This attitude follows the lead of Steinway & Sons' own Restoration Center, which usually treats antique Steinways like their modern counterparts, and in restoring them seems to follow no consistent policy of conservation. It's also odd that this venerable company has not collected its most historic instruments; my own small Period Piano Center Museum seems to be the only focused collection of early Steinways. There is a certain irony to Steinway's relative lack of interest in its own early instruments, for the stories these pianos tell are of some of the company's best, most enduring innovations.
This lack of respect for early Steinways comes even from the communities of conservators and early-piano specialists, who may recognize the emergence of modern design elements but who show insufficient regard for these instruments as historical documents. Steinways from 1853 to 1892 represent an era of transition: from flat-strung to cross-strung; and from antique soundboards with long cutoff bars and grain parallel to the spine, to the modern crowned soundboard supported by angled ribs and grain. Before 1860, the piano was to a great extent "handbuilt," but by 1880 it was mostly modern in its construction. While other companies, especially Chickering and Broadwood, experimented a great deal and sold their experimental instruments to the public, Steinway moved forward with deliberate, dramatic, and hugely influential changes in design. So while the early Steinways tend to be ignored by students of the early piano, they are critical to an understanding of piano history, and deserve respect as objects of conservation. Indeed, it was the antique 1860s design of my Style 2 Steinway that catapulted the company to industry leader in 1867! Even "modern" Steinways built from the 1880s to as late as the 1930s sometimes contain design nuances that may deserve the work of a conservator.
Leading conservators, curators, and early-piano experts have had a profound influence on my rebuilding and have helped me to define my work. Especially important has been Robert Barclay's seminal book, Preservation and Use of Historic Musical Instruments: Display Case or Concert Hall? (Maney Publishing, 2004). Barclay explains that, among the options for conservators of musical instruments, none satisfactorily permits both continued use ("currency") and historical preservation ("conservation"), and the "restoration" option invasively alters the historical document. Barclay defines a mediating alternative, which he calls "restorative conservation," which carefully applies conservation principles and techniques in a manner that permits continued use of the instrument. It is this philosophy of restorative conservation that I attempt to follow in my shop.
Applying restorative conservation to piano rebuilding requires making many difficult and nuanced decisions. A few examples:
The top two octaves of early Steinways had shorter string lengths and more flexible music wire than modern Steinways. Today's stiffer wire requires longer strings, so rebuilders often move the treble bridge to increase the effective string length. However, in order to maintain the historical integrity of the original instrument, I no longer move the bridge, instead choosing to seek out the best available replacement music wire intended for period instruments. I also document the original scale and archive the old music wire.
Early Steinway damper actions used a damper wire that threaded into the wooden damper-lever flange. This system did not age well, and restoration can be unsuccessful. Since most Steinways can be retrofitted with a complete, new damper action without any design compromise, I will often take advantage of that alternative, saving the original parts as artifacts for future study.
Even with modern restoration techniques, old iron-wound bass strings cannot approach the tonal palette of properly designed new ones. If the owner wants to return the instrument to its highest possible performance level, the original strings will be replaced and saved for future study. Of course, I prefer to replace them with new iron-wound strings, even though modern copper-wound strings would last longer.