General Notes on Restoration

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.)

1. The Piano Components

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.

Aeolian upright, re-strung.
Aeolian Pianola, re-strung by us.


Steinway Duo-Art, re-strung and piano action re-built by us.

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.

Costs: An overhaul of the piano action in an upright instrument (including re-facing hammers, renewing action springs and tie-tapes, graphiting, re-centring where necessary, renewing key-bed felts and baizes where necessary, regulating, etc) costs in the region of £850. If the action is fully rebuilt (including new hammers and dampers, re-centring, etc), then the cost is usually £1,500 – £2,000. The cost of re-stringing is usually £1,500 – £1,750. The costs are similar for grands. If the instrument has been well looked-after and kept tuned, then a general overhaul is often sufficient. This is for guidance only – the cost varies from instrument to instrument – a quotation will be provided on receipt of further details or after an inspection. 

2. The Pneumatic Player System

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.

Ampico Crescendo regulators, restored.
Ampico crescendo regulators, restored.

Ampico Intensity Regulator, restored.

Ampico Intensity regulator, restored.

Aeolian upright, pedal Duo-Art. Exhausters, expression box etc, restored.
Aeolian Pianola (pedal Duo-Art), exhausters and regulators restored.

Costs involved in the Restoration of the Pianola action:  

A typical upright Pianola action, such as one found in an Aeolian or Steck, costs in the region of £3,500 to restore – including the re-covering of all bellows, re-leathering of valves, and the renewal of all tubing and trunking. A partial rebuilding of the action is sometimes possible.

A Reproducing Piano action, such as a Duo-Art or Ampico, can often cost £5,000 – £6,000.

The costs for grand instruments is similar.

Please Note: – the cost varies from instrument to instrument – a quotation will be provided on receipt of further details or after an inspection.

3. The Casework

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. We can offer a complete re-finishing service, including repairs. Our Polisher/Restorer has fifty years of experience in this work.

Click here to find out about some restoration work carried out in the past, and to read Testimonials from satisfied Customers.