Replacing a pinblock in a grand piano

"For example, old pianos had a flat inner rim where the soundboard was attached. But sometimes, when restoring the piano, we've added a pitch to the rim to give the soundboard more resonance. As for replacing parts, you always have to remember that the perishable items within an instrument have a certain lifespan. But we also try to maintain the authentic character of the instrument, and sometimes choose to repair rather than replace."

In a business driven mostly by a love of the instrument, piano restorers sometimes seem to work miracles. Even so, there are limits to what can be accomplished. "Some brands you'll restore once, but never again," says Kostakis—"every time you touch something, something else breaks. But we've also had amazing successes. I advised a customer not to restore a family heirloom: a Kranich & Bach Louis XV model in walnut. It was a beautiful piece of furniture, but it looked like restoring the action would be impossible because no one makes the right parts anymore. But the customer was adamant about restoring the instrument, so we agreed to repair the action parts rather than replace them. Working on the piano, however, I realized that the old action parts, even repaired, would never be good enough, and might give trouble later on. It was a Herculean task, but in order to do the right thing for the piano and for the customer—and, frankly, to sleep well at night—I actually reproduced brand-new parts in the exact style of the old ones."

Steinway, too, has seen its share of horror stories. "There was a church down in Georgia," remembers Bill Youse; "they had a Model O that had been badly damaged by a fire, and they wanted it restored. I asked for a photo. All that was left was the harp and a bunch of burnt strings sticking up. They were essentially asking us to build a piano around the old harp—an impossible task."

Still, had the assignment been humanly possible, he would have tried. "I love my job," he says. "I'm third-generation here at Steinway. My grandfather was a blind tuner back in the late '40s. My father started here in 1955. I've been here 37 years. For me, this is an honor. My first bicycle was a beat-up model I had to restore. My first car was a beat-up old Chevy I had to restore. This was a natural progression. It's what I was meant to do."

Stuart Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music (SUNY) and the author of Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization (Knopf/Vintage, 2003).


SPRING 2010 -- page 73

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