Hall of Shame

OMG Is this what you pay for when you have your player piano restored

alt tag

H.C. Bay player in an Anderson upright piano.

This is the first addition to the Hall of Shame in a long time.

I have restored player pianos and other automatic instruments now for more than 30 years and I have seen a whole lot of substandard work. But recently I saw something that left me slack jawed and totally appalled. The question that came to mind was “What the hech was he thinking” I have often run upon players botched and hacked in years past and that often includes a customer who has put up with malfunctions of the player system for years and sometimes even from the day work was completed.

I had a customer call me up recently and ask me to come make his player piano work. He had just had it completely restored in the previous several months….TWICE! So it shouldn’t need much… right

I wondered why anyone would have a player system restored twice but when I got there and tried to play a piano roll I found out. He told me that a local north St. Louis rebuilder had restored it and brought it back and when the customer played it he found a few abnormalities. He found that the notes were not in order which of course is just a simple matter of rearranging tracker bar tubing to fix that. I of course, wondered how any rebuilder would not have checked that on the bench before bringing the player back and installing it.

Then I saw that the pedals had to be pumped really hard and fast to play the roll…which is exactly why he had called this novice “technician” in the first place. This person offered to restore it again and this time he would open the stack up to get to the pouches, and so he “rebuilt it again, charging for both times.

This time he steamed the H.C Bay decks apart as should have been done in the first place. He also made all new pneumatics for the piano but I thought it odd that he had glued a 1/4” block of wood onto the finger that pushes the note. I was guessing that was instead of shimming the stack up. Perhaps he lost the shims. I did not know.

When he returned the player system to the piano, he collected his money and left the customer with what should be a totally restored player system that could be depended upon to function correctly for the next 30-50 years.

At this point the customer had paid out around $5000.00 for this work. I guess the thinking was that you charge for whatever you do by the hour even if it takes you 10 times longer than a professional would take and even if you are doing the most incompetent work possible that has not a snowball's chance of ever working after completion. If you are aware of the poor quality of your work do you continue to pawn yourself off on the world as an experienced rebuilder

Experience usually improves ones technique, you know, practice makes perfect. This novice technician should stop doing work for anyone but himself and rebuild a dozen players and keep at it until they all work perfectly and sound better than they did when first purchased. That is what professional rebilders strive for. This novice has been "rebuilding" players professionally now for at least 10 years that I know of.

Another option would be pay someone to teach him the correct ways to do that. This would take a year out of his life to learn, because I have taught many folks to do this work and thats how long it takes--minimum.

So after the customer spent all that money, I was confused as to why this player after all that work should not function totally fine for years to come. I noticed that the piano played very faintly while I was pedaling like a racehorse. I offered to take the system in to diagnose the problem at my shop where I had the equipment to do so.

I expected to have to replace the leather valve seats because so few people understand how airtight the leather needs to be for player piano work. I quoted the customer for that work. I also noticed that the bottom bellows system and accessory pneumatics had not even been looked at by the previous “technician” and it had original cloth on everything except two reservoirs that were recovered in the early 1980’s. This piano had no suction box nor room for it and the customer did not want that since the piano was an heirloom from Momma and she grew up pedaling it.

I therefore offered to rebuild the bellows system since it held air for only 8 seconds when disconnected from the rest of the player.

alt tag

alt tag

Well when I got inside this Stack I found several odd things.

I found that when I put 40 inches of water lift pressure into the stack I only had about 20“ inside the stack. Meaning it was losing 50% of its air to leaks. When I normally put 40” in I would expect it to lose 0" - 3” depending on the player system.

alt tag

I began to check the valve travel and it was anywhere from 6/1000” (.006") to 80/1000” (.080”) As any player tech should know normal valve travel for all but a few stacks is .033-.040” Anything less than .028” would not allow normal repetition in any but one or two brands of system. Anything more than .040” would lose way too much pressure to be able to play dependably with more than 5-6 notes playing at one time. With too much travel, such a system would fade out volume when lots of fast notes are playing or repeating fairly fast.

Here is the video of those valves being tested.

We also discovered that about a dozen pouches were not glued down but were loose around their glue joints. Gluing them back down did not work very well. I then noticed that this guy had shellacked the pouch board and THEN he glued them down. Glue simply does not stick to a finished surface.

alt tag

This means that we would need to pull the decks apart just as he had. The decks had open joints where no glue was sticking and air was coming through quite well.

alt tag

To separate it we tried heat and that had no effect. We discovered to our horror that he had glued the decks back together with EPOXY or something just as bad! I have been in this business for decades now and I have yet to find a stack or any wooden part that should be glued with epoxy. This meant that the spacer board between the pouch board and the valve board would have to be made new. The old one simply shattered too badly to reconstruct and use. We also found that there were many spots on the epoxy joint that was shiny with glue meaning that the epoxy was not stuck wood to wood as it should have been . This would have been a wide open air leak from the main suction chamber to the pneumatic but no one could pump hard enough for those pneumatics to cipher. There were also several of the channels that were crossed with their neighbor and would play both at the same time.

You notice in the pic below that the holes to the pneumatics were mostly filled with excess epoxy in many of the notes. I would say about half or more of them actually. This also had to be drilled out to open the holes again.

alt tag

alt tag

So because the new he had installed were glued to a shellacked surface and were all coming loose,we had to sand the new pouches off and install new ones, make the new spacer and glue it down.

alt tag

The pouches are diaphragms with a large disk of cardboard in the center to give the pouch more power to push the valve easier. These disks had been replaced with a quarter inch flexible disk. Doing this meant that the pouch had to work 10 times as hard to push the valve. So we made new card disks.

alt tag

The pouches he put in had also been slathered with some oily type goo of some kind so we could reuse none of them as many of them came off easily

alt tag

With the new pouches installed correctly and the decks glued back together, we turned to the pneumatics.

The existing pneumatics were new and made from 3/8” lumber. The lumber for an original pneumatic is closer to 3/16” This is why he had glued wooden blocks onto the fingers—there was too much space between the pneumatic finger and the piano action button.

alt tag

These pneumatics were also slightly too wide so that they rubbed and pushed their neighbor when activated. The fingers which had been epoxied to the shellacked pneumatic board were easily coming off but he had already sanded them so they were not straight but angled. We had to make new fingers as well as fingers were coming off having been glued on to shellacked wood

alt tag

We also chose to make new pneumatics because they were way too wide and their wood was too thick.

One other thing that would have made the pneumatics not viable even if those other things worked okay and that is they were painted with shellac on ALL SIDES. This means that the hinges inside were glued to the shellac and the rubber cloth was glued to a finished edge of the board. The hinges were put on with contact cement which has no place in player piano rebuilding and the hinge itself was flimsy thin pneumatic cloth which should have been canvas or cotton duck as was original. All hinge gluing should be done with hot glue and to raw wood….THEN shellac over the inside surfaces.

alt tag

So once we cut a whole new set of pneumatics from new wood to the correct thickness and size, they were hinged with hot hide glue and cotton canvas duck. They were shellacked inside and were edge sanded to get off any stray shellac and to make sure that top and bottom boards are the same size.

alt tag

Then they were covered with rubber cloth of correct thickness and they were glued on with hide glue, newly made fingers were glued on to raw wood and the outside of the pneumatics were shellacked.

alt tag

alt tag

Now the valves had new donuts of airtight leather installed while adjusting the travel of the valve at the same time. These Bakelite valves have no leather on them. The top valve seat is a board covered in leather and the bottom seat is a hole with leather glued around it. Of course to regulate each valve to .035” required paper or cardstock donuts to be cut with the same die used for the leather. Some of the leather donuts will need spacers to move the bottom seat up and make the valve move the correct amount when activated. There also were a few valves that needed their tops sanded slightly to get just the right amount of movement for every note to play at the same volume and speed.

alt tag

The bleed rail was messed up as well. Many bleeds were plugged with debris. The bleed channels had not been poured with shellac to seal cross bleeding of the channels so that was done after debris was cleaned out. The gasket on that board had to be replaced anyway so we trued up that board to prevent leakage while in use.

alt tag

The head of the player stack had not been touched. The small pallet valve had rotting leather on it and leaked enough to possibly be a problem as well, The tracker bar was black. It is such a small job to polish brass in the spoolbox even if you don't pull it all apart and refinish the boards.

alt tag

The wind motor had not been touched and this piano has been well played over its life as the arm bushings in the motor had extensive slop in them. The pneumatics were profusely leaky as well robbing even more suction than even the many leaks in the stack

alt tag

Once completely reassembled, we also had to bring in the piano action. It had had absolutely no attention and the screw eyes and felted buttons were rusted worn and missing. Some of the tabs that the screws went into were shattered and there was the telltale epoxy that was smeared on to keep the wood from falling apart. We took these tabs out and spliced new wood onto them and drilled new holes for the regulation screw eyes.

alt tag

alt tag

Hammers on this piano were so incredibly grooved that it is a case of the worst normal hammer damage I had ever seen and I have seen a lot. The customer is so spooked about spending any money on the piano now that he would not spring for the $300 for new hammers so I reshaped the hammers as best I could with them so badly damaged from use. Hopefully the tone of the piano will improve as well as how it plays from a roll.

alt tag

I wonder how is it possible for someone to advertize to the public that they restore player pianos and reed organs and yet use the techniques I found inside this H.C. Bay player system. I can truthfully say that until now, I have never seen any rebuilder that could not do one single procedure correctly. I take that back. There was one thing that was done correctly on this stack “rebuild.” The pouch leather covering the top valve seat board was done right. It was glued down smoothly with no glue boogers under it. Everything else that was done by this novice technician was mucked up. He should NEVER have charged anyone for doing any work on a player piano. Noticing that he also claims to restore reed organs, I can only imagine what I am in for when I get one of those “finished” reed organs into my shop to make it work after his work was done.

To the prospective player piano rebuild customer, check out what your possible rebuilder has done before. Go to his shop and look at the work being done. If work is being done in a basement or garage, beware. If there are no rebuilt players present, beware. Listen to finished pianos. Sit down and play rolls with your feet and not just with the electric motor. Ask other rebuilders and do the same. The player piano rebuild industry, or what is left of it, suffers every time a player gets rebuilt and mucked up. This has happened in the past so often that people now believe that all player pianos are supposed to sound out of tune, only play with a loud vacuum cleaner noise hissing along and still barely play all the notes.

This is of course hogwash. A finely restored player piano is an extremely fine musical instrument first. I have spent decades restoring these old uprights in the same manner I would restore a 9 foot Steinway concert grand for a top musician to play. These old pianos play rings around many new ones in sound and tone and power, and ability to hold up under years of use.

These player mechanisms are so complex and well made that some of them were used in reproducing pianos which recreate the performances of the world’s top pianists and those pianists were quoted commenting how close they came to their own live performances.

Too many people write off the player piano and even the reproducing piano and claim they are something worthless of no musical importance, when if they had only heard WELL restored instruments they would understand how completely stupid they sound when they say that.

In future decades, the few remaining player pianos, the ones that have not been dumpstered because of incompetent rebuilders or flood or fire, will take on a new meaning. Their market value will rise and they will become more respected. I foresee that the lowly player piano in a decade or two that has been completely restored with the best materials and techniques will have a value many times what it sold for new.

I foresee an upright player piano selling for $100,000.00 and above. Even in recent years before the economy was trashed for us by the international banking cartel, these well restored players have sold for $18,000 to $25,000 that I know of. While you would be hard pressed to get that today, just you wait, that will change and they will be valued antiques once again.

Here is a video of the finished piano playing in all its glory.

(Latest update: the customer has retained a large, high powered St. Louis Law firm to return his money to him.)


keep in touch

Piano world enterprises

1126 Milton Rd,

Alton, IL 62002

Phone. 314-772-6676

Email. doug.l.bullock@gmail.com