Area man helps Steinways retain their pitch

May 20, 2004|by RICHARD BELISLE

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - The wippen, a 5-inch-long wooden apparatus that looks like it could have been made by Rube Goldberg with its 35 different parts, is an integral part that helps turn a depressed piano key into a note.

Ted Black had a box of 88 of them, one for each key on the 109-year old Steinway & Sons Model A grand piano he is rebuilding. Parts from the instrument are strewn around his small shop at 119 Walnut St.

Grand pianos have about 12,000 parts, mostly wood, he said.

New piano parts are easy to come by, he said. Manufacturers stock them and aftermarket suppliers also are a good source.


In about a month, the 6-foot, 1-inch Model A Steinway in Black's shop will be sent back home to a church in Greencastle, Pa., restored and ready to be played.

Black, 55, of Hagerstown, works mostly on Steinway grands in the shop that he moved into in October 2002. Before that, he did his work in a one-car garage at his home.

"Generally, old Steinways are worth rebuilding," he said.

A model like the one owned by the Greencastle church will be worth around $30,000 when it's done, he said.

Patti Kesterson, manager of Jordan Kitts Music's corporate headquarters showroom in College Park, Md., said rebuilt Steinway pianos sell for about 85 percent of the cost of a new one.

The least expensive new Steinway, the Model S, which is 5-feet, 1-inch, sells for $38,000. The largest can cost $150,000 or more, she said.

"Steinway is considered to be the best in the world," Kesterson said.

Ninety-nine percent of concert artists use them even though there are more expensive makes, she said.

Jordan Kitts is the largest retail piano outlet in the United States, with 12 stores, she said.

Black said many piano companies went out of business during the Great Depression, but some of the better ones - like Stieff pianos, which were made in Baltimore - are worth rebuilding, he said.

Some of Black's favorite makes are American-made Baldwin and Stieff, Bosendorfer from Austria, Bechstein from Germany, Fazioli from Italy and Yamaha, which has been made in Japan since 1887.

"Yamahas are a really nice piano, too," he said.

"Pianos, unlike fine violins, are like cars. You have to keep rebuilding them," Black said. "There are 18 tons of tension in a piano when it's tuned to constant pitch."

When black was a kid, his father had a friend whose hobby was fixing pianos.

"He gave me a big old upright and showed me how to tune it," Black said.

He learned his craft at Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Va., now Shenandoah University. He's been rebuilding and tuning pianos for more than 25 years.

Rebuilding pianos involves replacing the thousands of wooden action parts, such as wippens, stringing the wires that create the notes when struck with felt hammers, replacing or repairing the all-important spruce soundboard (Black only had to repair the one in the Greencastle church's piano) and replacing the ivory keys.

There's a lot of geometry built into pianos to ensure that the closest tolerances are maintained to get the right sound, Black said.

"A lot of it has to do with how much friction there is in the action and the relationship between the moving parts to get it to work as well as it can," he said.

A variety of wood goes into a piano. Maple, because of its hardness, is the most predominant. Sugar pine, basswood, oak, spruce, ebony and poplar also are used, plus whatever is used on its veneer skin.

Black, a registered piano technician, said he enjoys the solitude of working alone in his small shop.

"It's just too much fun doing this," he said.

As for his own musical ability, he said, "I play around, but I'm certainly not a pianist."

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