Family remembers mother by restoring music to 85-year-old piano

Joel Lidstrom and the 1928 Steinway being donated by the Loveland family to Viterbo. ~ Clay Schuldt
Joel Lidstrom and the 1928 Steinway being donated by the Loveland family to Viterbo.
~ Clay Schuldt

By Clay Schuldt

Caledonia Argus


There are endless ways to memorialize a loved one. Many families make donations in the individual’s honor. The Loveland family of La Crosse chose to remember their mother Barbara Holmes Loveland in a unique way, by donating her 1928 Steinway Grand Piano.  There was, however, a problem with the piano: It had been unserviceable for decades. Barbara’s daughter Carole Loveland Jones was aware the piano would need to be fixed before it could be donated and made a call to Joel Lidstrom.

Lidstrom has been a resident of the Caledonia area for years and restores Steinway grand pianos in his shop in Winnebago Township. Lidstrom cannot remember the exact number of pianos he has restored, but believes it is close to a 100. He began restoring pianos during his senior year of college at the University of Minnesota while working at Schmitt Music in Minneapolis. After graduating from college, Lidstrom moved to southeast Minnesota and continued the same work and soon began specializing in Steinways.

“Very quickly I saw that I only wanted to work on Steinways,” Lidstrom said. “Fortunately I have been successful enough that pianists took note.”

Lidstrom’s business is mainly advertised by word of mouth, but his work sells itself.  He recently completed work on the Loveland’s 1928 Steinway and now the 85-year-old instrument looks brand new.

The cabinet and basic structure of the Loveland piano is original even though it has been given a thorough cleaning and paint job. But the beauty of a Steinway is by no means skin deep. The interior of the instrument is made of hundreds individual parts set into a golden plate appropriately nicked named “the harp.”  The corner of the plate is branded with its manufacturing location: New York.

While the more famous Steinway manufactures are located in Germany, the Steinway Company started out in New York City in the mid-1800s by a German immigrant. The Hamburg facility was founded later.

There is a bit of a rivalry between New York and Hamburg made pianos.  “Younger artists like the aggressive sounds of the German instruments but usually come back to the ‘darker’ sound of the New York built instruments,” Lidstrom said. It is that sound that needed to be restored in the Loveland piano.

Lidstrom explained that the Loveland Steinway became unusable because of the high moisture content in the home it was kept. “All the pivot points in a piano contain a brass pin.  The idea, that in theory, it will not corrode like iron, but in long term it oxidizes,” Lidstrom said. Once the pins oxidized the hammers begin to stick and fail to strike the cords. Soon a beautiful piano is rendered silent.

One of the most time intensive parts of a restoration involve replacing and rebuilding the functional moving parts of the piano, including the keys, hammers and strings.

Many higher-end piano keys are made from bone or pre-ban ivory.  Ivory is produced from the tusks of elephants and rhinoceroses. In order to prevent illegal poaching of these animals, many countries block the import and export of ivory, making it hard to come by.  For this project Lidstrom uses plastic for the keys, but does use ebony for the dark keys, which is becoming a rarity as well

The process of restoring a Steinway grand piano may take as long as a year.  Lidstrom estimated that he puts 1,000 hours into each piano he restores and tends to limit his work to two pianos a year. His next project is a Steinway from Winona that was salvaged from a house fire.

The Loveland Steinway, now completed, will be donated to Viterbo University in La Crosse.  It was Lidstrom’s suggestion to donate the instrument to Viterbo, explaining that the college is committed to becoming an all-Steinway school. It will go into the Viterbo music department’s piano professor’s study.

Many institutions are strictly dedicated to Steinway instruments. “The quality of Steinway is head and shoulders above any other,” Lidstrom said. “Virtually all concert artists in the world are Steinway artists and they only play Steinway grand pianos.”

Though Lidstrom’s preference is for the older, hand-crafted instruments, he admits the modern piano has not changed much over the last hundred years. “You just can’t improve on it.  Mostly what is done now is figuring out ways of doing it cheaper and with less labor intensity, and it compromises the quality of the instrument.”

Like many items these days, pianos are frequently massed produced. There was a time when any individual working for the Steinway company could build a piano from the ground up, but now the production is process has become very specialized.

Restoring an old piano is often the best way to insure a quality product. In the case of the Loveland’s 1928 grand piano, the restoration has added several decades to its life.