The first area of the restoration facility a piano will encounter is the Belly/Woodworking Department, headed by Jason Andino, who joined Cunningham in 2009. Andino's résumé includes 14 years of installing soundboards and pinblocks at Steinway & Sons, rebuilding pianos for the Manhattan School of Music, and having been raised in the New York piano rebuilding shop of his father, a well-known rebuilder who worked at Steinway for 25 years. Andino places a high priority on the exact re-creation of original downbearing, sidebearing, and pinblock fit, as well as staying true to the types of spruce and maple used by the original manufacturer. Although soundboard cracks and rib separations are treated with concern, Andino regards the existence of sufficient soundboard crown as the most critical element to be considered in the question of whether or not to replace a soundboard. And in order for pianos made before WWII, when restored, to achieve the proper sustain and warmth of tone, the question of whether or not to replace the soundboard is most often answered by Andino in the affirmative.
Andino and his team first do a thorough diagnosis to precisely determine the materials and processes needed to restore the instrument to its original splendor. The piano's action cavity is cleaned, and the instrument's structure and belly — rim, bridges, soundboard, and cast-iron plate — are evaluated. Measurements are taken throughout the piano, digital pictures are taken for record-keeping purposes, and materials needed for this specific instrument are ordered. The belly is disassembled, and each component's dimensions and relative placement in the piano are meticulously measured. The new pinblock is fitted to the plate and case, a step critical to the piano's tuning stability, and thus requiring great care and expertise for best long-term performance. Spruce soundboard ribs are crafted and positioned in the shelf of the inner rim, using fixed locating points to ensure that all measurements are correct. After the ribs are glued to the newly crafted tapered soundboard, the bridge positions are also precisely located, and the bridges are glued to the soundboard in the bridge press. (A tapered soundboard, which has more mass at its center, is more flexible and gives the instrument's tone better sustain.) Once the new soundboard is installed, a replica of the original decorative soundboard decal is applied, followed by a light coat of finish to protect the spruce without impeding its natural vibrations, and the piano is ready for the next department.
Lee Bauer, manager of the Refinishing Department, focuses not only on refinishing, but on cabinet restoration, antique preservation, and overall beauty. Having always gravitated toward artistic fields that require hands-on skills, Bauer sought out Cunningham years ago with the goal of learning about cabinet preservation. His desire is that the work he performs last as long as possible. The piano's cabinet is disassembled into some 20 individual pieces, and each is stripped of finish to create as clean a surface as possible for the new finish. Each part is meticulously examined with an eye to its qualities as a work of art, rather than as just a piece of furniture, and for loose veneer and damage that may have resulted from years of use. Replicas of worn-out carvings are made, and new veneers are applied where needed. A moisture-resistant polyester sealer is used as a primer to give the instrument a clean, smooth surface that will not change with time. A UV-blocking protective finish is custom-mixed to restore the instrument's original color or to meet a customer's request.
The cast-iron plate gets a separate treatment of its own, known as regilding. After the plate is stripped down to gray iron, a black self-etching primer is applied to bond to the metal. A second priming coat is used to properly hold the finish and smooth out any unevenness in the metal surface. Finally, an appropriate metallic suspension finish is used for beauty. Raised plate artwork is detailed by hand, and a clear coat of lacquer is applied for lasting protection and luster.