Pianos for the Centuries

Piano keys
Photo by Eric Tadsen

Standing in the showroom at Farley’s House of Pianos is a stately 1914 Mason & Hamlin grand piano. This 9’ concert grand is one of only 17 pianos made with this particular cast-iron frame and scale design, and creates a sound prized by audiences and performers. After a 100-year performance history, it had fallen in disrepair. Fortunately the instrument found its way to Farley’s and a new life.

Tim Farley began rebuilding pianos in earnest in the early 1960s, when he started Farley’s House of Music. As the business grew, he and his wife, Renee, changed the name to Farley’s House of Pianos, where they offer exquisite rebuilt instruments and rebuilding services alongside showrooms of new and used pianos. The Farley’s piano workshop is the largest, best-equipped piano restoration workshop in the Midwest, and the team of six full-time technicians usually has several instruments in progress.

Heirloom pianos from the Farley’s restoration workshop reside in homes, churches, studios, and concert halls around the world. Esteemed concert pianists own Farley’s pianos. Daniel del Pino flew a rebuilt grand to Spain, and Paul Badura-Skoda displays a piano from Farley’s in his Austrian piano museum. Closer to home, notable restorations include the Overture Center’s Capitol Theater grand piano, two grands for the First Unitarian Society, and a 9’ concert grand for Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Many owners come in to visit the piano during the rebuilding process, listening to its early tones and trying out the touch (the resistance of the keys as they depress). Families bring children to see their piano as it’s put back together, and even before the instrument is done, the players and the instrument begin to bond.

Farley’s is so well known in the world of restoration that Tim no longer goes looking for pianos. In addition to commissioned instruments, he gets calls from experts around the country suggesting pianos. He favors Great American instruments, which were mostly from the first quarter of the 20th century. During that period, makers were using soft cast-iron frames to create rich tones and hardwood rims to contain the sound. Tim calls this a magical formula for great tone.

Models built before the 1930s by Mason & Hamlin, A.B. Chase, Hume, Steinway, Schomacker, Conover, and Knabe are among his top choices. Tim compares pianos to fine wines, noting that certain years by a particular maker are excellent instruments, while other years are not worth restoring. The piano must be a good vintage with the cast-iron frame and rim to qualify for rebuilding.

The process is lavishly detailed and the entire rebuild takes at least five to six months. Tim insists that they recreate any new pieces to match the original. “You don’t want to redesign if you want the instrument to retain value,” he says. “This is not the place for a hot rod.”

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Each of the Farley’s technicians specializes in a certain aspect of the exacting work, and that degree of specialization improves the finished product. Major manufacturers have always used a combination of hand and power tools and Tim’s team chooses tools carefully. Traditional chisels, marking knives, and planes line the walls of the workshop, and they do much of the rebuilding by hand. They use razor-sharp chisels to notch the bridge and hand planes to shape the soundboard. To drill the 600 holes for the bridge, they use a specialized electric drill, not because it is faster, but because it offers a level of control not possible with a hand drill.

Soundboards, as their name implies, are critical to the sound of the instrument. Years of expanding in the summer humidity and contracting in winter’s dry indoor heat can be damaging. A healthy soundboard has a slight concave curve when you view it from below. But this curve flattens over time and the piano loses sound quality. Technicians carefully inspect each soundboard to plan for repairs or replacement.

Farley’s House of Pianos has specialized equipment for manufacturing soundboards on-site, and a humidity-controlled room for the work. They take meticulous measurements from the original so they can replicate each piece exactly. Major soundboard components include the ribs, which stretch across the back of the soundboard, and the bridges, where the strings attach. They cut the new soundboard and plane it by hand, then cut the ribs and glue them in, pushing the soundboard into a concave table. To glue the bridge on the opposite side, they use a convex table.

The case of a piano is a woodworking marvel. Rims for a 9’ concert grand require several continuous slabs of wood 22’ long x 12” wide x 5 mm thick, laminated to a thickness of 2 to 3 inches and bent into the curved casing we recognize. Farley’s restores the original rims, repairing and refinishing the case. When the case is ready for the installation of the soundboard, it takes a minimum of four technicians to quickly apply the glue along 45 feet of gluing surface. The experienced team moves with careful efficiency, installing 70 clamps to hold the surfaces together as it dries.

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Farley’s technicians then put in all new action components, including hammers, shanks, flanges, whippens, back checks, action rails, and flange screws. They install a new or rebuilt key frame and replace the balance rail pins, front rail pins, felts, and punching by hand. The new soundboard will require a new pin block and 225 new tuning pins, followed by new strings, all of which they source to match the instrument.

Under your fingers you will experience all new key levers, and perhaps some new key tops with ebony sharps and ivorine. The rebuilt lyre and a complete new damper mechanism with new damper wires and felts provide a finishing touch.

The path the 1914 Mason & Hamlin Model B took to arrive at the loading dock of Farley’s House of Pianos took 100 years, but in less than 6 months, an heirloom instrument is reborn, ready to perform gloriously for another century.

Yvette Jones is the owner of designCraft Advertising, a Madison agency focused on local businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Farley’s House of Pianos

6522 Seybold Road
Madison, WI 53719
(608) 271-2626

Call or email to arrange a workshop tour.