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Restoring, Recycling, or Donating a Piano

Restoring, Recycling, or Donating a Piano

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Restoring, Recycling, or Donating a Piano

86 pages
42 minutes
Sep 1, 2016


The Piano Buyer Essentials Series brings together in one place the very best and most important articles from our 30 years of publishing on the subject of buying and owning a piano. Each e-book is a compilation of articles from current and past issues of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, a semiannual consumer publication devoted to the purchase of new, used, and restored acoustic pianos and digital pianos. The e-books may also contain excerpts from The Piano Book, by Larry Fine, and from pieces published only on PianoBuyer.com. For reader convenience, articles and excerpts have been grouped by subject. However, because some pieces apply to more than one subject, there is some duplication of articles among the e-books in the series.
Sep 1, 2016

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Restoring, Recycling, or Donating a Piano - Brookside Press




IS OLDER BETTER? Archeologists, antique dealers, and even aging writers will tell you so. And many pianists agree, especially when one finds a certain special instrument with which he or she can form the musical partnership of a lifetime. But even legendary wines can turn to vinegar. So when dealing with the acquisition—or restoration—of a vintage piano, it’s important to get the advice of experts.

Mason & Hamlin poster, 1887

There are reasons to favor an older instrument over a new one, and one of the strongest is purely sentimental. To the extent this was grandma’s piano, there is a certain attraction, says Bill Youse, who heads Steinway & Sons’ restoration center in Long Island City, New York. We’ve had people come in and cry at seeing their restored pianos. One time we asked a technician to play something on it as the customer entered the room to see the results, and she nearly fainted. It turned out that the piece he was playing was the one her husband had last played on the instrument before he passed away. The coincidence was amazing. But the point is, when you bring a piano back to life, you get the family history, the love, the memories. You can’t get that with a new instrument.

It’s also rare to get the sound in new pianos that vintage instruments produce, say Sara and Irving Faust, of Faust Harrison Pianos in New York City, a dealership renowned for high-level restorations. The old Steinways, produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, have never been surpassed, says Sara. "They have warmth, soul, what I would call a sort of ‘three-dimensionality’ and color in the sound that you can’t find in a modern instrument. And each era seems to have its own special quality. Starting in the 1920s, the Steinway sound became more extroverted. Steinways of the 1940s are both lush and bold. Most importantly, in the hands of a top piano restorer the special rich, mellow, colorful tones of the older instruments are retained. They may look, feel, and smell like new pianos, but they sound like wonderful old pianos.

You have to have a very large sample to appreciate this fully, Faust continues. I’m making these judgments based on working with thousands of pianos. The exact reasons why the old Steinways sound different from today’s instruments remain a mystery; one theory attributes it to changes in the manufacture of the cast-iron plate that sits at the heart of the instrument.

At Cunningham Piano Co. in Philadelphia, founded in 1891, co-owner Rich Galassini agrees that there are differences among Steinway pianos made at different times. "The final product depends on choices made in materials, design, and the execution of these designs in manufacturing. Any change, intentional or unintentional, in any of these categories will result in a difference in performance.

But I wouldn’t single out just one brand, adds Galassini. There are a number of beautifully made instruments that historically have had their own voice and, restored, have wonderful performance potential. Galassini would include in this list such venerable brands as Mason & Hamlin, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, and Bechstein, as well as the slightly lesser-known Chickering and Knabe, among others. There is a very wide palette of tone and touch available to a pianist who wishes to seek out an older instrument that speaks to him or her personally.

This 1915 Steinway advertisement reflects the pre vailing sentiment of the time—that developing her musical skills would increase a young woman’s chance of a good marriage.

Source: NW Ayers Advertising Agency Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Steinway’s Bill Youse has a somewhat different perspective. There may be differences in quality between older instruments and today’s, he says, but it’s difficult to render an opinion because, by the time I get them, they are in demise. More likely, the perceived differences have to do with changing aesthetics, he adds: The tonal requirements today—the sounds people are looking for—are different than they were years ago. Today we juice the hammers to produce a brighter sound. We tune at a higher pitch. Sometimes it’s too harsh for my senses. I like pianos voiced in a mellow way. But the entire piano industry has developed that trend toward brightness.

Perhaps because of these different outlooks, the three firms have different approaches to restoration. We replace rather than repair, reports Youse. "We retain original parts only in a museum-type restora tion, as we did for the White House piano, and the ‘Peace Piano’—the one with gold stars all around that had been in Congress and that now resides at the Smithsonian Institution. When we worked on the ‘King of Sweden’ piano, which arrived with envoys and armed guards, we of course had to use the original types of glue and varnish. But in most cases, we believe that newer is better.

There is a perception that the old craftsmen did it better, Youse continues. "Yet the materials we use, and the ways we have of testing things, have gotten better. We replace hardware, to avoid sympathetic vibrations that develop as things wear. The modern action is an improvement over older ones.

And our wood technologist tells me that after about 60 years the cellular structure of spruce breaks down, and the soundboard just won’t have the same resilience. The newer ones are superior."

At Faust Harrison Pianos, standardizing parts is not always considered the right way to go. Indeed, their technicians often

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