Michael Stinnett’s career in piano restoration began when he fixed up his family’s old piano with Tinker Toys. By the time he was in high school, the young man with perfect pitch was tuning and repairing pianos around town for extra cash.
Today Stinnett runs his business from a small factory in Friendsville, Tennessee, where he houses and restores 250 to 300 antique pianos at a time. We caught up with him to discuss piano restoration tips.
How do I know if a piano is worth repairing?
If you’re not sure, call a local piano technician to evaluate it for you. This should cost you about $50 to $70, and it could save hundreds of dollars down the road. If a piano is an antique or has sentimental value, it may be worth investing in the restoration. There are a lot of really great pianos out there that, with a little tuning and maintenance, are still new enough to give several good years of use.
Is it safe to assume that anything pre-Depression is worth buying and restoring?
For the most part, yes, but there are exceptions. With pre-Depression pianos the quality is definitely going to be better than post-Depression. After the Great Depression, everything was bought out by conglomerates and the quality suffered. So, it’s kind of a rule of thumb in the piano industry that with a brand name like Knabe or Chickering, if it’s pre-1932, it’s generally built and designed well. Pianos built after 1933 are typically not as good. But of course, there are exceptions.
According to Antique Piano Shop, piano restoration ranges from around $8,500 and up for an upright, and from $10,500 to more than $25,000 for a baby grand or grand. Why is it so expensive to restore an antique piano?
To do it right you have hundreds of hours invested, and the specialized hours of those craftspeople don’t come cheap. Every piano is different. They were continuously evolving when they were being made. Often we have to hand-make every piece that we put in and that is extremely tedious. You can restore an antique piano usually for less than buying a good quality new one. So you might ask, why does a new piano cost so much? You can buy a brand new Yamaha grand piano for $35,000 or $40,000. Or, you can restore an antique Knabe or Chickering for half that amount, and have comparable quality and appreciation value.
How long does it take to restore a piano?
About eight months to a year—for the restoration itself. The shop you bring it to might have a long waiting list. Ours is two or three months.
What are the steps involved in restoring a piano?
The first thing we do is disassembly. We take detailed pictures and catalog and archive everything: where everything goes, what size it is, stringing scales, etc. That way we can reassemble it as closely to that as possible. After the piano is completely disassembled—that means removal of the harp and strings, and everything—we put it in a drying room to get the moisture content of the wood down, so during restoration the wood is less likely to shrink and warp. Then it goes to the finishing shop where the cabinet and woodwork is done. This includes
soundboard restoration and block restoration, not just cosmetics. After that is finished, we put the harp and the strings back in. While that work is going on, in another section of the shop, they restore the action—the hammers and the keys, and all the mechanical apparatus. So, by the time the strings and the case are done, the action should be done. After the strings are installed, the action is put in and all of the regulating and adjusting is done. Then, there are several hours of tuning and tweaking and that sort of thing.
How do you decide which parts can be restored and which need to be replaced? For example, are the strings always replaced?
We restore everything that can be restored. For example, the wood, the rim, the harp (which is cast iron), the hinges, the pedals, the keys—basically anything that can be restored, we restore. We replace things with limited lifespans—felt, rubber, leather, strings. Anything organic has a 40 or 50-year lifespan before it just deteriorates. We do replacements with a historical perspective in mind, so it is as close to its original condition as possible.
Is it bad for antique pianos to be shipped far for restoration?
Antique pianos are so incredibly durable and hearty. They were put in houses that had no insulation, no central heat and air, they were set next wood stoves, next to open windows, and were frozen—it’s crazy. And they survived. They come in here and are still playable and somewhat in tune. We’ve got old ephemera—old catalogs with people giving testimony that their piano arrived in South Dakota from New York on the train and then on horse and buggy to their home where they set it up and it was still perfectly tuned. It’s not uncommon for someone to send us a piano to be restored that, as far as they know, has never been. I sit down and play it, and it actually sounds pretty good. Pianos built today, on the other hand, are so incredibly delicate that you have to climate control them. It’s as different as night and day.
How should a piano be cared for?
It is better for the piano to be played and maintained than ignored and used as a piece of furniture. A piano is like any machine; when it isn’t played, moving parts are prone to stiffen. If you don’t tune the piano for a number of years it’s really difficult to tune it and get it to stay in tune without spending a lot of money.
Do you ever find objects inside the pianos when you go to tear them down for restoration?
Pianos are hiding places for people. They always have been. We’ve found guns, important papers, jewelry, clothing, stuff that the owners don’t want anybody to know where it is. They’ll forget about it and pass away and the piano’s sold. We’ve found quite a few gold coins and a lot of rare money. That’s always a treat, especially in the old coin operated pianos from saloons—we find buffalo nickels in them.
We recently restored a piano for a lady who inherited it from her grandmother, and this lady is now in her 50s. We restored it for her so that her grandchildren could take lessons on it. She came to the shop to see it when it was finished, and when we showed her the antique coins we found inside which had belonged to her grandmother, she cried and was just so happy.
Do you ever supply pianos for famous musicians?
We do, but most of the time we don’t know who it is for because a production company or representative contacts us instead. We get a lot of that same thing for film—people wanting period pianos for movies. We never know who it is, or what it’s going to be used for, because there’s all this confidentiality involved.
If you watch Jane Austen or Cold Mountain you can see the old square pianos that were so popular in the late 19th century. They are all but extinct today. We spent time restoring those and we are just about the only company in the world that does.
You have a lot of educational and historic materials on your website. Is there a greater mission here?
Our goal is to promote restoration and preservation of these pianos because 100 years ago they were the center of social life in the home. The piano market is struggling and our goal is to do what we can to help revive the industry and keep it alive. The way to do that is to make people realize that, when they have a piano that belonged to great grandma, their own grandchildren and great grandchildren could still play it. A lot of what we do is restore pianos for families so they can be handed down through generations.
Our mission and goal is to help keep the acoustic music industry alive, and to promote education and awareness for kids to start playing piano. The digital world has just really hurt so much of the acoustic music market.