they are still standing after a hundred years or more. And there is surprising number of completely unknown brands who were carefully manufactured; representing the great craftsmanship and abundant natural materials present in our country back then.
How can you tell if the dead piano in front of you can be rebuilt to service many more generations or should be sent to its final resting place? As a rebuilder of pianos there are certain structural elements I need to make for an effective rebuilding project especially if we are going to keep costs under control. Though it is possible to take a substandard structure and stiffen the frame, redesign a new soundboard, and redesign the action with brand new keys, the costs will add up extremely fast.
Some of the superficial elements anybody can see are such things as a substantial set of struts under the soundboard. These provide the structural support and stiffness to the frame. I have added these in some projects; this can be a costly, but important part of the rebuilding of a lesser instrument.
Another consideration is length, the longer the better. Small pianos are loaded with compromises in the scale and design. Once you cross the 6’ size these compromises become less noticeable even on lesser pianos.
The presence of agraffes through about 60% of the strings also suggests a better designed piano. Agraffes are located at the string termination closest to the player marking the near end of the speaking length of the string. Agraffes are made of brass and cost more to use than just a big piece of cast iron found on cheaper pianos. (Though some manufactures such as Chickering Bros (not Son’s) from Chicago developed a pretty sophisticated improvement in the big hunk of cast iron design.)
I really don’t care about what is covering the keys, but it is very helpful if the key stick is in good condition. If more than one or two keys have broken at some time, we really need to consider a new key set. If the wood used, the angle the keys were cut, or the angle of the grain were such that a few keys have broken, then this will be a very unreliable set of keys, prone to ever more breakage in coming years. A new key set can cost between $4,000 and $5,000. They can be well worth it, but it is an expense which is best to avoid if possible.
Every piano has a unique situation. In most cases, we are able to breathe new life into your old piano. Remember – it’s what we do! So if you’re ready to revive Grandma’s old piano or are curious about pricing out a fix-up, don’t hesitate to ask!