Piano Restoration

What is piano restoration?

One definition of restoration is “to put back into nearly the original form,” and this technique is reserved for pianos of historic interest and technical curiosities. Working with such instruments requires an enormous amount of thought, care, patience, and skill. Some pianos have survived relatively whole after hundreds of years of playing, neglect, abuse, climate change, and war. That many survive today with strings, hammers, and keyboards intact is testimony to the skill and craftsmanship of their makers.

Many of the original fortepiano makers’ building techniques are now forgotten and their tools lost. There seemed little need at that time to document individual processes, and many were thought to be trade secrets, so were kept closely guarded within the workshop.

Certainly, when working on such instruments, it is difficult to duplicate any of the original work to the same high standards, particularly without the use of today’s labor-saving machine tools.

Objectives of restoring piano

To restore an antique piano is not to create a modern piano; the restorer’s objective is to enhance the instrument while retaining as much of the original as possible. When an instrument has been chosen for restoration, much extra work has to be considered.

Process of restoration

  • A thoughtful restorer will use water-based animal glues where possible, for they are easily and safely reversed.
  • If any worn or missing wooden parts need to be replaced, they should be copied using the same type of wood, if possible of a similar age. Many restorers’ workshops hold stocks of aged timber salvaged from previously dismantled antique instruments and furniture.
  • Analyze strings taken from pianos of various ages, and extra replicas so that strings made of the same composite can be used. A restorer will also analyze the felt, cloth, and baize coverings, and use not only the correct color and type of material but also try to match its weight and weave.
  • Cloths and braids that are dirty but not worn may be cleaned with delicate soaps, thereby retaining as much of the original materials as possible.
  • Any parts that are removed should be kept and cataloged, together with a report containing photographs, measurements, and an account of all the processes used.
  • Special techniques are used on antique instrument cases to remove years of dirt and grime, leaving the original finish exposed. Bruises and other defects that mark the case are often left as a monument to an instrument’s age.

Today, there is great debate about the process of restoration. Restorer struggle with the desire for reversibility, as many restoration processes simply cannot be reversed. Another area for discussion concerns the numerous repairs and modifications that a 200-year-old instrument may already have had.

It can be argued that alterations made in the nineteenth century on an older instrument should also be kept during restoration, to become part of the instrument’s history and a record of a type of work completed during that time.

Are all old pianos can be restored?

Not all antique pianos can be restored to a fully playing condition, so thought should also be given to the resulting capabilities of an instrument. Restorers working for museums and other collections now have a difficult choice: it is better to preserve an instrument to be seen or to restore it to be played and heard?

The answer is not necessarily straightforward. There is little doubt that all instruments are made to be played; however, due to the natural aging process of the materials used to make a piano, it is unlikely that even a fully restored instrument would sound exactly the same as it did when it was new.

Bearing this in mind, it seems that the most sensible option is to preserve the old instrument just as it is and at the same time build an exact replica- one that can be played and heard, and will withstand the demands of touring.