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#908663 - 10/13/01 06:41 PM Piano Rebuilding
Steve Miller Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 3290
Loc: Yorba Linda, CA
When looking at a piano that has been rebuilt, what are some of the hallmarks you look for to pick out a proper job?

What might be some signs that the rebuild was not done well?

Thanks!
_________________________
Defender of the Landfill Piano

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#908664 - 10/13/01 10:41 PM Re: Piano Rebuilding
Bob Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/01/01
Posts: 3833
If a piano is rebuilt to highest standards, it should look brand new. Only a practiced eye should be able to tell it is rebuilt. Many pianos are rebuilt to lesser standards, based on the value of the piano, and/or the bank account of the customer. A properly rebuilt piano will have:

All new action parts and felts (not just new hammers)
All new damper felts and underlevers
New pin block and strings
New bridge caps (or bridges)where cracked
Repaired and refinished Sound board (or new board)
New white and black key tops
Rebushed keys
Refinished plate
Refinished, hand rubbed cabinet w/new or re-plated hardware and new decals

A lesser job may have oversize pins instead of a new pin block, filed hammers, not replaced, polished hardware, sound board not refinished, original damper felt, original action parts.

[ October 13, 2001: Message edited by: Bob ]
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#908665 - 10/14/01 02:11 AM Re: Piano Rebuilding
David Burton Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/28/01
Posts: 1757
Loc: Coxsackie, New York
A great thread, may it have many posts!

I want to elaborate on what Bob has to say.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
If a piano is rebuilt to highest standards, it should look brand new. [/b]


Yes, this is the essence of it. The piano should not only look brand new, it should sound and play as if brand new with a certain "tightness" or "integrity" that is frequently missing from used or old nearly worn out pianos.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
Only a practiced eye should be able to tell it is rebuilt.[/b]


And believe me there are plenty of practiced eyes out there. Some are so finicky that they would never be satisfied with the best rebuilds out there. Of course these same folks aren't too pleased with very much that's brand new either.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
Many pianos are rebuilt to lesser standards, based on the value of the piano, and/or the bank account of the customer.[/b]


This is unfortunate and often all too true. Of course there are some pianos that are just too short to bother much with other than what would pass for "restoration" rather than a full rebuild. There are a lot of mid sized grands out there that should be, would be, completely rebuilt if the market could bear it. For example, let's say someone rebuilt a (looking into my Piano Atlas and choosing at random) Heintzman grand, one over 6 feet in length, put everything into it including a rescaling, something Bob missed. It would be an outstanding piano. But would anyone buy it for what it would really be worth? That's the gamble and that's why it isn't done as often as it could or should be done. And what I'm saying and have been saying for a while on this forum is that these rebuilds are, when done up to the best standards, every bit as good as the best new pianos out there and then some. Bob continues--

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
A properly rebuilt piano will have:
All new action parts and felts (not just new hammers)[/b]


Usually so, increasingly so, but not always. Piano actions, especially the better ones from the golden age, were often as good as modern ones, and if a rebuilder is lucky enough to find that a perfectly suitable action exists that has few if any oxidized parts (dark wood is a sign of wood oxidation and tends to make the pieces brittle and prone to breakage) then they can sometimes get by with keeping much of it. The economics of it is that action makers, especially Renner, are gaining such preeminence and their name recognition means so much now that rebuilders are more likely to replace an action. One key part in the whole action that doesn't get as much emphasis as it should is the knuckle. A good knuckle will not flatten out as quickly and will result in a much more responsive action over time. Renner and Abel make excellent knuckles. But sometimes an old barely used action from the golden age has perfectly good knuckles, better than on some new pianos.

Hammers, and we mean hammer heads not shanks, are key ingredients to the tonal characteristics of the piano therefore their choice is a crucial decision and increasingly the types used influence the value of a rebuilt piano. There are five or six hammer makers that are accepted as of acceptable quality, my preferences, not listed in the order of their preference are Renner, Abel, Steinway and Isaac.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
All new damper felts and underlevers[/b]


Usually, but not always.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
New pin block and strings[/b]


ESSENTIAL! In fact if the pinblack has not been replaced the piano has not been rebuilt in my opinion. This is a job that seems to separate the men from the boys in the craft too. Real masters know how and amateurs don't. It's a tricky business to do right. Not only should the pinblock be replaced but its fit should be as much of an improvement over the original as is possible. Many new pianos have gaps between the plate and block that are large enough to put a knife blade into. You can't see this until the plate comes out of the piano. As I've said elsewhere, there are two kinds of pinblock installations both of which work perfectly well when done right; the full fit or Steinway, doweled in pinblock or the floating pinblock which is just mounted under the front end of the plate. I'm not terribly convinced of the merits of a delignit over a five layer pinblock either. If the pinblock is installed competently either should work perfectly fine.

As for strings, the two kinds that are most frequently used are Roslau (German) and Mapes (American). The Mapes strings are smoother and are said to produce a more American sound. Either are fine. But there is something more. Some rebuilders like to stretch the strings before or as they string the piano. Others are more concerned with avoiding any kinks or bends in the string, laying it as flat as possible as it comes off the spool. And of course bass strings are different from any of the others in that they are one place where one can make a real improvement over the original design. The best bass strings are hand wound and there are a few acknowledged masters both here and in Europe. In the U.S. most rebuilders know Sanderson and Isaac (what Darrell Fandrich uses).

And while we're on the subject, the original scaling is evaluated for ways to improve it, especially from middle c on down the piano. Rescaling is part science, part art. Most scales can be improved. The only ones I wouldn't touch are Mason & Hamlin. Their scales are considered almost perfect by most aficionados.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
New bridge caps (or bridges)where cracked. [/b]


Not always, but increasingly so. Some rebuilders like to experiment with new bridge designs that may improve the tone carrying characteristics of the piano over the original design. A rebuild that aims only at replicating the original design is missing the point. If you're going to go to all the trouble, you should attempt every improvement you possibly can.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
Repaired and refinished Sound board (or new board) [/b]


It's amazing how often a really cruddy looking board may not adversely affect the sound of a piano where a brand new looking board can die causing the piano to die in that it loses its power and ability to project. Some new pianos I've played were dead on arrival, while some old ones were perfectly alive with all their cracked soundboards, etc. Nevertheless as we've already said, a properly rebuilt piano should look brand new including the soundboard.

If the original soundboard is used, which is sometimes perfectly all right, it must look brand new and have no cracks. Seemingly fewer piano rebuilders than I used to meet are capable or interested in carefully repairing the cracks with shims and then refinishing the old soundboard. They'd rather replace the soundboard with a new one. Again, there is some economic reasons for going this way. It tends to add value but it is costly, a new soundboard will require ribs, diaphramatizing (the process of giving the board a crown), etc.

All the wood for a soundboard is carefully chosen. Here's anopther area where rebuilders have different approaches. Darrell Fandrich's approaches to soundboards are in most cases heretical, but they work! For instance he is less concerned about tight grain than weight from the edges to the center and how that is related to the weight and density of the bridges he uses. He says that a soundboard with tight grain tends to be too bright, hard or brittle toned than one that is not.

Other rebuilders swear by the properties of certain spruce types; Northeastern white spruce vs. the more common Alaskan sitka spruce. The golden age pianos used Addirondack spruce which is the same as the Northeastern spruce. Estonia pianos use Siberian spruce, the great German makers use Bavarian and the Italian makers use their red famed spruce, the same as used for Cremona violin tops. I have played vintage Steinways and rebuilds using sitka spruce soundboards and can't tell the difference even though the pianos still sounded like Streinways.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
New white and black key tops. [/b]


Well, if they are using the original ivories they must be restored if they can be used at all. The keyboard is the first tell tale sign of the quality of a rebuild job. As I depress a key I look to either side to see if the key has been excessively sanded under the key tops. If so, then I'm pretty sure to find other atrocities. There are specialists who know what they are doing when it comes to recovering a keyboard. They use the best ivory substitutes and try to preserve the original ebony if they can. Since the keyboard is the first thing they any pianist really fastens attention on, it must be done right.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
Rebushed keys. [/b]


Yes of course. If the keys seem squishy or wobble when played you can be pretty sure that this hasn't been done. Some rebuilders are fastidious about the key buttons too. These are the little hardwood pivots that support the keys. All the cracked ones must be replaced. Some rebuilders replace them all as a matter of course.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
Refinished plate. [/b]


Another place to check for quality. If the plate has any lettering on it, see how cleanly the rebuilder did the lettering. Of course I have seen jobs where the plate was clean and the rest was junk so it's just something to notice. Some plates are remarkably unadorned. In any case the plate must be refinished to add to the "brand new" look.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
Refinished, hand rubbed cabinet w/new or re-plated hardware and new decals. [/b]


An expensive, time consuming and necessary part of the job. I've seen good and I've seen ghastly and everything in between.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Bob:
A lesser job may have oversize pins instead of a new pin block, filed hammers, not replaced, polished hardware, sound board not refinished, original damper felt, original action parts.[/b]


The original action parts if used must look brand new. If they can't be brought back to looking brand new then they should be replaced.

People who retail pianos they call "rebuilt" are in every category so you have to be careful. I have reported some operations that were so awful that I got almost violent feelings and had to leave the premises before I bit someone's head off. Nothing makes me as upset as seeing a wonderful goilden age piano that has been ruined by a hack amateur.

Well, that's a start.
_________________________
David Burton's Blog
http://dpbmss041010.blogspot.com/

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#908666 - 10/14/01 10:45 PM Re: Piano Rebuilding
Bob Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/01/01
Posts: 3833
Thanks to David for elaborating. Due to time constraints, I tend to be short and to the point. ;\)
_________________________
www.PianoTunerOrlando.com






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#908667 - 10/14/01 11:22 PM Re: Piano Rebuilding
Steve Miller Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 3290
Loc: Yorba Linda, CA
Spectacular responses, Bob and David!

Thanks!

A high standard indeed. It looks as though the only parts you keep are the box and the legs. Little wonder that there are so few that do a proper job - the piano rebuilder who does this sort of rebuild would have to be one who is genuinely more savvy than the factory engineers, particularly if you are going to change the scale in the process, no?

Dropping down a notch then, what might be an acceptable compromise that would pass as "refurbishment?

And Larry, when you saw the piano that had been rebuilt in Juarez, what did you see that was not up to par? What was left out and what was done poorly?

Thanks!
_________________________
Defender of the Landfill Piano

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#908668 - 10/14/01 11:58 PM Re: Piano Rebuilding
Mat D. Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/29/01
Posts: 512
Loc: Sterling Heights, Michigan
Great thread!!

99% of the rebuilt pianos I have played have an "old" feel. I don't care how beautiful it looks or sounds, they usually (not all) have a "sloppy" action feel.

David is absolutely correct that the action should have a certain "tight" and immediate feel to it---on a good rebuild.

Thanks for the good read.
Mat D.

This is a good rebuild!--Clik on the URL link within this link for more pics

[ October 15, 2001: Message edited by: Mat D. ]

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#908669 - 10/15/01 01:55 AM Re: Piano Rebuilding
David Burton Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/28/01
Posts: 1757
Loc: Coxsackie, New York
 Quote:
Originally posted by Steve Miller:
A high standard indeed. It looks as though the only parts you keep are the box and the legs. Little wonder that there are so few that do a proper job - the piano rebuilder who does this sort of rebuild would have to be ONE WHO IS GENUINELY MORE SAVVY THAN THE FACTORY ENGINEERS, particularly if you are going to change the scale in the process, no? [/b]


Emphasis mine.

Well, there are engineers and engineers. I hope we have a few who read these threads. Some are what I might call design engineers. These are the people who come up with the design, and on paper, all designs are perfect. The problem is how to manufacture the design and that's where ME's or manufacturing engineering comes in. This is a key discipline involving decisions about how best to employ technology to make the manufacturing process produce dependable results. It is my contention that the best NEW pianos are made in places (it doesn't matter to me much where, except perhaps in Arkansas, LOL) where the best manufacturing engineering is employed. As for pianos, it seems to me that a mixture of mass production of some items and the work of individual craftsmen on each instrument produces the best results. It also seems to me that successful piano making is really done only in small batches in fairly small plants by a fairly small group of craftsmen. Measured in output, maybe quality makers can't get much above producing 3,000 to 4,000 grand pianos per year without sacrificing quality. It takes a long time to make a piano using traditional materials. Anytime you try and shorten the time you sacrifice quality. Therefore, it makes sense to me that the very best pianos would come from a place like Germany which has many small factories making a few thousand pianos (upright and grand) per year. There are a number of brands and scale designs to choose from, each one has its particular strengths. You can feel fairly secure in selecting a piano from Ibach, Schimmel, Sauter, Seiler, Steingraber, Grotrian, Feurich, Forster, Bechstein, Bluthner and a few others, that you are getting a quality musical instrument.

Now, it has been my contention, backed by experience checking out dozens, nay hundreds of pianos over the years, that a few rebuilders, not all by any means, really and honestly DO have a few things up on the original manufacturing engineers, simply because they can afford to take each instrument they make or remake, more seriously than one could in a factory.

Regarding the old golden oldies from 1880 through 1930, there have been considerable improvements in the nuances of the design over the years that can be used to upgrade the old scales to make them tonally better than the originals. Some have asked, why can't there be one perfect scale? Ask that to half a dozen piano designers over the last 100 years and you'll get as many answers. Are their ears different? Some have suggested as much and it might be the case. Taking a look at the lengths of all the grand pianos out there, in centimeters, one soon sees that contrary to the supposition that piano sizes fit neatly into size categories, there seems to be a gradual increase in size. So there is a lot of variety even if the best materials are used.

It just makes sense to try and create something better than when it was new if you're going to call a piano "rebuilt." Refurbished or restored or rehabilitated mean different things to different people, but a rebuilt piano should be something different. And if it is not economical to do it well or right then it usually wont be done well or right.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Steve Miller:
Dropping down a notch then, what might be an acceptable compromise that would pass as "refurbishment?[/b]


The compromise is whatever it takes to produce an acceptable piano at an acceptable price. Here's an example: There is somewhere on my travels an 1885 vintage Steinway B, although it's not technically a B, it is the same size and has nearly the same scale. It's in a walnut case. The retailer has made some changes in the process of restoring it; he restrung it using the original scale but he didn't replace the pinblock so it uses slightly larger pins. All the felt is new. He didn't do anything to the keyboard and its genuine ivories are in great condition but they are all discolored and don't match at all, something that happens over time. He wants $18K for it. I don't know what he paid for it but if he'd merely restored the keyboard to look better he might have gotten his price long ago and the piano would currently be enjoyed by some budding concert pianist. It is a good piano. It's too expensive for a speculator to buy for a genuine rebuild. It might make sense to buy for someone who intends to keep the piano as is for a while and eventually rebuild it. Restoring the keyboard is what I'd do first. I'd wait on the rest later. A new Steinway B is going to cost between $50K and $80K. Obe could conceivably have a very nice piano for around $30K by buying this $18K piano and having it rebuilt. This is sort of how it all works.

What really irks me is to find some nice Knabe, Chickering or some lesser known but good brand of classic American grand piano that's been "restored" or "rebuilt" in such a hobbyist, shoddy manner as to detract from its essential musical qualities. If someone wants to learn how to rebuild pianos they should start with something that's really not worth a lot of money when its all said and done. A rebuilt classic Knabe or Chickering is a wonderful experience and if there were any justice these pianos would be denied to the crackpot hobbyist rebuilders out there. I have seen some real awful jobs.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Mat D.:
99% of the rebuilt pianos I have played have an "old" feel. I don't care how beautiful it looks or sounds, they usually (not all) have a "sloppy" action feel.[/b]


The piano I described above did not feel like this, but Mat has noticed one more thing that tells you a lot about the rest of a rebuild job. The attention to the keybed, bushings, buttons, etc. has not been there. Old Soviet era Estonias frequently felt like this and sounded old too even though they were supposedly new. My guess is they weren't; they had formerly served time in some Soviet dance studio or military concert hall in Novosibirsk, Rostov or Novgorod.
_________________________
David Burton's Blog
http://dpbmss041010.blogspot.com/

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#908670 - 10/15/01 05:47 PM Re: Piano Rebuilding
Rich Galassini Offline
9000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/28/01
Posts: 9130
Loc: Philadelphia/South Jersey
Dear David,

As always, a fine post. I could not begin to respond after those well written replies.

Suffice it to say "ditto".
_________________________
Rich Galassini
Cunningham Piano Co.
Phila, Pa.
Dir. Line (215) 991-0834
rich@cunninghampiano.com
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#908671 - 10/15/01 10:22 PM Re: Piano Rebuilding
Steve Miller Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 3290
Loc: Yorba Linda, CA
[QUOTE]Originally posted by David Burton:
he restrung it using the original scale but he didn't replace the pinblock so it uses slightly larger pins.[QB]

I can certainly understand the desire for a new pinblock from a purists view. If I were to go for a rebuild on a top level piano, I would insist on a new pinblock.

But what is the functional loss when oversized pins are used instead of replacing the pinblock? Is there a history of failure in tuning pins installed in this fashion?

And how about the method I have seen where they bore and glue dowels in to the original pin block so the original-sized pins can be used? Seems to me that all of those plugs might be kinda decorative.... but do they fail?
_________________________
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#908672 - 10/15/01 11:38 PM Re: Piano Rebuilding
David Burton Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/28/01
Posts: 1757
Loc: Coxsackie, New York
 Quote:
Originally posted by Steve Miller:
What is the functional loss when oversized pins are used instead of replacing the pinblock? Is there a history of failure in tuning pins installed in this fashion? [/b]


Just about every rebuilder who hasn't replaced a pinblock and insists on calling his job a rebuild will tell you that the pinblock was sound judging from the bottom of the pinblock (see Larry Fine's book where he explains what the underside of a bad pinblock looks like), even though the rebuilder may not have seen the entire pinblock since usually he hasn't removed the plate. Just because the bottom of the pinblock looks ok doesn't mean the pinblock is sound. There could still be a gap between the pinblock and the underside of the plate. The more secure the pinblock the more solid the tone. If the piano has sat in the sun year in and year out, the top side of the pinblock could have been adversely affected so that the strain, several tons of tension, has succeeded in bending the pins toward the bridge. I've seen this a number of times. Hard to keep such a piano in tune for very long if at all.

After sixty or seventy years of hard use, the pinblock needs to be replaced, otherwise tuning stability is impaired. Oversize pins are used where there is enough room to drill out larger holes through the top of the plate without removing the pinblock or the plate. Usually where a piano has been restrung and the restorer has decided to opt for the larger pins rather than replacing the pinblock, the plate will not have been removed and hence the belly work will not have been done either; soundboard and bridges will have been left as is and that too is not a good sign. Remember when considering a rebuilt piano that every part of the job can affect other parts of the job and require a lot of time and materials. These should weigh into the final value attributed to the piano. I wouldn't pay $20,000 for a vintage Steinway or any other piano calling itself rebuilt if the pinblock hasn't been replaced. I would consider paying $6,000 to $7,000 for one as is.

Not replacing the pinblock means that in less than 15 years on average, often sooner, the piano will have to undergo another rehabilitation or else have a tuning four times a year. It's a half-assed approach and everyone knows it.

 Quote:
Originally posted by Steve Miller:
And how about the method I have seen where they bore and glue dowels in to the original pin block so the original-sized pins can be used? Seems to me that all of those plugs might be kinda decorative.... but do they fail?[/b]


Let's put it this way, their chances of failing are greater than doing it right the first time. If there were even a slim chance of a failure I wouldn't want it.

Now there is a method that works in the restoration of old upright pianos so that the rebuilder doesn't have to take the whole back off the piano. This involves cutting out an area in the original pinblock and fitting a piece of dalignit into the area, gluing it in with epoxy. The gap between this composite pinblock and the plate is made as tight as possible, the holes are drilled into the delignit, the piano is put back together and restrung. In pianos where the plate doesn't cover the pinblock a veneer is applied to make it look good. This approach seems to work well.
_________________________
David Burton's Blog
http://dpbmss041010.blogspot.com/

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