The following is a series of emails and postings that relate to my quest to find out as much as possible about the Elepian player piano. The first posting (immediately below) was submitted to the Mechanical Music Digest on July 12, 2006. The next day, I sent an email to Bob Berkman, the General Manager of the QRS Music Roll Factory, in Buffalo, NY. For more about what I found out about the Elepian player piano - click here
Got a call from a woman this morning about an "Elepian" player piano. A quick check in the Pierce Piano Atlas yielded nothing, and I couldn't find any mention of the instrument in the MMDigest Archives. Searching the Intenet, I found quite a few references to an Elepian electric piano, but no mention of a player. So, since the owner lives just a mile away, I asked if I could drop by and take a look at the instrument so I could prepare myself for the service call the following week.
Entering the house, and much to my surprise, there was this shiny black lacquered instrument that looked very much like a 3/4 size professional upright, and smack dab in the middle, just above the keys, was a spoolbox and a brass trackerbar. The controls inside the spoolbox were very basic. There was a Tempo control, a Play/Reroll lever, and two pushbutton switches for Start and Stop. I put a roll in and set everything up, then pushed the Start button. A vacuum motor came on, but the roll didn't turn. So, I moved the piano away from the wall (it was very light), and peeked in through a vent hole in the back. There I could easily see some sort of a pneumatic stack.
The family was leaving shortly, so I couldn't take the piano apart any further, but as I removed the roll from the piano I couldn't help but notice a gold decal in the spoolbox with the very familiar letters "Q R S". I called QRS and spoke to Tom Dolan. He said he knew nothing about the instrument, had never heard of it, and was curious to know more. I'll contact Bob Berkman and John Omiatek tomorrow in the hopes of learning more.
If anyone has any information about this instrument, please write to the MMDigest and share your knowledge. I'll be taking numerous pictures when I work on the piano next week, and fully plan to devote at least one webpage at Player-Care to this interesting piece. BTW, it is an electric piano that sounds something like the old Fender Rhodes. The touch of the keys is also similar to the Rhodes...
John A Tuttle
Brick, New Jersey, USA
Mechanical Music Digest Editor's Note
From: John A Tuttle
Sent: Thursday, July 13, 2006 8:50 AM
To: Bob Berkman
Subject: Elepian Player Piano
Can you tell me anything about the Elepian player piano?
Do you have any references on the instrument?
The QRS logo is in the spoolbox (a gold decal), which leads me to believe that QRS was involved with either Columbia or Denon back in the 70's or 80's.
I saw an Elepian player piano yesterday and am trying to locate any technician information before I start working on the instrument....
Thanks in advance for any help you might provide...
John A Tuttle
We made those Elepians in the mid-80's, I think. Sorry to report there are no parts or literature on hand. The player action is a pretty straight-forward pneumatic action, I think, so it shouldn't present any unusual problems.
(Posting in the Mechanical Music Digest)|
From: D. L. Bullock
Date: Thu, 13 Jul 2006 00:17:14 -0500
Subject: Elepian Player Piano
The Elepian pianos were sold in the early 1990s until they stopped production. They have one main problem: the pneumatics fall off -- usually poor glue. The pneumatics were wood so no problem except removing all the old glue from both surfaces.
Everything is just like a normal player except the source of the sound. The keys move and everything and they are fun for a light movable player piano that does not take a truck and two bruisers to move.
D.L. Bullock St. Louis
Mechanical Music Digest Editor's Note
(My second posting to the Mechanical Music Digest)
Yesterday I received a response from Bob Berkman concerning the Elepian player piano. His exact words were, "We (QRS) made those Elepians in the mid-80's, I think. Sorry to report there are no parts or literature on hand. The player action is a pretty straight-forward pneumatic action, I think, so it shouldn't present any unusual problems."
Based on D.L. Bullocks comments, I expect to find some sort of linkage between the keys and the striker pneumatics. If that's the case, I will be very happy. My main concern was that the pneumatic valves operated electric switches, which could be a wiring nightmare... somewhat akin to the electric Wurlitzer players, i.e., tiny gold-plated switches inside the trackerbar... In the case of the Elepian, my first vision was that the switches might be inside the stack... YUK! But, since D.L. says the keys move and the strikers often fall off, that leads me to believe that the operation is mechanical, not electrical. That's a blessing....
Hopefully, there will be some markings on the keys or inside of the instrument which indicate when it was manufactured. If I do find any such evidence, I will write to Larry E. Ashley, the publisher and exclusive distributor of the Pierce Piano Atlas, and have the Elepian added to that reference. My thinking is that while the Elepian might not qualify as a real piano, it certainly qualifies as a player piano. Also, having just checked, I find that Rhodes Keyboard Instruments is listed in the Atlas. Of course, like the Wurlitzer electric piano, the Rhodes has hammers, which by all accounts so far, is the criteria that separates electric keyboards that produce a piano sound from those which have a mechanism that strikes a tone generating element.
Lastly, although I didn't take a close look, I did notice what appeared to be a couple of RCA jacks and a phone jack (or two) under the keyboard. My guess is that they are analog outputs, but wouldn't it be something if one of them is digital? Imagine... instant roll-scanning in a MIDI format....I'll write again after I work on this interesting instrument.
(My third posting to the Mechanical Music Digest)
For those who may be interested, I've just uploaded the series of pictures that I took while working on the Elepian player piano last week. I installed links below each picture to three other size pictures of increasing quality for those who want to see more details. See:
There were two major problems and one minor problem with the piano that I was able to successfully repair for the long term. They involved the tubing, the air motor, and the stack cut-out switch (pneumatic). In order of their effect on the player system, the worst problem was the air motor. Second was the tubing, and third was the stack cut-out switch, which only needed to be realigned to achieve a good seal.
As can be seen in a couple of the pictures, the tubing leading to the upper half of the stack is bent over, pinching off the signal from the trackerbar. The solution to this problem was the replacement of the straight nipples with elbows. However, the real culprit was the air motor.
It's almost hard to believe that the air motor, which is only 25-years old, was leaking so badly that nothing else requiring vacuum would operate. After determining the severity of the leakage, dismantling the air motor, and giving it a quick visual inspection, I could see that the sliding valves weren't making good contact with the block (or trunk). What I didn't expect was the amount of block warpage. Literally speaking, it was concave, like a saucer. As I started sanding the block, I quickly realized that it wasn't going to be an easy job. So, I modified my normal S.O.P. (standard operating procedure), and started with 80 grit sandpaper. The pictures I took, which graphically show the warpage, were shot at intervals of approximately 30-40 passes across the sandpaper. After some 200 passes across the 80 grit paper, I started using finer paper (120, 180, 240, 400) until the block was clean and flat.
If you've followed along and are still reading this posting, perhaps you might be wondering how the block got so warped. I know I was... And what's a bit more puzzling is the fact that the internal air channel was air-tight, the bellows were almost 100% air-tight (tiny leaks at the corners), and the sliding valves needed very little attention. I have a couple of ideas as to what might have caused the warpage, but I'm curious to hear what others think. If you look closely at the block, it's made out of only two pieces of wood. The valve surface is mahogany and the base is poplar.
If you have any ideas, please share them with the group.
BTW, Im currently working on a web page with more information about the Elepian player piano. One thing I didn't expect is that it has a touch-sensitive keyboard. However, I could find no 'reeds' or 'bars' like in the Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes instruments made in the same era as the Elepian. Although I'm not 100% certain, it appeared to me that action for each note didn't strike anything. However, there are these curved pieces of plastic that move past a circuit board, which gave me the impression that the board 'read' the velocity of the strike and converted it to the amplitude of the note.... Very interesting....
John A Tuttle
(Personal email from Ben Haass)
I saw your posting on MMD today. It was very interesting. I enjoyed looking at all the pictures of the restoration work. Here is my guess on why the air motor warped. From looking closely at the pictures, I would say the valve surface is made of Phillipine Mahogany, which is not a true mahogany at all. It is actually a wood called Lauan and also Meranti. It is not a very dimensionally stable wood at all. Here are it?s shrinkage with respect to moisture numbers compared to those of Yellow Poplar (which is not actually a Poplar but rather Liriodendron Tulipifera which is in the Magnolia family)
Shrinkage From wet to 6% moisture content
As you can see, Lauan is not nearly as stable as Poplar with respect to changes in moisture content. I think bonding the two woods together could cause some major warpage problems because they don?t move at nearly the same rates. Maybe I'm thinking this over too much and there is a much simpler explanation.
(Written: At 08:25 AM 7/26/2006)
I very much appreciate the information you sent. It makes a lot more sense than my thoughts on the matter, and it explains the relative uniformity of the warpage, i.e. side-to-side and top-to-bottom. My idea only explained the top-to-bottom warpage. I thought it might have something to do with the excessive amount of sealer that was in the vacuum channel, which might have a tendency to pull the Lauan 'down' in the center of the block as it full dried. However, like I said, that didn't address the side-to-side warpage.... But, in that regard, I thought that it might have something to do with the way the motor is mounted, i.e., only being supported on the ends, and 'hanging' across the width of the motor.... Perhaps it's a combination of all the above...
John A Tuttle
(Personal email from John Rhodes)
From: "John Rhodes"
I appreciate all the work you have put into sharing your knowledge and discoveries about player pianos. I'm learning (by maintaining our church' website) how much time is involved in publishing as you do!
Regarding the motor warpage:
Sleuthing out the cause requires (as you know) observation and speculation. A bit of technical knowledge helps too. If we assume the motor was not warped when it was built and tested at the factory, then we conclude that the moisture content in the two wood planks (poplar and mahogany) changed after the motor left the factory, resulting in differential shrinkage.
The mahogany plank was concave toward the valves, which says the mahogany shrank -- or the poplar expanded (or both) after factory testing.
My best guess: The two planks had different moisture content when they were assembled; over time, the MC equalized and the differential shrinkage caused the warp.
Here's a reference publication which you need on your shelves if you haven't already got it:
I believe printed copies of The Wood Handbook can be obtained from Amazon for around $30 now; I purchased a paperback hardcopy from the Forest Service 6-8 years ago and paid about $70.
If you check the link, however, you will find that the _entire_ publication can be downloaded in .pdf format!
Try grabbing chapter 3 from this link:
and look at pages 9-10 where you will see shrinkage value for domestic and imported woods. Comparing Cottonwood Balsam poplar (p9) and African mahogany (p10) you will see a 2x difference in the tangential shrinkage numbers.
The radial shrinkage numbers are closely matched, however. As it appears from your photos that the mahogany plank is vertical grain -- radial cut -- it is likely that the poplar is also vertical grain. So the two planks should respond to MC changes with the same dimensional change.
This says that if the two planks had the same MC when they were assembled, there should be no warpage if the assembly is moved to a drier or more humid environment. So, I conclude that the MC of the two planks were substantially different when assembled.
John D. Rhodes (Robbie's brother)
I appreciate your input about the warpage.... Thanks.
Ben Haass had the same thought as you about the dissimilar woods and their differential shrinkage rates. He pointed out:
"From looking closely at the pictures, I would say the valve surface is made of Phillipine Mahogany, which is not a true mahogany at all. It is actually a wood called Lauan and also Meranti. It is not a very dimensionally stable wood at all. Here are it?s shrinkage with respect to moisture numbers compared to those of Yellow Poplar (which is not actually a Poplar but rather Liriodendron Tulipifera which is in the Magnolia family)
Shrinkage From wet to 6% moisture content
As you can see, Lauan is not nearly as stable as Poplar with respect
to changes in moisture content. I think bonding the two woods together
could cause some major warpage problems because they don?t move at
nearly the same rates.
Thank you for the tips about the other references. I've downloaded the whole publication and will read the various pertinent chapters as time permits...
John A Tuttle
P.S. Basically, Player-Care is now my full-time job.....
There isn't a whole lot more to say about the Elepian player piano that hasn't already been mentioned to some degree in the emails and postings above, or been self-evident from the numerous pictures that were taken while I worked on the instrument. About the only thing I can add with a fair amount of certainty is that the valve facings appeared to be made out of sponge-neoprene. These types of facings are somewhat troublesome in that they have a nasty tendency to take a set. In other words, they conform to the valve seat upon which they rest. This presents a problem whenever the instrument is moved because the moving jostles the valves and moves them off of their associated seats. Then, when the unit is started up again, it performs very poorly until the valves re-orient themselves. As it so happened, this is exactly what occured after I finished putting the piano back together and moved it back to its normal location near the wall. Admittedly, I was initially perplexed because it had worked so well just minutes earlier. So, I ran the test roll and played a few rolls until it started working normally again.
Another aspect of the machine that hasn't been mentioned is how the performance of the music is adversely effected by valves that don't work well. Again, as it so happened, there were half a dozen or so valves that did change state (from 'off' to 'on') quickly. And, since the keyboard is touch-sensitive, these 'slow-acting' valves decreased the speed at which the notes were struck. This decrease in velocity caused the effected notes to play with less intensity.
What concerns me most about the Elepian are the pouches. While I was not able to see them, I got the distinct impression that they might be made out of something other than leather. That impression came from the way that some of the 'slow-acting' pouches 'felt' when I tested them by mouth. It's hard to put into words, but leather pouches feel different than synthetic pouches when you blow and suck on them. The synthetic pouches feel more like they puff up like a balloon, i.e., that they 'stretch'. Whereas leather pouches feel more like blowing and sucking on a paper bag, i.e., it doesn't 'stretch'. If my assumption is correct, and the unit does have synthetic pouches, it will only be a matter of time before note after note will begin to fail, and the stack will have to be rebuilt.
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