Retired Milwaukee Lifetime Piano Restorer Working on Swan Song

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) — How often do you think about all the work it takes to create great music? A man has spent his entire career doing this work on grand pianos of all types.

“I would say the piano, more than any other piece of furniture, just catches them here.”

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

“This photo which is my first piano, my first piano to be rebuilt,” Dixon said, showing her young man standing next to a piano in a black and white photo, “and it was done in an apartment in Milwaukee Street on the second floor. Wasn’t easy going up and down.”

Now most of the work takes place in his specialized workshop in his basement where he has cut out the stairs to install grand pianos.

“When I first moved in here, I couldn’t fit the pianos into this space here. So in the middle of the night, I thought of this idea here,” Dixon explained, pointing to his staircase at hinges that makes room for larger pianos.

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

“I just wasn’t good enough to be a concert pianist,” laughed Dixon.

Dixon’s father, a lifelong handyman himself, however, inspired him to stick with pianos.

“When I think of him, [his passion for tinkering] was like the core of it,” Dixon said, “and, and the core of it. 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 it. [..] I really wanted to shape the sound of the piano.”

“There are two main parts,” Dixon continued, “one is, you know, tuning and repairs. That’s what most people do, they tune, maybe minor repairs, then they can do the piano and just rebuild the keyboard action stack. Then there’s another the other level rebuilds the whole piano”

Dixon has tuned tens of thousands of pianos.

“Tuning is so ethereal, tune it and just in days it’s not the same, but rebuilding takes decades and decades,” Dixon said, explaining that he’s only fully restored a few dozens of grand pianos, “it requires space, it requires tools.”

“They probably average about 500 hours, more if I replace the soundboard,” Dixon said.

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 could be worth it.

“Sometimes people will want to rebuild a piano and the cost is more than the value of the piano,” Dixon said, “so I try to discourage it, but sometimes they want it done because that was it in the family.”

Dixon’s attention to detail and time spent can have wonderful results for these people.

“It has the potential to be better than new,” he said.

It is difficult to estimate how many people have heard his work without knowing it.

“I feel good, I feel really good. Guess it’s the legacy, huh,” Dixon said of all those people.

In the fall of 2022 he is working on his own Bosendorfer.

“It’s my piano and so maybe it’s my swan song,” Dixon said.

He’s Retiring, He Says As Baby Boomers Step In To Fix Those Early ’20s Pianose century, with the rise of electric and hybrid pianos,

“I have no idea what the future holds for piano rebuilding,” Dixon said, explaining that’s why he’s going the extra mile with this latest rebuild. “I’m just going to do the nine yards on this thing.”

He said he was refinishing the plate and making a new soundboard.

Once again there will be what he called his favorite moment which he has provided for countless clients.

“Customers come in and see their newly refurbished piano, a rebuilt piano, and you know I always have Ellen coming to play for them,” Dixon said, “there were a lot of tears coming out when they heard this piano.”

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

“She was a much better pianist than me,” Timothy recalls with a smile.

She, concert pianist, and he, the craftsman.

“You know, I’m not, I’m not. I’m not a religious person at all. But, I mean, hearing Ellen play that piano is where I get the most spiritual experience. “, said Timothy.

Aloud, he read a poem that a client had left for him after a job well done.

“I think of the teachers who pass the torch, of the composers who empowered the emotions. But especially of those who made the selfless effort to give voice through the gift of instruments. Dedicated to Tim, Linda and Mike, who, with consummate skill, have renewed the beauty in sight and sound of my Mason and Hamlin Model A grand piano,” Timothy read, “It’s a real grand piano again.”


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