EXTREME Instrument Restoration: What is a Conservator?

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Hi, I’m Robert Estrin, this is LivingPianos.com. The question today is about musical conservators. What is a musical conservator? Have you ever heard that term before? I hadn’t, until a few years ago when I met a musical conservator in Los Angeles. It was an enlightening experience! I didn’t understand the process until I experienced it for myself and I thought you’d be interested in this. Now, of course, there are people who restore instruments. There are piano rebuilders, technicians who take older pianos and try to make them fresh and new again. They’ll put in new pin blocks, they’ll refinish cases, they’ll put all new parts on the pianos they restore. They actually rebuild all the thousands of parts of the pianos, getting high-level performance out of old instruments. What a conservator does is quite different, even though the end result can be similar.

How is a piano conservator different from a piano rebuilder?

When a conservator is working on an old instrument, instead of just putting new parts in it, they will go to painstaking lengths to preserve as many original parts as possible. For example, if the pins are loose, usually, a rebuilder will remove the strings, remove the plate, and craft a new pinblock for the piano. The pin block is the piece of wood underneath the plate that has holes for each tuning pin. The holes are drilled to tolerances of thousandths of an inch at precise angles. So when the pins are banged in and twisted, they’ll hold. But a conservator will do something dramatically different. If they’re meticulous enough, they’ll torque each and every pin to see how much strength it takes in order to turn the pins. They will record the torque of each and every one! There are 220+ strings on a piano. Each pin is labeled to identify which pin came from which hole. And then they go through hole by hole, filling in the holes with the precise amount of wood to be able to get the proper amount of torque out of each pin rather than just putting a new pin block in.

What about the finish of the piano? How do you preserve that?

Believe it or not, they will scrape the finish off and then liquefy it and reapply that same finish! There are all sorts of techniques. If the hammers are worn out, typically you can just get a new set of matching specification hammers. But a conservator will take felt and rebuild each and every hammer one by one, putting the missing felt back on each hammer. This just gives you an idea of the absolutely tedious process a conservator goes through in restoring instruments. Why would they go through such a process? It would be far easier to replace these parts, wouldn’t it? In truth, yes, it would be much easier to simply replace the parts. Is the purpose to save money on those parts? Absolutely not, because the labor is so intensive.

The point is to preserve the past!

If nobody ever goes through the intense process I’ve described for an older piano, say a 1912 Steinway, painstakingly bringing that instrument back to its original state, at some point in the future, we won’t know what a 1912 Steinway was! In museums particularly, when you see historical keyboards, obviously you don’t want to rip out those irreplaceable parts and put in new parts because it wouldn’t even be that historical instrument anymore!

So that’s what a conservator does. It’s a completely different methodology from typical instrument rebuilding. It requires a different mindset! It has a different purpose. Yet, either one can get great results in the hands of masters! I thought this would be interesting for you to know. I know I was flabbergasted when I learned about this.

Keep the questions coming in! I give preference to my Patreon subscribers, but all of you are welcome to contact me any time! I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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One thought on “EXTREME Instrument Restoration: What is a Conservator?”

  1. Gosh! I thought piano regulating was a tedious process. A beginner learner, I had my American Walnut 1970’s Harman & Peck 5’ 4” regulated by a husband and wife team recommended to me by my Piano Tuning professional. Astonishing to see the keyboard removed, watch them “fluff” up each felt and all the other Incredible detail, string and pin attention, for six hours. Total respect for their knowledge and attention to detail. My instrument has original everything except hammers apparently. Some lower register keys sound growly but that might be my playing. I get Cecilia tuned twice a year as being a hearing impaired learner, I am hard on her.

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