Do not attempt this at home!
(Photo: © Carles Santos, from the exhibition Visca el Piano).
How to Restore?
The initial era of the player piano is now a good 75 years behind us, and it is inevitable that most instruments will need restoration to some degree. Just how an individual owner wishes to set about this task depends on many factors, not the least of which is finance. We regularly dispense large sums to keep our cars in good order, and yet the modern automobile is considerably less labour intensive than the 100-year-old pianola.
Then there is the balance between music and elegance. Some owners will not much care how their instrument looks, as long as it plays well, while others will want to see a family heirloom gleam again as it did when new. The technically-minded may wish to soil their hands with rubbercloth and glue; others may prefer to put their trust in an experienced professional.
At the foot of this page are a number of links which refer you to useful websites and books, so you can instantly jump there now if you choose. But you might as well read the opinions (or prejudices!) which follow, because they represent over 35 years' involvement with pianolas, and because repairing these treasures is not always plain sailing.
There are no examinations for player piano restorers, in the way that there are for piano technicians. You cannot ask to see a diploma or a certificate, and if one is shown to you, it will have nothing to do with the player piano aspects of your repairs. So you need to use your common sense. One wise course is to find a restorer who will do the job personally, and not a company which passes the work on to others. In these circumstances you will be able to track the progress of your player piano, and you will know that no handling fees are being charged. We have heard of cases where the handling fees have amounted to 75% of the total cost.
Ask to see and hear some instrument which the restorer has already worked on. How does it compare to others you have encountered, or indeed to those you can find on this website? Take a friend with you, because two heads are nearly always better than one. Remember that the restorer's own prize piano, the one that stands proudly in the centre of the workshop, may well have had rather more loving care applied to it than yours will see. This is not to accuse all restorers of double standards, but it is inevitable that a piano which has been part of someone's life for many years will have been gradually tweaked towards perfection.
Don't necessarily be put off by an untidy workshop, since you probably wouldn't have wanted to eat your dinner in the factory where your pianola was made either. Too great an emphasis on clinical conditions is probably a sign that your piano will look first-rate, but will play just a little antiseptically. On the other hand, you likely won't allow your cat to live inside the piano, so workshop surfaces with affectionate doggies or moggies beaming up at you are best avoided. No doubt there are the exceptions, the genius restorers who live like hermits, but in those cases there will be other factors to convince you.
If you have a reproducing piano, as opposed to a normal player piano, then beware of the siren voices suggesting that computer programs and new strings can somehow improve the tonal balance of your piano. For all we know, they may make your piano sound incredibly rich and fruity, but it will no longer sound like the piano it was designed to be, and for which the reproducing piano rolls were recorded. If you care about the fidelity of the old recordings, then make sure any new strings or hammers (if you need them) are of the same dimensions and design as the old ones.
A fair price for a good restoration will not be cheap. It takes a similar amount of time to dismantle a player piano, repair some of it, replace some of it, re-polish and re-assemble it, as it would do to make it from scratch. Pianola restorers have to eat, and if their particular expertise is as acute as your own skill at selling widgets or calculating oversized mortgage repayments, then why shouldn't they eat in the same restaurants as you do?
One last important technical point. You don't always need to repair everything. The individual note pneumatics in the Steck grand Pianola Piano used for the following musical example were covered with rubbercloth in about 1919, when the piano was made. They have never been replaced, and they are still like new. It would be madness to mess with them, because new rubbercloth is probably not as long-lasting anyway. A good restorer will want to dismantle your pianola and investigate such matters, before telling you exactly what needs to be done, or being definite about prices.
|CHOPIN: "Minute" Waltz, arr. Moritz Rosenthal, [2.4 Mb]
Performed by Rex Lawson - January 2005, London.
This roll was performed on a Steck grand Pianola Piano in London, in January 2005.
The audio recording is the copyright of the Pianola Institute, 2007.
Finally, and as a matter of principle, this website will not recommend individual restorers. There are far too many commercial sites hiding business arrangements under the guise of impartial advice. All that our links can do is to point you towards the places on the Internet where restorers congregate, and wish you good hunting. If you want more, then you'll have to come to one of our concerts and interrogate us personally!
Do - It - Yourself
You don't need to be an expert musician to repair a player piano. Nor do you need a preference for classical music, jazz, ragtime or songs from the shows. There is plenty of room for everyone in the world of pianolas, and you will be restoring the instrument for your own enjoyment. Beware of classical musicians who sneer at the simple enjoyment of popular tunes, but equally avoid those who regard the classicists as toffee-nosed. It's much better to be tolerant, and you'll get better advice all round. Nor really do you need to start off with much specific technical knowledge. There are books to help you, and although some of the repair materials are becoming harder to find, they can still be obtained by mail order, or over the Internet.
What you do need is summed up by Big Ben and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is of course the time and the inclination. It will probably help you to have a good eye for detail, and the patience not to rush the job. You will need space, because the innards of a player piano take up rather more room when removed than they do in their operating positions. If your working area is not large, or you need to use it for other jobs at the same time, then it can be useful to have a few large trays, on which you can keep sections of your pianola repair, which can then be carefully stacked and shelved as necessary.
There will be many voices which lay great importance on the correct choice of materials. One debate which draws the greatest ferocity is whether or not to use hot glue, prepared from the hooves of animals, which has to be heated in a special double boiler (which can of course still be obtained). There are those who will only use hot glue for their repairs, because it was the only adhesive used when the instruments were originally made, but there are other clever souls who track down comments from the old piano designers, in which they ruefully wish for something more reliable than hot glue in damp climates. You will need to make your own choices, and they are likely to be coloured by the opinions of friends and acquaintances. Perhaps the wisest and greenest course is never to do anything to your pianola that cannot be undone. You cannot hope to use exactly the same materials as the workers of the 1920s did, because manufacturing processes have changed over the decades. But do avoid the kinds of glues that can never be unstuck, and do your best to find materials of the same thicknesses and pliability as the old ones. For example, synthetic cloths can sometimes be too easy to fold, and covering pneumatics with them may make your pianola more difficult to play quietly.
Unless you are very skilled, it is best to leave the restoration of the piano, as opposed to the player mechanism, to a professional. Removing and re-gilding piano frames (plates) is beyond many professional player piano restorers, let alone the amateurs. There have been very many player pianos ruined tonally by those who remove frames and fail to replace every sliver of wood in order to reposition them to the correct thousandth of an inch. This accuracy really does matter, and it is best left to a few specialists.
And finally, don't be put off doing the repairs yourself. Your attitude is more important than your experience, and every professional had to start somewhere. Buy all the relevant books you can find, join one of the national societies (although avoid the loudest talkers), and you will find enough advice to see you through.
Links to Websites and Suggestions for Reading
The Friends of the Pianola Institute - Join the Friends of the Pianola Institute! Meeting other player piano owners through a national or regional society is a very effective way of tracking down the sort of restorer who will suit you, and it is also an excellent source of free advice, if you are considering a do-it-yourself approach. We hope you would like to join the Friends of the Pianola Institute anyway, because it is particularly good at keeping you in touch with the musical side of these instruments, as opposed to the "collecting" aspect. But on a social level, the Friends is based in the southern part of the United Kingdom, and it may be more appropriate for you to seek a society in your part of the world.
The Mechanical Music Digest - This is a site where those who regard themselves as making up the "mechanical music" community post their opinions. One could spend many hours responding to posts on this site and never get any work done! The opinions of those who post, including many elements which are apparently authoritative, are in fact like any other human pronouncements, frequently fallible. But you will find repairers corresponding here, and you might usefully trawl the archives. The words repairs, restoration and rebuilding all seem to have a good number of entries.
Other Player Piano Societies
The links to various player piano or mechanical music societies follow. Their publications are all available to anyone in any part of the world, but the main geographical areas which they cover for social purposes are noted.
There will always be some details that each one of us disagrees with in such a complicated subject as the player piano. Nevertheless, the books recommended here are reliable and trustworthy. What you will never find in a book are the fine details of how to coax a player or reproducing piano into a world-class instrument. For that you need your own intuition and years and years of experience!
Arthur (Art) Reblitz - Player Piano Servicing and Rebuilding, Vestal Press, Vestal, NY, USA, 1985.
Available from various websites by mail order, including Amazon and Player-Care. Amazon currently (October 2007) has a special deal if you buy both this book, and Art Reblitz's companion book on Piano Servicing, listed below.
Arthur (Art) Reblitz - Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding, Vestal Press, Vestal, NY, USA, 1976
2nd Edition, Madison Books, 1994.
Available from various websites by mail order, including Amazon and Player-Care.