Today, when restoring pianos, most rebuilders routinely replace parts, and many extensively redesign the instruments. While these approaches have their place in the piano rebuilder's repertoire, indiscriminately applying them to vintage or antique instruments represents a kind of destruction of culture through the erasure of history. Our rebuilding shop seeks to reveal the unique musical personalities of historical instruments while respecting their function as historical documents. It is not always possible to do both, and we are always leaning one way or the other, but it's a fascinating and rewarding journey.
Bill Shull, RPT, M. Mus., is a piano technician, classical pianist, singer, and occasional choral conductor. He restrung his first piano at age 15, and for 30 years has maintained a piano service business, including a small rebuilding shop, in southern California. Shull founded the Period Piano Center, www.periodpianos.org, to promote the conservation of transitional-modern pianos, support research projects such as the early-Steinway documentation project, exhibit representative pianos, and develop an online database of historic pianos.
A Modern Approach to Piano Restoration
David G. Hughes, RPT
In the undertaking of any task, prudence dictates establishing a list of goals and standards, and the art of piano restoration is no exception. I take a modern approach to piano rebuilding. I grant myself liberty to make those mechanical and structural changes that result in lengthening the instrument's working life, and in restoring the classic tone and touch it once possessed, but no more: in my shop, a vintage Steinway remains a Steinway.
I like to divide a piano and its rebuilding into three main areas of concern: the vibrating system or belly, the action, and the case. Three qualities must be present in the belly: immediacy of sound, projection, and sustain (the harmonic content and brightness of the tone are refined later in the process, when the hammers are installed and voiced). The belly should possess an abundance of horsepower — controlling an excess of sound is preferable to grasping for something that isn't there. The keyboard and action should be capable of any demand. The touchweight should be 54 grams at the lowest note, tapering off to 47 grams in the top octave; the speed of repetition should be such that no performer can outplay it; and player fatigue must never be an issue. The rim and its associated structural components must be rock solid, the cosmetic veneer and case parts absent of defect, and the reapplied finish showroom-new in appearance.
In the belly, my approach is to build everything new within the capability of a small shop. This means the rim and plate are retained, and everything else discarded. Specifically, the ribs, soundboard panel, bridge caps, trim moldings, pinblock, tuning pins, and strings are replaced. As well, the plate receives a gleaming new finish with hand lettering, nickel-plated hardware, and new agraffes, hitch pins, and felts. I always retain Steinway's original string scale. However, I modernize the skewed treble-bridge notching of older models B, C, and D with modern perpendicular terminations, as Steinway does in its own factory restorations.
I honor the piano's original rib locations and lengths. I have created my own ideal rib depths (thicknesses) for all the Steinway and Mason & Hamlin models, loosely resembling the original dimensions — which, in any case, varied slightly from instrument to instrument, even of the same model. Where I part ways with tradition is in how I crown the soundboard. Unlike Steinway's compression crowning, in which straight ribs are forced into a curved shape by bending them during the crowning process, I choose to cut the curved shape into the ribs by machining them. A compression-crowned soundboard is indeed lively at first, but, in my experience, can prematurely lose its aural luster. In my approach, the ribs are cut to the intended radius of crown, then glued to the back of the soundboard. Done this way, there is virtually no stress at the rib-to-panel glue joint, and the cross-grain pressure on the soundboard (so-called compression crushing) is greatly reduced, virtually eliminating the possibility of damage to wood fibers. When the soundboard is judiciously loaded with string downbearing, decades of musical sparkle will result. Improved tuning stability is a fringe benefit, as this stiffer soundboard is not as easily influenced by swings in humidity.