Restoration Materials and Techniques, and the "Purist"
written by Craig Brougher

Purists are the people who have kept the rebuilding of all old pneumatically operated instruments going strong. Conversely, professional rebuilders who do not concern themselves too much with longevity, and/or who are not so conscientious, are those who have hurt this art for everyone. There are many new materials and glues out there which are advertised as superior, and very tempting to a hobbyist or weekender. Why don't the professionals use them? As one professional said, "It's because the original materials are far better, quicker, and surer than alternative methods and materials."

We are professional rebuilders. We make our living doing this, and this is about all we do and think about. But this is a forum for everybody, and by far, most of the writers to this forum are hobbyists or sometime rebuilders who are in the piano business, making their living with tunings and such. There is a difference that can be appreciated only by those who have done it both ways.

I'll just relate one little story to prove a point. I offered to help another professional (an organ builder) to restore a small instrument he contracted to do for a customer, called a Melodion. It was in sad shape, but a family heirloom.

When he got to the bellows, out came the yellow glue. I asked myself, "Shall I allow such heresy in my own shop?" (chuckle) So the answer was no. I will show him the joys of hot hide glue.

Well, the minute he saw me coming over with that dreaded pot, he made the sign of the cross with his fingers in front of his face and cringed. He wanted no part of my plan. So I told him, "Hey, let me do the first one, and you can see if you like it. You just stand there and watch." So I scraped around and cleaned off the old stuff, and then put the new material on one of the pumping bellows. I showed him how nice and clean it was, not to have to smear glue with your fingers, and how tacky it got right away, and then the next day, how hard and flat it was. And then I showed him how to clean off the edges with a damp rag and iron down the covers with a warm iron.

When he compared what his best work would look like, compared to that example, and how much quicker and cleaner it was, and how all he had to do was to flow on the glue from a large brush, he was really hooked. He finished the job with hot hide glue. His "vampire protection" scheme was not needed, after all. This was not only better, it was easier, quicker, handier, and cleaner.

But with that said, there is another perspective to "Purism" that should be mentioned. Technically, a purist restores only with original materials, not necessarily the "BEST" materials. We have all run into instruments that failed initially because their original materials were poor choices to begin with. For example, I have restored player pianos with pot metal transmissions that self-destructed, waxed paper valve seats that delaminated and lifted, rubber coated cloth pouches that harden and become immobile (because the original rubber was soft-cured to allow stretching), cardboard separators in stacks that could not be reused, cork goods that are so porous that it leaks like a sieve, inside valve seats "glued" flat from the vacuum side with sealing shellac which sealed the poppets in their wells underneath the fixed outside valve seats which then could not be resealed with anything but hot shellac (unavailable) or 5 minute epoxy, and dozens of other things too numerous to mention, none of which can be repaired by using original techniques. Nor should those original techniques be used again.

Another problem with 3rd generation builder methods is that the original materials have changed, or are not even available anymore. Zephyr Skin pouch material is one good example. Use what you can buy today, and you'll be very sorry soon enough. So here is a good example of an original material that is just as disastrous as Perflex. Leather is another good example.

The original materials are totally unavailable today! In the heyday of the player piano, leather was a huge industry, and the leathers used were wonderful stuff, almost all of it industrial leather grades. There is no such thing, anymore-- generally speaking. The only leathers still available seem to be garment leathers, which are made from well-watered animals and soft-tanned. That means, the collagen fibers are not compacted and the skins are not pre-stretched or staked during tanning. The pouch leather is no longer from registered herds of 2 year Scottish sheep bred specifically for the product. The rubberized cloth can be made identical, but when it is, it is very expensive, and there is no ability to really check and see what the factory sent you. Nor would they take it back if it didn't meet your specifications, because they will not make it to your specs, anymore--with the exception of weight.

So the professional rebuilder must take this and much more into consideration and take special precautions sometimes with what he has to use, if it is to last as long, and endure the same usage as original materials could take. For the most part, he has two things going for him: 1) Most of these machines today only get played on occasions, not all day and all night anymore, and 2) He is able to detail each machine personally to assure himself that each component in the instrument has no individual problem that could cause it to fail in 40-50 years. A good restorer thinks in terms of a half-century-- or should. He won't always succeed, of course.

The original philosophy of almost all player companies in existence was that whatever machinery they added to a piano should have the same expected lifetime as the piano, and that expected time was an unspoken 50 years, usually. That means, if you seal your pouches with rubber cement, will that sealant last 50 years. or-- probably not? If you have a choice between two cotton and rubber pneumatic cloths, which do you choose? The cheapest? The same with pumping cloth and heavy bellows cloth for motor driven pumps. How do you test it? How do you know that what you bought is the best available? How do you insure yourself that you will get the maximum life out of that cloth? If you use shellac to seal wood, and you mix it yourself from flakes, how long will it last, and how do you know?

Purism is very important, but there is also a balance between what is the very best today, versus a few products that represent original but inferior materials, and a vast array of new products that are largely untested and can get your customer into a lot of trouble. Getting hung up on the holy grail of purism is no better, ultimately, than going the other way and getting strung out on new and exciting materials and methods. Neither is any good, and both will get you into trouble, whether you want to admit it, or not. It is the wise balance and not the extremes, which will always take you far and make you ultimately successful.

This is something that all legitimate professional rebuilders know and talk about among themselves occasionally, and acknowledge. But do they talk about it with hobbyists? Usually not, because it will be taken wrong, and they'll go overboard. I am going to mention it here, hoping that all of you catch the "vision," and don't take it any further than the limits I've given here.

Just remember, "Is it workable, durable, reliable, replaceable, and affordable." Because if it isn't these 5 things, what's the next rebuilder going to do? Do for him what you would want him to do for you. Foresee the problems, and eliminate them best you can.

Craig Brougher

This article was written for the Mechanical Music Digest (www.mmdigest.com), which explains the references to the 'forum'. The MMD is a daily newsletter which contains articles written by it's members. Player-Care was given permission by Mr. Brougher to use this article before it was published in the MMD on 7/30/99.

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