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MMD > Archives > October 1999 > 1999.10.30 > 08Prev  Next

Hire the Qualified and Honest Restorer
By Craig Brougher

Panic Restorations...

Brian Thornton brought up a subject that should really be expounded
upon in detail in the MMD.  That being the chintzy tricks to make
player pianos play like new again.  His article about the "Ampicoville
Horror" really brought this to mind.

Most people have no conception of what is actually required when you
have decided to restore instruments, every single one of them --
legitimately, thoroughly, and in detail, all the way through -- and
guarantee both thorough workmanship and performance of the restorable
ones left.

When someone sends their piano to a shop somewhere they often look for
someone in their general area, thinking that they are going to save
money not having to ship it, and too often that's all they save.

Another thing they often want to have is their piano back in six
months, beautifully restored and playing perfectly.  That likewise is
not going to happen.  Legitimate rebuilders are _not_ a dime a dozen,
regardless of the advertisements and word of mouth you may run into.

And then there are the "exclusivists", who charge three times the price
of anybody else and sucker wealthy patrons with the promise of perfec-
tion and the promise that everything in that player will be restored.

I have rebuilt or repaired 49 reproducers just in my travels across the
country in the 80's, and in not one single case had any of the valves
been completely rebuilt, even though the player rebuilds alone had cost
these customers an average of between $6000 to $7000 apiece.

About a dozen of these reproducers still had the original pump cloth,
and a number of the Duo-Arts still had the original valve chest
covering cloth glued across the shelves in the stack -- proof that
they had not even been opened for a check!

I have surprised many an owner over the years by removing and disassem-
bling components which the owner was sure had been restored, and proven
to him that they had never been touched.  What looked like "perfect
original leather or cloth" to the original repairman, whose shop was
always so clean you could eat off the floor, had, in less than ten
years, become unusable.  Once the piano started playing again on a
regular basis, the old leather that looked so good got leaky, fast.

When I first got into this business, I visited rebuilders on occasion.
One of them was pouring mineral oil in the valve chest of a Standard
Action Player.  The guy told me, "See, I don't monkey with valves.
Takes too much time.  All you have to do is this! <glug, glug, glug>"

He would let the players drain overnight, mount the pneumatic shelves
the next day, and could be pumping it again that afternoon.  He charged
more than I charged for a complete restoration, and was taking away my
business.  He would still be in business today if he hadn't run into
some domestic problems, I hear.

He became a rebuilder in great demand around town for awhile.  He
bought a big shop, hired a number of technicians, and started "re-
building" pianos on a grand scale.  You would see them in back of
the shop, with a high pressure washer, hosing down the paint stripper
they had put on the cases.  Many of the cases blanched under their
lacquer, but for a while it was unnoticeable, with the hardware store
stain they used by the gallon.  They didn't fool around.

Of course, every tuner in town advised against using him, but that
didn't stop his destruction of pianos.  He bought up pianos every time
they turned up, player pianos and otherwise.  Every imaginable dirty
trick you can think of, he used.  In a few cases, within six months to
two years those pianos became unplayable, untunable, and unrestorable
by ordinary means.  Most were just junk pianos that had been sprayed
and dolled up.

A properly restored player piano is difficult to sell in a store today,
unless it was bought from a fire sale somewhere.  If a player piano is
anything, it is valves -- and it is the valves that take the most time
and give you the most problems.

Restorers who have to keep a shop store open and viable either have an
exclusive clientele and do not advertise or, with their overhead and
the time spent on the job, they must ask new piano prices (or more) for
old restored players properly done, because of the weeks of time
required to restore one thoroughly.

Frankly, I think that restored old pianos are a far better bargain than
most new instruments, because the monetary value, austerity, romantic,
antique, and entertainment values only increase with age.  But -- and
this is a huge "but" -- only if they have been thoroughly restored and
detailed correctly.  That requires integrity: a willingness to do
whatever it takes to make each instrument play again to its full
capacity, regardless of its resale value.

As you can see, very, very few stores are going to go to unnecessary
expense like that, when most of their customers "wouldn't know the
difference anyway" (as they often have pointed out to me).  And old
valve leather will play almost as good as new valve leather, for
awhile.  That customer will never know the difference.

Many are the shops which are able to restore reproducers and players
properly, but many also are the shops who make a decision like that
based on who owns the instrument and the exposure they are likely to
receive as a result.  The rest of their business is not quite as
important as these definitive pieces.  To me, this lacks integrity,
and yes, I am also a rebuilder, but I condemn it.

And for those who say, "He's just making himself look good," I say,
I will risk that in order to show other interested people what can
happen to their instruments.  I think it's high time that the truth was
known and the player lovers warned.

There are a number of conscientious restorers across the country who
rebuild the same way I do.  I am not alone.  But I sometimes feel like
I am, and I know they must feel the same way.  If we are going to pro-
tect the remaining instruments needing rebuilding, then we are going
to have to condemn these practices, sooner, rather than later.

I would really like to hear in these Digest pages from other rebuilders
across the country who have stories to tell, just like Brian Thornton
did.  It would give the general public an opportunity to see that
chintzy tricks are not common to a few locales, but are nationwide,
and are not limited to little one-man shops, either.  We have already
read Tim Baxter's account of outright theft, but I suspect there are
many stories of rebuilding snafus from customer and rebuilder alike
that would also serve to warn many of what can happen.

To have been tricked is not a reflection upon anyone's judgment or
choice of rebuilder, necessarily.  Unless they are forewarned, the
piano owners are not forearmed.  And if we can take away some of the
fear of getting a bad job, more people will decide to have their
instruments restored properly.  There are also things that you,
as a customer, can do to assure yourself of a thorough restoration.
I hope to also get into some of those steps as the thread progresses,
if there is sufficient interest.

Craig Brougher

 [ See "Dropped Piano Tragedy was Fraud" in 990723 MMDigest.  MMDer/
 [ victim Tim Baxter reported: "Investigation has revealed that the
 [ technician has at least one felony conviction, and several misde-
 [ meanor convictions, for fraud offenses similar to that recited
 [ above..."  I wonder if other expensive hobbies (e.g., antique cars)
 [ have the problems like we have with restoration shops.  -- Robbie

(Message sent Sat 30 Oct 1999, 14:17:03 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Hire, Honest, Qualified, Restorer

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