“Care and feeding” of a piano

Story and photos by Carrol Krause

Herald-Times Homes moc.t1498195383dlare1498195383h@sem1498195383oh1498195383

July 24, 2010


All pianos begin their lives as cherished musical instruments that are used daily. Over the years, under different owners, some of those pianos devolve into neglected pieces of large furniture. Regardless of whether a piano has been loved or ignored, Dave Cox of the American Piano Factory knows exactly what to do to put it in the best functioning order.

Inside his workshop Dave carefully works on his “patients,” taking their workings apart piece by piece, replacing strings and felts and refinishing their cases. He also sells fully-refurbished pianos, not “as-is” clunkers, but only a choice few that have been restored to perfect working order.

“I offer a full range of services,” he explained. “That includes tuning, appraisals, consultations, estimates, major or minor rebuilding; restoring the actions, including precision regulation and voicing; and quality refinishing.”

A winch on the ceiling allows him to lift the heavy cast-iron plate out of a piano when necessary. Heavy shelves in the separate drying room accommodate large pieces of piano cases that have been refinished until they gleam.

The multitude of different parts inside a piano is staggering, as you will easily understand once you look inside a specimen that has been taken to pieces in Dave’s workshop. The cast-iron plate with its stretched strings is only one part; the many little wooden hammers and felts that are activated when you press a key are sophisticated and delicate. The compression-and-tension felts are designed to bounce like Superballs when they strike the strings, and the hammers are made of woods that can include rosewood, walnut, hornbeam, maple and mahogany.

Dave made a wry face when I inadvertently referred to “the guts” of the piano.

“People always call it the guts of a piano,” he said, gently correcting my error. “It’s the action.”

Each piano has a unique set of strings that need to be perfectly matched when restringing. The bass strings are custom made from copper wound around a steel core. Old strings are sent to the string factory, which will match their diameter and density to ensure a proper sound.

In addition to the multiple pieces that make up the action, a grand piano usually has more than twenty pieces in the outer case. Many people attempt to refinish the outer case of a piano themselves, not realizing that the case is designed to be disassembled. They accordingly varnish over seams that are made to come apart.

Even worse, some people actually paint their piano cases when they want a new look for the parlor.

“I had one piano in here that had been painted three times over the original finish,” Dave remembered. “It was blue, then green, then white. The original finish was still on the wood underneath it all.”

It can take months to fully strip paint from a piano, but Dave has done it several times. He has also restored pianos that others have given up as hopeless. He labored particularly long and hard over a beautiful upright 1897 Tryber & Sweetland piano that stood for decades in the same corner of an upstairs room in the Odd Fellows building. No longer a dusty Victorian relic, today it’s a beautiful example of the piano-maker’s craft at its most elaborate. The highly figured wood case features floral inlays made of colored wood, brass and mother of pearl. The interior is decorated with hand-painted patterns and the exterior is packed with carved details. The keyboard is supported by decorative brackets that resemble those on some of the more fanciful Queen Anne houses.

“They used to do a lot more, aesthetically and decoratively, in the early years,” Dave said admiringly. He worked on this particular piano for more than two years as a labor of love because of its uniqueness. It’s in fully restored order today and is waiting for the perfect owner to come along.

Pianos in the old days were often custom-built to clients’ requirements. One that he worked on was specifically designed to go inside a large sailboat. “The most unusual piano I ever worked on was an 1890s Knabe grand, a seven-foot concert size, three- bridge piano,” he said. (Three bridges means it had three separate sections of strings overlaying each other in back, not just two.)

Client Tim Reed, a Bloomington piano instructor, remains forever loyal to Dave Cox for helping him when he first came to town in 1995 to attend IU School of Music.

“I had an old Knabe that was on its last legs and had been abused by its previous owners,” Tim recalled. “Dave offered me a very nice Baldwin that he had refurbished, and it’s been great! When you buy a piano from Dave, he won’t just pass on a piano to you in the condition in which he receives them. He refurbishes anything that needs to be refurbished, so it’s basically like buying a new piano. It’s like recycling a piano.”

Tim summed up, “He went out of his way to make sure I had a good piano. I was a starving graduate student and didn’t have a lot of money, but he put me on a payment plan. He takes a personal interest in his clients. He’s made a huge difference in my life.”

Dave says that good pianos can be kept in good functioning order indefinitely if cared for and given service regularly. He’s doing his part to provide the necessary service. Note: if you drive out to western Monroe County to visit Dave’s workshop, be prepared for a long visit.

“Most people who come out here to look around spend much more time than they had expected because they hadn’t ever visited a piano shop before, and find it so interesting,” he finished.

Contact Dave Cox and the American Piano Factory at (812) 825-7375 and see
www.americanpianofactory.net

Monroe Furniture Restoration - ornate 1897 piano Furniture Restoration Monroe - ornate 1897 piano

This ornate 1897 piano stood for decades upstairs in the Odd Fellows Building.

Monroe Furniture Restoration - keyboard

A keyboard has been removed from a current project in order to have its action improved.

Monroe Furniture Restoration - new strings

New strings must be carefully tuned.

Monroe Furniture Restoration - repairer's tools

The piano repairer’s tools of the trade are laid out here.

Monroe Furniture Restoration - Steinway

This Steinway has an elaborate sheet music stand.

Monroe Furniture Restoration - Tryber & Sweetland piano

Figured wood grain and hand-carved details distinguish this Tryber & Sweetland piano.

Monroe Furniture Restoration -  inlay

This elaborate inlay contains colored woods, mother of pearl and brass.

Monroe Furniture Restoration -  Tryber & Sweetland nickel pedals

The pedals of the Tryber & Sweetland are polished nickel.

Monroe Furniture Restoration - strings