Terms used to describe piano work can be confusing. Repair, reconditioning, restoration, rebuilding, refurbishing, not only have different meanings literally, but are often mistakenly used interchangeably.
In this section I will attempt to give clarity to the meaning of some of these terms and definition to their appropriate use. Please understand, however, that discrepancies will still exist due to the nature of piano work. For instance, with “Complete Restoration”, there can be minor differences from one job to the next, such as: one job may require new Keytops where with another it will be better retaining the originals. These are minor differences. The over-all term is defined by the general scope of the work defined in this article.
With all work the craftsmen responsible must make critical decisions to determine if retaining original components or replacing them is in the best interest of the end result. The priority must be deciding what will render the highest quality result for the longest period of time not limited by what the craftsman is or is not capable of doing. A piano craftsman must be skilled and equipped in all aspect of piano technology to engage in restoration.
Synonyms: Rebuilding, Reconstruction
Refers to the replacement of major components to return the instrument to like-new condition.
Work generally involves:
- Any Necessary repair to Rim or Back Frame
- Soundboard Replacement or Repair, and Refinishing
- Replacement of Bridges
- Plate Repair and Refinishing (could include new agraffes and V-Bar truing)
- Damper System restoration and Refelting
- Action Key Frame restoration
- Key recovering, replacing Back Checks and Key Bushing Felt
- Replacement of Whippens, Hammer Shanks and Flanges, Hammer Heads
- Cabinet Restoration and Refinishing
Including: Polishing or replating Hardware, reveering as necessary, replacement of Legs, Music Desk or any other component that may be missing or damaged beyond acceptable use. Application of professional grade piano finish with base coat sealers, topcoats, and polishing to desired sheen.
Once again, the object of restoration is to return the instrument to like-new condition, leaving no weak link in the chain of longevity.
Typical examples of “weak links” are:
- Not replacing soundboard when it is necessary
- Not replacing bridges
- Not replacing action parts
- Putting a new finish over loose veneer or unprepared surfaces
This being said, piano rebuilding can be broken down to three areas of classification:
- Super structure:
- Cabinet Restoration:
Soundboard, Bridges, Strings
Keyboard and action parts
Woodworking and repair
As pianos age, normal changes affecting parts, adjustments, and function of an instrument occur. Considering that the life-span of the average piano is between 80 and 100 years, periodic reconditioning is required to keep an instrument performing optimally.
The majority of wear and tear usually occurs within the action mechanism. In some cases components such as the bass bridge, strings and cabinet parts will also show signs of age related fatigue. One must assess the extent of deterioration to determine if reconditioning is an option or if rebuilding necessary.
Many older instruments may still have a lifetime of service to give but may not appear so if fundemental things are not correct. Once reconditioned, many older pianos surprise their owners with qualities thought long since gone. I always suggest making sure the basic things are correct before going overboard with extensive work. 90% of the time that is all that is needed.
Do not judge an older piano by aesthetic. Have a qualified technical evaluation performed before considering replacing an older instrument. What you have now may be better than something you could buy new.
Reconditioning relates to repair and maintenance of existing parts, not reconstruction of the entire instrument, as in rebuilding. In some cases this will include the replacement of strings, action parts, and/or bass bridge.
- Pitch-Raise (multiple tunings to standard pitch)
- Reshaping and voicing of Hammer Heads
- Cleaning of Action and tightening the Screws
- Action Centers re-pinned
- Replacing minor parts and felts
- Key Top repair or replacement
- Cleaning and Regulation of Keyboard
- Damper Replacement
- Action Regulation (adjustment)
- Replacing broken Strings
- Replacement of Bass Bridge if deteriorated
- Minor repairs to Case Parts and Hardware
Naturally there are many other small items which can be included. These listed illustrates the basic items which must be accounted for. You can see, however, that this type of work is largely repair of existing parts.
Evaluation must be established to determine cost effectiveness relative the each piano’s life expectancy, quality, and value.
Piano Cabinet Restoration
Woodwork repair, wood refinishing, hardware polishing and plating, and repairs to furniture mechanisms such as music desk, pedal lyre and hinges fall under this category. For some, aesthetics is 50%, or more, the value of owning a piano. In addition to this, function of the various furniture mechanisms is an important aspect to the performance of a piano.
Pianos are unique in several ways relating to cabinetry. Both, the rim of a grand piano and the back frame of a vertical piano, help support the super structure of the instrument. Unlike household furniture, a quality feature of piano cabinetry is that it is not made of solid would, with the exception of non-structural moldings.
Piano case material, not including the rim of grand pianos, historically is comprised of high quality laminate wood called solid lumber core plywood. This material is generally 5-ply with four of them being thin veneers on the face and back surface with the center being the bulk of the thickness. The purpose for this is stability. Since pianos have high quality thick finishes the wood needs to be stable to avoid cracking of the finish. In addition, the large surface areas such as the lid also need to be stable so as not to warp.
In modern day, substitution materials are now being used. These include composition wood core such as Multiple Density Fiber Board MDF, other various grade of composition woods, and multi- ply laminates. Limitations of these newer materials are: 1) Excessive Weight 2) Screws and other fixtures do not anchor as well as in solid lumber core. When replacing or repairing case parts it is beneficial to have knowledge of these different materials and know how to work with them.
The external veneer is what designates wood type of a piano style. If a piano is listed as Mahogany this refers only to the surface veneer on the face side. This veneer is generally 1/32” in older American piano and less in newer instrument. For this reason removal of the older finish is best done using chemical finish removers know as strippers.
Piano finish removal involves
- Removal of topcoat and base coat sealer
- Removal of colorant and dye stains
- Removal of grain fillers
When stripping is done correctly, sanding is required only to prepare the surface for new finish. One must not rely on sanding to remove color or finish residue. Not only will this create the risk of sanding through the veneers but also change the appearance of veneer, affecting the absorption rates of new stain, rendering inconsistencies in coloration.
Steps involved in piano cabinet restoration:
- Replacing missing hardware, screws and parts – Many times a restorer cannot find sufficient replacement parts such as legs, pedal lyres, lip props, music desks and must custom make new ones to maintain the authenticity of the instrument. Replacing screws can be a huge challenge. Commonly available hardware store item will never match the originals. I have worked on instruments from the late 1800’s with hand turned screw. These are beautiful pieces of art and must be either replicated or replaced with salvage pieces. Fortunately I have always been successful with the later.
- Regluing and Replacing failed veneers – This is foundational work which will support the new finish. If not done correctly and completely problems will occur. It is a painstaking process to inspect all veneer for delamination before commencing with application of a new finish. Fortunately there is still a strong market of quality wood veneers to choose from. Older piano have exotic veneers that vary greatly depending on period of original build. Mahogany, for example has many varieties such as African Mahogany, Honduran Mahogany, South American Mahogany, Bolivian Mahogany, Peruvian Mahogany Big Leaf Mahogany, as well as look-a-likes such as Sapele, Utile or Sipo. Matching veneer can be an art to achieve correct grain patterns and color.
- Polishing and/or Replating Hardware
Years ago we had several options in our community for repelating nickel, brass, chrome, etc. and those doing it were seasoned veterans of the industry. Due to the toxicity of chemicals used in the process state and federal regulations have made it difficult for shops to operate, therefore, there are no longer as many choices. There are, however, shops available that still provide the service yet the convenience is no longer there and quality must be watched over closely.
I still remember the day an older man from a local company called Quakenbush in Mohawk, NY visited my shop and gave two of us a wonderful lesson on polishing brass and nickel. I didn’t realize at the time, or simply took for granted how that man left me with a gift that I would use for decades to following. I still struggle to achieve what he did with such ease. However, it is always clear in my mind what can be done with the right tools, correct compound for each metal, and patience.
The majority of piano hardware such as pedals, screws and hinges are either brass or nickel. Brass hardware is generally solid whereas nickel is typically a plating. Solid brass can be polished and buffed to look like new.
Once plating is worn through to the core metal replating is necessary. As tempting as it is, since it is more readily available, chrome is not an option in place of nickel.
- Application of Finish
As mentioned earlier, piano finishes are different than most furniture finishes. One of the distinguishing characteristic is the thickness. A quality piano finish sits above the wood grain and is buffed to the desired sheen. To achieve this one must not only prepare the surface correctly but seal all grain, seams, and characteristic of the wood.
In my earlier year in this trade we would use a paste wood filler to achieve this. It was a petroleum distillate product not commonly used anymore. In compliance with the 2006 Volatile Organic Compounds regulations nearly of petroleum distillate materials are no longer use in the US. This transition was a nightmare that started in 1995. Material formulas where changing so rapidly to meet the 2006 deadline that every time we set up for another refinishing everything was different. We had to learn new chemistry, new application techniques, and new polishing methods. Fortunately we are past hat now. Having to “eat” several jobs due to finish failures we are glad to see those days gone.
America adapted to European systems using catalyzed poly and lacquer products. The catalyzed products have no (or very little) gas emissions and are compliant with the 2006 VOC regulation standards. However, the new products are more detrimental to human health and are cancer causing. Extreme care must be taking to work with these materials.
We currently use polyurethane sealer base coats topped with poly or lacquer topcoats, depending on desired sheen. These new finished are extremely stable, durable, and have a wonderful appearance.
- Polishing piano finish
Polishing is the process of creating the desired sheen of the end product using various rubbing and polishing compounds. This, in conjunction with the topcoat, will determine the final sheen of a piano finish.
Common piano finishes are:
- Matt – Dull Sheen with bushing marks
- Low Polish – Low sheen with no marks
- High Polish – Shiny mirror-like
It is always important to keep in mind that a refinished piano should not look like a “refinished piano”. It should look like a piano with a new finish. Not only is finishing knowledge a requirement to refinish a piano but also knowledge on how to unassembled and reassemble the cabinetry.
Other details invovled in piano refinishing include:
- Re-felting case parts
- Replacing all rubber and leather cushions
- Replacing the exact decals
It is my intention to include photos and videos for each item as I continue to develop this site. Feel free to use our contact form to give feedback on what you would like to see.