Many used or vintage pianos for sale may have been previously rebuilt, refinished, or reconditioned. Other used pianos you may find may need rebuilding or restoration to some degree. There are many piano rebuilders and restoration shops that do excellent work, and artists, musicians, teachers and others rely on them to restore their vintage instruments to like-new condition.
There are also, however, many pianos that have been “rebuilt”, or “restored” by professed rebuilders or parties who:
- Didn’t know what they were doing,
- Cut corners, or otherwise tried to get by with the bare minimum in order to save a few bucks,
- Used substandard parts or materials, or
- “Customized” or altered the piano in experimental and untested ways.
It is important to understand, when looking at used or vintage instruments, that needed and necessary repairs are often neglected by owners who ask their piano technicians to “just get it working”, and then, ironically, tell potential buyers that the piano has been “comprehensively” reconditioned or rebuilt. (In some cases it’s simply a poor choice of words to describe what has been done to the piano, in other cases there is a definite propensity to try to deceive) Other piano owners may be ignorant, or forgetful, of what actually has been done to the piano. Years ago, a technician may done some minor repairs on a piano, or replaced a few felts but the owner remembers having “all the felts replaced”, or the piano “completely rebuilt”. One can see why misunderstandings often arise.
Piano buyers should know that there are many different levels of piano repair. A piano that has truly been “rebuilt” has had major or comprehensive replacement of parts, along the lines necessary to restore the instrument to it’s musical potential, or, as some say, to “like-new,” or “close to new,” condition. In many cases this hasn’t been done, and yet the person selling the piano claims it has been rebuilt. It isn’t always easy to tell whether a piano has been comprehensively restored or rebuilt. Often you need an expert opinion or a qualified appraiser.
There are a number of words used in the industry to describe different levels or degrees of piano repair or restoration. Here are some of the most frequently used terms, listed in comparative degree of magnitude, from greatest to least:
Remanufacturing: usually involves replacement of pinblock, soundboard, all strings, all hammers, action parts, and felts, and refinishing. The highest level of rebuilding.
Rebuilding: usually involves at the minimum complete replacement of all strings, hammers, and numerous action parts and felts, as complete sets. Often the pinblock is replaced, and the soundboard and bridges are often repaired or replaced, but pinblock and soundboard replacement are not absolutely mandatory. Refinishing the piano’s case is not mandatory, and often is not included, as it is considered a separate operation. However, the soundboard and the plate (harp) on a grand are usually (often) refinished, as this is not usually considered within the province of the refinisher, who usually just does the external case.
Reconditioning: less comprehensive parts replacement. The old strings or hammers may either be retained or replaced, and parts either replaced or reconditioned, depending on the amount of useful life left. Such niceties as refinishing the plate or soundboard are usually not done.
Restoration: general term that could mean any of the above.
Refurbishing: general term that could mean any of the above.
Refinishing: stripping off the piano’s old finish and replacing it. Usually also involves repair of damaged cabinet parts or wood, and replating, polishing, repair and or replacement of cabinet hinges, locks, casters and other hardware to restore piano to it’s “like-new” look. Again, this usually doesn’t include the plate or soundboard on a grand, unless you make special arrangements. (Refinishing a pianos’ plate or soundboard requires the removal of all the strings.) Generally done every 25 to 50 years or whenever the piano needs it.
Restringing: at the minimum, replacement of all the piano’s strings, and usually many associated parts such as tuning pins and understring felts. Bridges, soundboards and pinblocks may need repair or replacement in order for the piano to be restrung well, so the job will last. Restringing is generally done every 25 to 50 years, more often on high use pianos. Some technicians say that strings lose their tone after around 25 years, but this is not an ironclad rule. Some pianos have good sounding strings after 50 to 75 years, and others need restringing after only 10. A lot depends on climate, care, and amount of use.
Rehammering: at the minimum, replacement of all the piano’s hammers, and usually many associated action parts such as shanks, flanges, knuckles and butts. Generally done every 25 to 50 years, more often on high use pianos.
Repair: usually replacement or fixing of isolated parts, such as a single or a few hammers or strings, as opposed to replacement of complete sets of parts as above. A tuner may repair a broken hammer or string, or other part, when he comes to tune. Replacement of complete sets of parts such as strings or hammers usually is outside the province of the tuner and requires moving the piano into the shop. Generally done whenever the piano needs it, or whenever the tuner brings it to the owner’s attention.
The following terms are what is usually referred to by technicians as “routine maintenance.” The time intervals given are for “average” or “normal” use. However, pianos in higher usage or critical applications such as concert halls, recording studios, or teaching studios, or commercial use such as nightclubs or restaurants may require much more frequent tuning, voicing or regulation.
Regulating: usually means adjustment of the existing action parts to make the piano feel and respond it’s best. Should be done every 5 -10 years, frequently neglected.
Voicing: usually means adjustment of the existing strings and hammers to make the piano sound it’s best. Should be done every few years, but also frequently neglected.
Tuning: tightening or adjusting the strings of the piano to make them sound harmonious and return them to the proper pitch. Generally done every six months to a year, frequently neglected. Many people cannot tell if their piano is out of tune.
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