Poor Piano

Pianists – Watch This Before You Refurbish Your Old Piano!

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Even these days, when cheap secondhand pianos are in plentiful supply, having been tossed aside to make way for compact, sophisticated keyboards, not many people can brag about owning a Steinway. Fewer own one that’s not worth bragging about. And then there’s the guy who actually went out of his way to buy one that’s not worth bragging about.

So gather ’round my 133-year-old Steinway upright, and hear a little ditty about a man with a laptop, a rental van and impulse-spending issues. My tune is not quite a dirge, I suppose, since this piano is actually an improvement on the troll it displaced from my living room. But I’d have endured far less angst, and gotten more piano for my money, if I had listened to the experts before leaping at my “bargain” discovery.

My advisers included Amy Tiernan, a piano technician and restoration specialist at Doghouse Pianos in Pawcatuck, Conn.; Fred Altenburg of Altenburg Pianos in Elizabeth, N.J.; and Barb Blair, author of “Furniture Makeovers” (Chronicle), and founder of Knack Studio in Greenville,

Ms. Tiernan’s advice was typical of what I heard. “Don’t rush into anything,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re getting into until you have someone look at it.” Right. But what are the odds of finding an available piano technician the moment you spot a Craigslist ad for a used Steinway, in “good” condition, for £50?

It had been kept in a dry, heated garage for 15 years, said the owner, who is the chief executive of a well-established telecom business. He said the piano had been inspected by a technician, who deemed its soundboard healthy. “We’re clearing out the garage, and I just want it gone,” he said. “People have been calling nonstop since I put up the ad.”

Now let’s take a step back and consider what I should have done. When selecting a used piano, my panelists said, it’s fine to be drawn to the better names, like Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, Baldwin and Knabe, among others. But even among those brands, prospective buyers are likelier than ever to find instruments that aren’t worth salvaging.

Mr. Altenburg said that in past generations, pianos were as central to family entertainment as televisions are today, but as that tradition fades further into oblivion, heirloom instruments often suffer from neglect. Crucial parts can fail and, to untrained eyes and ears, the piano could appear fine. “It’s really like buying a used car,” Mr. Altenburg said. “Unless you know these things, you wouldn’t even know what to look for.”

That caveat aside, Mr. Altenburg posted a video on his website,altenburgpiano.com, explaining how nonexperts can inspect a piano’s soundboard and the bass and treble bridges. as shown here;

But even if those look fine, there could be hidden problems with other parts, like the wooden blocks that secure the tuning pins. The pins hold the strings at the proper tension for extended periods — unless the block is cracked. Pianos that live in areas with extreme humidity swings are more prone to cracking, which is why some experts warn against buying older pianos in the eastern United States, for instance.

So, how do you check a pin block’s health before you buy? With many pianos, you don’t. A technician can check for patterns — for instance, if a cluster of strings is out of tune, it could suggest a bad spot in the pin block. But a cracked pin block is like a leaky head gasket in a car engine. Sometimes you can fix it and it’ll hold for years. Sometimes not. And either way, it portends trouble elsewhere. And if the piano has sat unused for years, the only way to gauge its health for sure is to tune it and see if it holds a tune.

Piano technicians will charge from £100 to £200 for a tuning, and around £100 for an inspection. The best way to find a good technician is to triangulate a bit: Seek word-of-mouth recommendations from piano teachers and friends, check local piano dealerships and, finally, scan listings from the Piano Technicians Guild (ptg.org).

So let’s suppose your technician checks your £50 treasure before you buy it, and deems it worth taking a chance on. If you add the cost of two technician visits, you’ve already invested at least £250 in your piano.

Now for the fun part. When I moved our old upright piano into our living room, I still had friends who would risk their spines for beer. Now they risk their spines only for CrossFit, so I called piano movers. One said the charge was £190 an hour, with a three-hour minimum. Another estimated £500.I was having none of that, and the owner of my Steinway said his employees would help me get it on the truck, so I rented a 14-foot U-Haul and made the 60-mile trek to his home. Estimated cost for that trip, with mileage charges: £250.

Mr. Altenburg offered some tips, since moving a piano safely — for the movers and the instrument — requires specific techniques that meatheads like me too often overlook. The legs of a piano, for instance, can easily break if movers hold them while lifting. (If there are no front handles, he said, lift beneath the keyboard where it meets the case, while holding the handles in the piano’s rear.) And instead of straining an old piano’s wheels, use a furniture dolly.

Bear in mind that the bottom of some pianos are curved, he said, and will require stabilizing if placed on a dolly. When I showed up with the van, I beheld my new baby. The veneer on the side panels was peeled off at the bottom, but the sanded wood looked charmingly rustic to my eye. I played a few chords. One key was dead. One string was snapped. It sounded slightly drunk.

We had three guys with around 150 years in non-piano-moving experience and one 615-pound piano. We got it on the dolly easily enough, then failed to move it halfway up the 10-foot-long ramp until a neighbor showed up and helped. Getting it off the truck required two neighbors and a friend, but we weren’t about to try getting it up the stairs to the house, so I called the movers again. They stopped by on their way from Boston to western Connecticut with a nine-foot Steinway grand. Twenty minutes and another £250 later, my piano was home — £500 spent on moving and much more sweat and drama and wasted time than if I had hired someone. Brilliant me.

Ms. Tiernan, who has several old Steinway uprights in various states of recuperation, paid a visit. She loved the piano the way an archaeologist might adore a mummy. Or a long-term grant. She coaxed a few strings into tune and offered an optimistic prognosis. For £600 to £1,000, she would revamp the piano’s action, or the myriad parts that strike the strings. A full restoration of the action would cost roughly £20,000, she said, not counting the exterior refinishing. A Steinway rep told me a customer on Fifth Avenue paid £900 for the piano in 1881 (according to this Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank site, that would be about £22,000 today, just a few thousand less than a new Steinway upright in ebony). On top of that, it’s an 85-key piano, three short of the standard, so it’s not worth paying for a full restoration if I ever hope to earn the money back by selling it.

But Ms. Teirnan said that for £1,000, and with regular maintenance, the piano would play nicely for my nonconcert purposes, perhaps for another 20 years or more. Sounds fine to me.

What of the refinishing job?

The piano had been “ebonized,” or varnished black, to conform to Victorian tastes, so I was told the veneer was never meant to see the light of day. I could replace the veneer on the side panels with sheets of matching veneer and contact cement, but Ms. Blair and several refinishing specialists said it’s a high-risk operation for a beginner.

Another option is to remove all the veneer from the piece to expose the maple base, and stain that. “With good wood, there’s always an option,” Ms. Blair said. “Just don’t rush.” I’ll more likely stain the veneer and find a way to hide the damaged veneer — behind sheet-music holders, for instance. Either way, Ms. Blair said, it’s a project for warmer months when I can strip and sand any remaining spots of varnish and apply stain and polyurethane with windows wide open.

For now, the Steinway sits with its front panel open, exposing its very cool Rube Goldberg-esque action. Once it’s acclimated to its new environment, we’ll give it a proper tuning, and Ms. Tiernan’s revamping is on our schedule. In the meantime I’ll occasionally hit the keys and listen in. The treble notes are more noticeably out of tune, but the bass notes are worth hearing out to the very end.

I’m happy knowing the experience wasn’t a complete failure, and we’re thrilled to have our old beast out in the garage.Speaking of which, I posted it on Gumtree last Month. I can’t understand why no one has responded yet. It’s free!

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