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 pinion 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!