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 Helping old pianos age gracefully

"Some we burn... it's a better way to go"
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 decision.

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 play.

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 busy.

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 fixed.

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."

There are 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 condition.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "It had been tuned every year of its life, and it was in showroom condition."

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.

The 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 condition.

"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 repair.

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."

Consequently, the 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 kid."

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 effort.

"Some of them we have to burn," he said. "It's a better way to go than sitting in a barn and rotting."

Day 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."

Dunn's small 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)
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