The Player Rebuilding Principle

This is an opportunity to explain more about what one faces when rebuilding his player piano, in a few words, than any other angle on the subject that comes to mind.

I am probably as guilty as the next guy for thinking that I can bestow the knowledge you need to restore your own player by writing articles about it, alone. My rationale has always been this:

If someone thinks he can rebuild his own player and get it perfect the first time, then he's going to do it whether he knows what he's doing, or not. Being dedicated more to the proper restoration of player pianos than the belief that "if I didn't do it, it won't be any good," it would make sense to tell them as much as they need to know to do it right. However, you need one more thing before any amount of information is ever going to help much. Keep reading.

Now I take a different angle on instruction than do most. I like to teach "why we do it this way, why we don't do it that way, and what will happen when you do it that way, and why"-sort of thing.

To me, if you can tell someone what not to do and why not, then he has his options, because frankly, there are dozens of ways to do the same thing right. I've had to use many different techniques when I found myself without convenient tools, supplies, or in a situation that required ingenuity, but I never did a job that was cobbled for the sake of saying I fixed it, to get out the door with the customer's money safely in hand. If I couldn't do it properly with whatever tools were at hand, then I didn't do it.

It's impossible to teach that principle. It has to be "demonstrated." More than that- it really has to be ingrained. It is a philosophy in everything you do and who you are. It is either a mind-set, or it is just an advertising claim.

My life before rebuilding player pianos was that of the typical R&D engineer. I am not degreed, but that was not a problem to those employers in commercial instrument landing systems and photo graphics and optics research. However, I had a job as an electrical and mechanical design engineer, in charge of designing equipment in one of two "state of the art" companies for over 12 years. I really enjoyed it, and I thought I could do anything mechanical. Until I decided I would rebuild my own player piano.

I have never been as frustrated in my life. I had very high expectations for my piano, and decided what it was actually capable of. Finally- I decided, after the 11th attempt, that I would stop horsing around, just fixing what "obviously" was the problem, and just do everything, thoroughly, right, once, whether it looked bad or not! That was the day I learned one of the most valuable lessons in my life, and it was about July of 1967. That same year I started getting calls and began restoring players for other people. Once I had learned my lesson, others wanted to take advantage of it. The second player I ever rebuilt was a glued-together Gulbransen. It was able to be pedaled manually, and played easily. It wasn't an easy job. It took 2-3 times as long then, as it would have taken me, today.

What I also learned was that it takes a lot of patience and the ability to keep checking on yourself if you plan to rebuild a player piano, because player pianos are a challenge that few technical people really want to face, today. My first player was a humbling experience.

I am constantly amazed at how much I still have to learn, after 33 years of professional restorations. It is tough- this business. The first thing I had to face was the necessity of doing the same things over and over again the exact same way, and testing over and over again the same way. At first, it was "boring." I later realized that "boring" means, "You're not ready to appreciate it yet." ("Interesting" by contrast, means you know enough now to learn more).

Then, I began to appreciate what it was really going to take to do it, and to do it the same way on a regular basis. I kept forcing myself to do it, because it wasn't something natural to my personality. That alone required several years and about 25 players to acquire. Once I was able to see that the ability to do consistently good work and careful testing was a most valuable trait, I couldn't help but admire everybody I knew that was able to do it naturally, without having to work at it.

You may think that this sounds pretty simple. In engineering, you might set guidelines and write procedures for other people to do it for you. It's a different story when you have to do it yourself with the limited resources of your own shop and on your own volition, your own time and resources, and just your word to a customer as the driving force that makes sure it gets done as promised.


The overall effect of learning this patience is that I have learned to do it and redo it as many times as it may require to get it right. And even yet, I sometimes have to do a component over more than once to get it right. If you have the attitude that however many times it takes, and whatever you have to do to get it right is what you will do- then you have the principle of rebuilding player pianos. That's the real trick to it. Don't cut yourself any slack. Do what you promised yourself to do.


What has been brought home to me again in a most definitive way is the fact that you can run into the most inscrutable problems imaginable, in the same kinds of instruments that you have done hundreds of times. You may think that after literally dozens of the same instruments totally restored and each with their own problems to solve, I would finally reach a point where I've got the solutions for all of them.

Think again! What I am continually learning is the same thing I've known from the beginning. Unless one keep the basics firmly in mind, and is continually exercised in those basics through an uninterrupted stream of repetitive experience, you will run into problems that you cannot imagine, and they will take time that you feel you cannot well afford. Either you stay current and exercised, or you lose ground and are continually re-learning what you had already known, only to be reminded of it by a bad experience later on.

If you can take the time then you can afford the effort, because it is not only experience but accomplishment, and those two commodities are the most expensive commodities of all. Very few people appreciate it until they've been through it. I can explain this until blue in the face, and there isn't a single person who doesn't "know what you're talking about." That is, until the day they decide to undertake to do the same thing. If they thought this an exaggeration, at the end they are silent.

If you decide to rebuild your Player Piano, once you have decided to do it right, thoroughly, all the way through, here are a few basic guidelines to begin with:

1. Chose materials similar to the original. Never use valve leather that you wouldn't personally wear as your finest attire. Replace everything! Never retain old, working materials. If you do, you will be sorry.

2. Never, ever utilize glues that you cannot again remove, because you are going to be the one removing it, again and again, if you really want this piano to play as intended. That means, your primary glue is going to be hot-hide glue, because it is 100% airtight when it sets and clamps itself by gelling.

3. Test everything you plan to do if you have any question, before you do it 88 times for the dozens of times each note requires. Don't be stupid. What do you know- unless you've first checked it out? [Or, would you rather be surprised?] Then test everything you've done before you go on to the next component.

4. Have a pre-determined performance level in your own mind to achieve, and never quit until you have achieved it. That means: However many times you may have to do it over again, do it over and over and over until you are satisfied that it is as good as the most conscientious, experienced professional could ever get it. That takes a lot of stick-to-it-iveness.


If you now believe that you can fix it perfectly the first time you've ever tried to do one, then you are very naive, and not the kind of person that was cut-out to rebuild player pianos (or much of anything else, either). If you lose patience, get mad or frustrated, or do a slow boil when you sit down to work repetitively with tough, frustrating little details with things that don't respond, or forget something inside a sealed component and have to do it all over again, or blow up when having failures that sometimes take hours or days to correct, then you will not enjoy this very much. You must realize that this is sometimes part of it. Just get busy and redo it. Don't count how many times. DO IT RIGHT.

Whatever happens decide going in that you are not going to ruin another player piano, as so many thousands of would-be owners and hobbyists have already done, deciding to "rebuild it," themselves and ending up throwing it all in the trash. They are not ever going to manufacture pianos like these again, and there are very few left that play as they were intended and designed. Why? Because so many would-be rebuilders without patience got to them first.

This is the aspect of rebuilding player pianos that nobody mentions. But before you begin on your own, I thought you would appreciate knowing a little more about what to expect. If I ever wrote anything in my life that every professional rebuilder in the world would agree with- this is probably it!

Craig Brougher

I Don't..

This page was last revised on March 13, 2014

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