By John Watson
The badly twisted, torn and mangled pipes are among the more daunting problems to be solved in the treatment of the “Tucker” organized upright grand piano. A conventional approach to restoration would probably involve replacing them with new ones. Some restorers have even melted down original pipes to make new ones, copying the old dimensions as a method of preserving them. But as we will see, dimensions and even the metal alloy itself are not the only, or even the main things we are here to preserve.
Our objective is not to make a working organ by recycling old materials. Our objective is to pull the pipes back into their correct shape and restore their voice in a way that preserves voluminous quantities of historical evidence on the surfaces.
When the pipes were made at the end of the 18th century, the maker used hand tools to shape the soft lead-alloy pipe metal. Every detail of geometry and the particularly critical shaping of the mouth area were manipulated by hand to create the intended sound.
Every step of the process left tracks—evidence–in the surfaces. From the casting of sheets of pipe metal to the shaping of the mouth and delicate nicking of the languid (the notched plate in the photo), to the hand-written label with the rank and pitch of each pipe, every step is encoded in the surfaces of the metal.
To see evidence like this is a thrill for historians who have learned how to recognize the characteristic footprints of individual hand tools and craft methods.
Look closely enough and you can see the pipe makers standing at their benches. The year is 1798, yet your vision is surprisingly clear. Watch them bending, scraping, cutting shaping and soldering. Occasionally the pipe maker toots on a pipe to check progress.
OK, that last part about blowing on the pipe is conjecture, but the rest–every stroke of every tool–left physical evidence in the surfaces of the pipes. Examined closely enough, they complete a detailed picture of a historical process and workshop.
This kind of connection to individual human beings from another era is what conservation is all about. The artists and artisans of the past live on through the work of their hands, and it is the conservator’s privilege to extend the memory of their lives as it is recorded in the things they made.
The first video below shows Lou Dolive demonstrating the methods we used to straighten the pipes while also preserving surface evidence. Even the step of tapping away dents on a mandrel is done in a way that preserves fragile evidence. A leather-covering on the stick means the metal gently moves back into its cylindrical or conical shape without damage to surface features.
The second video is a stop-motion video showing two pipes as they morphed from mangled to straight.
Considering time and materials costs, this “restorative conservation” approach was at least as economical as making new pipes. Small pipes typically required 10-20 minutes to treat depending on whether the feet had to be temporarily removed for straightening. Large pipes took one to four hours with only a few pipes requiring more.
Conservation of the Tucker organized piano is made possible by a gift in memory of N. Beverley Tucker, Jr.
[brightcove videoID=3693198613001 playerID=2893748186001 height=315 width=560]
[brightcove videoID=3674584499001 playerID=2893748186001 height=315 width=560]