Although it has been a long time in coming, at long last the piano is done and playing well. I hope to soon upload some videos of it in action; watch this space!
You may be asking yourself the question: what does it take in terms of time, materials and cost to restore a player piano? Let me provide a breakdown of my own project, for your information.
Materials required: I will group the materials into a couple of different categories.
Category 1: General “soft” materials most often required, including cloth, leather and tubing, to rebuild the action. You will likely need most of the following:
- heavy bellows cloth (1 Yard)
- motor cloth, for air motor and other medium pneumatics (1 Yard)
- thin striker pneumatic cloth (1.5″ x 100′ roll, or about 1Yard)
- tubing for tracker bar to stack, etc (150′)
- tubing for expression devices and valve boxes (20-50′)
- hose (twill covered, 3/4″ ID) for air motor and other supply (15-20′)
- hose (twill covered, 1-1 ½” ID) for plenary supply (15-20′)
- Gasket material (3-4 Yards)
- Leather for flap valves (4 pre cut strips, or 1 Yard)
- Leather nuts (diameter as needed) (200)
This grouping of materials cost approximately $700 USD at the time of publication. The availability and supply of these materials is diminishing, which means the cost is constantly increasing incrementally.
Category 2: Valve materials. A thorough rebuilding also includes the primary and secondary valves, as well as the other miscellaneous rotary and pallet valves. You may need some or all of the following:
- Secondary valve stem guides (100)
- Fibre or metal valve discs (100 or 200)
- Leather for inside and outside facings of both primary and secondary valves, as well as others such as cutoff and expression valves, etc (4-6 square feet)
- blotter gaskets for secondary valves or other (1-2 Yard)
This grouping of material cost approximately $500 USD, but note that this figure also includes some labour cost of custom punching blotter gaskets and one set of valve facings
Category 3: Player piano specific tools, such as small pneumatic jig, vacuum gauge, tracker bar cleaner, test roll, and so on. This category cost approximately $200 USD.
So far we have a running minimum total of $1400 USD, for the cost of a first time rebuild of a player piano. However, there are futher costs to consider. What have I left out?
International shipping, taxes, duty, currency conversion: I live in Canada, so the $1400 USD, plus logistical costs ($400 USD) and conversion, actually translates into $2200 of my local currency! If you live outside a country where the materials are readily available, you must factor in this cost!
Non-player specific tools and supplies: there are many tools and supplies which are needed, including woodworking and metal working hand tools and some power tools. A glue pot is very handy as you will be working with hot hide glue a lot. Then there is the cost of perishable supplies like the glue, shellac, lubricants, finishes, and so on. If you don’t have any of this stuff you will have to borrow or buy what you need (estimated cost: a few hundred dollars to get started). You will need a suction generating machine to test your work. A shop vac will do in a pinch, although it is not ideal.
Piano parts and tools: I’ve only mentioned the player parts so far, but obviously the piano itself must be restored to at least the same degree as the player action, to ensure a good result. Piano parts are not cheap, if you need to get into replacing dampers, hammers, strings, etc. This can quickly tally up to a few thousand dollars for these parts, if they all need replacing. If the piano needs refinishing, a new decal, etc this will also be a not insignificant cost to you, in time or money. Apart from the rebuilding, the piano will need regulation, voicing and tuning, all of which require specialty tools used by a piano technician. If you do not wish to have the additional learning curve, you can hire out this work, recognizing that there will be a cost of a couple days’ worth of professional labour as well.
Piano moving: there is no such thing as a “free” piano! A player piano is a large heavy object and should be treated with respect, when moving it. It is a job best left to professional piano movers, for the safety of the piano, the home and the people involved. Budget $300-500 dollars for a one-way, local piano move. It is money well spent.
Speaking of time: I mentioned previously that all work was done by yours truly. While there was no monetary cost, you are no doubt familiar with the saying “time is money”. In my workbook I estimate that I logged the better part of 700 hours to complete this project (this is certainly at least double what a professional rebuilder would have spent).
Why so long? Simply put: I have never done this work before, so it took a long time to get into my head. In addition the sporadic nature of my schedule — doing this work on evenings and weekends across several years — was quite inefficient. I made mistakes, which I knew I had to correct in order to make the project worth while in the end. To be frank, if the global pandemic had not arrived to impose a quarantine period, I would probably still be working on the piano yet! I would add that the hours listed do not account for reading, researching, writing emails to ask advice, staring blankly and scratching my head trying to understand how this stuff works!
I did not set all these things down to discourage the would-be rebuilder; rather, my goal is to provide a reality check so that you know what to expect, when you want to seriously undertake restoring a player piano. If I and others can do it, you can too!
Thank you for following my blog, and I wish you good luck in your own project!
Stay tuned for further adventures in the pianola world!