By Sally Phillips
Technicians often get calls from piano owners interested in having their pianos rebuilt. Given the high cost of rebuilding, most technicians will screen the call by asking about the brand and age of the piano, and its intended use, in order to determine whether a visit to inspect the piano is worth the customer’s time and money. This article discusses some of the factors that go into that determination.
Why do pianos need to be rebuilt?
Depending on how you count them, a piano has as many as 12,000 parts. Over time, many of these parts are affected by wear and environmental changes to the point of being unrepairable without completely rebuilding the piano. A piano that sees constant use in a school or performance venue with poor climate control might need partial rebuilding in as little as 10 years. On the other hand, a seldom-used piano in a living room in a mild climate may go 100 years before being rebuilt. As a rule of thumb, most pianos become ready for rebuilding somewhere between 40 and 60 years of age.
Rebuilding a piano is a large, time-consuming project that can take almost as much time as the construction of a new instrument by the original manufacturer. Quality rebuilding work is very expensive, easily ranging from $25,000 to $40,000, or even more, for a first-class restoration of a high-quality instrument. Most aspects of the rebuilding process fall into three main areas:
The action, including the keyframe and action frame, keys and keytops, hammers, damper underlevers, trapwork, and all other moving action parts. These parts get worn with use, causing noisy movement and poor touch and tone. As many as 8,000 of a piano’s parts are in its action. Restoring the action also includes the regulation or adjustment of those parts.
The soundbox, also known as the strung back or belly, including the soundboard, ribs, bridges, strings, pinblock, tuning pins, plate; the damper felts, heads, and wires; and the structural parts of the case. Soundboards dry out, crack, lose their crown, and no longer transmit tone well. Bridges crack from the pressure of the strings on the bridge pins. The pinblock, a plank of laminated wood in which the tuning pins are embedded, often becomes cracked or worn, and can no longer hold the tuning pins tightly enough to keep the strings in tune. Although this is the most common reason for restringing a piano, the strings themselves can become compromised with rust, pitting, or metal fatigue. In better pianos that must be tuned accurately for professional use, even though the tuning pins are still tight, the strings may require replacing simply to restore the instrument’s tone or its ability to be accurately tuned.
The cabinet, including cosmetic repair and refinishing of the case and of the nonstructural cabinet parts and hardware. Refinishing the cabinet is a very expensive part of the restoration process — in some cases as much as a third of the cost.
1. For a more complete list of what the complete rebuilding of a piano entails, see the Grand Piano Rebuilding Checklist in the Piano Buyer article “Buying a Used or Restored Piano.”
Technicians refer to instruments that are candidates for rebuilding as “core pianos.” This means that the only possible use for the piano is to rebuild it. For the reasons mentioned above, these instruments are usually untunable and/or unplayable, and thus unusable as is. If you own what is essentially a core piano, and intend to use it other than as a piece of furniture, you’ll have to have it rebuilt or replaced.
Why Most Pianos Are Not Good Candidates for Rebuilding
The main reason a piano may not be a good candidate for rebuilding is that it simply is not a good enough instrument, something that’s usually indicated by the potential resale value of the instrument after rebuilding. If the cost of rebuilding the piano exceeds its potential resale value when rebuilt, then rebuilding is usually not a wise investment — for less money, the owner could buy a better-quality instrument. Although an inspection by a qualified technician or rebuilder is necessary to confirm the cost of repairs and the potential value of your instrument when rebuilt, the most important factors in determining its potential value after restoration are its brand and model. Before contacting a technician for an estimate, an Internet search for examples of your model of instrument for sale, restored or unrestored, will likely give you a good dose of reality. You may immediately find that pianos like yours sell for premium prices — or that similar models are being given away cheap or for free on Craigslist.
It turns out that, from a financial point of view, except for premium-quality instruments, most pianos are not worth a private owner’s investment in their rebuilding. Putting thousands of dollars into a low-quality instrument won’t increase its value by much, and there’s no guarantee that any of the cost of rebuilding can be recouped in resale. Piano dealers who sell rebuilt pianos choose candidates very carefully in order to get a return from their investment in parts and labor, and the private owner should be just as wary. In my experience, if the client expects to recoup rebuilding costs should there be a need to liquidate, the least-expensive instruments that should be considered as candidates for rebuilding are models that currently retail new for over $60,000. The mistake I usually see is that a piano with sentimental value but very marginal quality has been rebuilt, and the family is now trying to sell it and recoup the cost of the work. There’s nothing wrong with having a piano restored for sentimental reasons — but you should be clear that the return on your investment will not be a financial one.
On a case-by-case basis, older instruments with poor resale value may be worth the value of the repairs to the owner, but to no one else. I once had a client — a piano teacher — who’d been given an older piano that, although well built, would have had little resale value. In her situation, a more modest, partial rebuilding without cosmetic work, costing about $15,000, resulted in a usable, decent piano for her teaching studio. Partial rebuilding may also make sense for some newer used pianos that have not yet reached core-piano status. For example, a medium- to high-quality instrument less than 50 years old whose pinblock and soundboard are still in acceptable condition may benefit from restringing and action rebuilding (two procedures that are often considered normal maintenance on performance instruments), which can significantly extend the piano’s useful life until the time its other elements require restoration. But such situations make sense only if — taking into account the remaining life expectancy of its unrestored parts — the resulting instrument exceeds the quality of a new piano costing the same as the rebuilding. The higher the rebuilding cost, the more expensive is the new piano to which the rebuilt one needs to favorably compare.
Older, inherited pianos that have been in a family for many years often acquire mythologies of value and provenance that decidedly deviate from reality. Earlier technicians may have unwittingly contributed to this because they were reluctant to tell the truth. Often, a new technician called in to examine an older piano is met with an heir’s lofty impressions of it: “Mr. Binkie [the deceased] said that this was the best piano he’d ever seen.” Even though the new technician knows that the tuning will not be very successful, he or she is reluctant to tell the owner, and so just does his or her best and heads to the next appointment. When the day comes that the technician must tell the owner that, due to structural failure, the instrument can no longer be tuned, the harsh reality must be faced. “But can’t you repair it?” the customer asks. At that point, the technician must explain that the repairs will cost thousands more than the value of the instrument.
“But isn’t my piano an antique?” Most older pianos do not qualify as antiques. American pianos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have no real antique value unless they have very unusual or heavily carved, ornate casework utilizing expensive cabinet woods and/or marquetry. Ivory keys do not add value, and, given new laws regarding the sale of ivory, may even be a detriment in some cases. Even with very fancy casework, few dealers or rebuilders will invest in rebuilding for resale if the core-piano value is minimal. I recommend asking any technicians who examine the piano what they would do if it were their piano. Be open to the professional’s opinion — don’t shoot the messenger. If dealing directly with rebuilders, ask if they’d be interested in buying the piano unrestored. If they decline, that might tell you something about its core-piano value.
Poor Or Problematic Candidates for Rebuilding
Here is a partial list of pianos that are unlikely to be candidates for rebuilding, or that may have problems that reduce their desirability for rebuilding:
Older grands from manufacturers of low-quality pianos that are no longer in business: These pianos are much more difficult to restore because parts — especially action parts — are not readily available. Technicians can use generic parts with some success, but may have to re-engineer or modify the entire action in order to do so, which makes these instruments even more costly to properly restore.
Spinets, consoles, and old uprights: None of these — even old Steinway uprights — will sell for as much as the cost of a quality restoration.
Steinway 85-note grands and six-legged player grands: Most customers would assume that any Steinway grand would be a good prospect for rebuilding, and for the most part that’s true — but the 85-note, older, 19th-century models will not bring as much in the marketplace from knowledgeable buyers. Modern pianos have 88 notes, the change from 85 having occurred mostly in the 1880s and ’90s. This doesn’t mean that an 85-note instrument can’t be restored, but such pianos are usually not desirable for the professional pianist because of the musical limitations caused by the omission of the three highest notes in the treble. For casual use in the home, however, an 85-note piano is entirely acceptable. The older player-piano Steinway grands with six legs (two at each of the three leg positions) have extremely long keys that are very difficult to regulate so that the touch feels right. The sound can be restored, but the function of the action will never match the performance and feel of a new piano.
Previously rebuilt pianos: Pianos that have already been rebuilt are sometimes poor candidates for a second rebuilding. The quality of the prior work may have actually reduced or ruined the value, due to the rebuilder’s failure to properly replicate the original instrument’s design. Also, in the 1950s, many old pianos, when rebuilt, had their ornate legs, lyres, and music desks replaced with more modern, plain-looking case parts. There are companies that make replacements, but the cost of a set of these ornate parts can exceed $5,000.
Having a Premium-Quality Piano Rebuilt
Even with a premium-quality instrument, the $25,000 to $40,000 cost of a first-class restoration may be hard to recover by a private owner selling out of the home. A fully rebuilt piano selling from a retail store is generally thought of as a like-new instrument, and thus is sold at a retail price that includes a warranty or implied warranty, providing valuable peace of mind. However, a piano sold from a home is considered — legally and in terms of buyers’ perceptions — as merely a used piano. It generally does not come with a warranty, and is likely to bring a much lower price (similar to wholesale) because of the concerns that buyers may have about potential technical problems and longevity. To alleviate the client’s reservations about spending a huge sum of money to rebuild a piano, a restorer will sometimes exaggerate the value of the rebuilding work to imply that, post-restoration, the client can expect to make a profit on the sale of the piano. However, this is rarely the case because while the client has paid a retail price for the restoration, he or she can realistically expect only a wholesale return when selling.
For this reason, the customer who’s thinking of spending money to rebuild a piano should seriously consider the length of time they want to retain ownership. If the rebuilding is to be a long-term investment in which the payoff is primarily many years of pleasure at the piano, it may well make financial sense. But if you expect to sell soon after rebuilding, don’t expect to make a profit — and it may be necessary to take a small loss.
Here, an important factor is the piano’s end user. If the piano is being restored for professional use by a pianist, or for any owner with specific tastes in tone and touch, the outcome of the restoration work is more critical than if it is going into the parlor of a family home for light, casual use. More than new pianos, rebuilt instruments vary unpredictably in their musical qualities even when restored by experienced rebuilders, and there’s no guarantee that the musical outcome of even a high-quality rebuilding job will be to a discerning owner’s satisfaction. If the rebuilt instrument is not what you hoped it to be, you may need to sell it, which could lead to an unanticipated loss. To avoid this scenario, it may be preferable for this type of owner to instead sell or trade in the core piano to a rebuilder, then purchase a new or rebuilt instrument whose musical qualities can be ascertained beforehand.
2. If the owner plans to donate the rebuilt instrument, additional considerations apply. See my article “Piano Purgatory: The Donated Piano.”
A few examples that illustrate the concepts discussed so far are shown in the table below.
*Even if the owner didn’t pay for the piano, it still has a value that must be considered in the calculation.
Shopping for Rebuilding
If you decide to take the restoration plunge, visit rebuilding shops, ask to see examples of their work, and get references and more than one estimate. If you’re going through a dealer, find out who will actually do the work. Many dealers send work out to subcontractors, and you need to find out who is actually responsible for the final product. Don’t forget to calculate the round-trip transportation of the piano to the rebuilder’s shop, especially for out-of-state transport; often, this is not included in estimates.
Keep in mind that the quality and scope of the rebuilding services offered differ from shop to shop. Some specialize in performance instruments, whereas others deal more frequently with the family piano, or are more interested in the cosmetic elements. Also, there is no licensing in the U.S. piano trade, and certification by trade groups and/or schools does not guarantee the level of experience or competence required. In considering ways to save money, know that, most of the time, a reduction in the price of the work will be reflected in reduced performance of the rebuilt piano. However, omitting the piano’s cosmetic elements (e.g., refinishing the case) from the restoration can greatly reduce the cost without sacrificing the instrument’s musical functionality. Even if refinishing is not entirely omitted, money can be saved by having a less-expensive finish applied. For example, a satin finish applied with a spray gun, but not hand-rubbed, costs less than a hand-rubbed or high-polish finish.
When considering reductions in the scope of the work in order to save money, however, the rebuilder’s skill and experience are even more vital to success. The better the rebuilder, the more likely they are to turn down work that will not, in their opinion, result in a successful job. Sadly, that also means that the less-experienced rebuilders will often tackle jobs that are either well beyond their abilities, or unlikely to result in satisfactory instruments.
Last, before making a final decision, also shop around for new pianos, or for rebuilt or better-quality used ones, and compare their prices with the cost of restoring your current piano. Today’s new pianos, in particular, are of much higher quality than the new instruments of 20 or 30 years ago. I find that, in some cases, clients who haven’t looked at new instruments in years are making the decision to rebuild based on out-of-date impressions or opinions. Before investing in repairs, be sure that your comparisons are fresh and reflect the current market.
Over the past 35 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry: service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role as a concert-piano technician, she has tuned and prepared pianos for concert and recording work in such venues as Town Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. At present, Phillips lives in Georgia and works throughout the southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.