Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Renovation of a Steingraeber & Söhn upright

For the interested ...

On You Tube (it may not be there forever) there is a documentation of the renovation of a Steingraeber & Söhn upright piano, 150 cm high, built in 1901.  105 cm = 59 inches or an inch shorter than 5 feet.  For practical comparison, we'll say that an upright piano of this height or higher represents a scale equivalent to a 5'6" - 5'8" grand piano.  We'll also say that many of the pianos of this era may not be particularly worth restoring.  A Steingraeber & Söhn definitely would be.  

Then we also have where this was done, in Dornbirn, Austria, which is a small city situated in the farthest western province of Austria, parked up against Switzerland, and not far by train from Zurich.  Dornbirn is at an altitude of 1,400 feet with a population of 45,000.  I'm sure it's a wonderful place to live and work.

There is a business behind this, Pianohaus Dornbirn, which has a site on the web: http://www.pianohaus.at  Sorry, it's all in German, but this is a little piano store in the town of Dornbirn.  They sell Ravenstein and Sauter pianos.  We're familiar with Sauter, another fine German make, but Ravenstein (many piano brands have the word "stein" or stone in them), seems to be a piano connected with Taiyo Piano Europe GmbH which is Yamaha by a German name.     

Michael Szécsényi would appear to be the proprietor / technician who is doing the work on the videos.  What he does is called "Reparaturen" and is closer to repair than to rebuilding a piano.  Most of his methods are used elsewhere to my knowledge including the patch he makes for a tuning pin at the end of the pinblock (when we come to it in the videos).  After you've seen these, you'll begin to understand all the steps that go into repairing or renovating a piano.  Rebuilding one is almost as complex a job as making one in the first place.

In this first video we see the piano before the repairs.  It's an antique carved case, but inside we want to make mention of the light colored action parts.  This indicates that a restoration of the action may not be as difficult (or impossible) a job as it might be for some other piano where the action parts have turned dark, almost black, with oxidation over the years.  Once this happens, the action parts become brittle and subject to breakage.  Even if this was as fine a make as a Steingraeber  & Söhn, with oxidized action parts, the sane response is to have them replaced rather than, as we shall see, merely cleaned up.

He begins with the first place the pianist has contact with the instrument, the keys.  He has elected to restore the existing playing surface. 

He continues work on the keys, showing a method for filling in a chipped key.  More sanding (polishing) of the keys.  The buff, off-shiny key tops, probably real ivory, are going to be a real pleasure to play.

Now we get into the cleaning of the action to see how the parts have weathered over 100 years of use, or neglect.  He removes the hammers, always keeping them in proper order.  More cleaning.  He wants to get as much of that dirt, ash, etc. off the action parts as possible to halt the oxidation process.  The cleaned parts look pretty good.

Now he's going after the inside of the piano, removing case parts as he goes, cleaning as he goes.  He removes the tension bars first.  Then he begins removing the strings.  He wants to give this piano another 40 to 60 years of tuning stability and a new fresh voice by replacing all its strings.  He cleans up under what is called the apron of a bridge, probably someplace nobody has gotten to since the piano was made.  We then see him drill an exceptionally large hole in the pinblock and notice that there is a crack running through the place, indication that the pinblock has failed there and probably will no longer keep that string in tune.  The solution is to insert a hollow dowel which will fit the new tuning pin.  Then very importantly he checks the crown / down bearing of the soundboard and yes it has plenty.  Some rebuilders may notice that at this point in their project they have a soundboard without crown or even negative crown.  This will effect the piano's power and volume potential and usually (especially if the piano is a grand) it will require replacement of the soundboard and its constituent parts, ribs and bridges.  That of course is quite a lot of extra work.  He isn't doing that here.  This will be the same soundboard the piano came with.

We see him continue work on that pinblock patch.  Then he drills the rest of the holes for the newer larger pins.  These will use the old pinblock but with new settings will provide better tuning stability.  All the old parts are reconditioned.  He cleans the tension strips and bridge, each contributes to the tone of the piano.  There is a lot of different kinds of felt used in a piano and it all gets replaced.  Next you see him restringing the piano.

The restored hardware goes back on.  Then there are more little taps to make sure everything is in line and then the damper felt goes in behind the bridge.  The bass strings which are overstrung over the rest of the strings go on last.  As this happens you may notice that underneath some of the strings are also wound in copper wire.  The intention when designing a piano scale, which is the number, thickness and tension of strings required to produce the range of tones in a piano, is to provide as few noticeable breaks in the piano's tone as one strikes the notes down the piano from middle c to the bottom.  Scale design is something of the alchemy in piano design and some of the best have been around a long time. 

He wants to make sure this piano has an unobstructed, modern, low friction play to it.  He replaces all the keybed hardware.  He removes all the old felt and replaces that too.  So many felt bushings!

Watch the intricate work here to replace key felts.  He has to do this 88 times.  Another set of felts at the end of each key need replacing too.  He makes these by hand.  We've noticed the keyboard getting cleaner all along.  He cleans the keys and the keybed (I'm sure an added pleasure to the tuner / technician who will be seeing this piano) and inserts the keys.  You can still see the spot where he fixed the chipped key.

More critical work on the action, replacing the jack wires, again to make it play easier.  Cleaning as he goes.  More felt replacement.  Then amazingly, each of the existing hammers is reshaped by removing a little excess felt.  What this is doing is allowing this instrument to acquire a new voice, one that it will have after it has been played good and strong for a few years and new grooves develop on those hammers.  The pedals are polished.

More action felt replacements.  He has to make these by hand too.  The action is looking cleaner all the time too.  This piano's owners were lucky to have an instrument that was kept up to the extent that the action didn't oxidize over the century.  He's attaching the straps, these parts that are unique to most upright actions and required to allow the hammer to fall back and away from the string.  The fallboard needs work too.  We get a view of the restored hammers.  Polish everything that you can as its not going to get done again for a very long time. 

The action deck goes on and it's time to see that everything is matched up to work.  Some keys need adjustments - all those felts.  We get the first tantalizing sounds from the repaired, refurbished piano.  Then, tune it up.  A newly restrung piano will require at least six tunings in fairly rapid succession and more over its first few years of use to maintain tuning stability.  Then a few chords and passages on the new piano.  It sounds very good and I'm sure that in person it would make quite a statement.  Then he has to show his modernity by playing a little bluesy jazz.  It comes off pretty well here too.

That gives a pretty good idea of what goes into a restoration work, not a rebuild.  If you're going in for a real rebuild, the result will be brand new throughout and is kind of like what one goes for in some automobiles and trucks these days.  People with rebuilt pianos, even with new factory made pianos, are going to want famous named actions, hammers and strings in them.  There are specialists in soundboards, keyboards, etc. too. 

We are asked why more of these vintage large old uprights aren't restored or rebuilt.  The short answer is that most of them were really not as good as that old Steingraeber & Söhn was.  Along with it is the speed of most upright actions that simply cannot compare with the direct control one gets with a grand action.  What is being done more often these days, and it's usually a good solution, is that if the old piano case is still in good condition and the owners just want a new piano, then the original case is used and inside is placed a modern, usually European, piano, complete with soundboard, plate, action, keyboard, the works.  When one approaches one of these all the aspects of the original are there but when one plays it, one has a superior modern instrument instead.  Quite a good arrangement if you ask me.

Now to conclude and to maybe give some idea of the real, very distinctive  Steingraeber & Söhn sound, here's eight of their grands playing Rossini: 



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