Many rebuilders contract out portions of the job, particularly the refinishing of the piano's case, to others who have special expertise. Although this has always been so, more recently groups of technicians, each with his or her own business and shop, have been openly advertising their close, long-term collaboration with one another on rebuilding jobs. In a typical collaboration of this type, one person might rebuild the strung back or soundbox (soundboard, bridges, pinblock, strings, tuning pins, cast-iron plate); another would rebuild the action and do the final musical finishing, such as regulating and voicing; and the third would refinish the case. Collaboration of this kind is a positive development, as it means that each technician does only what he or she does best, resulting in a better job for the customer. But make sure you know with whom you are contracting or from whom you are buying, and which technician is responsible for making things right if problems arise.

It may occur to you that you could save a lot of money by buying an unrestored piano and having a technician completely restore it, rather than buying the completely restored piano from the technician. This is often true. But the results of a rebuilding job tend to be musically uncertain. That is, if you are particular in your taste for tone and touch, you may or may not care for how the instrument ultimately turns out. For that reason, especially if a lot of money is involved, you might be better off letting the technician make the extra profit in return for taking the risk.

"Vintage" . . . or New?

"Vintage" pianos are those made during the golden years of piano-making in the United States—roughly, from 1880 to World War II. More specifically, the term usually refers to the Steinway and Mason & Hamlin pianos made during that period, though it's occasionally applied to other great American makes as well. In the last few decades the demand for these pianos, and consequently their prices, has mushroomed due to a (until recently) strong economy, increased entrepreneurial activity on the part of rebuilders and piano brokers, allegations by rebuilders and others that today's new pianos are not as well made as the older ones were, and the purchase of many older Steinways by Steinway & Sons itself for rebuilding in its factory.

Grand Piano Rebuilding Checklist

The following is a list of the tasks that might comprise a fairly complete rebuilding of a grand piano. Any particular job may be either more or less extensive than shown here, depending on the needs and value of the instrument and other factors, but this list can serve as a guide. See also The Piano Book for information about specific rebuilding issues pertaining to Steinway and Mason & Hamlin pianos.

Notice that the restoration can be divided into three main parts: the soundbox or resonating unit, the action, and the cabinet. The soundbox (also known as the strung back or belly) includes the soundboard, ribs, bridges, strings, pinblock, tuning pins, plate, and the structural parts of the case; the action includes the keyframe and action frame, keys and keytops, hammers, dampers, trapwork, and all other moving action parts; the cabinet includes cosmetic repair and refinishing of the case and of the nonstructural cabinet parts and hardware. Note that the damper parts that contact the strings are restored with the soundbox, whereas the damper underlever action is treated with the rest of the action.

There is very little overlap among the three types of work; each of the three parts could be performed alone or at different times, as technical conditions permit and/or financial considerations require. In a typical complete rebuilding job, restoration of the soundbox might comprise 45 percent of the cost, the action 30 percent, and the cabinet 25 percent, though these percentages will vary according to the particulars of the job.

Soundbox or resonating unit

  • Replace or repair soundboard, refinish, install new soundboard decal (if not replacing soundboard: shim soundboard cracks, reglue ribs as necessary, refinish, install new soundboard decal)
  • Replace pinblock
  • Replace bridges or bridge caps
  • Replace or ream agraffes, restore capo-bar bearing surface
  • Refinish plate, paint lettering, replace understring felts
  • Replace strings and tuning pins, tune to pitch
  • Replace damper felts, refinish damper heads, regulate dampers

Action

  • Replace hammers, shanks, and flanges
  • Replace or overhaul wippen/repetition assemblies
  • Replace backchecks
  • Replace front-rail key bushings
  • Replace balance-rail key bushings or key buttons
  • Replace or clean keytops
  • Replace key-end felts
  • Clean keys
  • Clean and refelt keyframe
  • Replace let-off felts or buttons
  • Clean and, if necessary, repair action frame
  • Regulate action, voice
  • Overhaul or replace damper underlever action and damper guide rail
  • Overhaul pedal lyre and trapwork, regulate

Cabinet

  • Repair music desk, legs, other cabinet parts, as needed
  • Repair loose or missing veneer
  • Strip and refinish exterior; refinish bench to match piano
  • Buff and lacquer solid-brass hardware, replate plated hardware