Grand Piano Rebuilding 

 

   I get a lot of questions about piano rebuilding.  This page is intended to help guide the prospective client through this process. The restoration of Steinway and other quality grand pianos has been my specialty for many years. If you've been shopping for extensive piano repair, you may have noticed a great disparity in price, methods, concepts, and results. There are many reasons why, but  an important difference that I see is that there are three basic types of rebuilders out there. First, the tuner or dealer who is selling rebuild services, but only takes a markup, then contracts the work out to another shop. Second, is that shop. Usually a high production shop where the founding technician is highly qualified, but no longer doing the work personally. The shop is filled with low wage laborers, not really piano technicians. Third, is the real deal. This is my shop. I only send out the aesthetic work, and personally do all of the musical instrument restoration myself.

   My background in the piano business is simple. I grew up in a piano shop. Fixing pianos is among my earliest memories. Starting at the age of 5, I gradually learned every operation in our shop. We specialized in grand piano rebuilding and worked on mostly Steinways. In the mix were plenty of Mason & Hamlin, Baldwin, Chickering, Knabe, Kimball, Wurlitzer, Steck, Howard, Kawai, Yamaha, Cable, Hardman, Kurtzman, Starr, Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Decker Bros., and so many other fine brands. We also did some obscure antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries. I became cheifly responsible for pinblock installation, soundboard repair, and stringing. As our workforce wavered and waned, I wound up covering the action department as well. We became a dealership of new pianos, and I helped prep and service (as well as deliver) the brands we carried. Through the years, we carried Steinway, Yamaha, Kawai, Chas Walter, Petrof, Schimmel, Bosendorfer, Falcone, Samick, and Seiler pianos. I took care of warranty service on all of them. I was also proud to do concert prep on Steinways we provided to the Cincinnati symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. Since 1998, I have been rebuilding pianos both locally and from around the country in my own shop. Having left Cincinnati, I am now comfortable in my new facility in rural Illinois.

 


   There are several aspects of piano restoration which I feel must be addressed. On the short list we have pinblock fitting, soundboard repair, soundboard replacement, and action parts (sources, brands, originality, etc.).

 

   Pinblocks. The proper fitting and installation of a new pinblock is a vital issue in piano restoration. If this is not done right, the rebuilt piano will not be tunable for as long (or at all) as it should. Many rebuilds I see fall short in this category, and this deficiency can take many forms. Some shops restring into the old pinblock with oversize tuning pins. This often splits the pinblock between the holes, creating long rows of loose tuning pins. Most of these won't make it ten years. Other shops will make a new pinblock by copying the old one, but fail to fit it exactly to the plate flange, the way it needs to be. Without an accurate fit, the new pinblock will float and drift against the pull of the strings. Even though the pins are tight, the piano still won't hold tune.  

 

   I personally fit every pinblock by hand. The old fashoned way. The fitting is done both to the plate and into the piano itself. Done right, this ensures a solid foundation for the tuning pins as well as the correct plate position and string bearing angles.

 

   Soundboards. Should an original soundboard be replaced with a new one, or should it be repaired? I don't believe that one answer can apply to every piano. I think some pianos would benefit from a new soundboard, while others would be better off with the original board properly repaired. So that begs the question: what exactly are the deciding factors involved in the decision to replace an old board? On the list of good reasons are loss of crown, fire damage, water damage, irreversable damage from sloppy repairs, and often dealers feel the need for a new board just for marketing reasons.

   I have known technicians who like to sell new soundboard installation with every rebuild. I'm not sure whether it's because they don't want to fix old boards, or that they don't know how. They will tell you that old boards wear out, and that the wood fibers are somehow crushed and therefore ruined by years of compression. I insist that this cannot be true. The best boards I have ever heard were quite old, some well over one hundred years of age. It is well known that violins actually get better with age, and the same applies to pianos.

   Generally speaking, if a soundboard was well made and retains good crown, I can repair it. Most common repairs involve re-gluing detached ribs and shimming cracks. Done properly, these repairs are permanent, good looking, and the sound produced is undenyably original.

   Although I take great personal pride in being able to repair and restore original soundboards, I do offer new replacement soundboard installation. This does add cost and time to the project, but if it must be done, I can do it.

 

 

   Action parts. It's a huge subject, starts many debates, and has many different solutions. What are action parts, and why should we care where they come from? Action parts are the mechanical components that are pushed up to the string by the key. Specifically, they are the hammers, hammer shanks, flanges, and whippens (which contain jacks, repetition levers, centers, springs, pads, and more flanges). These parts are wear items, and can usually be replaced with new parts manufactured by a variety of companies. As you can imagine, there are cheaper ones, and there are higher quality ones. It would be simple if it were only a matter of buying the most expensive parts, and knowing that you got the best ones. This is where it gets complicated. If you fully trust your technician, you can let him choose for you. If you talk to enough people, you will get many different recommendations. First of all, you must consider the source of this advice. A tuner may know what he likes to work on, but may not have experience with all options. A piano teacher may only have insight involving touch and tone. Some rebuilders will try to steer the customer to the least expensive thing for him or her to buy. The piano dealer or sales person will invariably give advice that coincides with their own sales pitch (or simply tell you that you should trade your vintage Steinway in on a new one). For any given sittuation, any of these could be correct.

   Good hammer shanks and whippens are available as reasonable reproductions of the original from various suppliers.

  Hammers, on the other hand, are another story. If you seek out an exact reproduction of a Steinway hammer made in the 1880-1950 era (the good ones, in my opinion), you won't find one anywhere. There are many good replacement hammers out there, but no true reproductions. The short list of hammers I most often install (depending on many factors) includes Renner Blue (German), Abel Encore (also German), Hamburg Steinway (actually made by Renner), Ronsen, and Steinway New York factory made hammers. These have all worked well, but with different results.

   So, why not just buy new Steinway parts direct from the New York factory? I do quite often, and they do work. While quality made, these "authentic" parts are not true reproductions of older Steinway hammers. They have made many changes over the years. They insist that all changes are improvements (of course), but such modifications represent major changes in the way the piano feels and sounds. Specifically, they have made the hammer heavier, used different felt, different wood, and now require different voicing techniques. The heavier weight also requires shanks of a modified dimension for a lower mechanical ratio. This changes the overall key dip (measured key stroke) and can be noticable. The result is an old Steinway that plays like a new Steinway. Fine, if that's what you want.

  Abel Encore hammers are close to original, voice and play very well, but do not carry with them the Steinway name. These are very easy to work with and are currently my personal favorite.

   Renner hammers are also close to original, but are generally too bright for home use. These are very good on concert instruments in recording studios, churches, and on stage where the piano needs to project strongly.

   Ronsen hammers are lesser known, but an excellent choice. These are high quality American hammers made for American Steinways. These designer hammers can be custom ordered to many different specifications. Weight, felt, and wood molding can all be specified, and vary in price.

   Staying up to date on these products is admittedly tricky, as they do occasionally change without notice. If you are well informed and have something to add, I'd love to hear from you. If you need some clarification, I'll be happy to advise you if I can.

 

 

 

 

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