• Helping old pianos age
As the pianos built during the boom in the early
1900s approach their centenary years, piano restorers are called in
to give them a new lease on life... or make a tough
|"Some we burn... it's a
better way to go"|
Peering into the depths of the old piano before
her, Clair Dunn took stock of the job ahead.
|She admired the delicately stenciled
cast-iron plate and some meticulous interior molding destined to be
seen only by piano tuners. The dusty Waltham upright piano with its
fine craftsmanship was in fairly good condition, considering it had
been around for 100 years and during that time had traveled to
Vermont from Milwaukee.
|Dunn was pleased: Her
work with the Waltham would have a happy outcome. For about $200, a
lucky American family would have a good quality instrument ready to
The future isn't always so bright for many aging
uprights, which are reaching the century mark of their heyday and
showing their age. There are dozens of piano restorers like Dunn,
and there are plenty of old uprights around to keep them
The piano restorers tell stories of being called to
look at pianos left in leaky barns; pianos inhabited by insects or
rats; pianos that were used as stands for potplants; or pianos with
problems ignored for so long that they simply can't be
Piano restorer Allan Day recalls finding a pre-Civil
War square grand piano, with mother-of-pearl keys, in an Illinois
hayloft under bat excrement and hay.
"It was salted away by
this woman's grandfather, who traded it for a pig," recalled Day,
who rebuilt the piano. "It probably took us two and a half years to
do it, because all the parts had to be handmade."
also happier stories. Dunn, who makes her living assessing,
restoring, and tuning the old pianos in farmhouse parlours, town
hall auditoria and church basements, walked into an old farmhouse
last year to find a century-old Williams upright in perfect
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "It had been
tuned every year of its life, and it was in showroom
Another one came off a porch on a farm. The
wooden case around the piano looked shabby, but the piano came from
one of Dunn's three favorite piano makers, Wing & Son. And it
sounded great. "This piano on the porch would reverberate Carnegie
Hall," she said. "But I couldn't sell it for what it was worth
because of the case."
Dunn, a lifelong musician who more
recently worked as a website-designer, lives on a former farm that
has been in her family for more than a century. She started tuning
pianos just a few years ago after watching a tuner work on her own
Kohler & Campbell upright. Now, she runs her business from a
small building attached to her house.
One day this summer her
job took her to Fairfield, where a family had asked her to look over
a piano they had acquired when they bought their house.
Waltham needed a lot of work. Its carved feet, which restorers refer
to as "toes," were banged up, the result of many moves. It had some
peeling veneer; several keys were badly chipped, leaving sharp edges
that could cut the player's fingers; and the soft felt of the bass
dampers had turned hard with age.
Dunn saw a bright future in
the piano's careful craftsmanship and overall
"Given its age, it hasn't been played all that
much," she said, pausing in her work to play a few bars of
"Sentimental Journey." She dismantled part of the piano and carried
the keys and several other parts back to her studio to
Between 1890 and 1925, the piano was popular both as
a form of home entertainment and as a status symbol. The industry
was among the first to offer customers the option of paying over
time - "a dubious honor," Dunn says.
As for why so many are
still around, Dunn theorizes that down-home thrift might be at work,
especially in poor, rural areas like hers: "If the pianos sound OK,
families simply hang on to them. A new piano can cost thousands of
dollars; if you're lucky, you can get an upright that's good enough
for a child's lessons for just hundreds."
uprights turn up everywhere.
"We have three or four of them,"
said Cindy Watson, assistant treasurer at the First Baptist Church
in Bennington and a member of the congregation for half a century.
"I'll bet some of these pianos were in that church when I was a
Eric Brinkerhoff, a fellow piano restorer, has about 45
of them in various storage properties. He called some of the
uprights "treasures they've built with 19th-century craftsmanship,
before we got to be so fast at everything." He wishes he had time to
restore them all.
But not all old pianos are worth the
"Some of them we have to burn," he said. "It's a
better way to go than sitting in a barn and rotting."
thinks many old pianos are worthless, and if children learn to play
on them, they learn on a piano that is out of tune.
"A lot of
these pianos should have been condemned 30 years ago, but they still
are shlepped between people, innocent people who think, 'A free
piano!"' Day said. "But it's the kiss of death, because the pianos
have a life expectancy, and things wear out."
studio is already jammed with pianos and she is reluctant to take
free ones. The exception: pianos made by Wing & Son, Ivers &
Pond, or Hallet Davis.
Occasionally, she said, a free piano
is a good deal. After all, an in-tune piano in fair condition might
be all a family needs for a child starting lessons. She sees in them
a piece of musical history. (Sapa-AP)