For the love of pianos, one man perseveres
Rockville firm boasts grand tradition, history
By LEAH KRAKINOWSKI
Eight months ago, Rick Schaeffer, a third-generation piano rebuilder, was restoring a 1919 Knabe upright piano when he discovered some of his grandfather’s turn-of-the-century business cards wedged inside the piano’s key bed.
“I couldn’t believe it. The card read, Sanderson-Schaeffer Co., fine furniture and pianos,” he said.
“I guess he did what he had to do to get started and then get by,” Schaeffer said with a knowing smile.
John Pierre Schaeffer, a German cabinet-maker, founded the Schaeffer Piano Co. in 1901. His was one downtown Washington business that survived the Great Depression.
“He dropped his piano tuning price from $2.50 to 50 cents just to keep his doors open, and Grandma Marie crocheted and sold 87 afghan that year,” Schaeffer said.
Like his father, Albert, who died of cancer in 1982 , and his grandfather before him, Schaeffer, 37, has kept the 91-year old family business in Rockville alive by doggedly clinging to some traditions—such as making piano-tuning house calls—but letting others go.
Schaeffer bristled when he explained that the latest recession forced him to break one of his father’s sacrosanct rules: Not to sell Asian-made pianos, known for their degree of automation.
The heart of the finest-made piano is the soundboard, a quarter-inch thick piece of Spruce wood that sits under the strings and amplifies the sound.
“Instead of sun-drying the wood for three to five years like the golden-aged piano makers did, they use chemicals to suck the moisture out in a few months,” Schaeffer said.
“Believe me , I can hear the difference.”
Though he comes form a long line of piano tuners and rebuilders, only Schaeffer’s uncle Frederick was a concert pianist in the 1930s. Schaeffer said he taught himself how to play four piano pieces.
Though his heart belongs to refurbishing antique pianos—it took him several months to restore a floral-pattered 1915 Marshall & Wendell—Schaeffer said he knows that piano sales keep him afloat. “I’m not a salesman. What I love is the feel of working with my hands,” he said, remembering how his father laughed at him for bringing home fancy lathes and other modern tools of the trade from a technician’s class he took as a teenager.
“He told me all I needed was a pocketknife.” He said.
But nowadays, it takes a great deal more than a pocketknife to stay in business, Schaeffer said.
Only recently did his company begin aggressively advertising its services, a far cry from its years of word-of-mouth-only customers. He also hopes teaching a piano-buying class at the Washington Home Show on Saturday will help lift him out of a three-year slump.
“All the rules have changed; piano building has become a lost art,” he said, tossing out a factoid to prove his point: “In the 1920s, there were 52 piano companies in New York alone. Now only Steinway & Sons survives.”