By Joshua McKerrow -- The Capital
Ridgely Fisher works on an antique piano.
Crofton Piano restores turn-of-the-century pianos
By KATIE ARCIERI, Staff Writer

He pursued a computer science degree at Harvard University in the early 1970s, but Ridgely Fisher's passion for the piano pulled him in another direction.

Nights were spent performing in Boston jazz clubs and working as an apprentice in piano rebuilding shops, where he learned how to install sound boards, the "heart and soul" structure that increases the instrument's resonance. Although his first love was the piano, Mr. Fisher dove into a computer programming job after graduation, one that required him to work between 50 and 60 hours each week at a cubicle. "After two years, I went crazy," he said. "I said. 'I'm going back to the piano business.

"Fast forward about 35 years later and Mr. Fisher is the owner of Crofton Piano Co., which buys, restores and sells rare European pianos by such renowned manufacturers as Bosendorfer, Bechstein, and Bluthner. Mr. Fisher's company is one of less than 60 businesses across the nation that provide professional restoration work on vintage pianos, said Jack Wyatt, president of the Piano Technicians Guild Foundation and curator of its museum in Kansas City. "It's a very niche market," Mr. Wyatt said.

Located on Espey Court in the Priest Bridge Business Park, Crofton Piano is a treasure chest of piano restoration. A thoughtful, bespectacled man with bags under his eyes from working in this time consuming business, Mr. Fisher touches his gleaming mahogany and ebony finish pianos as if they were his most prized possessions.

His inventory is comprised of European pianos, but also American-made Steinway & Sons and Mason & Hamlins that he has restored or is restoring. Transforming pianos from a "total wreck" back into a magnificent instrument is fulfilling job, but never an easy one. Mr. Fisher spends between three and four months restoring each piano, sometimes working until the early morning hours on a particular project.

He can often be found lying on the floor in his Crofton showroom tinkering with pedal mechanisms or sitting at his workbench, repairing an action - a system of lever trains between the hammers and keys of a piano. He often purchases parts through piano product suppliers, but if they're not available, he'll build the parts. himself.

While customers aren't streaming into his business like a mall store, each piano sale he makes is a big one. For example, a 1901 Steinway & Sons piano that Mr. Fisher rebuilt in 2004 costs $45,000, according to his company's Web site. A 6 foot 8 inch Bluthner grand that he restored in 2003 is priced at $22,500. The business rakes in about $500,000 each year. But Mr. Fisher got into this business for the fulfillment, not the money.

He once restored an $18,000 Bosendorfer piano for Princess Cecilia di Medici, who founded the La Gesse Foundation, which supports young musicians. Restoring the piano was difficult because he had to recondition its Viennese action, he said. He put new leather over the hammers, replaced the keyboard felt, and regulated it back to its original factory specifications for dimensions of hammer strokes and key dips. "It's a whole differnt style action, and it's the type of piano that Bach or Mozart played on," he said. "You can't take that action and put new action parts in it."

His most memorable project, however, was restoring a $55,000 Steinway for a Baptist church in Massachusetts, a piano he called "magic" and his masterpiece, he said. Mr. Ridgely restored the church piano to its full potential, said Louis Gentile, owner Louis Gentile Piano Service in Quincy, Mass., who tunes the piano three times a year. "The restoration work that was done to it was quite good," he said. "It's in constant use. They've had numerous chorale director there over the years and everyone has been very happy with it.

"Randolph Byrd, manager of Charlottesville Piano in Virginia, said he remembers playing a Grotrian-Steinweg piano Mr. Fisher. "It was such a nicely done piano," he said. "He coaxed the tone out of the piano. It felt so good to the hand, so that when you're playing, it was like silk."

Trained in classical piano, Mr. Fisher has always been interested in the instrument. Before starting on the Crofton Piano Company, he owned R&D Piano Forte Co., which mainly tuned pianos for clients. Later, he changed the focus of R&D to specialize in structural piano work for dealers in Boston.

After conducting a market study on Maryland in 2002, he picked up his business the following year and moved it to a 2,200-square-foot space in Crofton's Priest Bridge Business Park, calling it Crofton Piano Company. He moved Anne Arundel to be closer to his parents who live on Gibson Island and because Maryland was a place where he could draw foot traffic from northern Virginia, Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington D.C.

Most of his customers are professional pianists and those of European descent who are familiar with a particular brand. Mr. Fisher hopes to retire one day to Virginia, and work on a handful of old European pianos, while his son, Randolph, runs Crofton Piano. "I think that eventually when the time comes, he can take over the business," he said. "I'll still keep my hands in it. That's the plan."---

Published July 09, 2006, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright 2006 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

Copyright 2006 The Capital