A piano that has been properly rebuilt may offer performance close to that of a new piano. Unfortunately, most rebuilt pianos have not been properly rebuilt. Rebuilding is required when the pinplank dries out and constricts, causing the tuning pins to become loose and rendering the piano untunable. The pinplank is a multilaminated plank of wood about 2-1/2 inches in depth – behind the plate in an upright piano and under the plate in a grand piano – in to which the tuning pins are driven. There is no other proper repair for this condition, and the plate must be removed to replace the pinplank. If the plate hasn’t been removed, the piano hasn’t been rebuilt.
While the plate is out, the soundboard can be repaired if necessary. It is usually not necessary or advisable to replace the soundboard if it still has sufficient downbearing. The plate and soundboard can be refinished while the plate is out of the piano. It is advisable to refinish the case at the same time. However, a piano does not have to be refinished to be considered rebuilt.
When the plate is removed, the action (key and hammer assembly) is also removed. Action rebuilding may not be necessary. Often only regulation (adjustment) is required. Hammers may need to be replaced or only voiced. Complete action rebuilding involves replacing and calibrating thousands of expensive parts. The older the piano, and the more use it has had, the more action work likely to be needed. This is a very gray area and the astute consumer will need to ask a lot of questions.
A piano that has been completely and properly (including action) rebuilt and refinished is likely to be as expensive as a new piano. Only a few technicians in any town are capable of doing this work, and they are likely to insist upon proper compensation for their work. It is important to be aware of the credentials of your technician, to be sure that he or she is capable. If you find a rebuilt piano that seems like a great deal, you can be reasonably sure that the work was not completely or properly done.
The greatest mistake a consumer can make is to attempt to save money by purchasing a piano and attempting to supervise the restoration themselves. They always spend more money and frustration than if they had just bought a proper piano at the start. They are almost never satisfied with the end result and almost never end up with an instrument worth what they paid. If you want a rebuilt piano, it is best to find one that has already been rebuilt, hire an independent expert to evaluate it and make a decision on its aesthetic appeal and cost relative to new instruments. Of course, if you have a family heirloom, you may well want to have it professionally restored or rebuilt.
A few rules of thumb:
- It is almost never economically viable to rebuild uprights.
- If someone tells you a piano has been rebuilt, ask a lot of questions.
- If it doesn’t say Steinway (or a very short list of other names) on the plate, it’s probably not worth rebuilding (from an economic perspective).
- Antique pianos are like antique cars – they’re fun to own and drive on Sundays, but impractical for daily use.