Once-in-a-generation repair plays well with musicians

A piano with a cracked frame is like a racehorse with a broken leg. But an 1893 Bechstein baby grand was saved from an ignominious end by the talents of two people at The University of Western Ontario.

Don Stephenson and Clayton Cook took on the challenge of making the old piano sing again. It had been a family treasure and was part of a gift to the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM).

Stephenson, assistant to the dean for technology and keyboards, has a company that maintains all the RCM pianos. He was contacted about the piano. The donor wanted it restored and played by young musicians.

“There were two major cracks in the plate. The mechanism was old and it was in very rough shape,” Stephenson says. “I told Peter (Simon, RCM president) that it was not worth repairing. He said it had to be done for the benefactor.”

First, Stephenson contacted a friend who worked at the Bechstein plant in Germany to see if another plate could be supplied. But all plates are individual, and the age of the piano meant nothing made today came close to working.

Casts can be re-welded, but the tension when the strings are re-attached and tuned creates an insurmountable issue. Stephenson told Simon if he could find someone to fix the plate, the piano could be repaired.

Something similar had been done about 20 years ago by Western’s machine services, so Stephenson called them. “It was a long shot,” he said. “I called and explained the situation and asked if it was possible to repair. Clayton Cook replied, ‘I can do that.’”

Cook, Machine Services Welding operations manager, says casting is becoming a lost art. “After sand blasting the bridge to see where the cracks were, Don was surprised when I told him I didn’t think it would be an issue to weld the cracks,” he says.

The process wasn’t as simple due to the cast expanding and contracting. As one crack was fixed, another would occur.

“Clayton is the hero in this story,” Stephenson says. “They like to take on projects that are not typical. Something like this was really exciting. Clayton likes music and his son plays piano, so this really excited him. I just wanted to see if it could be repaired.”

Once the welding was successfully completed, the case was shipped to a special finisher, Pride Restoration Inc. in North York.

“They did a beautiful restoration,” Stephenson says.

When the case returned to Western, the strings were attached and slowly brought into A-440 pitch, using smaller increments than normal.

“That puts 37,614 pounds – or 18.8 tons – of string tension on it. If it can take that tuning to start with and not break, it can hold it. If it had cracked when tuned, it would have had to be de-strung and welded again. We would have had to start over,” Stephenson says.

The students in Western’s Piano Technology program watched, fascinated by the process. They saw the piano when it arrived, then the restored frame, and finally with all strings attached and tuned. Although they work on all kinds of pianos, from the Don Wright Faculty of Music’s own collection to those donated by individuals and manufacturers for their use, they don’t usually see such a special case.

“It was cracked significantly. They will not see another like this,” Stephenson says.

He said someone in Wisconsin does a bit of small welding of casts but nothing of this scope.

“Welding cast is a difficult process. Clayton commented about the quality of the original cast. He showed our students what to look for in casting, how to tell quality. Most plates with a crack like that would have meant the end for the piano,” he continues.

After the tuning held, the next step was to replace the action, or keyboard and damper. The keyboard was simply worn out from use over the nearly 120 years it had been played. A new action was built in Detroit.

Machine Services does other work with Piano Technology, such as creating odd pedals and small repairs. “They give us tremendous service,” Stephenson says.

But a project such as this comes along about once every generation.

“This kind of project is stressful and a bit of a challenge. When I pulled it up to pitch, Clayton was the first person I called. You would not know by looking at it now where it was cracked,” Stephenson says.

“It has been very exciting working on this piano with the group from music,” Cook says. “I am very happy they were able to get the piano back in tune without any unforeseen issue.”

Stephenson employs two graduates of the Piano Tech program full time at the RCM to prepare, tune and regulate the pianos for the Conservatory, Koerner Hall and other Telus Centre venues, and the Glenn Gould School.