Motor, Part 1

Located on the head, the motor is a key component of the player action. The motor is what transduces rotational kinetic energy from air pressure. In other words, you pump pedals with your feet, which creates air pressure differentials in the system (which the system is designed around).
Then, these differentials in pressure cause the motor valves to repeatedly open and close, which in turn causes the crank arms to turn the crankshaft in a smooth and predictable way. The crankshaft engages the transmission (via ladder chain), which is connected to the spoolbox flanges. The roll starts to turn, and the magic happens!

In a visual sense, the motor is also the centrepiece of the upper action, due to the dynamic motion which draws the eye, from the music roll and back again.

As I will do with each component, after the parts restoration is complete, a thorough test and troubleshoot will be performed, to verify the functionality of the piece.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Due to its position on top of the action, the motor is one of the most accessible components, and was among the first to be removed and disassembled. In fact, sometimes the motor must be removed or at least shifted during routine piano maintenance such as tuning or broken string replacement.

This particular model is a fairly standard 5-pt motor, quite reminiscent of Autopiano style. It consists of a main trunk, 5 slide valves and 5 pneumatic bellows. The trunk is essentially a wooden box with a precise design of holes drilled to create channels and ports. On the face of the trunk are the slide valves, which control whether a given pneumatic is opening or closing at a given moment. On the back, the pneumatics are mounted. Both the slide valves and the pneumatics are connected by flanges to the crankshaft, mounted above the trunk. As the bellows open and close in sequence, each bellows flange (connected via a crank arm to a lobe on the shaft, offset 72 degrees from its neighbor) pushes the crank on the power stoke, so that the crankshaft is always following a smooth rotation (assuming the motor is properly regulated – more on that later). In this manner the music roll renders its performance in a seamless way.

And now the dismantle. As with the spoolbox, the key here is just to start by taking out every visible screw, one by one, while documenting extensively your actions! We don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here!
It should all come apart without too much effort. If there is one component in this action which is meant to be serviced, it is the motor. Some photographic highlights of teardown:

As found: worn out and covered in years of dirt and grime!
The hardware is tarnished some of the plating is slightly corroded. With some elbow grease spent cleaning, the situation can be improved!
One down, four to go!
Getting the bellows off without too much damage requires skill and mostly patience
After disconnecting the arm flanges, the bellows cloth is slit open, revealing the inside, for further disassembly
Starting to disassemble the slide valves
Slide valve components to be completely disassembled

After unscrewing and carefully separating everything the only thing remaining is the bellows on the trunk. Record the span (they should all be the same), and then take them apart. Slit the cloth lengthwise along the sides and open end. Rip the hinge apart and separate the boards (how violent!). You will have to knock or steam off the stationary boards. Whether you are tackling the motor or the stack, the same principles prevail. Once again, John Tuttle to the rescue with a video on this topic:

John Tuttle removes pneumatic boards

Once the surgery is over, it’s time to clean and sand all the boards (keeping them all equal dimensions and perfectly square), and the trunk back. Since we are just talking about 10 boards here (5 pairs of bellows), it’s up to you whether you prefer the hand sanding option or power tools. I don’t have a belt/disc power combo at present, so that’s an easy one for me. And it doesn’t take a lot longer. But when it will come time for all the stack pneumatics, that will be a different story. In the meantime, to do boards these by hand, get a nice flat surface (plate glass), slap some 180 grit paper down, put a jig (a simple 2×4 cutoff will work, if square), and sand that sucker straight and true. Repeat.

As for power tools, here’s an observation: the wonderful thing about them is that results happen extremely quickly, compared to hand work. Know what else happens extremely quickly? Mistakes! As Peter Parker once said, with great power comes great responsibility. You must know and respect your machine, or it will take advantage of you, damaging your work, and even your body if you are not careful — you have been warned!

See directions for this procedure (similar, but not identical) on the front, in a follow up post. No power tools needed there.

Then, you will finally be done the dismantle! Come back next time!

Head: Spoolbox + Transmission

So let’s see here… in terms of the “head” of the player action, I think I will actually just begin with the clean up of the spoolbox hardware and transmission, before moving on to the first significant challenge — the motor!

The hardware on the spoolbox should be intuitive to remove after some examination – it was for me. Most things are just screwed. Depending on how deep into it you want to get, you can remove every single screw and bolt for maximum cleaning possibility (or you may need to replate if there is significant corrosion – hopefully not!), but by so doing you also undo carefully calibrated set screws which join different rods or gears together. Given the choice it can be a real time-saver (at the time of reassembly and troubleshooting) to have these coupling screws remain intact. I am saving mine where possible. There is a nice little silver lining here, in that the number of calibrated linkage points are not as numerous as other actions; so even if you realize later that you’ve bungled the documentation on the teardown, at least you won’t have 30 calibration points to try and coordinate and harmonize.

Cleaning the hardware is necessary for function, but also cosmetically pleasing. My philosophy on the cleaning of original finishes (on metal or wood) is that leave everything intact where possible with historic patina, but do remove all surface dirt and grime, so it is at least “clean”. Some people really like to replate hardware and refinish piano no matter what, so that it looks “factory fresh”. I don’t feel this is necessary at all (unless original finishes are seriously compromised), but some people do. It’s simply a difference of opinion and aesthetics.

On my spoolbox there are two levers connected to slide valves which are on/off switches for the pedal and theme relays, from the tracker bar. In other words, if you want to “turn off” the input holes in the tracker bar for the pedal or theme function, you can do so here. The theme switch is probably the more useful of the two; if you have simple 88-note rolls with no theme coding, then there is no point in having the switch activated. The levers themselves are inside the spoolbox next to the next to the take up spool, but they are only part of the rotary valves which are actually mounted from the bass exterior side of the box. See here:

spoolbox: before

bits and pieces

clean, rebushed, ready for action
clean, rebushed, ready for action

I already discussed the tracker bar in the previous post (briefly), so let’s move along to the transmission. Transmissions work in conjunction with the converted rotational energy of the motor, to make roll turn smoothly, and then rewind at the conclusion of the roll. Additionally the transmission is connected with the tracking mechanism, which is another important device for smooth play of the roll. More on that later.

The transmission is a collection of metal shafts, sprockets, pinions, gears and chains, all mounted on a metal frame which is either stamped or cast. Metal which has been poorly cast has a tendency to oxidize and crumble over time (e.g. a century), so if you have the misfortune of an otherwise potentially nice action with a ruined transmission frame, you have little choice but to source a replacement.

Stamped actions are not without inconveniences. In my case, there is no way to disassemble the frame, as it was riveted together (a short-sighted cost savings). The following picture illustrates why this is a problem, when trying to remove the reroll shaft.

transmission points

There are seven points of business on this shaft. There is not enough clearance to slide away the pinion (4) or large sprocket (5) so that the Woodruff key (3) can be extracted. The solution suggested to me by John Tuttle was to spread, gently but firmly, the frame apart to gain a few extra mm to accomplish this. It was a bit tricky, but with some snap-ring pliers and medium wooden shims, I was able to make it work.

bits and pieces 2

Once that was done, the bottom shaft also gave me some trouble, because the set screw of the large gear had “buggered” (technical term) the shaft; overtightening caused a circular burr to form around the screw, and the burr makes the shaft very reticent to release the gear. Again some elbow grease is the answer, but it needs to be done the smart way – not carelessly! Support the frame with some wooden blocks and tap out the shank enough so it becomes free. You can then file a small groove in the damaged part of the shank, and replace the set screw (credit for this idea, also John Tuttle).
After the pieces have all been cleaned (with solvent), polished, rinsed (if necessary), and buffed, you are ready for reassembly! Yay!

transmission in progress
Getting there!

Once it is all back together, you can set it aside for now or put it back on the head shelf. Once the other head components are ready, it all must be put back together and calibrated.

Oh yes, don’t forget the lube! Traditionally this has been graphite-based lubricant, but this can turn into a sticky, gummy mess over time. Even 3-in-1 Oil attracts dust. I was recently recommended to try Marvel Mystery Oil, which is an automotive additive. It is supposed to lubricate well, and as its viscosity is on the low side it doesn’t get so gummy. We’ll see how it works!

transmission after
Waiting for a lube job

The long march back

So, revisiting an earlier question: where to begin – the rebuild, that is? What’s the plan here, anyhow?

I feel like I have reached another early milestone in the process: a time to regain traction after the long (and arduous, as a first-timer!) process of mapping, documenting and dismantling the player action.

There are numerous ways to attack this, but perhaps the simplest way to begin is to go top-down. Or as they say in show business — “let’s take it from the top!”
My plan is to start at the “head” of the stack and move down from there. Pictured below is the tracking device, one of the first to come off the stack.

The first of many, many screws you will be removing
The first of many, many screws you will be removing

The stack (sitting in the middle level) is the most painstaking, so we will leave that for later. Looking at the “head” or top level of the action, here we find the motor, the transmission, spoolbox, tracking and small primary valve box. During the dismantle, once the hosing and tubing connecting the head to the stack have been disconnected (including the whole tracker bar supply), the head should come off in one long shelf, after the necessary mounting screws have been found and removed.

This may be a good time to remind our readers (again!) that documenting everything possible will SYA (save your ass). In the case of taking out a lot of screws (which we most certainly will be doing), screws of different shapes and sizes, and said screws should often go back in the exact holes from whence they were removed, I suggest a map. A map is a sheet of paper or boxboard (start saving all your old cereal and crackers boxes!) With screws inserted through it; the screws are identified either by words or a rudimentary diagram. Bam! It’s that simple. At the time of this writing, I am up to about 6 maps’s worth of screws, and I have not even started on the individual valves yet!

It is good practice to make screw maps in real time as you are removing screws, which will eventually number in the hundreds. This identifies and secures them, for easy reference.

Two words: screw maps
Two words: screw maps

You’ll thank me later!

Also it is good to keep in mind that screw maps and photos only capture a snapshot, sometimes more complex ideas and relationships need a good diagram to flesh them out. So sometimes you have to pick up a pen and draw it so it will make sense in your mind, both now and  a year from now if necessary. I am keeping a written journal/log along with all the digital stuff.

Can’t be too careful!

Until next time!

Player teardown: highlights

Here are some photos of teardown highlights. To reiterate my point from one of the earliest posts: take many photos! Digital storage space should not be an issue (even high quality pics don’t need to be more than a MB each), so get yourself some cloud storage and start clicking!

What’s nice about this player action is that most of the major wooden compartments are screwed and gasketed together. This means that it is generally intuitive and painless to disassemble these components, without worrying about precision saw surgery or steam baths to get things apart. Those are the fun sorts of activities you get into with some advanced projects.

So again, if you just take out every visible screw, and gently pull along the gasket line, most boxes will open to reveal the chambers within. Of course, I don’t want to give the impression it takes 10 minutes to break down the entire action (it doesn’t), but considering the alternative, it’s relatively easy, at least.

I noticed early on that the stack number was stamped on the bass side, on all components. I thought at first “gee, that seems like overkill”. Once I took everything apart and several weeks/months had elapsed, it dawned on me that these numbers were stamped there to ensure proper orientation on reassembly. Duh!

stack end

The tracker bar, in situ, seen from above. The nipples are all reinforced with a thick shellac, covered with old cloth strips. Cosmetically it is unsightly, but the shellac does serve the purpose of fortifying the nipples. You can remove it, but you really, REALLY don’t want to damage the nipples in the process.  A combination of solvents and heat (not too hot with the gun setting!) should do the job.

tracker bar in situ

Another shot showing work in progress. The rubber from the tubing had cured on the brass nipples, meaning they were on there really good. Again, a solvent (I used Varsol, some swear by gasoline!), utility knife (to slice along tubing stubs), small needle nose pliers and a wire brush to finish up is what I used in this instance.

tracker bar in progress

Opening up the valve chambers:

Inside the secondary valve chamber. This one is a split stack, due to Theme functionality.
Inside the secondary valve chamber. This one is a split stack, due to Theme functionality.
Secondary valve removed. Notice red cloth spacer has been lunch for some moths. They will all have to be replaced, with the leather facings too.
Secondary valve removed. Notice red cloth spacer has been lunch for some moths. They will all have to be replaced, with the leather facings too.

Stripping down the pump. The white squares are old gaskets made of blotter paper. It made for relatively easy removal of the various valve boxes.

trunk stripped

Primary box, taken off stack
Primary box, taken off stack

In this action the governor is not attached directly to pump trunk, but mounted underneath the keybed. For a large person like me, this involves making yourself into a small pretzel to reach the screws for the mounting brackets, in order to extract this peripheral device.

The governor, hanging out under the keybed.
The governor, hanging out under the keybed.

I will show more specific steps in further posts!

Return to the Main Event: more evaluation, supplies, costs…

Now we turn our attentions back to the main event – the player action!

The back side of the stack
The back side of the stack

I had already spent considerable time familiarizing myself with the general principles of pianola operation, and then further time with the particulars of my own action. As noted in my “Planning” post, I have got a general plan mapped out with my block diagram, tubing diagram, and master checklist. Now to do what I did with the piano and its action, and check all the player components over. This will accomplish several goals: to better understand the functionality of each component, to verify I have all the materials I need to rebuild, and to check all the components for breakage or damage. In the event of damage (which can be something as simple as stripped screw holes), then I need to repair before I rebuild. These are separate yet interrelated tasks! Any component which is damaged cannot be successfully restored, obviously.

As mentioned previously this action has a high degree of similarity to the pervasive Standard action, with elements of Autopiano and Aeolian action seemingly thrown in. It is interesting to note as well that this action is what we might call (in the vernacular) an “expression” piano; it is capable of more nuances than a standard 88-note player, but still not as advanced as a reproducing piano. So on a scale of 1-3, this piano is roughly a 2 (this scale is probably not linear; it is a rather shorter distance from 1 to 2 than it is from 2 to 3!).

In practical terms, this means extra components to take apart, figure out, rebuild and troubleshoot. In the long run, this additional effort will be worth it!

At least I think I finally have a handle on how this action is all supposed to work, including the mysterious boxes mounted on the trunk. They have to do with the extra expression elements, like “Theme” accents and user-activated button controls, for softer or sustained notes. As this is my first player restoration, there is a lot of reading and thinking involved, to get these ideas clearly solidified in the brain!

With regard to the materials, I am still in the rough at present. I had ordered all obvious parts last year, pertaining to the easily accessible and visible components on the piano. This means things like tubing, hosing, pneumatic cloth, leather nuts, and a few other odds and ends. However, I had some limitations. One limitation is that I had not yet taken the necessary (and considerable) time to break down each component. So I could not see inside the stack, for example. The secondary valve chamber has components which are specific to this particular model, as it turns out. This leads to the other limitation: sourcing parts. There was a time when you could order most everything you could conceivably need for a player piano from a single supplier to the trade. That time is no more.

In an earlier post, I mentioned sources of information. One was John Tuttle, purveyor of Player Care website. As it happens John also supplies materials and select parts to the hobbyist and layperson, he is probably the best, first place to look. The professional piano technician (e.g. me, hehe) has access to trade suppliers, such as Schaff, Pianotek, Pianoforte Supply and Pianophile (essentially Canadian reseller for Schaff). Of these it is really only Schaff (Pianophile) who carries any significant amount of player supplies and parts. And their current catologue of offerings (at time of writing) is diminished from earlier times. They are no longer a “one stop shop” for player rebuilding.

A pertinent point here is cost: even though parts and materials cost is vastly inferior relative to labour cost on a player rebuild, it is still not negligible: you can expect to spend easily between $500 -$1000 on parts (professional supply rate) on all necessary supplies to replace all perishable components of the player action. Tubes, hoses, felt, leather, etc; all these parts are specially made, and the supply sources are decreasing, meaning costs will continue to climb over time.

Anyhow, I had already ordered most of the tubing/hosing/cloth from Schaff, so I had that on hand. I had held off on getting leathers, as I had to calculate everything for my gaskets and valves. Now that having been done, I will put an order in at Columbia Leathers. They are the recommended supplier by John Tuttle for player pianos. And mercifully John has connections to make certain custom parts, like blotter gaskets for secondary valve seats, for example.

I know the spirit of DIY is so very important, and some might say: “why not just make your own? It’s cheaper!” While it may be true that technically, yes I could just order the paper and then attempt to stamp or cut out 100 identical gaskets from blotter paper — how much time would that take me, to get a comparable result? How much is your time worth? Is it really cheaper after all? That’s for you to decide, friend!

After taking everything on the player apart for examination, I don’t see any obvious repairs that are going to need to be made.  Nearly all the screws seemed solid (counterintuitively: tighten all screws neatly before unscrewing for dismantle; you want to discover repairs long before the moment you try to put your rebuilt parts back together!), so addressing stripped screw holes should be a minimal exercise. And with no other breaks or cracks in the wooden parts, I think I will just move along.

I will follow up with a post highlighting key teardown moments.

Piano Revisited

So, I need to follow up with some loose ends on the piano. And this post should probably include some photos too, Lord knows I have been taking them assiduously, following the good advice of those who know.

I mentioned not long ago that I am really trying to work with the piano (body and piano action) “as is” as much as possible. My focus is the player action rebuild, and I have explained why.
So now that the piano is all cleaned up and everything has been taken out for inspection, what did I find?

In summary (piano overall, not including player action components):

• Most parts worn, but remain fairly usable in current condition (this includes strings)
• Keys need cleaning, capstan polish, and bushings need “freshening” (see below)
• key frame pins (front and center pins) need polish and lube
• hammers need “carding” or filing to erase string grooves and help rebalance tone
• a few hammer brass butt plates to replace
• center pins (at least 4 sets: hammers, wips, stickers, dampers) need lubrication (wet)
• action contact points (e.g. sticker felts, damper lever spoon felts, butt leather) need lube (dry)
• damper felts likely need replacing, then regulating
• renew trapwork (replace all bearing bushings, and lube)
• alignment and tightening all action flanges
• complete regulation of keyboard and action
• other misc. (in my case bridge repair and case finish touch up –see below)
• lastly, tuning + voicing (TBD)

Just a reminder that (for the purposes of this project) I have opted to refurbish the piano, not rebuild or remanufacture it. But even though I am just doing a refurb job on this piano, you can see there is still a lot here – many hours of work ahead on this part!

Most of what I have outlined above is garden variety stuff, so I won’t elaborate too much there. I will just provide a few pics of the overall process:

rebushing 1
Rebushing the pedal rod guide blocks
rebushing 2
Rebushing done! Looks much nicer now
key levelling
Ready to polish and lube all guide pins
Having a rest for the evening!

But then there were a couple of particular things which do bear mentioning. Regarding the butt plates: actions with this brass rail hammer system (common during the first part of the player era) may be in for a rude awakening, starting in the near future. After a century (or more), these brass rails and plates have stiffened over time; they are brittle and often weakened. They begin to break, one by one. The dwindling amount of piano suppliers do still stock these plates, but they are now considered “one size fits all”, which they actually don’t.

So if they don’t work with your rail, or if the rail teeth themselves start to break, well, you are rather snookered. Or at least seriously inconvenienced. If you can’t salvage other parts you may be in for a wholesale replacement and conversion of the rail to conventional hammers and flanges. This is not the end of the world, but again: not convenient. Fortunately I don’t have to deal with this at present.

There are some things that I am sliding on here, and on the fence about as well. In most cases pianos of this age need everything replaced, including all action felts (for example). In my case I am just going to massage/fluff them a little, with a bristle brush. Then a little dry lube (where necessary) to give them a powdery smoothness.

The dampers should also be replaced, but I am still deciding about that. They are functional but noticeably hard, which gives them an undesirable percussive sound when they reset. Probably will have to bite the bullet on this one.

In terms of regulation it won’t be possible to nail everything because we are not working with fresh parts. I can certainly calibrate it to a reasonable tolerance notwithstanding, but just be aware that complete regulation is best done with fresh parts.

A special note about regulating the keyboard on a player is that often the keys are weighted differently than on a standard piano. They are front-weighted so that they fall when a corresponding note is triggered by the player action. This lets the audience see the keys move along with the music, as if the piano were being played by a ghost. When during regulation the capstans must be adjusted, bear in mind that there will be no “lost motion” as they are pressing up into the wippens, due to the front-weighting. Make sure you make this adjustment before levelling your keys!

Bridge repair: the only belly work type-stuff I need to get into is some slight bridge repair. During the original manufacturing of the bridge, if the builder did not align the grain of the wood correctly, the pins went in to wood which was comparatively weaker. Fast-forward 100 years, and the pins have been deflecting string tension all that time! Sometimes the pins will start to tear out of their original holes, particularly toward the end of a bridge. This is ruinous to the speaking of the strings and tunability of the instrument.

bridge repair
Bridge repair: tear-out damage to upper pin holes

Fortunately, in my case the damage seems minimal. Just a half-dozen or so loose pins with enlarged holes. The thing for this is to loosen and tuck away the strings over that part of the bridge, take out the pins from the affected holes, mix-up some five-minute epoxy (put in glue syringe if available), fill the holes, clean up spillage, reinsert pins, clean some more. Double check spacing/alignment issues before the epoxy finishes setting up, and you’re done!

The rest of the piano-specific items are fairly garden variety, so those can be researched and discussed elsewhere.

Now, back to our regularly-scheduled programming!

Step 1: Cleaning

Time to get dirty!

One of the first things to do is get the piano all apart and take a good look at the nooks and crannies. Although I did give it a pretty good looking over before I agreed to take it (so as to not set myself up for guaranteed failure), I just want to really get all components out of the piano and really get in there for a visual confirmation of everything. See previous postings for more detail on how to get the main components out of the piano. Once you get that figured out, you can take a look at the peripherals. These are the smaller parts, such as the pedal pneumatic, the governor, as well as the piano parts like pedal rods. Each piano is different, so you will have to figure out all the fine details for yourself.

Very important: make extensive, accurate notes and take detailed pictures of the following actions, in other words: everything which is to be dismantled. While there is really no such thing as too many notes, there will certainly be unhappiness caused by not taking enough. Unless you are doing this professionally, you are probably doing this (as I am) in your spare time, so it may be months in between the teardown time and final reinstallation. You have been warned!

This disassembly will also allow complete access to the belly of the instrument, which in turn permits the execution of a ho-hum but important first step (it’s on the checklist): cleaning!

When I say cleaning, what I am talking about primarily is a combination of air treatments: compressed air blowing and vacuum. The ideal scenario is to have a compressor with a blowgun attachment, and to be able to take the empty piano outside, as this process is going to generate a lot of dusty gunk.
In my case, due to various circumstances of my setup, I do not fall into this ideal scenario, therefore I have to clean the piano in situ. In the event that you don’t have access to a compressor, you will just have to manage with vacuum alone.

So again, after removing the case parts, the player top action, the piano action, the keys, the bottom pump trunk action, and the peripherals, now I am down to the bare essentials. Since I can’t bring the piano outside, and I do not wish to get dirt over every surface in the room, I have to use a longer protocol. First thing is set up, or preparation. I will tape up some plastic sheeting on the surrounding walls (which are white) to mitigate dirt migration. Also cover whatever else is laying on horizontal surfaces, to avoid getting things covered in a fine layer of dust.

In terms of safety I advise wearing safety glasses, and also ear plugs. A compressor may not seem “loud”, but remember its job is to generate a heck of a lot of air pressure, which is the scientific definition of sound. It may just sound like a low noise, but just because the frequency is low, does not mean the level cannot be harmful if it is intense enough.

Now to the cleaning: start with vacuuming, to do a first pass and get a lot of the heavier stuff, dust bunnies and so on. A crevice tool is helpful to get into tight spaces, and a brush attachment is good as well, for some of the hard surfaces. A vacuum won’t get everything, so after the first pass it is time to switch to the compressor, and watch the dust fly. I found about 80 PSI to be a good level, I recommend not making the pressure too strong, or you could damage some action parts. In an attempt to limit the dispersement of dust, what I try to do is direct the air flow into the vacuum, to get a “tag team” effect. With some angles and positions this will be futile, but it’s worth a shot. Once that’s done, the piano should be good for another 75 years or so, before its next cleaning, hehe.

Note that I am assuming garden variety circumstances of normal dirt accumulation in the piano. In the event that there has been vermin or other animal contamination, these are special (by special I mean rather unpleasant) conditions which require special remedies. These can be looked up elsewhere, or you could contact me if you are stuck.
Another disagreeable possibility is the concentration of mildew or mold in the piano, which sometimes occurs in old pianos which have been stored in damp environments, for a prolonged period. In fact, I did have some on my piano, when I first opened it up, but the nice silver lining was that it was most surface mold, on the darker, hard surfaces. Taking the affected components out of the piano and exposing them to direct sunlight for a couple of days will really knock back the mold. You can wipe off hard surfaces with a rag dampened slightly with hot water diluted with white vinegar. Don’t use too much and dry the same parts right away. For permeable surfaces like felts and cloths (or hammers) which are heavily soiled, there is not much to be done, they must be replaced.

In summary, active vermin or bio-contaminants can pose a real health risk, especially when disturbed, so do take appropriate precautions when getting dirty in such environments.

Getting back to the task at hand, take the piano action outside and give that a good blowing out, and the other components if you feel the need. Again take care with the power of the compressor, you don’t want to make extra work for yourself by damaging components. To be on the safe side wear a dust mask, and if it is really nasty in there, a respirator may be merited. You also won’t want to wear your Sunday best for this job; if your clothes and body are not covered in dust when you are done, you probably have left too much dirt in the piano!

Even the air compressor may not get built-on grime, you will have to go again with the slightly damp rag and wipe down parts like the hammer rail, brackets, and perhaps the plate if it is grimy too. Use the same treatment as described above, for mold. Eventually you will also have to clean the stack and pump parts in the same manner, although it doesn’t have to be on the same day.

Once every thing is fairly cleaned off, make sure the light is good and carefully make an inspection of all the parts to see what needs replacing and what doesn’t. The rationale for deciding what needs doing is made up of several factors, the most important of which is the proper functionality of the instrument. I made reference to this in the previous post “on value”.
In a subsequent post I will give some more details on what it is I discovered with my piano.

On Value

Returning to the big picture, I need to assess what work on the piano part needs doing. In this case, I am both the technician and the customer: I alone determine what my goals are, and how they are to be achieved.

In this business, there are different terms often bandied about, such as restoration, refurbishment, rebuilding, and so on. Restoration is a nebulous term which I tend to avoid, when I wish to talk specifics. A complete rebuilding is the most thorough treatment for a piano, and is supposed to involve new pinblock, tuning pins, strings, soundboard and bridges, action parts, and case refinishing. In other words, the piano is returned to approximately the same condition it was in when it left the factory or showroom.

[Sidebar: Sadly, unscrupulous persons often sell a “complete rebuilding” to unsuspecting customers, when they have really only addressed the cosmetic issues of the piano, and perhaps some superficial action problems as well. But this is really for another post.]

A refurbishment is a less intensive intervention; it may involve replacing strings, hammers, damper felts, perhaps other action parts, as well as keytops. It would likely not entail belly work or cabinet refinishing. No matter what degree of action work is done, it is understood that a complete regulation will follow any significant labour.

I am leaning toward this latter treatment, for several reasons: because the action is serviceable, and because of previous work already having been done; because I am particularly interested in the player action, and finally because I believe I will be adequately satisfied with the piano as is, I am not going to do any major parts replacement, where the piano portion is concerned. And of course, cost.

A proper, full restoration/rebuilding does call for all of the above-mentioned protocols to be followed, however it must be understood that this means investing an incredible amount of time and energy, not to mention the cost of parts. This is where we get into the question of value, as well.  So just what is “value”, anyhow?

The “value” of an instrument is measured in different ways, both monetary and sentimentally. The monetary is determined by standard criteria such as brand, type, rarity, age and present condition. It is a reasonably objective criterion and the standard and immutable rules of supply and demand apply here as well. This is the type of mindset I stick to when I evaluate instruments for sale or purchase, for my clients.

The instrument in question here is ultimately a quality yet garden-variety Canadian piano, in average condition (poor in terms of current playability), nearly 100 years old. The availability of such instruments (with complete player action) is declining, true; but by the same token demand is fairly nil in the current market. Hence I got the piano for “free”.

Sentimental value, on the other hand, is a highly subjective but powerful motivator. If the piano has been in a certain family for several generations, and this family has historically valued music and learned to play on this instrument, then the piano will obviously be held in great esteem and the current generation will be receptive to the idea of spending money to revitalize or at least improve it. In my case this particular piano has no sentimental value, as I have recently acquired it, but certainly my vocation does occasionally bias me with warm feelings toward antique instruments.

The value to me will be in having an educational tool in the short term, and having an enjoyable and functional player piano for the long term. I can achieve this goal without a complete rebuilding of the piano. Not only that, but from an objectively financial point of view, it would be foolhardy to expend thousands of dollars in materials and work hours to marginally increase the market value which is currently next to nothing.

Essentially this post is a simply a lengthy disclaimer of sorts; while I accept without reservation the idea that a century-old piano needs a full rebuilding to perform at its full potential, I also do not feel compelled to undertake a complete piano rebuilding for the reasons outlined above. I furthermore reserve the right to change my mind in future; after all, there is no real penalty or additional complications from waiting to make additional improvements to the instrument.

When the piano is yours, you get to make the rules!

Planning Part II: The Piano

I don’t want to take an abundance of time on this; however it does bear mentioning, so here goes!

The primary purpose of this blog is to document the rebuilding of the player action, but as I mentioned at the beginning, ultimately we need to see the instrument holistically, as the whole piano needs to work as a unit. If the piano does not operate well, the work on the player action is wasted.

To review; before taking reception of the piano, I had already checked the major structural issues like case solidity, soundboard and bridges integrity, and pinblock stability. Similarly I checked the piano action for completeness and functionality.

My evaluation confirmed that there were no obvious deficiencies in the case or structure (the “belly”) of the piano. Nonetheless, because the piano was rather dusty and musty, I didn’t know one hundred percent of the information I desired, so I gave it a much-needed air blast and vacuuming. You really only get all those nooks and crannies with compressed air (I will get into that in more detail, in another post soon).

The action is somewhat tired, but serviceable. The piano plays well enough; some of the hammer centers pins are binding in their bushings, causing a few notes to be sluggish. This calls for a lube/cleaning solution, and failing this some selective rebushing/repinning of those parts. Action centres are one of those things which are sometimes taken for granted; however if they are not doing their job properly the action will grind to a halt. I will keep my fingers crossed that widespread repinning of all centres will not be necessary – there are hundreds of those things!

The hammer heads have noticeable string grooves worn in them. Interestingly I think that the hammers may be original, they bear the mark of Bohne & Co. I believe they still have one carding left in them.

[Sidebar: this is another Canadian firm which originally made piano parts, but decided to concentrate on springs in the early 1940’s, as the war redirected production profitability away from the consumer market, to the military-industrial market. The company still operates today.]

All action and damper felts are present, and show an expected degree of wear. In a nutshell the piano still works and plays reasonably well, although it is somewhat tired and could use some sprucing up at the very least. The damper felts have a bit of leakage due to their age-induced hardening; I will have to decide for myself if I will accept them “as is”.

I mentioned in a previous post my suspicions that at least one intermediate intervention had been done on the piano. Although the action looks fairly original, there are some things which stand out. Some of the more obvious examples:

  • The strings, for example, do not show excessive oxidization or corrosion. That would be a bit unusual (in this climate), if the strings were original, meaning almost 100 years old.
  • The keytops are plastic, the originals would have certainly been ivory. The front decal (Willis & Co.) On the nameboard is missing, and it looks like the case has been refinished.
  • There are similar telltale signs from what I can see on the player action, such as the addition of certain couplers and hose clamps that are certainly not OEM parts! Also the fact that several of the expression tube runs did not make any logical sense; perhaps this went unnoticed as the stack and transmission components were still tubed correctly.

I don’t know when this work was done, and I don’t know the precise quality of the work, but I have not yet seen any alarming things jump out. By “alarming” I mean work which is very wrong and very challenging to fix easily, the kind of thing that makes your head hurt when you see it. With some experience, you notice “hack” work almost immediately, and are able to size up how much work it will take to undo what has been badly done.

In summary, I still believe I can work with the piano (for the most part) in its current state, and I will have more to say about that next time.


Planning Part I: Player Action

Aye-aye-aye — where does the time go?

Since the last post, the end of summer flew by, the leaves fell, then it was some white precipitation…2016 has snuck up on me!
So after falling off the blog wagon, time to get back on!

As mentioned in the previous post, I need to get a few planning things down on paper to plan the execution of this job. My list so far includes:

  • Tubing diagram
  • Block diagram overview
  • Checklist of tasks (customized)

Each of these items serve a different yet equally important role. Like the human body has different vital systems (e.g. skeletal, neural, muscular) which play cooperative roles, so too the piano has various systems which act in concert, to make the magic happen.

The tubing diagram is necessary in order to firstly understand where the air flow is going and how the system works, and also to document where all the elements connect to one another. As all the existing tubing will be removed and replaced, it should be obvious why it is vital to keep track of the 100+ tube runs in the action. After a couple of drafts, I came up with the following document, with some guidance and input from John Tuttle of (thanks John!)

Willis pianola tubing diagram V2

To better get a handle on the “big picture” of this player action rebuild, and understand it as a sum of the various parts, a block diagram will be helpful. It is a more “at a glance” view of the project, although all of these elements will eventually need to be independently examined and evaluated. More on that in a moment.

I believe this simple block diagram will assist to trace out the relationship between the components and compartmentalize them into smaller projects. Here’s what I came up with:

Pianola block diagram

I was originally going to put some effort into creating this diagram, but I don’t really see the value in making something fancy — it’s just a quick and rough visual cue. So by reducing the player action to a series of pieces, it makes the process seem less daunting — at least that is the idea!

Finally I adapted a master checklist, which applies to the whole piano. This is the opposite of the big picture; rather this is the nitty gritty details which all have to be done before the piano will perform as it should. I have customized this list, but it is modeled after the one Art Reblitz uses, listed in his book.

Player piano restoration checklist

I will continue in more detail in further posts – cross-referencing the above documents as we go along – but for now, let’s ruminate on that for a bit!

A 1919 Willis player piano