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[Sidebar: this is another Canadian firm which originally made piano parts, but decided to concentrate on springs in the early 1940’s, as the war redirected production profitability away from the consumer market, to the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!