An Even More Amazing Machine: The Great Player Piano Restoration

Although my summer’s project came to a very satisfactory completion almost four months ago, I haven’t had the time until now to showcase a complete debriefing of the transformation. I could blither on forever about the particulars, but I’ll let the before and after photos speak for themselves. I’ll also put in here a link to a couple of videos that pretty thoroughly explain the intricacies of how this thing works. First, some stats:

Manufacturer: Haines Piano Co. Rochester, New York

Serial No: 72790

Year of Completion: 1924

Date of Keybed Manufacture: 1919

Weight: ~850 lbs.

Scale: 88 note, A0: 54 inches.

Backplate Pressure: ~24 tonnes (53,760 lbs.)

Action: Haines Accu-Point Action ®

Center Pedal: Bass Dampers.

Player Action: Manufactured by the Armstrong Player Action Co. Rochester, New York

Player Action Serial No. 50613

Player Action Type: Full Scale 88 Note, dual valve (176 valves, 2 per key); Auto Center; Mechanical Rewind.

2 main bellows, 2 reservoirs, adjustable governor pneumatic, automatic cutout cock.

Materials:

Cabinet: Oak; Oak Veneer

Keys: Ivory, Ebony.

Backplate: Bronzed cast iron

Labels: Gold Leaf

Soundboard: Spruce, 5 piece.

Original Finish: Dark Walnut Brown

Strings: Bass: Wound Bronze;

Treble: Steel

Pinblock: 15 Layer Hard Rock Maple

Tuning Pins: Steel,

New finish: Natural, Lindseed oil, #490002 Pigment

Four coats Water Based, oil modified semi-gloss polyurethane

Oil Based Acrylic Black Paint

Original fabrics: Rubberized cotton nansook key pneumatics, rubberized canvas bellows. Leather gaskets.  Pneumatic clearance: 1-3/4”

New Fabrics: polyurethane covered nylon key pneumatics and governor pneumatics. Bellows left original. All leather gaskets replaced with 1/16” cork gaskets. (better longevity) PVC-E glue, hot animal hide glue, 3M spray adhesive.

Cabinet Overhauled: May-October 2012

Player action overhauled: October 2012

Key Action Overhauled: September 2012

Piano Restoration Completed: October 2012

And now…some before and after:

The piano arrives at the workshop…Note the illustrious Phil Kramer telepathically cursing the new PSO (Piano Shaped Object…)

Things initially looked bleak…I was starting to think that Phil was right in saying that this gal was beyond help. It looks as though some animal got his paws on the cabinet…Image

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The Amount of rubbish I recovered from inside the piano was astonishing…but kind of neat. More about that later.

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See what I mean? Yuck…

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This poor old gal had more scars than the Black Knight from Monty Python…

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This gives a pretty good idea of exactly how badly the veneer and finish were ruined.

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To Make matters worse, the bottom of the piano was cracked nearly end to end. Repair was impossible…the entire bottom would have to be refabricated, along with the left leg of the piano.

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Luckily, my father is masterfully brilliant at these kinds of things, and always eager to help. After a short trip to the Home Depot, he had adroitly recreated the new bottom for the piano, along with a replacement foot.

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After returning the new foot to Laramie and test fitting it, I found that my dad had again masterfully duplicated the part, and absolutely no further adjustment was needed.

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Meanwhile, I had set to work removing the destroyed finish from the rest of the cabinet. Once the 80+ year old varnish was sanded through, one could really appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the wood below.

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After all the varnish was removed, the new finish, which consisted of lindseed oil and very light pigment was applied. Here you can see the first stages of wood conditioning. Note the black painted trim that would be used over the entire cabinet.

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I wanted to keep as much of the wood’s original tint as possible. I didn’t like the orignal dark finish, and I wanted the instrument to contrast with the Hobart Cable piano I have in my living room, which is a dark reddish color.

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While waiting for the finish to dry, I set my sights on the mechanical aspects of the piano. Here are the ruined felt circles of the end rails.

A view of the player action after it was removed from the piano. The action itself has almost 150 feet of rubber tubing and eight square feet of leather gaskets.

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And now the fun part…disassembling the player action…

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Which made a disgusting mess of the workshop…

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…and my hands…

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Here’s a good view of the primary valve chamber with corresponding pouch board. Not much in terms of refurbishment was needed here–the valves were all brushed, cleaned and re-glued to their stems. I had to be maniacally careful not to damage any of the paper thin leather pouches on the pouch board. To replace any of them was an expensive proposition.

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Since this entire project was figured out by trial and error, I was bound to make a few mistakes. Here’s my biggest one by far…without knowing how the pneumatic decks separated from the valve body, I let brute force and impatience take over. The result? A gouged and damaged valve body. Wood filler can work wonders, however, and soon I had it back up to snuff…

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Many of the materials originally used to manufacture these instruments are sub-par to modern materials, and extremely (prohibitively) expensive. Leather was originally used as gasket material, however for as much leather as I would’ve needed, I was faced with a decision: Go broke buying a prepared hide, or turn to cattle rustling. I chose neither and decided upon using good old fashioned cheap cork as an alternative. Here I am perfecting my trimming system, and attempting to keep my fingers…

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I knew I needed to be uncharacteristically diligent as I disassembled these intricate machines in order to make reassembly less of a pain. Here you see my numbering system as to the order of each key pneumatic.

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After the pneumatics were recovered with new fabric, they were reattached to their respective decks, using the stinkiest glue I’ve ever used. It made the entire house smell like burning, rotting, dead cow…much to the dismay of my roommates.

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After the glue had dried, the decks were reattached to the valve bodies, via the use of 176 tiny screws. Note the recovered pneumatics on the top shelf, ready to be attached to the deck on the desk in the background.

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By this point, the piano had been moved inside, and I began replacing the various bits as I pushed to the finish. Here we see the refurbished keybed and cleaned keys. I didn’t mark the order of the keys as well as I should have, so it took longer than needed. Note the brand new bottom with re-mounted pedal system and bellows supports.

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While cleaning the keys, this was found scrawled in pencil on one of the lower keys. 12/9/1919–the date the keybed was manufactured.

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The standard action was reinstalled and regulated, along with the refurbished lower bellows and all associated hardware and “plumbing.” This picture was taken in the middle of the initial tuning after moving. The piano is almost ready to have the player action reinstalled and regulated.

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After many hours of labor, the lower action is finally refurbished and ready to be reinstalled in the piano. The most difficult aspect of the entire project was the adjustment and regulation of the lower pneumatic action as it related to the manual action already installed in the piano. Again, trial and error lent itself to many hours of toil.

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The end result, cabinet closed.

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Refurbished bottom bellows.

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Remember how badly the legs were damaged? This is the end result. Incidentally, this is the foot that was remanufactured by my dad.

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Here’s a good view of the piano’s serial number and intricate backplate designs. 72790–1924.

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The air motor…refurbished and in perfect running order. The chain and sprockets on the left side were salvaged from an old micrographics machine and retrofitted to the system.

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The refurbished drive system (chain on the right) and the rewind system (left).

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A convenience for the modern piano tuner.

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Which works as described…

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The tracker bar–the precursor of the modern day computer. The roll is loaded on the spindle above, passes over the tracker bar, onto the take up roll. The take-up roll is driven by the motor drive via a gear system.

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A closeup of the tempo indicator set via a one of the levers beneath the key bed. Because of the way this piano’s drive system is geared, you must set the tempo to half of what is indicated on the piano roll. Ex: Tempo=100 is set to 50 on this piano.

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This system is intended to center the roll on the spindle, so the correct paper punchings line up with the proper tracking holes on the tracker bar. It doesn’t exactly….work. At least not with 100% accuracy. I’m constantly working on improving it.

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The controls on this piano are strikingly simple. The lever on the left controls tempo–faster as it travels to the right. The lever on the right controls the drive system–in the rightmost position it puts the system in “drive” or “play” and when pushed to the left position, engages the rewind mechanism, driving the top roll in reverse.

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These three levers replicate the function of the foot pedals on the piano. Since you use your feet to create suction in the bellows chambers, you can use your left hand to control expressions. The leftmost lever removes the dampers, like the damper pedal. The other levers are set up opposite of each other so you can use one or both by “pinching” them together. The middle lever moves the bass hammers closer to the strings, and the rightmost lever moves the treble hammers.

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These pedals are used by the operator to create suction in the bellows chambers to drive the piano.

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…and when not in use are neatly folded up into the body of the piano and hidden by this “trap door.”

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When I perform a piano restoration, the one part I refuse to touch is the original fallboard label. I feel as though replacing the original with a reproduction takes away some of the personality, character, and history of the instrument. I instead prefer to merge the original label and finish with the new finish, usually by encasing it in a matching border.

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Here’s a side view with a good look at the black trim I added on the corner, bottom and middle in order to hide badly damaged veneer.

ImageImageAnd here are the links to the videos with demonstrations of the piano’s capabilities and an explanation of how things work. The top video is roughly ten minutes, with me giving an in depth tour as to how the piano functions. The second is a song that no one has ever heard of. The YouTube link brings you to Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2,” the ultimate “torture test” for any piano (or pianist for that matter.)

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=4844717280308&set=vb.1368153316&type=3&theater

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=4850925115500&set=vb.1368153316&type=3&theater

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDfsOxIbppY

As always, feel free to comment or message with questions! Cheers!

2 thoughts on “An Even More Amazing Machine: The Great Player Piano Restoration

  1. downfront says:

    Absolutely gorgeous fuckin’ work. Major kudos, to both you and your pops. Great job guys.

  2. […] I was extraordinarily fortunate to recover a great deal of interesting artifacts from the 1924 Haines Brothers’ that I recently restored. The main article featuring the process of restoration can be found here, just in case you missed it: http://anamazingmachine.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/an-even-more-amazing-machine-the-great-player-piano… […]

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