Ralph Neilsen not only restores historical pianos, but specializes in player pianos. After a 32 year career, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. chemist decided to retire from his profession working in chemical sciences and concentrate on bringing life back to tired and sometimes ignored pianos.
With a background in chemistry, math, engineering and history, Nielsen has the knowledge and experience that helps him be successful restoring the works of art.
It started when he took a class at MIT on piano restoration some 30 years ago. His wife suggested the class might be reprieve from the academic regimen he was locked into.
“I’m sure she is sorry she ever brought the class up,” he said. “The name of the class was ‘The Soul of an Old Machine.’”
At his shop at 2340 S. Heritage Drive, Suite J, in Nibley are several beautifully-finished pieces and some in various states of repair. He is probably one of a dozen in the country that repairs player pianos the way he does. The Hyrum resident has customers from Florida to Wellsville.
Once restored, the piece might be worth from $5,000 to $40,000 to all over the map, he said.
“It’s easy to lose money and that’s why I am very picky in what I buy,” Nielsen said. “I pick instruments with high value. Most of my customers want to do it because their piano is a family heirloom or it has significant intrinsic value.”
He said the old pianos are heavy, hard to move and they have negative value so trashing them is easy to do. In the west, older, worn out pianos will sell because the demand is still there.
A piano’s value has to do with demographics and location, he explained.
“For instance, in ‘Mormondom’ people are more likely to be interested in pianos and there are a smaller supply of old instruments because more people use them.
“It’s a lot like the market for classic cars. No one would restore an aluminum-blocked Vega, but they would a Chevy Corvette. It would take as much work on both of them, but when you’re done one has value, the other doesn’t.”
Some of the instruments in the Nibley shop are his and some are customers’. He finds some going to the dump that he rescues and some he finds on eBay. Most of the time people don’t know the value of their instrument.
“You have to be a little OCD to do this kind of work,” Nielsen said. “I mix my own glue and use the same type of materials used by the original piano makers, traditional wood, leather and rubber coated fabric.”
He said ivory is highly regulated which makes it hard to replace or repair keyboards.
Nielsen not only refinishes the wood but he strips the piano down, that includes removing the cast iron plate. Then he rebuilds the rest, including the player assemblies from the ground up. He restrings them, fixes all the intricate parts of the player assemblies then refinishes the wood.
“The instruments reflect the most advanced technologies of their day and provide an often-overlooked window into the artistic, social and economic settings for which they were created,” he said. “I’ve worked on pianos from the late 1700’s through the early 1900’s.”
Nielsen said there was a time piano making was the largest industry in the United States. Production of pianos was larger than the automobile industry. For some, pianos were the most expensive thing they owned. The golden years for the piano was from the late 1800’s until about 1931.
“They were the entertainment in the home much like a radio or television is today,” he said. “A player piano was the record player of its day.
“People would put in a roll and have the piano playing during a party or just to listen to it for entertainment.”
“Musicians would play their music and it would be recorded on a roll of paper,” Nielsen said. “The artist would listen to the reproduction and give their okay to have it released.”
After the Great Depression, cheaper and more accessible radios and vinyl records took their toll on the player pianos and production of the instruments.
Besides the pianos in his workshop and what he has on display, he has four more in his home in Hyrum.