Allegro Piano Pages


New or Rebuilt?
The Advantages of Piano Rebuilding

Keith T. Comparetto,
Piano Tuner-Technician
 
Why Buy New?
A reasonable question for a piano buyer to ask is, “Why should I buy a rebuilt piano when I can find new piano for the same price?” (It is true that new upright pianos can be found for as little as $2,000, and new baby grands for as little as $6,000.) Yet considering the state of the new piano industry today, it might be more reasonable to ask, “Why should I buy a new piano when I can get a much higher quality rebuilt one at the same price?” To answer this question intelligently, you need to know a little about the development of the piano industry over the last 100 years.

America’s “Golden Age” of piano building was during the early 20th century, when the piano industry was welcomed by an era of refined musical taste (the period of the great classical composers was still in progress), an open market of prosperous piano buyers, and a large force of skilled yet inexpensive labor. During this period, hundreds of piano manufacturers competed to be the best, and ultimately produced some of the finest musical instruments ever built.

By the second half of the century, the industry was plagued by rising skilled labor costs, greater scarcity of high quality materials, and increasing foreign competition. In 1961, expert piano technician and technical author John W. Travis wrote of the appalling trends at that time in the piano industry – trends which have only gotten worse since then:

“Personally, I will never be able to comprehend why certain manufacturers of pianos can boldly place their name on a piano fallboard, yet evidence such little concern, or none at all, in their pin blocks, their soundboards, and their bridges, when these constitute the very foundation of the piano. If these same manufacturers would spend more time and care on such basic needs, and less time on the satin-smooth cases, we would have better instruments in the so-called cheaper pianos, but then, their pianos would have greater ‘mileage’ and lasting qualities, and this would never do! A few years ago, when I was National President of the National Association of Piano Technicians, an official of the National Piano Manufacturers Association of America told me that the trend in building pianos today is to build them ‘to have a mileage of twelve to fifteen years’ and that we should not expect them to last much longer than that. I might add that the way some of the cheaper instruments are constructed and sold to the American people; the way some of the pinblocks in these pianos are poorly drilled; the way the bridges are poorly notched; and the way the backs are strung, it is wholly conceivable that some of these instruments will not even have a mileage of ten years, much less twelve to fifteen. With two or three laminations of ordinary maple, mind you, not even properly seasoned (five to seven laminations, quarter sawn rock maple is considered top quality for a pin block); with cheap labor employed and assigned to high speed drilling of pin blocks – charring the wood, mind you; with stringers who have never been adequately trained, literally ‘throwing the steel’ on, what in heaven’s name can we expect? Can these same careless people expect to remain in business over the years? Does the same brand name piano mean as much today as it did twenty or thirty years ago? It certainly does not.” ("A Guide to Restringing," 1961.)


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A Collection of stringer's tools.

The Rebuilt Piano:
A piano, by all outward appearances, is a clever but rather simple device, when measured against modern standards. That is, when compared to advanced electronic devices, for example, it seems simple. Its hidden complexities, however, lie in how it is constructed – i.e., in its materials and workmanship. A piano soundboard, for example, is simply a large piece of wood that lies under the strings and vibrates in order to amplify their sound. The quality of its sound, however, is amazingly complex, and can be influenced by the type of wood it is made of (i.e., not just spruce, but what type of spruce, where it comes from, its age, grain structure, and so on), how it is shaped and installed, how much pressure the strings exert when they pass over it, and many other factors.


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It is in these factors that modern piano building has lost its way. First, the fine hardwoods necessary for piano building have become much more scarce. Soundboards, for example, require old-growth spruce, which has become more and more scarce because of modern cutting restrictions. Thus, the best materials today are extremely expensive. Therefore, the temptation is to cut corners by purchasing inferior materials – after all, no one will ever see the difference.

There is a better way. Contrary to a number of myths that still prevail in the marketplace, many older instruments, especially those built during the “Golden Age,” are still in good enough structural condition to justify rebuilding them. Piano rebuilding offers the consumer the most affordable way to acquire a high quality instrument at a more affordable price. Because labor costs of the past were much lower than those of today, it is less expensive to start with an older well-built structure and rebuild certain portions of it than to build the entire structure at today’s high labor costs. . In many cases only a partial rebuilding may be necessary to produce a piano that will sound better, stay in tune better, be more responsive to the pianist’s touch, and still provide many years of faithful service.


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