My friend Tim is a piano tuner and restorer. He is also a highly talented musician.
We got talking a couple of years back about how much work he has in his workshop, and one thing led to another and I now try to give him a hand in his workshop when I can.
I love a good workshop! Tim’s is fabulous. Stuff everywhere and really interesting tools and objects. He is a hard task master and I have to work with care. It’s always quite mind blowing to think that the last person to work on the dampers on the piano was probably over a hundred years ago. We use rabbit glue – just as they did then. And it stinks!
I find it very satisfying to work my way through a neat line of hammers and dampers to remove the old felt and glue and replace with new.
Tim often plays something old and unusual on his tape cassette deck at full volume to entertain us while we work (yes, that is correct!) … And sometimes we can be beavering away on some complicated piano action and Tim will down tools and have a 3 minute blast of honky tonk or something that’s giving him ‘earworm’ on the nearest piano! He is always thinking about music.
Last week, we took a break from the current restoration project so I could interview him over a cup of tea:
Do you play an instrument?
“I play anything that has a keyboard on it! Keyboards, accordions, piano accordion, synthesiser, harpsichord, pipe organ… if it has a key board I can play it”.
How did you become a piano tuner?
“I started in computers and worked for a while and then got made redundant. It happened to come along at the same time as a newspaper advert asking for piano technicians. As I played the piano anyway, I thought I would like to just mend pianos in the back of the shop and I went to train as one.
I watched the piano tuners and after a while I thought I can do that. So I became a tuner after a lot of hard work and sweat and help from about 4 other piano tuners. So I became a tuner, but I had already learned a lot about restoration in the previous two or three years”.
How did you make the transition to having your own workshop?
”This was a gradual process. I worked for another piano workshop for a while, the owner then decided to take on a shop as well as a workshop. I got my own workshop at around this time but unfortunately the premises I was renting was sold so I had to move out and I had no workshop for a while. This corresponded with a downturn in pianos in the 1990s, as digital pianos became very popular at that time.
I have had this workshop for about 5 years now. I work on one piano at a time most of the time, although I have two in the workshop at the moment. A Beckstein for a restring and action refurbishment. And another which needs work on the case. I have a queue of pianos waiting for work which are also partially in the workshop.
There are two other pianos in the workshop at the moment one is waiting for me to restore and sell on. And another is a grand piano which comes from a house in the Cotswolds and its waiting for the current two projects to be out of the way”.
How long does it take for a piano to be restored?
“We can have jobs go through the workshop in about 4 or 5 months but 9 months is quite common. Being a piano tuner, I am out of the workshop a lot of the time, I am only in the workshop for 2 and a half days a week. I am not here as much as I would like to be. Little jobs that come in here and there (“could you quickly just do this …” ) cost workshop time and also if I have a piano in the field which is untunable but which might need a day or so work to make it tuneable then I will try and slot that in… and of course the piano which is in the workshop may turn out to need more doing to it than has been anticipated once we start taking it apart…”
How many instruments do you own?
“Easily more than 20. Six of those instruments are pianos. I do have more than enough pianos for one person to own! I probably have between 6 and 8 home keyboards as well, synthesisers, home curios and fun things, 4 or 5 piano accordions…”
What would you do if you weren’t doing this?
“Most likely I would be working in wood in my workshop somewhere, if it wasn’t musical instruments I would be working with my hands – I don’t like jobs that are finished products. I so rarely see a finished article in the workshop as its so long in between! I’d like to design my own piano”.
And with that, Tim went to the music deck to play me some of the music he had made recently with some other musicians at his “electro folk session… ”
Tim can be contacted via his website: https://theoldivories.co.uk or on instagram @PianomanTim