Some people share their legacy by writing a memoir. Rick Schaeffer made a video instead. Rick is the third-generation owner of Schaeffer’s Piano Company in Rockville, started by his grandfather in 1901. “I was tuning pianos in 1970. This is my 50th year,” said Rick, who does a lot more than tune pianos these days, which brings us back to the video. It’s a time-lapse that compresses into 26 minutes, approximately 300 hours of work to rebuild a Steinway grand piano. Rick purchased the forlorn instrument specifically so he could record the dismantling and rebuild process; every miniscule, mesmerizing, astounding, precise, complicated, beautiful detail of the process. (It can be viewed at Schaefferspiano.com.) “It’s my finale, my saying goodbye,” Rick said of the video that demonstrates skills he began mastering in his teens.
Rebuilding, restoring and repairing pianos makes up about a quarter of what Rick and his team do. The rest is tuning, plus sales of new and used pianos. Schaeffer’s includes a workshop and a showroom featuring about 80 pianos for sale: more than 20 grands, plus upright models and consoles. In addition to Steinways, Rick sells pianos from KAWAI, Hallet & Davis, Schulze & Pollman, and Yamaha, plus his own custom Schaeffer pianos.
The pianos that Schaeffer's restores come from all over the country and beyond. They recently shipped a fully restored Steinway to China. They’ve restored, rebuilt or serviced pianos for schools, universities, churches and more. Their customers include Mount Vernon, the National Theater, the White House, the National Portrait Gallery, the U.S. Library of Congress and many more. Schaeffer’s also has their own trucks and experts specially trained to safely pack and move pianos. “We have a tight shop. Everything is in house,” said Rick, adding that his nephew Tim Essick is the general manager and the fourth generation at the company.
“We did a piano for the Peruvian Embassy,” said Rick, referring to a concert grand Steinway. “They were using the piano to store bicycles,” he said, only half kidding, as he explained there were literally bicycles sitting on top of this piano in storage, when Rick arrived to assess the job.
“It took about 300-400 hours,” said Rick, who explained the three-part process. “First,” he said, “there’s the action mechanism, which includes the keys. Second is the pinblock and soundboard restoration, and the third is the finish, including veneer work.”
As for the piano in the video, Rick explained that they sold it about a week after the rebuild was complete. “The video is all about me being old enough to retire,” he said.
I asked Rick what’s next, expecting him to detail his plans for retirement. Instead, he said, “It’s never a retirement when it’s a hobby.” And then he described the next Steinway in for repair.