Piano Problem Solver Is An Artist At His Trade
Around the Mid-Atlantic
by Drew Steis
Editor at Large
OK, so you see this piano-at auction, in a garage sale or as apart of an estate sale-and you have only two questions: can it be made to play and what is it worth?
The answer is yes, all pianos can be restored to like new playing condition and appearance, but many may not be worth the time and expense. The only way for a layman to find out is to get in touch with some like Rick Schaeffer.
The Schaeffer family began buying, selling and fixing pianos in 1901. Now leading the third generation at Schaeffer's Piano Co. here, Rick Schaeffer, learned his trade form his grandfather, Albert. At age 33, he is a master at solving problems, appraising and fixing pianos. Brother Al is a piano tuner while Carolyn runs the office.
"You can buy a vertical or upright piano for $400-$1,200 or more only to find out you need another $3,000 to $4,000 in repairs," he told Antique Week during an interview at his two-story used-piano warehouse and workshop.
"We have an 1890 Ludwig that filled with water on a trailer coming from Florida. It is going to take $4,000 to put it back into shape and in good playing condition it would be worth about $3,000," he said.
"The owner knows this but says go ahead because it is a family piece."
Schaeffer's business is roughly one-quarter new piano sales, on-quarter previously owned piano sales and one-half piano restoration.
The interview is interrupted by an urgent telephone call form the New Zealand Embassy in nearby Washington, D.C., where two inexperienced embassy employees have wedged a -foot piano on a staircase and can't move it. Rick Schaeffer tells them what to do and adds he will dispatch his own trained me if need be. "We get calls like that every week.”
"Part of the art of moving a piano is knowing how to grunt and groan to get tips, my grandfather use to say."
Schaeffer also has a number of practical tips for laymen to help them judge the condition of a used piano. The three most important things to check are: Signs of a dark, oil like solution around the pin-block which means a glycerine type chemical has been used which will result in dry rot of the joints, uneven keys or an uneven keyboard which can mean warped key-bed, poor action regulation and/ or deterioration of under-key felt. The case for dry or damp damage to the wood and especially the veneer. Schaeffer has many other tips and guidelines for picking a good piano. Ivory keys always have a line across the middle at the black note level, while plastic keys are cast in one piece.
Stick with recognized names such as Steinway, Knabe, Chickering, Stieff, Baldwin and Mason Hamlin when buying a used piano and look for models made prior to World War II.
Upright pianos in perfect playing condition sell for $3,500 for the Knabe, Chickering, Stieff and Baldwins, and $5,000 or more for a Steinway.
In Grand pianos for a 6-foot in perfect condition, a Steinway will bring $15,000 while a Mason Hamlin will command $10,000 and a Baldwin, Chickering and a Knabe around $8,000.
Piano players, those that make music from a roll, in playing condition command $1,000 to $3,000 but the Duo- Art Webber reproducer grand piano player in an 5-foot-8 “artist” or highly decorated case at the Schaeffer store will sell for up to $20,000. A reproducer player piano reproduces both the music and the dynamics of the piano player. A Stieff player may be worth up to $7,500.
Other good names to look for are Ampico and Welte Mignon. He warns buyers to steer clear of what he calls “straight pumpers” or players without electricity, which are worth around $200.
In his restoration shop, where there is now a seven-month waiting list, Schaeffer explains that it is not unusual to spend around 150 and 500 hours to restore a piano. A “Schaeffer” nickelodeon made by his father out of parts from a number of other player and regular pianos took five years to construct. If it were for sale it would bring more than $50,000. Other nickelodeons, especially those made by the Seeberg Co., are in the $75,000 price range.
Two other stars in the Schaeffer collection are both Steinway grand pianos, the first a straight-strung 8-foot rosewood piano made in 1857 and numbered 1582 which means it was 582nd Steinway made in America. It is priced at $50,000.
At his shop among the hundred or so pianos, a row of seven Steinway grand pianos—all lying on their sides and without legs—have a combined commercial retail value of $87,000.
Schaeffer is proud of his collection. He is also justly proud of a system of frames he invented and then constructed to permit the refinishing of large wooden panels on both sides at the same time.
And what piano does he have at home? A 5-foot-2 Steinway “S” model grand piano built in 1927, “the best piano ever built,” Rick Schaeffer says.
After 100 years in the business, he ought to know.