Rebuilding Spotlight

Rebuilding Spotlight
Three Approaches to Piano Restoration

WHEN REBUILDING A PIANO, the restorer is presented at every turn with questions concerning the extent to which the piano's original design, parts, and materials should be preserved or, conversely, altered or replaced. The philosophies that guide these decisions fall, roughly, into three camps, which might be called, respectively, Conservative, Modern, and Innovative. Of course, this division is, to some degree, a generalization; a particular restorer may combine elements of more than one approach in his or her work.

With the conservative approach, the restorer places a high priority on preserving as much of the original instrument as possible, even, if necessary, sacrificing some degree of performance in the interest of maintaining historical authenticity (not just to save money). So with this approach, for example, rather than replace a cracked soundboard, a restorer would shim the cracks with wood (if possible, with old wood); and rather than discard and replace old wooden action parts, the restorer would replace only their worn leather and cloth surfaces. Design changes, even minor ones, are unthinkable.

With the modern approach, the restorer places a higher priority on the instrument's performance, and so replaces as many parts as possible with new ones. But the restorer attempts to make the piano only as good as it was when new, closely maintaining the original design. Sometimes minor design changes will be made to correct known defects, especially ones the manufacturer itself corrected in later instruments.

With the innovative approach, the restorer not only replaces worn parts with new, but also feels free to modify the design of the instrument in any way that, in the restorer's judgment, would make it perform better — even in ways the manufacturer never contemplated and might not approve of. So the thickness and taper of the soundboard might be changed, the bridges moved, the stringing scale altered, even new holes made in the cast-iron plate and pinblock to accommodate new strings — anything that can be done within the confines of the original case and plate is on the table for consideration.

In this article, several well-respected piano restorers, each approximately representing one of the above positions, explain their approaches to restoration in general and, specifically, how they might be applied to various eras of Steinway grands.


Restorative Conservation in Piano Rebuilding

Bill Shull, RPT, M. Mus.

Fourteen years ago, the purchase of an 1878 Style 2 (7' 2") Steinway grand piano led me down the road to a different approach to piano restoration. This piano was one of the last examples of antique piano building — one of the last "bridges" to the modern era — with a traditional pinblock/stretcher assembly that, with the soundboard, was mortised into the rim. It was a strange instrument, very unlike a modern Steinway and difficult to rebuild, and I learned that there were few existing protocols for restoring it. Since then I have taught classes and seminars on the early Steinway, and for the last five years have conducted systematic research, including the documentation of numerous early Steinways, in preparation for a publication on the subject. My research and teaching have brought me in contact with leading conservators and their work, and in my presentations and classes I have begun to encourage my colleagues to be more careful in modifying older pianos, and to become familiar enough with conservation to give responsible counsel when retained to assess and appraise older instruments.

What has cemented these convictions has been my experience in locating early Steinways for my study. While documenting Steinways built from 1853 to 1892, I learned that, among rebuilders, there is a widespread disregard for these pianos as objects of conservation, and a nearly equal disregard for restoring them to their original design or performance intent. Permanent alterations routinely include replacement of soundboards, bridge caps, and action parts, and the use of near-permanent polyester or polyurethane finishes. Some alterations include experimental designs. If the piano is antique or historically important — things not always easy to know — its historical value, and probable future value as an antique piano, can be lost forever in the rebuilding shop.