Installing new hammers on a Steinway grandThe piano in America continued to be seen as a tool to regulate the life of the tender sex, just as it had across the ocean. The critic of the New York World, A.C. Wheeler, laid out the argument in 1875: "[It] may be looked upon as furniture by dull observers or accepted as a fashion by shallow thinkers, but it is in reality the artificial nervous system, ingeniously made of steel and silver, which civilization in its poetic justice provides for our young women. Here it is, in this parlor with closed doors, that the daughter of our day comes stealthily and pours out the torrent of her emotions through her finger-ends, directs the forces of her youth and romanticism into the obedient metal and lets it say in its own mystic way what she dare not confess or hope in articulate language."

Through the early decades of the 20th century, pianos continued to be built—and to be played—in this cultural atmosphere of naïveté and old-world charm. We live in a very different world now: one filled with iPods, interactive games, and—for pouring out torrents of emotion—talk therapy. But the gracefulness and enchantment of that earlier time still imbue many of the instruments it produced.

Restoring those pianos to their full beauty can be a painstaking process, as one quickly discovers when touring the sprawling restoration facility of Faust Harrison Pianos in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where each aspect of piano rebuilding warrants its own room. There is a lot to consider. "Take the hammers," explains Sara Faust; "they each have to hit the strings at the optimum point for sound production. Yet if they are placed optimally, you may not see a perfectly straight hammer line, but something that resembles a gentle roller coaster, particularly in the third register. Sometimes technicians try to compensate for a weak sound by putting extra lacquer on the hammers, but the right answer is often not lacquer at all, but to make an adjustment to the strike point. Indeed, minimally lacquered Steinway hammers have a special beauty that should be preserved whenever possible. A new hammer may start out like a closed rosebud, but as it is played it hardens naturally from compression, and the sound opens up and blossoms.

"And new hammers have more wood than old ones," she continues, "so we sometimes remove some wood, changing the mass and shape of the hammers, to clarify the sound. Why do we drive ourselves crazy in this way? Because when you have a well-crafted hammer, the piano can sound both more beautiful and more powerful at the same time."

In the "rubbing room," a series of sandings, using finer and finer materials, ensures a beautiful cabinet surface. But there are dangers here as well: in the wrong hands, important cabinet details in a vintage art-case instrument can be lost. A good restorer will bring them back.

It all has to be done with a light touch, inside and out. At A.C. Pianocraft, in New York City, owner Alexander Kostakis explains that "The instrument will tell me what to do. I have to keep everything in perspective. Each instrument has a personality, or 'soul.' We have restored all the American and European brands of yesteryear—Steinways, Mason & Hamlins, Bechsteins, Blüthners, Pleyels, Knabes, Chickerings. Each one is different, and the experience has made us better mechanics, more versatile.

 

SPRING 2010 -- page 72

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