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What happens to a piano as it ages?
When does a piano need reconditioning or rebuilding?
How do I decide if major repairs are appropriate?
What work is included in reconditioning?
What work is included in rebuilding?
How do I arrange for these major repairs?
Cutaway view of grand piano
A piano not only serves the art of music, it is a work of art itself. A
wonderfully complex machine, it has thousands of moving parts, a framework
and soundboard supporting tremendous string tension, and beautifully finished
Although remarkably durable, pianos are subject to deterioration with time
and use. Felt wears, strings break, wooden structures weaken and crack, and
the exterior finish loses its beauty. Regular service and periodic action
regulation can compensate for minor wear, but heavy or extended use -- especially
when combined with wide seasonal humidity swings -- can eventually cause
Today, many high-quality older pianos exist in various stages of wear. Because
it happens so gradually, this wear often goes unnoticed, leaving many pianos
operating far below their potential. In extreme cases, some older pianos
are simply left unplayed because of their poor condition.
Some technicians possess the skills to restore such instruments to excellent
condition. This work is variously described as rebuilding, restoration, or
reconditioning. To establish some uniformity, the Piano Technicians Guild
uses the following terms:
Reconditioning is the process of putting a piano back in good condition by
cleaning, repairing, and adjusting for best performance with parts replacement
only where necessary. This is most appropriate for a piano with only moderate
wear or those of medium value with average performance requirements.
Reconditioning does not involve replacing major components such as the
soundboard, bridges, pinblock, and most action parts. This means the performance
and life-span of an older piano will not be restored to new. Instead,
reconditioning is designed to improve a piano's performance, keeping in mind
both costs and benefits.
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Rebuilding involves complete disassembly, inspection, and repair as necessary,
including replacement of ALL worn, damaged, or deteriorated parts. This piano
is then reassembled, tested, and adjusted to the same or similar tolerances
as new. COMPLETE REBUILDING includes the entire pianos structure -- including
soundboard, bridges, pinblock, and strings -- as well as the action, keyboard,
and case refinishing. PARTIAL REBUILDING includes only one or two of these
areas, for example rebuilding of the action and structure, but not case
Rebuilding restores the piano to original condition or better. Such comprehensive
work is usually most practical for high-quality instruments here maximum
performance and longevity are required.
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In the short term, leather and felt compact, affecting the adjustment
(regulation) of the parts. The action becomes uneven and less responsive,
and the piano's tone loses dynamic range. Squeaks and rattles may develop.
Routine maintenance such as hammer filing, regulation, voicing, and tuning
will correct these problems and maintain the piano in near-new condition.
After extended or very heavy use, action parts become severely worn. Leather
and felt wear thin. Keys become wobbly, hammer felt gets too thin to produce
good tone, and the action becomes noisy. Regulation adjustments reach their
limit. In addition, piano strings may begin breaking and the copper windings
of bass strings lose resonance.
After decades of exposure to seasonal changes, the wood of the soundboard,
bridges, and pinblock is weakened. This causes loose tuning pins, poor tuning
stability, and further loss of tone. By this time the piano's finish will
often be scratched or faded.
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Most pianos can be played for many years without major repairs. However,
the tone, touch, and appearance will continually decline with age. When regular
maintenance such as cleaning, regulating, voicing, and tuning can no longer
provide satisfactory performance, a piano may require reconditioning or
Exactly when a piano needs rebuilding or reconditioning depends on its original
quality, the climate, usage, and performance requirements. One piano may
need rebuilding after just twenty years, while another may need only
reconditioning after fifty years. The best way to decide is to seek out a
qualified piano rebuilder with the judgment, experience, and expertise to
advise you on such an important decision. If your Registered Piano Technician
does not offer rebuilding services, ask for referrals.
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Not all pianos are worth the expense of reconditioning or rebuilding. In
consultation with your piano technician, you should consider the following
The overall condition of the piano. Can it really be restored to original
condition or is it deteriorated beyond repair? Pianos subjected to severe
fire, flood, or moving damage may not be repairable.
The quality, size, and type of the piano. Low priced, small pianos of poor
design have limited potential. If the rebuilt piano would not be capable
of meeting your performance needs, it would be better to replace it with
one of better design.
The cost of repairs versus replacement. Major repairs may exceed the value
of small low-quality pianos. However, most large high-quality instruments
can be rebuilt for one-half to two-thirds the cost of a comparable new piano,
making rebuilding a cost-effective option for fine pianos.
Sentimental value. Personal attachment or historical value may justify investing
in major repairs rather than replacement.
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Reconditioning may include:
Repair or replacement of damaged parts as needed, typically including such
jobs as felt replacement, hammer filing or replacement, and partial restringing.
Adjustment, regulation, tuning, and voicing to return all parts to proper
function, reduce mechanical noise, and improve tone.
Finish touch-up or polishing.
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Complete rebuilding typically includes:
Complete disassembly of the instrument.
Repair or replacement of soundboard, bridges, and pinblock, as well as repair
of any structural damage to the case.
Replacement of all strings and tuning pins.
Thorough restoration of action and damper system, including replacement of
hammers, many action parts, springs, and most felt.
Rebuilding of the pedal and trapwork system, including replacement of all
worn felt, leather, and metal parts.
Refinishing of case and plate, polishing or replating of all hardware, and
replacement of all decals, felt trims, and rubber buttons.
Complete action regulation, tuning, and voicing.
Multiple tunings to stabilize new strings.
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If you suspect that your piano needs major repairs, have a complete evaluation
done by a qualified piano technician who specializes in rebuilding. Discuss
costs versus benefits of various repair options, and whether the completed
piano would meet your performance requirements. Most rebuilders will provide
you with a written proposal. Expect to pay a modest fee for this service.
You may want to visit the rebuilder's shop to inspect other work in progress,
or ask for a reference list of past clients. Checking out similar jobs will
give you a sense of how your instrument could be improved, as well as a feeling
for the technician's workmanship.
When you decide to proceed with major work, be sure to ask for a written
contract. This enables you to know exactly what will get done to your piano
and the associated costs, estimated completion date, payment method, and
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The preceding article is a reprint of Technical Bulletin
#1 published by the Piano Technicians Guild, Inc. It is provided on the Internet
as a service to piano owners.
Piano Technicians Guild is an international organization of piano technicians.
Registered Piano Technicians (RPTs) are those members of PTG who have passed
a series of examinations on the maintenance, repair, and tuning of pianos.
For a copy of this or other PTG Bulletins and Pamphlets, or a list of PTG
members in your area, vist the PTG web site or contact Piano Technicians
Guild, Inc., 4444 Forest Ave, Kansas City, KS, 66106. Ph: (913) 432-9975
Fax: (913) 432-9986 E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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