Player Piano Supplies
by Craig Brougher
Since Player Piano Company was sold in early 2009, many people have asked the rhetorical question, "What will we ever do?" Well, why not look at things in a positive way? It could be the best thing that ever happened for this hobby and its suppliers.
Suppliers who do not compromise quality are the only people to trade with, in my opinion. That includes returning anything you are not satisfied with. Before this, PPC had a lock on the business and while they sold many good quality and necessary items, the pneumatic materials have of late become expensive and highly questionable. So it would behoove one to look with a suspicious eye at anyone trying to sell them supplies purchased at auction from this defunct company.
I used to be the Production Manager for PPC for a short time and can say with confidence that while the company was desirous of providing the best quality tubing, hose, and cloth available, it was seldom successful at it in its later years. The problem wasnít so much the companies that Durrell did business with, but rather the specifications written down for the cloth he ordered. Rubber quality varies widely, and rubber companies know how to make it last a long time under specific conditions, but these specs must be in writing before the order is made. Then, the product must be tested, at least in simple ways, for indications of having met the specs. Otherwise, the customer just takes his chances. Thatís why Durrellís materials could no longer be trusted. Durrell was stricken with Parkinsonís disease ten years before his death, in a gradual state of mental decline and energy, and could not function as well as he used to. He was forced to trust suppliers who then perhaps took an advantage. I donít know.
If you would like to check out pneumatic materials from any supplier before you buy a large quantity, rather than sending samples to a testing lab, try this. Soak strips of the cloth in strong acid, like muriatic or sulfuric acid. Acid was once shipped in rubber carboys commercially so the rubber is not affected in the least by acid. Once the cloth is dissolved off the rubber, check it for porosity and elasticity. The more stretchy (like a rubber band) it is, the better. Hold the strips up to the light. Do you see pinholes?
Pure gum rubber is by far the best. If it stretches a short way and breaks, or if itís grainy-looking, grayish and weak, that means its filled with clay--a cheap way to make rubber go further, but doesnít extend the life of the rubber or help it in any way. Pure gum rubber is tan in color with a durometer of between 33-45. Durometer tells you a lot about the fillers and additives put into the product as well, but must be of a certain minimum thickness before it can be accurately measured.
Finally, lay a number of these rubber strips out in the direct sunlight for several days. While pneumatic rubber does not have to be stabilized against UV, good rubber should retain its elasticity at least a month in the full sun each day, whereas junk will disintegrate quickly. What that means is, cheap rubber coated cloth wonít last even two years in operation inside a piano, out of the sun. Enzyme treatment, stabilizers, then chlorination treatment may have all been left out of the recipe to lower costs, which makes all the difference between a quality product and a lousy one.
PPC rubber coated goods today may be mostly or wholly low quality neoprene coated goods. Neoprene is synthetic rubber and has no set specifications for elasticity or longevity. It can also be mixed with gum latex and other things. Chloroprene was developed by DuPont in 1931, but has undergone many evolutionary changes since that time. Some of it contains both a rosin and a thiourea which is highly allergenic to some people. Those grades of course are cheap to make, and no bargain. Any rubber that is allergenic is likewise not stable.
Another critical aspect of quality rubber goods is coating thickness. The optimum thickness of the rubber depends on the weight and TPI of the backing cloth as much as flat band flexibility testing. The more the coating has to stretch around the backing in order to fold flat, the shorter the time itís going to last. Just like stretching a rubber band repeatedly wears it out, likewise flat folding a rubber coating does the same thing. The thicker the coating then, the more that coating has to stretch around itself in order to fold flat and since it is being stretched around a sharp fold in cloth itís attached to in addition, added thickness does not increase its useful life. Just the opposite, actually. Thatís why cloth thickness and rubber coating thickness, durometer, and stability of the rubber are very important parameters and work together to make long-lasting rubber coated cloth.
While the earlier batches of PPCís #55 heavy bellows cloth was as good as the original Duo-Art bellows cloth of the 20ís and 30ís, the most recent run of this product (as well as the others) was apparently a disaster, in talking to those who still worked for Durrell. It is so thick and stiff that it doesnít make a natural crease which is necessary for all rotary pumps for strain relief, and is unusable in every player piano application I can think of today. Just because it may be cheaper doesnít make it a good buy. Buy "good," not "cheap." The best cloth is by far the cheapest! Donít go to all the trouble of restoring a player piano for anybody, using defective material that you could get "cheap, cheap, cheap." Thatís frankly what I call "crooked." Put the stuff in that piano that you would want in your own, and if you donít know any better, then you should not be doing the job in the first place.
Customers--if you are having your player restored, have it put into the contract that the rebuilder will not use any recent PPC pneumatic materials, at all. For your own sake, that rebuilder should be more than happy to comply with your wishes if he is legitimate.
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407 19th Ave, Brick, NJ, 08724