A Pianola* or Player Piano is fundamentally a conventional piano, into which a pneumatic player system is incorporated, which uses a perforated paper music-roll. To accommodate the player components, the casework of the instrument is constructed with additional depth. Below is a brief summary of typical faults found within the instrument, along with a description of necessary restoration work.
(* The word “Pianola” was the trade-mark of The Aeolian Company, and only those instruments produced by that Company bear the name. The generic term is Player Piano, but such was the size and power of The Aeolian Company that the word has become synonymous. The high-quality of their instruments and player actions contributed to this in no small measure, as did their early use of colour advertising in magazines and periodicals all round the world.)
To achieve optimum performance from any player piano, it is vital that the piano components are brought up to first-class condition and regulated correctly. Furthermore, it is essential to ensure that all is well in this respect before restoration of the pneumatic player system is contemplated.
Occasionally, an older piano or pianola suffers from defects that significantly compromise tuning stability and/or tonal quality, consequently rendering it beyond economic repair. Areas that may contribute to such conditions are the wrest plank, sound board, bridges, iron frame and strings, as well as the overall structure. Major defects within these areas can be difficult, expensive and sometimes impossible to rectify. Any proposed expenditure would need to be considered carefully in terms of the quality of the piano and its potential value if restored. For peace of mind, professional assistance should always be sought when selecting an instrument for purchase, and we are pleased to offer a full appraisal service as part of our work.
Years of use typically result in a great deal of wear within the piano action, necessitating complete replacement of the various felts, leathers, springs and bushings, and in many cases the hammers. Catastrophic faults are thankfully rare within this part of the instrument, unless serious damage has in some way been caused, or if previous workmanship is found to be of poor quality. If the keyboard is in good overall condition, replacement of the cloth bushings and key frame felts is usually desirable, followed by careful cleaning and levelling. Alternatively, should the original key tops be damaged beyond repair, recovering is considered to be the best option.
Regulation of the piano action and keyboard is carried out upon completion of major repairs or refurbishment.
The player action is pneumatic and functions by means of a partial vacuum. By using the foot treadles, which are connected to large exhauster bellows, air is extracted from the system, thus maintaining the required reduced pressure. On electrically-powered instruments, typically any kind of reproducing piano, an electric motor and pump is found in place of – and, in the case of the pedal/electric Duo-Art, as well as – the foot treadles. The principal of operation however is otherwise the same.
Deterioration of the player system can manifest itself in some very noticeable ways, the most obvious of which is a need for very energetic pedalling. This is caused by a general lack of airtightness throughout the system, which is inevitable due to the nature of the materials these instruments comprise. The bellows within a player piano, from the smallest individual note pneumatics, through to the main exhauster, are all covered with rubberised cotton cloth*. As the rubber perishes, the cloth not only becomes porous but also resists movement as a result of becoming quite rigid. Also prone to deterioration is the rubber tubing, quantities of which are used to interconnect the various components, along with different types of leather that are used within the valve-chest and for gaskets and valves.
The restoration process involves replacement of all time-expired materials and the subsequent regulation of all valves and governing devices. A correctly-restored pianola should require a minimum of effort when pedaling, although few people actually realise this until a refurbished instrument is encountered for the first time.
*The exceptions to this statement are the “Accordion Dynamics” in a Duo-Art instrument (usually referred to as just accordions) which are always covered in thin ‘perfection’ or pouch leather. Covering them in thin pneumatic cloth will result in failure in a short period of time, as they are operated at un-regulated vacuum tension which wears the cloth out quickly. The Aeolian Company, manufacturers of the Duo-Art, always used thin leather, and never pneumatic cloth despite what you may read elsewhere.
The veneer of the cabinet is usually finished in shellac (French polish) or nitrocellulose lacquer in the case of some later instruments. If the condition of the finish is very poor, or the veneer requires extensive repairs, it is likely that it will need to be completely removed and re-applied.