145-year-old piano plays new tune

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick

Mark Potter of West Jefferson restrings an 1863 piano owned by the Madison County Historical Society. The piano’s case is made of rosewood veneer, the sound board of spruce, the action parts of maple or sugar pine, and the plate (which holds the tension for the strings) of cast iron.

The key to getting a 145-year-old piano to hold a tune is to take a hammer to it, then play it gently and sparingly.

Earlier this month, Mark Potter, a West Jefferson resident who repairs and restores pianos, made quite a racket while repairing Madison County Historical Society’s seven-octave rosewood piano forte. The heavy instrument is part of the Victorian parlor display at the Society’s museum in London.

“It’s loud to fix. The wires sound like a horror show, but you can’t be delicate with it,” said Potter, who wears ear plugs to do his work. The plugs help, too, when he’s driving pins into new wood pin blocks around which the piano wire is wound.

Museum Director Dorothy Richmond didn’t mind the noise. She knew when all was quiet, the piano would be playable again.

“We’ve tried several times to include the piano in special events at the museum. Each time, we’d have

Potter packs up after a day of working on the piano.
For repair access inside and out, Potter temporarily removed the keyboard from the piano.

someone come out and tune it. By the evening of the same day, it would be so horribly out of tune again that it just sounded bad,” she said.

It wasn’t the tuner’s fault. Some of the piano’s wood pin blocks were dried out, which meant the pins used to tune the instrument were loose in the holes. Additionally, time had taken its toll on some of the wires, damper felt pads, and moving parts.

“It’s a nice piece of furniture and a beautiful piece of history, but we thought it would be nice to be able to actually use it,” Richmond said. “We had Mark come out a year ago to give us an estimate, then we spread the word that we wanted to fix it.”

Two people came forward to donate over $1,600 to get the job done, an uncommon gesture, according to Potter.

“There are more of these (old pianos) around, but the majority of people have no interest in putting money into fixing them,” he said.

Exceptions have included the piano at London First United Methodist Church and an 1848 model at the Ohio Statehouse, both of which were major restoration projects for Potter. The project at the Historical Society is minor in comparison, but still involved special-order materials and six days of labor.

“The same parts that fit in modern pianos fit precisely in pianos from the 1890s forward,” Potter said. “For pianos made before 1890, though, you need to manufacture the parts yourself to make repairs. You can’t just call somebody up and order parts for it.”

The Historical Society’s piano falls into the pre-1890 category. As a result, Potter had to remove the old bass strings and send them to a manufacturer for duplication. Each set of copper-wound bass strings is unique to the piano, and furthermore, each string is unique to the path it follows inside the piano.

“Honestly, the bass strings were a big part of the cost of this repair,” Potter said.

In addition to restringing the piano, Potter drilled out the bad pin blocks and replaced them with new ones that fit more tightly. He then outfitted the blocks with pins that were 1/10,000th of an inch larger than the original ones. What sounds like a tiny measurement will make a big difference, he said.

Where needed, Potter repaired the piano’s moving parts. He noted that modern pianos have hammer heads that are twice as large as those in the Historical Society’s piano. As a result, the old piano’s hammers hit the wires with less force and produce less volume. The mechanics suited the piano’s purpose, as it was designed to be played in a parlor for small audiences.

Potter tightens a pin as he rewires the piano. 
The piano make included painted details even on the inside.
 Tools of the trade.

“This type of piano has a charming sound once you get past the fact that it’s not a modern piano,” Potter said. “With parlor pianos, I always picture a woman sitting sideways playing a pretty minuet.”

The first folks to officially play the newly repaired piano likely won’t be female or sitting sideways. Richmond said she plans to have Potter, an accomplished musician, and his son, Chase, give a performance to re-introduce the instrument to museum supporters.

Beyond that, Richmond said a Historical Society member has expressed interest in playing it for visitors on Sundays. Additionally, the piano will be featured during the museum’s Christmas events.

The piano has been part of the museum collection for at least two decades. John and George Bridgeman, descendants of the original owners, donated it to the museum. It was stored above Dave Jackman’s law office in London until the museum was built in 1989.

A bill of sale pegs the piano’s original owners as the Dun Family, who according to oral history, lived on a farm north of London during the summer and in Columbus during the winter.

“From the stories I’ve heard, she insisted that the piano be carted back and forth between residences,” Richmond said. “It’s ornately carved and heavy. It takes five men to move it at the museum.”

The Gold Medal piano was purchased and delivered by rail car in 1863. The maker, William Knabe and Co., was one of the more celebrated names in piano manu-facturing, Potter said.

The Madison County Historical Society is located at 260 E. High St., London. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday. Admission is free and donations are accepted. For details, call 740-852-2977.

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