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Originally published Saturday, December 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Stanwood craftsman puts human touch on factory-made pianos

Darrell Fandrich is a micromaker of pianos, importing instruments from China and parts from Europe and the U.S. and rebuilding them as Fandrich & Sons pianos. A craftsman in an assembly-line world, Fandrich hopes that human touch can turn back the clock on pianos built by conveyor belt.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Piano shop in the woods

STANWOOD -- Smoke curls from the chimney of a log cabin as strains of "Over the Rainbow" drift from a nearby barn. Inside, Darrell Fandrich plays at an upright piano, surrounded by disemboweled pianos that soon will bear his name.

This barn, home and garage-turned-showroom are Fandrich's piano shop in the woods. He is a "micromaker" of pianos, importing instruments from China and parts from Europe and rebuilding them as Fandrich & Sons pianos.

A craftsman in an assembly-line world, Fandrich hopes that a human touch can turn back the clock on pianos built by conveyor belt.

It's possibly an industry of one.

At the two ends of the piano-industry extreme, buyers can choose from high-end European builders who can charge $60,000 for a grand piano, or Asian companies mass-producing grands that can be had for about $10,000. Fandrich, 66, is shooting for the low middle. Starting with a new piano from China, he replaces parts and refines them by hand, selling grand pianos starting at $16,560.

He makes and sells 25 pianos a year, 235 since 1994. Three sons help build, and his wife, Heather, 60, runs the sales and accounting side of the business. The family's three elderly dogs amble about and nap on the showroom's doorstep. His business is quasi-local, and he hopes it will be sustainable.

Ninety-five percent of pianos are sold to people who don't play, Fandrich said. He's trying to reach a sliver of the other 5 percent -- amateur players and parents of talented children who don't want to spend $60,000 for an instrument.

"Just how good a piano you can make for the least amount of money?" he said. "Not a lot of people are doing that."

Larry Fine, author of "The Piano Book," a guide to piano makers, called Fandrich "a brilliant engineer."

"People are getting a very custom-made piano where someone has really put a lot of thought into it and a lot of labor for a good price," he said.

His work remains an open question for others. He's trying to upgrade a Hyundai to run like a Bentley, for the price of a Honda.

"He takes these instruments that are considered economy pianos and he absolutely brings them to a level that no one else could," said Alex Hernandez, former technician for Seattle's Classical Grands store. "The issue is longevity."

"Holy Grail Scale"

On the Fandriches' 5-acre property in Stanwood, three men in the barn weigh keys in grams, measure movement in millimeters and listen for the wah-wah when a hammer hits a string.

With his higher-end grands -- which the Fandrichs named "HGS" for "Holy Grail Scale" -- they start with pianos built in China. He and his workers gut the piano, replacing the hammers, felt and bass strings with German and American parts. They reinforce the underbelly of the piano by installing short ribs -- spruce beams between the existing main ribs.

Using a computer program designed in-house, the keys are reweighted across the board to eliminate friction and even out the response. The reweighting gives the Fandrich pianos their signature touch, one that some players have described as buttery, effortless.

To get the sound he wants, Fandrich voices each hammer by driving needles into the felt. Flat notes that plunk take on undertones, overtones and resonance. He made some of his voicing tools himself out of brass, wood and sewing needles.

Trained as a piano technician, he worked in Los Angeles and Portland for several years preparing pianos for concert performers such as Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein. He spent 10 years holed up in a loft in Seattle's Pioneer Square inventing a new action, the mechanism that causes the hammer to strike the piano string when each key is pressed, for an upright piano so the keys responded like a grand piano. In an industry where piano design has changed little in the past 100 years, it was a breakthrough.

He had hoped to sell the invention to a manufacturer, but the industry nose-dived in the early '90s with the popularity of digital pianos and an exploding used market created by retiring baby boomers.

The couple opened a piano store on Lake City Way to sell upright pianos with his action, and they started selling grands from China, which had just started manufacturing pianos on a large scale. They shuttered the store in 2000 when they realized more than half of their customers found them through their Web site, www.fandrich.com, and they turned their garage into a showroom.

About half of Fandrich's pianos have been sold to people out of state, with customers finding them through the Internet, Fine's piano book or word-of-mouth. Customers fly to Seattle or find a Fandrich owner near them and try out that piano. The Fandrichs visit all their customers' pianos on the West Coast to needle the hammers and revive the pianos' tone each year.

The buying process

The rest of the year they live and work on a patch of woods along a winding one-lane road in Stanwood. Heather Fandrich and her first husband bought this place three decades ago and built the log house. She had always wanted to live like Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the "Little House" children's books about a pioneer family.

Prospective buyers make the drive up about once a week. She can explain the inner workings of a piano and negotiate sales. Eventually, Darrell Fandrich wanders in, to talk hammers and play a little Brahms and "Over the Rainbow."

The goal, he said, is "to survive up here in our little 5 acres in the woods and do what I love doing."

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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