Reconditioned, restored, rebuilt - what do they actually mean?

Reconditioned, restored, rebuilt - what do they actually mean?
by Nigel Scaife

Recondition, refurbish, restore, renovate, repair, rebuild – what do these terms actually mean when it comes to work done on pianos? There are no piano industry standards which help to clarify what a customer can expect when they are used and in my experience there is little general agreement on their definition. Different restorers, technicians and dealers have quite different ‘takes’ on them. In short, it’s a bit of a minefield! So here’s my take on how these words can be used to best effect which I hope will shed some light on what can be quite a murky area.

Personally I quite like the word ‘recondition’. I find it’s helpful in describing a process of dismantling a piano’s keyboard and action (and, if necessary, pedals), replacing worn or broken parts such as springs, felt or leather, reassembling and then regulating it. Reconditioning is needed when a piano has been left without regular servicing or when it has been played a lot over many years and there's significant wear and tear. In a way, it’s a series of repairs that ensures everything wrong with the piano is corrected, although ‘repair’ suggests a smaller activity which is possibly dealing with just a limited aspect of the instrument. It assumes that the original wooden and metal parts (other than centre pins and springs) are kept in place and that, once completed, the instrument is brought back to its best playing condition.

Some of my colleagues, however, consciously avoid ‘recondition’ as it has got a bad press from the less scrupulous who have used it when all that has actually been done is a minimal amount of superficial cleaning, rather than any actual work on the piano as a musical instrument. To recondition a piano properly requires highly specialised skills and a fully equipped workshop with suitable tools and materials. Many shops selling pianos do not have these fundamental facilities and are therefore unable to ensure that their pianos are properly reconditioned and regulated. Reconditioning a piano is a challenging and sophisticated activity, if often a repetitive and frustrating one! From the human perspective, it also requires enormous patience, integrity, focus and discipline if it is to be done to the highest standards.

While ‘refurbish’ is close to ‘recondition’, for me the word ‘restore’ denotes something more substantial. This might include replacing wrest pins, re-stringing or the replacement of hammers and dampers. In a sense, this is closer to renovation, implying that the instrument has been brought back to its original condition. If a piano has been restored then one can imply that it is going to sound, look and feel more or less the same as it was when originally built.

‘Rebuilt’ is another step along this continuum and implies that the entire piano has been dismantled, with the frame coming out and the soundboard either restored or replaced. The soundboard is really the heart of the piano and when this is replaced it will have a major impact on the sound, effectively creating a new instrument. Often the rebuilding process is initiated due to the wrest plank – the wooden block that the tuning pins enter – being in need of replacement. If an original patent action has been replaced with a new roller action in a grand, for example, then that would be a legitimate part of a rebuilding process.

Generally the cost of rebuilding a piano is such that it is prohibitive for all but the finest instruments. Given the significant cost of a new Steinway, Bösendorfer or Bechstein, it is usually worth the expense to rebuild an older piano from those makers or others of their quality, but for pianos which are not of the very highest original quality, the cost of the work might be more that the integral value of the rebuilt instrument. The exception to this is where the sentimental value of the piano warrants the cost and the customer commissions the work in the knowledge that the piano is being valued by them in a non-monetary way. A rebuilt piano will sound and feel like a new instrument and provided it is properly serviced will give pleasure for the pianist for many decades to come.

To discuss any aspect of reconditioning, restoration or rebuilding with us, please use the contact form on the The Piano Shop’s ‘Restoration’ page or call us on: 01892 543233.


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