This blog post is a guest post from Eric Donnelly, who performed the restoration work on our new Steinway Grand Piano that was generously donated by Marissa Rustici and Jonathan Day. After over 2 years of restoration work, the work is complete and the piano is ready to be played at PMAC! This blog details the process of restoring such a beautiful concert hall instrument. Enjoy!
The Rebuilding and Restoration of Steinway Model XR for Portsmouth Music & Arts Center
“Back in April of 2016, Marissa and Jonathan Day approached me and Portsmouth Music & Arts Center about making a wonderful and thoughtful gift. Marissa’s grandmother was a concert pianist and had recently passed away, and in her home was her childhood grand piano, a DuoArt Steinway reproducing grand piano. Marissa and Jonathan knew the piano was built around 1914 and was over one hundred years old and it would likely need a very extensive rebuilding and restoration. But they were undeterred, as was I, and we began a process that would take over one year to complete, as we completely gutted and re-manufactured the instrument back to like-new condition.
The DuoArt Steinway reproducing piano is quite a unique instrument. The Model XR is actually built as what people refer to as a “player” piano version of the Steinway M, meaning the belly of the instrument is the same scale as the Steinway Model M, but the case, keyframe and keysticks are built longer to accommodate the reproducer (player) mechanism. Therefore, a 5′ 7″ Model M becomes the 6′ 1″ Model XR. The DuoArt reproducing system was actually quite advanced for its time, as it was designed to reproduce musical performances expressively from paper rolls to an extent that the more basic “player” systems of the day could not. These pianos were very popular during what was knows as the Golden Era of piano manufacturing from 1870 to 1930, when there were many piano manufacturers competing in America and building pianos at the highest level of quality.
This particular Steinway had definitely seen a lot of playing time in its history, but clearly had sat idle for many, many years. When I first looked at it, it was difficult to assess the full scope of the work ahead. The lid was in two pieces, and many of the keys did not work making it difficult to ascertain what musical quality, if any, might still be left in the soundboard, or if the instrument was even still tunable at all. The piano also still had the reproducing system mounted in it, which would have to be disassembled before removing the action to determine the underlying condition. With all of this in mind, the go-ahead was given to bring the piano into the shop, remove the reproducer, fully-assess the instrument and restore it to its former glory.
In order to remove the action from a modern non-player Steinway, one would simply have to remove two screws to take the fallboard off. Not so with the reproducing Steinway! The entire system of bellows has to be disassembled and the lyre (pedal mechanism) removed as the system of tubes and bellows winds its way around and through the keyframe and keybed of the instrument. It took almost two days to remove all the parts of the reproducer, and the decision was made not to restore the DuoArt system, but to rebuild the instrument as a “former-reproducer”, a common way to prepare the piano for performance.
Once we were left with the piano-only, we separated the instrument into three distinct parts for restoration. The first part is what is known as the “belly” – this includes the pinblock, the soundboard, and the bridge, which are all woodworked into the case. The “pluck” test (a simple test of plucking strings in the melody section of the piano) revealed the the soundboard no longer transferred enough sustain from the strings and would need to be replaced along with a new maple bridge-cap for proper string termination and clean voicing. The soundboard itself is simply a series of Sitka spruce or eastern white spruce panels precisely jointed and glued together. This piece of wood is then cut and trimmed to fit perfectly within the outer rim of the piano, and carefully tapered or “feathered” along the curved rim part for maximum sustain and stability. A new piece of quarter-sawn hard-rock maple bridge cap material is carefully overlaid onto the bridge “root” and it is then glued onto the soundboard with a series of go-bars on a precisely curved soundboard deck. This entire soundboard and bridge piece can be glued into the inner rim at this time with a series of 40-50 large clamps.
As with almost any one hundred year-old instrument, one must replace the old wooden pinblock: the five-ply maple block that holds all the tuning pins and strings up to tension. The pinblock is mortisced into the case of the instrument on three sides and must be removed with a chainsaw. A new piece of pinblock material is then cut from a template and then carefully trimmed down to fit within these three sides. It is then sanded to mate perfectly to the plate flange on the front side, and to the underside of the plate webbing. Once a perfect woodworking fit is achieved, the pinblock may be glued into the piano. The piano is then stung with approximately 230 tuning pins and custom strings, and rough-tuned many times to get it up to approximately concert A440 pitch.
The second major segment of the piano is the “action”. The action consists of the entire keyboard and the action stack, which sits on top of the backside of the keysticks, and the action stack is where all of the hammers and repetition assemblies are mounted. This is where the two most characteristic unique-to-Steinway parts are located. One is the series of three tubular action rails which mount to become the action stack, all which have a carved shape so that only Steinway-shaped action flanges will fit. The other is the New York Steinway hammers themselves which are made with a soft-pressed felt hardened with a lacquer solution giving the hammers their distinctive felt-like New York tone when voiced softly, as opposed to the harder, brighter Renner hammers on Hamburg Steinways and other European pianos.
All the parts are then assembled on the action rails and adjusted to travel straight, square, and evenly to the strings before the hammers can be glued onto their shanks. The repetition assemblies are then fit to the frame and the “top action” set-up is complete. The keyboard then received its restoration which entails all new acryllic keytops for durability, and new key “bushings” or felts, which make the keys go straight up and down on the keypins without any side-to-side play. The action stack is assembled on top of the keyframe and then there is about 20-30 hours of preliminary action regulation work to begin to get the keys and parts to work properly (or at this point, simply to get them to go up and down!). This includes aligning parts to strings, bending wires to achieve proper repetition tensions, and setting double-escapement: the unique feature of the piano that allows the hammer to rebound from the string, but then to reset and repeat again. The keyboard is then “weighed-off” to achieve proper touch-weight which means installing or removing a series of leads in the front of the key to counterbalance the weight in the back of the action to a very precise specification. On this particular instrument, we also had to replace the entire “back-action” or damper system which includes replacing the felts and hand-bending each damper wire into proper position.
Once all of this was done, the piano was ready for final tuning, voicing, and action regulation: the never-ending process of attempting to achieve the best touch and tone from the instrument. This XR presented a unique challenge: Even with the touchweight set perfectly to New York specifications – that each key would depress under exactly a 50 gram brass weight, the touch and tone of the action still felt “light”. The decision was then made to install a series of weights on the hammer shanks to actually increase the force needed to depress the keys above specification. The piano was then tuned and received its final voicing to even out the tone which included the addition of one or two drops of lacquer on some of the hammers to increase the articulation, and fine-needling of some of the hammers to soften the tone.
The third and final part of the restoration was the most obvious: Refinishing. This, is left up to a professional refinisher! The original mahogany veneer was worn, chipped, and the lid was actually in two pieces! Since this was going to become a concert hall instrument, we decided to refinish the instrument in proper satin ebony. A proper refinishing takes about 60 hours to complete including stripping the instrument, sanding it down, replacing any missing veneer, respraying the finish, and the final hand-rubbing to give it the fine scratches of the fine satin ebony finish.
After all of this had been completed, the piano was shipped to PMAC for final on-site adjustments, tuning, and voicing to Haas Hall. An intricate restoration indeed, but one that now can be enjoyed for generations of students, parents, teachers, and performers for decades to come! Thank you, Marissa, Jonathan, Russ and everyone at Portsmouth Music & Arts Center!
Eric Donnelly is a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) in the Piano Technicians Guild and a graduate of the North Bennet Street School Piano Technology Program. Eric has completed the advanced training at the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens and is a member of the Steinway Technical Assistance Team. Eric also has a B.M. in Music Education with a concentration on French horn from the University of New Hampshire.”