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I’m talking to two rebuilders about rebuilding my Steinway O from 1905. I’m rather stumped at the moment because they’ve both suggested different approaches for the rebuild and it’s difficult to discern what might be the best course of action.
Rebuilder A will keep the original soundboard (which is said to still have good downbearing) with new bridge caps, use hybrid scaling, and rebuild the action with all Abel parts and Ronsen hammers. This rebuilder explains this would more closely match the original design of the piano.
Rebuilder B will replace the soundboard entirely, use the original string scaling, and rebuild the action with genuine (modern) Steinway parts and hammers (or Ronsens, my choice).
I know there’s probably no “correct” answer but I’m interested in hearing any input to help me make a decision. (PMs fine too)
Is rebuilder B going to make that soundboard himself or just buy it from someone who specialize in making soundboards? because if he wants to buy it I have a suspicion that he might not care much about your piano, he might just wants to plop new parts in there, take the money and call it a day. You can expect sloppy job if this is the case.
The action is worn out and clunky. Tonally, it's not to my liking either. It has overly bright and worn hammers (replacement non-steinway hammers installed a few decades ago). I'd like a much smoother action and warmer sound. The pinblock also needs replacement, new bass strings, thus the restring and chance to address the soundboard (which has some minor cracks).
Rebuilder B has a belly guy he works with who will build and install the soundboard (and another guy who restrings for him). This rebuilder has some personal history with Steinway, and seems to have an affinity for the brand.
Based on my personal interactions with both rebuilders, I believe they'd both have the best intentions for the piano - though you can never know for sure.
Have you played finished examples of each rebuilder doing similar work on other Steinways of that size? Will they provide a reference list of institutional and professional pianists that they’ve contracted with, and do those references check out? How much are these rebuilds going to cost, comparatively?
Those are good suggestions, I haven’t yet played other pianos they’ve worked on, or checked references. Cost-wise they’re similar enough to not be an issue, which surprised me as I understand the Steinway parts are more expensive.
As for rebuilder A, he talks about hybrid scaling, most likely he means using a Paulello wire with reduced tensile strength in the tenor end of the long bridge (those notes have shortened speaking length and doesn't sound as good as they should) and mybe also in bass strings. I have a piano with almost exact same string lengths in tenor section of long bridge and was experimenting with paulello wire and unfortunatelly didn't hear much difference in my case, I wont be getting technical here just will say that it wont hurt and may help and cost is insignificant.
As for bass scaling, it may be done in couple of different ways, bad ways also and it is always a little lottery how particular string design will sound in particular instrument, but original Steinway bass string design isn't perfect either.
Keeping old sounboard or not, that is the question and the fact that you have worn hammers now wont help with the decission, maybe plop new action with new hammers first in that piano, then decide what to do with the rest, action will need to be prepped twice of course first time now and second time after rebuild, but maybe it will help with the decission. Old 100+ years soundboards usually are just dead, but sometimes they can be good, example 1927 original soundboard:
I don't understand rebuilder A. Abel provides hammers, shanks and knuckles, but no other parts of the action. So what exactly would an action with Abel parts and Ronsen hammers look like and consist of? Can't think of a sensible answer.
I'd never consider rebuilder B with a piano that still has its original substance. Fixing cracks in the soundboard, new caps on the bridges, all that's regular stuff and unless you have mildew and woodworm holes in the soundboard, I'd get it fixed and not replaced.
Rebuilding the action is the crucial thing and with a piano built in 1905 it should be quite easy for an experienced technician to replace the wippens with ones matching the capstans, getting Abel or Renner hammers and thoroughly voicing them without chemical agents.
If cost is no object, and you've seen and heard some others of B's work, and you do not have any emotional attachment to the original sound of the instrument, and you like what B has done with other pianos...I'd go with B. If they're not consistently impressive, think again.
As I understand one of the benefits - aside from cost - is that the Abel whippens are manufactured with the correct capstan line for this older action, avoiding the reworking of the action geometry. Inversely, the contemporary Steinway parts wouldn’t be a perfect fit (as far as I understand).
You mean wippen heel height and position, if it's true (I don't know, I'm not expert on old steinways) it may be evidence that rebuilder A cares and don't want to modify original keyboard (changing capstan line) if not needed.
But situation there may be more complex, in such old steinway knuckles are 15,5mm from center pin if I'm not mistaken and in new steinways they are 17mm, new parts with 17mm distance will be beneficial especially with heavier hammers (don't know what the choice is there) but this isn't probably possible without changing capstan line as action ratio would be off.
Again, I urge you to leave the theoretical and try examples of the actual…where the rubber meets the road.
Although based on good science/physics/personal preference, I have on more than one occasion heard an eloquent pitch and logical reasoning paired with crappy execution and results in reality…whether it’s pressing your own soundboards, using a “board in a box”, or repairing an existing board; or the use of one brand of hammers and action parts over another.
"Cost-wise they’re similar enough to not be an issue..."
I'm a technician but not a rebuilder. Even so, I don't understand how one option with Steinway parts and a new soundboard, and the other non-Steinway parts and a new soundboard and be similar. Are they in the same city? I can imagine a price differential from a large urban area like LA vs the midwest. But still...
Of course, cost is all relative. To some people, $10k vs $20k ay well be "similar enough."
One other question: Are you (the OP) a technician familiar with hammers? If not, how will you make the choice between Steinway and Ronsens?
As others have said here, I’d suggest you listen to examples of each technician’s approach if you can.
It’s otherwise very difficult to say. For instance, a Ronsen hammer may not sound good, or like other Ronsen hammer installations, if the technician doesn’t work with it ‘correctly’. Even among competent technicians, their approaches and desires for an end result may differ from yours. I’ve heard pianos which people have described as ‘warm and rich’ and to me they were bright and loud
The prices are about $1000 different, with the Steinway option the higher cost. Both in NYC. It did surprise me that the Steinway/new soundboard option was so close in price.
I’m not familiar with the tonal differences between the Ronsens and Steinways. I’ve been told they are “similar”. Ideally I’d hear samples of each before choosing.
It's possible that rebuilder A will plan on doing more custom detail work whereas rebuilder B will work more with the stock parts. Either method can produce excellent or terrible results depending upon the skills of the tech. I completely agree with Peter that you should insist on playing examples before deciding.
The NY Steinway hammers come pre-lacquered, and are shaped and pressed somewhat differently but the tonal results are similar. I used the S&S hammers almost exclusively for years and then switched to Ronsens for a while but am coming back as I think I prefer the Steinways tonally. Their voicing protocols (lacquering, shaping and crown needling) can often result in wide dynamic and especially timbral ranges that allow for easier access to a piano's expressive range. Since the tone is slightly different at pp than at mp, the ability to bring out melody lines in any voice.
Mark Dierauf, RPT NH Pianos Piano technician & rebuilder since 1978 www.nhpianos.com
Sorry, not to dwell on this, but I still don't get the low price differential considering a new soundboard.
It's like saying car shop A will do a new head gasket for $2500, and shop B will do a new head gasket plus a new transmission and new tires for almost the same price. Either one is way overpriced, or one is way underpriced.
The cost differential in Steinway hammers alone is about $1000. Aren't they getting about $1400 for a set now vs about $400 for other makes?