Thousands of moving parts and hundreds of years of development have resulted in the fine instrument we now call the modern acoustic piano. Most of the world's major piano manufacturers have built hundreds of thousands, if not literally, millions of pianos in the last 100 years alone. Beautiful hardwoods and natural materials like wool and leather make it one of the most popular hand-crafted heirloom pieces.
Despite its robustness, however, every piano is subject to the effects of wear and time. Over time (typically after several decades at least), wool and leathers compress and erode with repeated usage, and wood dries and can become brittle, subject to cracking. With periodic, regular maintenance such as tuning and regulation, and placement in a relatively stable environment, most of these major problems can be delayed. Every piano, will at some point, though, require some degree of refinishing or rebuilding.
Let's take a look at some frequent issues you may encounter with an older piano, and offer some suggestions for determining whether the repair expenses are justified versus replacing the instrument.
Antique Pianos & Sentimental Value
When we say antique pianos, we typically refer to those pianos which are 80 years or older. These instruments are usually extremely tall and extremely heavy. They can often be snapped up for next to nothing at flea markets and antique stores. Or, they may be passed down from one family member to the next in an inheritance.
This is one of the hardest situations to counsel individuals through. We frequently get calls and service requests for pianos which have been in the family for generations. Unfortunately, however, the costs to refinish many of these instruments is often significantly worth more than the cash value of the instrument. Some decent new grand pianos can be had for as low as $6000, while complete rebuilding costs can run into the tens of thousands of dollars depending on what is needed. Also, depending on the age of the original instrument, modern pianos may have improved technology and designs which are lacking in the original instrument. In many cases, a new(er) piano will play better than the antique piano will, even when rebuilt.
Ultimately, the answer for whether to rebuild or replace an antique or a family heirloom piano depends on the severity of the rebuilding needed and the emotional attachment of the owner. You may find it worth it, or you may decide that investing in a new(er) instrument makes more sense.
What Happens to a Piano as it Ages?
Most piano manufacturers recommend tuning your piano four times in the first year of its construction, then typically twice a year after that. The reason for this is that when new, strings stretch and woods settle, causing the piano to lose its pitch more quickly when new. Unless a piano is moved frequently, it should hold tune well after about the first year or so, depending on the conditions where it is placed of course.
Other factors affect a piano over the course of many years and decades. Felts and leathers compact, causing the moving parts to eventually move out of sync as they were originally designed. This is known as a regulation problem. You can tell when a piano needs regulation because it will feel uneven and less responsive across the range of the keyboard. You may be unable to generate the dynamic and tonal range you once were. Most piano owners don't notice these changes for quite some time because they happen so slowly. Instead, they "adjust" their playing without realizing it until finally they realize there piano doesn't sound or feel as good as it once would.
If these conditions continue in the piano, the leathers and wools wear thin. Keys become more wobbly and the action becomes noisy. You may even experience a broken string or thuddy sounding bass strings as the copper loses resonance. Pinblocks can ultimately dry out, causing loose tuning pins. Often, the case will have built up a myriad of scratches or fading by this point.
Aged (NOT antiuqe) Pianos - Rebuild or Replace?
Most pianos can be played for many years with only regular maintenance (tuning, cleaning, etc...) needed. At some point, however, the piano will reach a state where a decision is needed - invest in repairing/restoring the instrument or invest in a new one? Here are a few final thoughts about whether to restore or replace:
- Overall condition - Can it actually be restored or will the final product still be unsatisfactory? An object, qualified piano technician (not the rebuilder) is your best answer to this question. If a piano has experienced a fire, flood, or moving damage, it may not be worth putting the money into it.
- Quality, size, and type of piano - Professional quality, Concert Grands typically have a remarkable longevity and rebuilding capability. However, smaller, low-priced (originally) pianos often have limited potential.
- Cost of repairs vs. replacement - Extensive rebuilding/restoration may be more than the cost of a new, comparable piano. For larger, professional instruments, rebuilding or restoration services may be around half the cost a new comparable instrument.