Proper Restorations

In the last MMD, Larry Broadmoore made a very important statement that I would like to mention again. He said:

"However, most rolls on most instruments do not play optimally, and at a minimum, the PowerRoll affords a rare and exciting window into the intention of the manufacturer of these instruments as regards performance capabilities.

We don't approve of ever using this ability as an excuse not to complete the restoration of any instrument, in the area of paper roll operation or otherwise; to do so is the responsibility of the owner and the restorer. On the other hand, the reputation of reproducing pianos stands to gain when instruments can be heard playing at their best, more frequently."

I am re-restoring many instruments which still look brand-new, as their rebuilding took place only 15-20 years ago. Without exception the performances are weak now, or altogether non-functional.

What I discover is that these pianos' valves were not fully rebuilt as advertised. In every case I have ever worked on, the inside pump flaps and seats had never been replaced. But neither is a job that would require the reproducer to be torn completely down again to accomplish, by the way. When that hasn't been done, neither have the valves been completely restored and reregulated, either.

Pneumatic reproducers are so much more powerful an instrument than are the commercial solenoid electric pianos, that comparing the two doesn't really make much sense, unless you are comparing the differences between a partially "repaired" pneumatic instrument (with weak valves and old leather still in it) and a modern solenoid piano. (I like solenoid players, but not as classical instruments.)

Keep in mind that the pneumatic reproducer debuted on stage in places like Carnegie hall, accompanied by world-famous artists. In several cases, the art critics of the day were given score-cards to guess when the artist was playing, and when the piano was playing. Is there anyone reading this who would decide that we could also do this with the modern solenoid-operated players, today? In that case, why not ask yourself, "Why is it then, that my reproducer doesn't really come up to concert standards, even in the size grand that I presently own?"

Owners of reproducing pianos should consider themselves a bit more important than "one of many owners." You are actually one of the few custodians of a piece of art, designed at the beginning of the 20th century, of which there will be no more! And when you get it repaired, you must insist on correct and proper rebuilding.

When a legitimate museum finds a valuable document or painting, they don't send it to Kinko's for restoration -- they take it to someone who's business it is to restore fine art. That person knows, by many years of experience, what works and why. Anyone who thinks that an experienced hobbyist can do equally good work in every case, with all the exceptions and situations one encounters is no different than those in every art and field of endeavor who believe they can save some money, and ultimately spend three times what they would have otherwise spent, and will never get it right, again.

That owner is making sure that the remaining instruments become just that much more valuable with time. Wise custodians also know that the name of the person having restored the player is as important as the player to its price.

Unfortunately for many, some of the most well-known and expensive reproducer restorers in this country were (face-it) con-artists who didn't do valves unless absolutely necessary, and then, only as many as they had to do. I can say this with knowledge, knowing what was claimed, versus what was discovered later.

I am presently rebuilding all the valves in an instrument restored less than 15 years ago by someone that most everybody in these discussions has probably heard of. His name was even mentioned a few days ago in one of the posts. His problem was clear: he had built his reputation around complete rebuilds that no one questioned because the final result was beautiful and enormously expensive.

But what you *can't* see in a restoration is far more important! That is not to minimize the proper finish and appearance either. It is rebuilds like these that have hurt pneumatic reproducing more than any other single thing. It causes one not to trust anyone to rebuild for them. Once burned, twice shy, and the piano just sits there.

If a player is anything it is valves (and that includes pump flap valves). To the degree that the valves have been replaced and properly set is the degree that you have a chance to hear your reproducer perform the way it was designed to.

There was an era when you could get away with not fully rebuilding the valves. Even today in certain environments, leather deterioration is slow, but move that piano to a warmer climate with less salt in the air, and draw air through it that is filled with mold spores from crops or woods nearby, and very quickly you have a non-playing reproducer. Ultimately, you don't get away with a thing.

Some owners search for the "rebuilder close-by," but they are not really primarily interested in quality, but price and convenience. That is not how a conscientious custodian of a 20th century work of art would do it. They should look at the track records of rebuilders they know they can trust, wherever they happen to live. They would consider the experience and all factors, and then, they will send the piece to him to have it properly restored, with a guarantee that everything will be restored to like new quality and its performance also guaranteed.

Here in the United States, we have a general tendency to not be too critical, and we have extended this typical mediocrity to an art form:

"If it plays, hell, what more do you want? Missed note? No biggie -- they all miss notes once in awhile. Not as much power as it should have? Aw, they're all a little different. It plays well enough for me."

It is one thing not to be able to afford to rebuild your piano. It is another thing altogether to be able to afford it, and just let it go to pot. When you don't play it anymore because it doesn't sound too good, why let it go to waste?

To my way of thinking, at least, someone who really would appreciate that instrument and who would get it taken care of properly is deprived, along with everybody else who would be educated and would appreciate the genius of its long-lived design, which still has not been surpassed. Think of the museum whose doors have long been closed, encapsulating valuable works of art which the owner selfishly refuses to part with.

It is the responsibility of the owner to understand these things and have his piano tended to once in awhile. They are mechanical, and sometimes things wear out. That doesn't mean it wasn't properly rebuilt at one time, either. But the responsibility is the owner's. That is not just "his" player piano, in the sense of our own forebears' mutual contributions to that culture. There will never be another one of these ever built, and your care, maintenance, and demands of that instrument will forever direct what eventually happens to it over the generations to come.

I would strongly encourage owners of these instruments to have them restored professionally, with some iron-clad written guarantees that they can put in the bank. Don't let anyone tell you that, "Well, it's just an antique, and nobody in their right mind would guarantee an antique." That is not so.

Wouldn't it be nice to know that if you ever have a problem, it will be a "new" piano problem with a straightforward repair, and it is not caused by a truckload of old leather or stiff pouches needing global removal and replacement? Get it in writing. We've had enough con-artistry in this business.

Start demanding and getting artful restorations.

Craig Brougher

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This page was last revised on March 13, 2019

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