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MMD > Archives > January 2002 > 2002.01.01 > 05Prev  Next

Restoration, Preservation and Modification
By Craig Brougher

I thought that Brian Thornton really brought out a very good point in
regard to practical restoration/preservation, and I just want to add to
that train of thought.  This is a very important topic, and much more
can be said to both our points of view, since it is a wide subject.

Brian said that he likes to see instruments which play well and look
perfectly preserved, but which still have the aged look about them.  He
also brought out the fact that certain verifiable historical features
of that instrument are retained, even though they might mar the overall
look of perfection or even of a well-preserved instrument.  Good point
to a certain limited degree.  I love the look of an early, vintage
instrument that doesn't show that it had been refinished, but in fact,
has been.  Some instruments, particularly grades of oak, look very
comfortable this way.

I also agree with those who want a perfectly restored instrument to
look showroom-new, when a perfect restoration is called for, and there
is no need to preserve its historical presence.  In neither of these
two types of rebuilding do I believe in cosmetic improvements such as
case enhancements, plating things that weren't plated, etc.  I will,
however, do that for the owner of an instrument who wants me to do it
for him, such as put in a suction box and an automatic rewind and stop,
and I have also redesigned player cases to be fancier but these are not
simply restorations.  They are "improvements." They do not represent
what the factory intended, and everybody understands that.

I will also add, that about every top rebuilder I know has also done
custom work like this.  Their player modifications are a good measuring
stick to know how much they really understand about pneumatics and
layouts in general, and everyone who understands the designs thoroughly
will sooner or later want to exercise their knowledge and prove it at
some time or another.

I absolutely agree with Brian and others in regard to the preservation
of historic instruments or instruments which have been present during
historic or interesting moments in our history.  Now I am going to
suggest something else -- those particular earmarks and known
historical moments need to be documented with pictures or statements,
framed or otherwise displayed, and placed with the piano along with
other memorabilia that may have accompanied that instrument, or said
earmarks are hearsay and will not increase that instrument's value in
a sale.  Monetary and sentimental value is the discriminating factor
of all historic instruments, and their value is either increased or
decreased by their supposed history and alleged origins of its flaws.

I personally would have to lower the price of an instrument with a
bullet hole or burned keys, even if Al Capone himself had blasted it
personally -- unless of course I had an affidavit signed by big Al
himself.  My philosophy about that is, fix them unless the owner likes
them there and insists on keeping it that way! But piano cases in good
shape which are preserved to look old and well- kept is just fine with
me.  I do that, too.  That's a matter of taste and belongs to the

As parents, we can own keepsakes from our own children and their
childhood years which mean absolutely nothing to anybody but ourselves.
However, when we expect others to revalue our instruments on the basis
of their presence during a historic  shootout, then we need to document
it, or they too are worthless.  Anybody at any time can shoot a bullet
through the art glass of a Seeburg KT, for instance.  It more likely
happened while it was stored in somebody's barn.  Don't buy a story
like that unless you are talking to a witness who is credible.  In that
case, document it.

On the other hand, neither a true "Restoration" or a "Preservation,"
or a combination of the two would improve or redefine anything the
original builders had in mind -- like chrome-plating things, or nickel
plated tuning pins which I have always disliked.  A mirror finish to
a piano that was originally sold in satin only is another "improvement."
Not that it would distract or ruin it.  Not at all.  But that is not
restoring or preservation, in the strictest sense.  On the other hand,
it is sometimes a matter of taste.

When an instrument has no particular historic or sentimental value and
isn't much different than a modern grand or upright that one could buy
today, it's up to the owner to decide what he wants to do with it --
isn't it?  I am not so presumptuous as to tell  him I wouldn't even
consider fixing it like he wants it-- unless, of course, what he wants
is outright ruination or nonsensical.  These things are to have fun
with, and their purpose, years ago, was the same as today.  When they
still play the same rolls as well as they always did and everybody
still enjoys it, what is lost?  It sure beats trucking it to the dump.

There are tens of thousands  of "historic" examples that will not be
changed, which we also restore and preserve.  To enjoy a variation of
such an instrument rebuilt well is to enjoy another facet of the same
art and music, modified to suit a particular owner.  No, it is not
"restored." Yes, it is perfectly rebuilt, will last for many decades,
is eminently rebuildable again and again, and everything is finished
extremely well.  A strict preservationist would not agree, and while
I see his point as well, I have to say that most people appreciate such
things and ways of doing it.  How would we ever build an Orchestrion
for example, unless we used an old upright player piano as our core

Years ago,  Organ Supply Co. sold pneumatic motor cloth in white.  That
was a perfect solution to authenticating bellows covers and I bought a
lot of it.  As a matter of fact, I bought all they had left and used it
for many years, dyeing it to whatever color to match the original shade
for the instrument we were trying to restore or preserve.  I would buy
a half-dozen packets of 'Rit' dye and experiment until I got the color
exactly right -- like a light mint green for some Wurlitzers, or a grey
blue for earlier Ampicos, a brownish red for some Aeolians and grey
green for others, and so forth.  Today, there is no such thing as
undyed motor cloth or heavy bellows cloth, so neither the preservation
or the restoration is going to look absolutely authentic.

There is no way to rebuild anything using the original materials and
supplies despite all outrage to the contrary.  But that's a lot
different than using carpenter's glue because it's readily available
and you never got the hang of hot hide glue.  So, while one thing is
optional, the other is forbidden in all instances.  That means, even
the strictest "Restoration" or "Preservation" allows for artisan
options.  Strict adherence to originality is a pipe dream that a few
rebuilders may claim, but none can attest to.  For instance, almost
no player manufacturer would have used garment leather for valves.
That happens to be all we have left, today.

We inadvertently modify the historical aspects of the instrument when
we switch glues, add plated tuning pins, change the leather for plastic
or cork, replace old glass with brand new candy-store colors, and plate
things that were not intended to be plated.  On the other hand, nothing
has been damaged by, say, not replating.  If it is cleaned,
clearcoated, and looks nice, even though some of the original plating
is now missing, those parts are legitimately "preserved," as long as
they are not sprayed with straight silver paint.  Here again, taste,
economics, and practicality enter into it, as they should.  Some
rebuilders use stainless steel wood screws and some use nickel plated.
Others blue their screws and still others use unplated steel.  These
things are restoration options, but some of us really get hung up on
a speck in the eye and forget what's really important.

The most important thing is the music they play.  We can criticize
the restoration, or the preservation, or their combined considerations
all we want to, and we do, but what a viewer or guest might dislike
mechanically or aesthetically, he should come away with the same
opinion that everybody agrees with -- it played to perfection.  There
was absolutely nothing wrong with the way it performed.  No one can
really prove the history of most of the instruments they are looking
at, ultimately.  Nor do they know what the last rebuilder had to do
to undo a previous rebuild and get it within the degree of perfection
presently affordable.  Nor do they really know the limitations the
owner imposed on the last rebuilder.

If they had to authenticate their historical claims for their
instrument before an auctioneer they wouldn't do it, in most cases.
They have perhaps a "bullet-hole story" and that's all it is.  But
it's the listener who should have the most important evaluation and
endorsement of the instrument.  Therein lies history undeniable!
That's what they do.  They play the music of their historic medium
and they do it wonderfully, reliably, and invitingly.

Overall, the true monetary value of most instruments will be more
greatly proven by their performance and reliability -- and hence
their grace and charm in a home or a collection, than any other single
factor, history included.  Granted, it hopefully looks as good as it
sounds (and likewise doesn't sound as old as it looks) and should have
a magnetism that causes the eye to feast on it time and again, but
if it's history we want, then its historic purpose was to entertain,
first, foremost, and always.  It was built to compete and to sell with
the other like instruments of its day.

You cannot destroy an historic instrument by recovering pneumatics with
a different color of cloth or refinishing the case with lacquer instead
of shellac.  But when the instrument plays well for 3 years and then
starts to degrade because the pouches were not replaced and stretching
or old rubber cement has stiffened them, or because you felt that the
valve leather looked ok, or when something goes wrong and no one can
fix it because it has been glued permanently together with carpenters
glue, or the finish begins to either blush or craze because of poor
quality materials, wrong refinishing methods, or an ignorance of
certain details, then its charm, its beauty, and its history is in
doubt until these things are corrected.  Undocumented history and age
of itself, proves nothing.  Pick up any rock, write an essay about it,
and place that in your showcase.

There are hundreds of details to consider in the course of a well-done
restoration/preservation, and it's all a professional can do just to
keep up with it, as well as the changes in materials and supplies,
if he studies constantly and stays current in his rebuilding field
full-time.  But neither preservation, restoration, or modification
includes using wrong materials and supplies, tasteless touches, or
leaving in the old valve leather and pouches, and dry-rotted wood
that will not hold screws, simply because replacing it all would
be tantamount to the desecration of its puristic originality.
"Originality" refers primarily to the design and purpose -- not
archival working materials.

The bottom line of all legitimate rebuilding effort in my opinion is
to utilize as near to original _type_ materials and supplies as are
available at the time, as long as they will likely last at least as
well as the archetype did, and not to skip or overlook anything, even
if it involves doing it over again as often as it takes to get it
right.  The ultimate goal is to have an instrument that plays as well
as the best example ever performed from the factory, and will continue
to do so to the end of its useful life with little or no repairs in
most cases.  That is what I call preservation of its history.  We
preserve some of its history by preserving both its original good looks
and its original capability to perform, but the last word of that
history is the music it was meant to play.

These are strong, reliable, sensible instruments, playing both the
classics and that joyful, happy, bubbly music for music's sake.  Right
there is the truly important, original, historic aspect.  Whoever
burned the keys with cigarettes and shot it up with bullets didn't
respect it at all like we do.  Why does it matter how long ago they
tried to ruin it?  (If you like that, take a picture first, then fix

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Tue 1 Jan 2002, 19:40:02 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  Modification, Preservation, Restoration

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