Five Smooth Stones of the Piano Rebuilder

Five Smooth Stones of the Piano Rebuilder

Clint Hughes
Clint Hughes, Owner,
Grand American Piano

I wrote the following article for a religious publication. Even if you are not a religious person, this article is a good foundation for a person exploring a restored antique piano. It contains an explanation of five elements of pianos that most restored antique pianos possess. This includes quality, value, longevity, beauty, and musical sound.

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RPN Audio Video Cover

Published in Religious Product News Magazine supplement
“Church Audio & Video”, July 2012

By Clint Hughes, Owner of Grand American Piano

Everyone loves an underdog. The Bible is replete with underdog stories, battles, and individuals. The most famous underdog story of all, of course, is David and Goliath. I often mention that battle as an accurate description of the piano business.

You have the juggernaut piano manufacture/dealer network with their marketing budgets and silk tie salespeople on one side, and the craftsman rebuilder restoring one piano at a time, on the other. You wouldn’t think us rebuilders as the gadfly of the piano industry, but the fact of the matter is, Steinway’s biggest competition is restored Steinways.

So why is this epic struggle worthy of mention here? Well, because everyone reading this article is keenly aware of their stewardship to God and to their congregations to get the most out of the tithes and offerings. And, since the stage or chancel piano is one of the biggest investments a church will make, it is crucial that you know all of your options. So, I am here to offer five reasons for your church to consider the restored piano.

Reason One – Quality

Antique Grand PianoTwo synonyms for quality are excellence and superiority. Excellence is a fitting term, and has to do not only with the way pianos were built, but why they were built that way.

The era from the 1890s to the 1930s was called the “golden era” of piano manufacturing. They were building pianos for very different reasons than they are building them for now.

Back before radio and television everybody played the piano. The family memories were created in the parlor room around the parlor piano. It was a very discerning public back then, and if you built a bad piano, you were quickly out of business. That reality, combined with the fact that there were an abundance of raw materials, made it fairly standard practice to build pianos as well as they could build them.

The philosophy today is very different, and this is where the term superiority comes in. Computers, television, video games, etc. consume our time. The vast majority of people who buy pianos today don’t even play. They are looking for that status symbol piece of glossy black furniture to put in their great room.

And, since supply and demand drives business, the manufacturers are happy to accommodate that mindset. Most of the manufacturing money today is spent on the shiny black finishes, sacrificing what they have to (including sound) to fit that price point. The very few manufacturers left in America and Europe still making high-end pianos are financially out of range for all but a precious few, including churches. New Steinway grand pianos just aren’t in the budgets for most churches. So, they are forced to settle for a production line piano, because they think that new pianos are their only option. The restored piano is a fraction of the price of the hand-built new pianos, and this is where you find the second reason.

Reason Two – Value

Value, of course, is the relative worth of something… what you get for what you pay. This is where the rubber meets the road with the tithes and offerings. Between the sermons preached to educate on the logistics of giving and the Holy Spirit actually moving in the hearts of the congregation to give, it is of paramount importance that every dollar is pored over and spent wisely.

When you start to realize that a restored, hand-built piano is priced roughly the same as the shiny black production line pianos, (whether you procure one from a competent rebuilder, or you restore the old grand piano relegated to the fellowship hall), the value quickly becomes clear.

Reason Three – Longevity

One of the biggest myths in the piano industry is that “new is better than old.” I’ll admit in many industries this is true. The newer the car, the safer and more fuel efficient it is, newer computers have more memory, newer electronics have more features, etc. But, in the piano business, this is not so.

Because most manufacturers are building to fit a specific price point, there is a lot of particle board, compressed paper, MDF, etc. in the case parts. They aren’t really designed to last for generations. Contrast that with the older American pianos. They were all built with lumber core wood. Today, only the finest furniture makers use lumber core wood, but back in the golden era, it was just the standard practice. Besides needing to restore the moving parts and the finish, the piano itself is as solid today as when it was built a century ago. That is a true testament to not only how long it has lasted, but also to how long it will continue to last.

Reason 4 – Beauty

Modern pianos not only sacrifice their quality to fit their price points, but they also sacrifice aesthetics. The older American pianos were not only built to last, but beautifully built to last.

Antique upright piano sketchSome of the most beautiful woods, including burled walnuts, figured mahoganies, and stunning rosewoods were used in conjunction with mouldings and carvings that embellished the cases that gave equal credence to form as well as function.

Even the contemporary case styles of the day had subtle accents that made them classic and stately-looking. Of course, the period piece Victorian, French Provincial, Georgian, Louis XVI, etc. were the centerpieces of whatever room they graced, as well.

Reason 5 – Sound

When all is said and done, the most important factor to consider when shopping for a piano is the sound. This is where the restored pianos really shine.

The reason you don’t find a lot of golden era pianos on the dealer’s showrooms is because they would be the only pianos that sold. If you have the luxury of living in an area where you can listen to a new piano, and then go to a rebuilder’s shop and listen to a restored piano, that will be the definite deciding factor.

Because of the inherent properties of the Sitka spruce soundboards, the sound gets fuller with age. It’s the same reason that a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin sounds far superior to any new violin, and people are willing to pay astronomical prices for them. I don’t doubt that in 100 years, a Steinway that is new now, and restored then, will sound better than it sounds new as well.

These are the five smooth stones, if you will, that the piano rebuilder brings to the battle. The single compelling reason for choosing a restored piano over a new one is different for everyone, but the point is it only takes one stone to do it.

If you are the one who has been assigned the monumental task of investigating the purchase of the church piano, I hope I’ve made enough of a compelling case to consider searching out the piano rebuilder. They are a small group of craftsmen who delight in their trade and actually don’t mind being the underdog, resurrecting one hand-built piano at a time.

A RESPONSE FROM A READER:

Found your article in the Church Audio and Video pub. And, I concur. As pastor of a small church (5 years ago) I knew we needed a new piano. We had an excellent musician and a poor piano. It was always out of tune, and sounded like a saloon piano (Young and Chang upright), so it was left up to me to find something suitable. I checked in several music stores, and all I found sounded really cheap (yup, they all had the nice shiny finishes). I heard about an independent dealer who mostly tuned pianos and restored pianos in his extra time. In his workshop, I found three I liked. Since I play some myself, I tested all of them as to tone, touch, and overall playability. We purchased the completely restored 50-year-old Mason & Hamil. The wood finish, too, matched the church furnishings much better than a black finish would have. I mentioned to our musician — who also worked for the high school music program — that there were two other pianos there that might be good for the school, as they were looking for something as well. The soundboard of the piano they had had split. They ended up buying both (these had a somewhat more brilliant tone than the Mason & Hamil) Everyone is happy. Indeed, a much better choice for everyone than any new piano could have been.

Jack Nordick, St. John’s Catholic Church, Appleton, MN