A few lucky breaks help a Portland man 'tickle the ivories' for piano owners
by: Christopher Onstott Rick Wheeler has a long history of tuning, repairing and restoring pianos, and he now builds key sets mostly for Steinway owners.

Rick Wheeler graduated from Grant High School, and wanted to be an electrician.

A motorcycle accident changed his life.

Talk about a break - it turned out to be a good one, back in 1967.

'I was lucky not to be paralyzed. It fractured a vertebrae,' he says. 'I was in this heavy duty body cast for six months, and I could just sit straight up or lay flat on my back.

'So, I started taking piano lessons.'

Then, came another break - or breaks. His piano kept breaking, and he learned to fix it.

'My teacher was impressed,' Wheeler says. 'He thought I should think about doing (repairs) for a living.'

More than 40 years later, Wheeler still has his hands all over pianos. He is now one of the few piano key makers in the world. Wheeler says only one other individual makes piano key sets in the United States, and only about 12 in the world. That's rarefied company.

Wheeler owns Roseland Piano Co., which has done business in a nondescript shop in Milwaukie for 10 years. He and assistant Bob Rowell produce about one key set per week - mostly for rebuilt Steinway pianos - as the preeminent key maker in the country.

It started when Wheeler had to fix his own piano, and then he took an apprenticeship with retired tuner Maurice Schuster in Boring in 1969. Wheeler would do the 40-mile, round-trip commute every day to learn the craft; about 18 months later, Wheeler had become good enough to set out on his own.

Clearly an innovative type, Wheeler evolved into a piano key set maker.

Wheeler was doing repair, restoration and rebuilding of pianos in Portland into the mid-1980s when he started to branch out. He worked for Baldwin, living in Arkansas and running quality control in plants, and then headed grand piano manufacturing for a company in Connecticut. While there, he hooked up with Story and Clark, a Pennsylvania company, to do some design work for piano bridge assemblies.

'Just developing those was so much fun,' he says. 'That's what piqued my interest in doing something more complex. That's when I had the original idea of making piano keys.'

Losing sleep

By 1996, Wheeler had returned to Portland and started another rebuild shop in Sellwood, when Story and Clark called on him again. The company wanted him to build a grand piano prototype. He agreed to do the job on one condition: Story and Clark would buy piano key sets from him. That's how Wheeler got going in the key set business.

'I hadn't been making them yet, I just had the ideas,' he said. 'They agreed to those terms. I spent six months back there building the prototype,' and then he had three months to build equipment to manufacture the intricate key sets.

'No one was doing it, so I saw the niche that I could exploit,' he says. 'I was the first one to exploit it to any degree.'

Early days were about trial and error 'with more error - a lot of discards,' Wheeler says. 'In that three-month period, I got a decent enough key set that they were satisfied with. We knew we had a lot of room for improvement.'

He expanded the business to other companies and individuals and, nearly 20 years later, Wheeler still enjoys the exacting nature of making piano keys. He sold another part of his company - making piano sound boards - to concentrate on keys.

'Our market is the piano rebuilding trade,' he says. 'Most of our business now comes from word-of-mouth.'

Wheeler knows of only one other key maker in the country, Mike Morvan of Rhode Island. There are others overseas, and piano manufacturers contract with companies to make piano keys; Steinway, for example, owns and uses the German company Kluge.

In layman's terms, the process is this: Wheeler and Rowell do an action geometry analysis; Sugar pine and Engelmann spruce are used for the key 'blank,' which consists of several boards attached by glue; the key frame and pins (for strings) and balance rail are made through mortising and drilling; and the keys are made from plastic or ivory. Rowell, who also tunes pianos, does much of the precision work.

Acrylic is predominantly used for the keys, and an overlay is carefully cut. With ivory, which has been heavily regulated since the late 1970s, each key is cut individually.

'We're working in a half-millimeter tolerance,' Wheeler says. 'I lose sleep over that.'

Says Rowell: 'He's extremely demanding. But we wouldn't be in business if we just slapped them together.'

And, the thing about key sets is none are the same. Each piano comes with different specs.

'Want to slow down'

Piano key sets range from $2,800 to $8,000, the high end being with ivory plating. Wheeler gets his ivory from a fellow in Ohio who accumulated many tusks before the African elephant made the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species list in 1977.

Ivory can still be imported, but only for personal use. Wheeler says his Ohio contact provides him pre-ban ivory, but he makes only about 15 percent of his piano keys out of it.

'In the old days, you could get 37 key sets out of one tusk,' Wheeler says. 'That's using the two-piece, with a head and tail. What we use is one piece, and I think you can get six out of a tusk, the European-style of using ivory.'

Ivory enhances piano playing, he adds.

'There is a definite difference in how it feels,' he says. 'Ivory has a cool touch. Plastic, if you play on it long enough, your fingers kind of stick to it. Accomplished players like that (ivory) feel.'

Hence the expression: 'Tickle the ivories.'

Most of Wheeler's business is done with individuals and companies outside of Portland. He does work with Classic Pianos on Southeast Milwaukie Avenue. The recent economic downturn actually led to more business for Roseland Piano, because people looked to fix pianos rather than buy new ones.

'We're at a point where, if I wanted to, I could expand this business,' Wheeler says. 'I'm 62 years old, I want to slow down and enjoy the remainder of my life.' Meaning more golf, cycling and fishing.

Wheeler would like to groom an apprentice, somebody with plentiful piano experience, to take over the craft and business.

'I don't want to retire,' he says. 'I just want to slow down.'

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