Player Pianos...

I'm intrigued by mechanically complex gadgets, old ones or new ones. In poking around the antique stores, I was fascinated by the mechanics involved in producing music by pedaling the piano. I knew that if I had one, I could handle the pedaling part! I had seen a few in antique stores ranging in price from $5000 on up. Player pianos were curious gadgets. Talk about a short-lived industry! How would you like to have picked a career path in player piano pneumatic engineering about 1915 and have your industry die 10 years later when the radio came out in 1925? Talk about a phenomenal rise and fall. It was around 1915 that a manufacturable player mechanism was perfected. Player pianos became so popular that in a book of Sears house plans for that era, nearly every floor plan included a place for the family player. Very few were manufactured after 1925 (relatively). I believe there was some renewed interest in them during the early fifties.

I was in an auction house one evening and there was an old player in the queue. I'd looked it over. I didn't even know how to play (read, operate) one but I did note an on/off toggle switch on what a later learned was called the 'spool box'. When the bidding was about to start. A young lady dutifully walked to the piano to demonstrate it. She installed a roll in the spool box and operated the switch. With much whirring and other noises, the thing actually moved a couple keys and emitted a couple sounds that might have been a melody of some sort. Immediately the young attendant turned it off and offered to the small group of attendees, "see it does work"! The bidding didn't go very high. It was $5 increments before the other guy gave up at $200. Hey, these things go for $5000, right?

The auctioneer has a permanent facility and allowed that I could pick it up the next evening. It only took the one accident to learn how to properly secure a piano in a pick-up truck. Luckily it fell over on its back. I was only three corners away from the auction house when it happened. I stopped and pushed futilely on the thing, but I didn't stand a chance of righting it alone. It was pretty much a junker anyway, so I knew I hadn't hurt it much. The main problem was that without it standing upright, on its wheels, I wouldn't be able to get it off the truck. As I got near home in my ol' 70 International pick-up, I stopped at the local scratch-and-dent body shop. I went inside and inquired about a paint job for the old truck and was told they didn't do entire vehicles, only repairs. I thanked the guy and then asked if anyone (many loiterers hanging around) could help me stand the piano back up in the truck. My ploy worked and with the piano again upright I drove the few more miles to home, very carefully.

As you may have figured out by now, I knew absolutely nothing about these things. At the same auction I had split several lots of player music rolls with a lady who knew someone who knew someone in the business. I don't remember the exact scenario but a series of phone calls netted some book titles and I proceeded from that point. Arthur Reblitz wrote two books, "Player Piano Servicing and Rebuilding" and "Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding". I soon learned that the player mechanism was driven by vacuum created by pumping the pedals in the bottom of the unit. I also discovered that my prize had no pedals! It also had no pump bellows, reservoirs or wind motor controls. A previous owner had removed these parts in order to make room for a homemade electric vacuum pump. That is, if you call half an Electrolux vacuum cleaner in a wooden box a 'homemade' vacuum pump!

This piano is one of many that are called "stencil" pianos. What that means is that it was made for a local company that wanted its own store brand piano. In this case, my piano was made for the Peabody Music Company, in Baltimore, Maryland. The term 'stencil' derives from the fact that the manufacturer cast the name of the local seller into an iron piece which was then mounted on the corner of the plate or harp. To the inexperienced eye, this arrangement appeared to be just as complete and authentic as the fully cast plates of the better known brand names. It was through this mechanism that many small music companies could sell pianos that appeared to be of their own manufacture.

As I mentioned earlier, the player mechanism is driven by a vacuum developed through the foot operated pedals. Everyone is familiar with a bellows, like the kind used for starting a fire or the ones used to add oxygen to a blacksmith's forge. These kinds of bellows are intended to produce a blast of air when the bellows is closed. What is not quite so apparent is that a vacuum is created when the bellows is opened. The vacuum in the player piano is created through the action of the pedals working on bellows-like pumps. The vacuum is then used to open and close small bellows-like devices, called pneumatics, and controlled by the holes in the tracker bar and the perforated paper music roll passing over it.

The diagram, taken from Mr. Reblitz' book, shows a simplified cross section of a typical pneumatic mechanism that would be used to operate a hammer in the piano. The suction chamber, labeled 'VC' is permanently connected to the suction supply or vacuum. The chamber in which the valve is located is called the valve well and the output of the valve is connected directly to the pneumatic in this illustration by an airtight channel in the wood. When the paper on the roll covers the tube to the right, vacuum is present on both sides of the pouch in the valve chamber (via the small bleeder hole) and the valve is held closed. Atmosphere enters the pneumatic from the other side of the valve and the pneumatic stays open. When a hole in the music roll passes over the tube, atmospheric pressure is applied to the leather pouch, raising the valve. With the valve raised, the vacuum is applied to the pneumatic which causes it to snap shut. This principle is applied to all of the mechanicals in the player piano mechanism.

In addition to the 88 pneumatics required to operate the hammers for the music, there are pneumatics configured as a motor to drive the spool box mechanism. There is a regulator to control the speed of the spool box motor. There are pneumatics which keep the rolls properly positioned on the tracker bar. There are pneumatics to automatically operate the loud pedal and others to control one or more soft pedals via key slip push button controls. There are also large reservoirs to store the vacuum produced by the pumps.

Folks usually ask, "where do you get replacement parts". The repair process is more about materials than actual parts. The various pneumatics are made with wooden paddles covered in various weights of rubberized cotton cloth. Valves are made of metal and bits of leather and fiberboard operated by little leather pouches. Over time, bugs eat the leather pieces and cracks develop in the pneumatics and the wooden vacuum chambers. Eventually no amount of pedaling can develop sufficient vacuum in the presence of all the leaks to produce any music. Repair of the player mechanism consists of disassembling the various mechanisms and replacing leather and cloth as needed to rebuild and tightly seal the mechanism.

Many parts are glued in place and are simply knocked off their carrier boards. Usually a smart tap with a hammer will free pneumatics. When this doesn't work, new wooden pieces are easily made from poplar. Oh, and by the way, these replacement materials are highly specialized and should be ordered from suppliers who deal in these materials. Household materials may appear to work but will not have the longevity to warrant their use.

Anyway, my prize from the auction has been completely rebuilt. In addition to the repairs to the player mechanism, it needed some rework to the veneered lid to repair some damage from a leaky potted-plant. Some lacquer filled an assortment of dings and dents. New and larger tuning pins were installed to help the piano stay in 'tune'. Repairs to the soundboard and bridges got rid of the buzzing. The hammers were sanded smooth and shaped. I tracked down the missing pedals and reservoirs and rebuilt them also. Finally, the entire piano was stripped and refinished with waterborne lacquer (ugh)! It plays quite nicely and I was pretty pleased with the outcome, at least for a first effort. 

I picked up a second player at a house-contents auction in Baltimore during the lay-off period in 1992. This one is a by Charles M. Stieff, a local high-quality Baltimore builder. At the auction, I was inspecting the piano, trying to assess its condition. I was about to lower the panel over the pump section when someone beside me asked, "do you think it works?" As I continued to lower the panel, the top edge brushed against some of the rubber tubes that go to the loudness controls. The rubber shattered like glass, it was that hard and brittle! I replied "I don't think so". Anyway, I completely rebuilt and restored the Steiff. The restoration took 15 months. Cost for materials (cloth, felt, rubber bumpers, rubber tubing, tuning pins, hoses, brass replating, pedal inserts, finishing material) ran to about $700. I don't believe anyone had been inside this piano in the last 70 years. At some point in its life, probably very early, the hammer for the highest note had broken off. Someone placed it on top of the spool box and I believe it sat there for the life of the piano. When I picked it up there remained a perfect outline of the hammer in the thick layer of dust and dirt on the top of the spool box. Another manufacturer often made the player mechanisms for the player pianos. The "Standard Company" made the mechanisms in both of my pianos. The player mechanism in the Stieff is highly finished as befits the quality of the piano. While the varnish on the outside of the piano was cracked and very black, the finish on the player mechanism was perfect and blemish free. I only cleaned it up. Contrast the mechanism in the Stieff with the mechanism from the Peabody stencil piano. The player mechanism in the Peabody is simply painted black. Seems strange to go to so much trouble to put a fancy finish on the player mechanism of the Stieff when the only time anyone was likely to ever see it was on the showroom floor. The pumps and pedals in the Steiff are nicely finished, too. A lever under the keyboard raises the door and tips the pedals out for use. Notice the medallions for worlds fair awards printed on the harp.