Life-long Milwaukee piano restorer working on retirement swan song

NOW: Life-long Milwaukee piano restorer working on retirement swan song


MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- How often do you think about all of the work that goes into creating beautiful music? One man has spent his whole career doing that work on grand pianos of all types.

"I'd say the piano, more than any other piece of furniture, it's just, it grabs them right here."

For nearly half a century, Timothy Dixon, the sole proprietor of Great Lakes Piano Supply, has worked as a piano craftsman.

"That picture that's my first piano, first piano rebuilding," said Dixon pointing to his younger self standing next to a piano in a black and white photo, "and it was done on an apartment on Milwaukee Street on the second floor. So it was not easy getting that up and down."

Now, most of the work happens in his specialized workshop in his basement where he cut out the stairs to fit grand pianos in.

"when I first moved in here, I couldn't get the pianos through this space here. So in the middle of the night, I thought of this idea here," explained Dixon showing off his hinged stair that makes space for larger pianos.

It all started for him when as a student at the Wisconsin Music Conservatory.

"I just wasn't good enough to be a concert pianist," laughed Dixon.

Dixon's father, a life-long tinkerer himself, inspired him to stay with pianos however.

"When I think back to him, [his passion for tinkering] was like the core of it," said Dixon, "and, and the core of him. I kind of put the two together. I wanted to stay in the music world and I liked pianos, so I thought, maybe I should work on them. [..] I really wanted to shape the sound of the piano."

"There's two main parts of it," Dixon went on, "one is, you know, tuning and repairs. That's what most people do, they do tuning, maybe minor repairs, and then they might do piano action and rebuilding just the keyboard action stack. Then there's another the other level is rebuilding the entire piano"

Dixon has tuned tens of thousands of pianos.

"Tuning is so ethereal, tune it and just in a few days, it's not the same, but the rebuilding lasts decades and decades," said Dixon, explaining that he's only fully restored a few dozen grand pianos, "that requires space, it requires tools."

"They probably average around 500 hours or so, more if I'm replacing the soundboard," said Dixon.

It's an expensive process, but usually as much as a new grand piano, but for a piano someone remembers their mother, or grandmother playing it could be worth it.

"sometimes people will want to rebuild a piano and the cost is more than the piano is worth," said Dixon, "so I try to discourage it but sometimes they want it done because this was this has been in the family."

Dixon's attention to detail and time spent can have wonderous results for those people.

"It has the potential of actually being better than new," he said.

It's hard to estimate how many people have heard his work without knowing it.

"I feels good, it feels really good. I guess that's the legacy huh," said Dixon thinking about all those people.

In the fall of 2022, he's working on his own Bosendorfer.

"This is my piano and so this is kind of maybe my swan song," said Dixon.,

He's retiring, he says while the baby boomer generation stepped in to repair these pianos from the early 20th century, with the rise of electric and hybrid pianos,

"I don't know what the future of piano rebuilding is at all," said Dixon, explaining that that's why he's going the extra mile with this last rebuilt. "I'm just going, doing the whole nine yards on this thing."

He said he's refinishing the plate and crafting a fresh soundboard.

Once again, there will be what he called his favorite moment that he's given countless customers.

"Customers come in and see their newly refurbished piano, rebuilt piano, and you know I always have Ellen come down and play it for them," said Dixon, "there's been a lot of tears that come out when they hear that piano."

Timothy met his wife, Ellen Dixon, at the music conservatory.

"She was a way better pianist than I was," recalled Timothy with a smile.

Her, a concert pianist, and him, the craftsman.

"You know, I'm not I'm not. I'm not a religious person at all. But, I mean, that's the hearing Ellen play that piano is the closest that I get spiritual experience," said Timothy.

Aloud, he read a poem a customer left him upon a job well done.

"I think of teachers who pass the torch, of composers who empowered emotions. But most of all to those with the selfless effort gave voice through the gift of instruments. Dedicated to Tim, Linda and Mike, who with consummate skills have renewed the beauty in both sight and sound of my Mason and Hamlin Model A grand piano," read Timothy, "It is again a truly grand piano."

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