The Three R's of Piano Restoration

Three terms are often used when discussing restoration work on pianos: repair, reconditioning, and rebuilding. There are no precise definitions of these terms, and any particular job may contain elements of more than one of them. It’s therefore vital, when having work done on your piano or when buying a piano that has been worked on, that you find out exactly what jobs have been, or will be, carried out. “This piano has been reconditioned” or “I’ll rebuild this piano” are not sufficient answers. One person’s rebuilding may be another’s reconditioning.

Generally speaking, a REPAIR job involves fixing isolated broken parts, such as a broken hammer, a missing string, or an improperly working pedal. That is, it does not necessarily involve upgrading the condition of the instrument as a whole, but attends only to specific broken parts.

RECONDITIONING always involves a general upgrading of the whole piano, but with as little actual replacement of parts as possible. For instance, the reconditioning of an old upright piano might include resurfacing the hammers (instead of replacing them) and twisting the bass strings to improve their tone (instead of replacing them), as well as cleaning the whole instrument and regulating the action. If parts are broken or missing, of course, they must also be repaired or replaced, so this particular reconditioning job might also include replacing a set of bridle straps and other relatively minor parts, if needed. Rebuilding is the most complete of the three levels of restoration.

REBUILDING involves restringing the piano and usually, replacing the pinblock in a grand [piano] and repairing or replacing the soundboard. In the action, rebuilding would include replacing the hammer heads, damper felts, and key bushings, and possibly replacing or completely overhauling other sets of parts as well. Refinishing the piano case may also be done as part of a rebuilding job. Ideally, rebuilding means putting the piano into “factory-new” condition. In practice, however, it may involve much less, depending on the needs and the value of the particular instrument, the amount of money available, and the scrupulousness of the rebuilder. The bottom line is the restringing. If a piano has not been restrung, it really cannot qualify as a rebuilt instrument. Indeed, many technicians would assert that a piano has been rebuilt only if the pinblock has been replaced.

Due to the varied and sometimes unwarranted use of the word rebuilding, some rebuilders have come up with a new term -- remanufacturing -- to indicate the most complete restoration job possible, with special emphasis on the fact that the soundboard has been replaced, which may not be included in a regular rebuilding job. In my opinion, this new word only confuses the issue and, in time, it too will become tarnished. There is no substitute for requesting an itemization of the work performed.

    Source: The Piano Book by Larry Fine