Updated Apr 04, 2019; Posted on Grand Rapids Press Jul 18, 2009
GRAND RAPIDS — Michael Spreeman likes everything about pianos. But what he likes best is making Ravenscroft pianos, grand pianos that take two years to build.
Spreeman, 51, grew to love the instrument as a young boy in the Dundee area.
This weekend, the Scottsdale, Ariz., resident returned to his home state for the Piano Technicians Guild’s annual convention at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids as a builder of elite custom-made grand pianos.
• Created by Michael Spreeman, 51
• Each instrument takes two years to build
• Spreeman, native of Dundee region, is based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
• Custom-built grand pianos start at $280,000, up to $380,000;
• Dealer is Noble Art Pianos, Easton, Pa.
• Piano Technicians Guild convention runs through Sunday
His Ravenscroft pianos are either nine feet or seven feet long. Inside and out, Spreeman’s workmanship sets the rare piano apart.
“A small piano-maker would expect to produce 1,000 to 1,200 pianos a year. We’re gearing up to make four to six a year,” the pony-tailed 51-year-old said Friday. “We’re in a league of our own, because we’re so small and quality-oriented.”
The uber-piano has a sound board with wood from the Italian forest where Stradivarius violin bodies were born; the undulating cabinet shape is formed by Black Forest artisans, using laminated wood seven layers thick. The metal pegs gripping the taut wire strings are German titanium, not the typical steel, Spreeman said.
The process to form the curved wooden sides, or “rib,” of a grand piano is becoming more automated at some manufacturers, he said.
“When you’re bending the rib, a lot of companies are going to big hydraulic presses, like stamping out (auto) fenders. The industry trend is to build more for less,” Spreeman said.
“We’re doing the opposite. We said, ‘If we’re going to get into this, we should just shoot for the top.’ ”
Spreeman left Michigan when he was 18, planning to major in piano performance at Arizona State University. Before he graduated, the pianist uncovered a love for the inner workings of the instrument.
He became an apprentice to the university’s head piano technician, and his career took off.
After college, he worked as a concert technician, ensuring perfect pianos for famous touring artists. He later rebuilt pianos and was a technician representative for major piano companies.
In 1992, he won a rare commission: transforming a 1926 concert grand for jazz pianist and composer Bob Ravenscroft.
The experience led Spreeman to rethink his goals. In 2004, he established Spreeman Piano Innovations in Scottsdale.
“It took three years to get the first one finished,” Spreeman said.
He works with his son, Andrew, 31, and the small shop has made six grands. No. 4 is on display at the piano technicians’ convention.
A Ravenscroft piano is the musical equivalent of a Bugatti, Spreeman said. The Italian sports car is produced in small, special-order runs; only 300 Veyrons bearing pricetags of $1.7 million are slated for production this year.
Ravenscroft grands take two years and roughly 12,000 hours to build. Prices range from $280,000 to $380,000, and ideally, the grands should get their own climate-controlled room, Spreeman said. Add-ons such as air-conditioners and humidifiers can temper more hostile environments.
Moving a massive grand piano takes heavy-duty dollies and strong backs. Once the legs and pedals are removed, the remaining piano body is shifted onto its “flat” side and moved in vertical orientation.
As an elite new player in the piano business, Ravenscroft has one dealer: Noble Art Pianos, based in Easton, Pa. Dealer Peter Becker met Spreeman when they both worked in Arizona, and the friendship has expanded into a new business partnership.
The business plan five years ago included a two-year plan for sales, Becker said. But the recession is stretching that date.
“A lot of companies are eliminating procedures to save money and survive,” Spreeman said.
With the economy in the doldrums, Spreeman — and his potential customers — are looking for a turnaround.
“Everybody’s just waiting,” he said.