Player Piano Rebuilding
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“Rebuilding, Should I or Shouldn't I !!!”

Player pianos aren't in my view “a patch and fix-get-em going device” . If your truly keen about getting your now silent piano back into tip top playing condition be prepared for some stumbling blocks.

If your a person with a short fuse, not much patience or a very busy lifestyle, take my advice “pay someone else to do it”, it isn't a job for the faint hearted.

On the other hand if your the opposite to all the above, have a small shed (or kitchen table -if allowed!) and a small quantity of hand tools then by all means you should be all set to start.

I will only be giving you a very brief overview here so if your really serious about doing it yourself I would suggest you buy the book by Arther Reblitz “Player Piano Servicing and Rebuilding”, it’s put out by Vestal Press and is comprehensive overview of every aspect in rebuilding you will need.


Contents

  1. Operating Principles
  2. Materials needed for Rebuilding
  3. Basic Rebuilding
  4. Expectations


Operating Principles:

To understand the workings of your player piano all you need is to have a keen interest in mechanical principles. I will give you a very brief understanding of their operations so as not to bore you too much. If you wish to know more either read the book mentioned above or e-mail me.

All player pianos, or Pianolas if you like operate by means of suction which is created by the pumping bellows in the bottom of your piano. This in turn causes the keys to go down, the music roll to turn, and other various accessories to operate such as sustain pedal, hammer rail, etc. In fact for any mechanical function requiring movement there is a pneumatic (small bellows). When suction is connected the inside of a pneumatic, it collapses and performs its mechanical function ie. playing a note, lifting the dampers, pushing on the hammer rail, etc. To perform this action each pneumatic must have a valve connected to it to turn it off and on to suction and atmospheric pressure.

So for each note to play in your piano there is a pneumatic and a valve, so that means there are 88 small pneumatics and valves in each player piano (amazing!!!), each pneumatic is roughly about 100mm long by 25mm wide and opens up to about 35mm. (see diagrams below)

These diagrams show a pneumatic in both the open and closed positions.

There are all sorts of valves encounted in players, inside valves, outside valves, flap valves and slide valves. But I won’t go into detail about them here. Many instruments can be brought back to life without having to do major work to them.

Here's a little sample of some secondary unit valves in the process of being rebuilt, you can see the pouch and pouch board in the centre of the picture with the valve itself in the foreground.

The suction created by the pumping pedals is the heart of the result which you hear in the music which is playing. The quality of the music is brought about by the strength of the suction, the suction level and the volume of air inside the player mechanism. Basically this means the harder you pump the stronger the suction causing the pneumatics to close quicker playing the music louder. This does not speed the music up as there is a governor controlling an even suction level to the wind motor which keeps the music roll turning at a constant pre-determined tempo speed.

So it is quite possible to put a fair bit of expression into the music by altering the strength of the suction, simply by the way in which you do the pedalling. This in turn alters the volume of the music being played as described earlier.

The pneumatics have little pushrods connected to them which sit below the whippen on the piano action so that when a pneumatic collapses it pushes on the piano action causing the hammer to strike the string as if by hand.

There’s nothing worse than having someone sit down and play a restored player and hearing them play it full pelt, ie. pedalling it as hard as they can, and loud: sounds very mechanical too!!!

A well restored player will play very well indeed with good expression capabilities and without a great deal of effort. The operation of ever mechanical function is basically the same (valves operating pneumatics) so once you have grasped these principles you will find it quite easy to understand.

One thing to take note of though is that no two player pianos are exactly the same as they went through a constant revolution of change in their designs. It may not be much but there always seems to be something. I guess this is one of the things that makes restoration interesting and fun, “well at least for me anyway”.


Materials needed for Rebuilding:

To restore your average player the supplies you will need are tailored especially for this purpose so you will need to get them from a piano supplier nearest you. (look up the phone book)

If they can’t help you I’m sure they would put you onto someone who could. If your still stuck give me a call !!!

You will need :

If your only planning on doing the one instrument then any basic handyman tools will get the job done, some good screwdrivers, wooden mallet, putty knife, a vise, a good bench (or kitchen table if aloud) , plenty of empty containers, and lots of patience. The materials aren’t huge in cost, depending of the extent of work to be done of course. It’s the time that it takes to do the work, that’s why I said it takes patience. If you have a short fuse I wouldn’t even start to do it yourself.


Basic Rebuilding:

This will be basic as the heading implies, as there is many books written in detail on the subject. This is just intended to give the average person a quick insight as to what is involved in the process of getting your player back to working order again. For the person who is seriously considering re-building I again recommend the book “Player Piano Servicing & Rebuilding” by Arthur Reblitz.

Firstly you will need to remove the two sections of the action from the piano,

  1. The stack, which is the section above the keyboard which houses the roll.
  2. The pump which is below the keyboard.

These are connected by hoses which need to be removed. At this point it is often good practice to make a sketch of where all the hoses go (if they're still connected) for future reference. Another good idea is to take photo’s because it’s easy to forget when you come to put it all together again.

These two sections will be screwed in place so you will have to trace them down and remove them.

Once on the bench it will be obvious to you that there are bellows everywhere, what has to be done is for everyone of them to be taken of and recovered with new pneumatic cloth, making them as airtight as possible.

The whole reason these things stopped playing is because the material has become porous over the years to a point where you can’t pump it fast enough to make up for all the leaks in the system anymore. So in a “nutshell” the rebuilders job is to make it airtight again. This is where you come in!!!!

Decide which section to tackle first, then proceed to dismantle it, marking the exact location of every bellow and screw. Place screws of the same size in a container and write on it where it is from. This procedure is done for both sections.

In the case of the stack (top section) everyone of those tiny bellows is glued to the decks and has to be broken off to be recovered, so take extra care not to break too many other wise you will have to get a new set made.

Measure all dimensions carefully and make a note, including span of pneumatics, orientation and position. Putting scribe marks along sides of pneumatics can also help when re-affixing them. I have found that a hot iron and a damp cloth is helpful in the removal of fixed boards. It softens the old hide glue and makes removal more successful with less broken fixed boards.

Hide glue is what they where originally glued together with and it is still the preferred glue by rebuilders today. It is much easier to remove for the next rebuilder after you. Plastic glues these days are next to impossible to remove once set. Please use hide glue! if you value your instrument. It is a bit tricky to use but you soon get used to it.

“Remember, this again is only a rough outline of what is involved for a complete re-build of your "PLAYER PIANO". For more detail refer to book mentioned earlier.


Expectations:

Remember the player mechanism is only as good as the piano itself, so before you embark on any extensive restoration program, make sure you make a thorough inspection of the piano itself and are satisfied the piano is worth the work. If your not sure have a qualified technician- piano tuner look for you. Alternatively play the piano by hand or get a friend too, and see if your satisfied with the sound it produces.

If at this point you are quite happy , then by all means proceed.

A well restored player should be very easy to pedal, there should be firm resistance as you pedal, but you shouldn’t have pedal it like racing car. In fact you should be able to comfortably be able to play a roll with only one foot pedaling and not be tired. “Is your’s like this?” If it’s not it needs a little attention.

Player Pianos had their heyday between 1915 &1930 but lets not leave it there, lets bring it into the 1990’s and beyond so that our descendants can still learn and enjoy about these marvels of the past just as our ancestors have left them with us to enjoy!! If your keen about these mechanical musical instruments, you too can contribute by helping to bring back to life some of the many now silent pianos back to life!!!


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