Although the rule of thumb in working with old mechanical music
instruments ought to be "do it the way the original builder did it,
because he knew more than you do," the field of music roll paper might
be one that is ripe for innovation. Plastics technology and paper
chemistry have probably advanced far beyond what roll manufacturers
had at their disposal seventy-five years ago. But still there is room
I think someone (maybe QRS?) experimented with Mylar as a medium on
which to punch rolls, only to find that Mylar was too hard on the
perforator and dulled the punches too fast. Right after World War Two,
Ralph Tussing, cutting rolls as the T.R.T. Manufacturing Company,
used butcher paper. Bob Moore, who once worked at Roseland Park,
Canandaigua, New York, reports --
"We had a couple of rolls at Roseland that were punched on meat
wrapping paper. They had an orange shade to them and a watermark that
read 'keeps meat fresh.' ... I think they were Tussing rolls but I'm
The problem with T.R.T. paper, besides the fact that it was thicker
than roll paper should be, is that the surface of the paper that ran
over the tracker bar tended to abrade over time and clog up the tracker
bar with paper dust faster than good paper would.
Aside from the problem that Robbie mentioned of finding a paper mill
that will produce paper of the proper thickness and with the other
qualities roll paper should have -- and you have to buy several tons
of it to get the paper mill to pay attention to you -- there is the
Paper with a high lignin content, e.g. newsprint, although relatively
cheap, will self-destruct in too short a time to make it satisfactory
for roll-making. Paper for library or archival use can have a chemical
incorporated into it that is slightly basic, so that the paper tests
slightly above pH 7. That paper is able to self-neutralize acid
forces, such as moist, acidic air, that attack all paper. But the cost
of archival-quality, lignin-free, alkaline-buffered paper prices itself
out of the roll-making field.
Paper for making rolls that will be used outdoors needs to be more
impervious to humidity changes than paper for indoor use. Outdoor-use
paper is usually dry-waxed. Dry-waxed paper also moves over a tracker
bar with less abrasion than unwaxed paper. Wurlitzer's green paper,
which has lasted about as long as any roll paper, is said to have been
not only dry-waxed but also resin impregnated. It does have a
distinctive look that Wurlitzer collectors are familiar with.
There are other considerations that go into selecting a good medium
on which to punch rolls, such as the question of how cleanly the
material punches, and how many layers can be punched at one time.
But considering that even short-lived player piano rolls, if handled
carefully and stored properly, have a lifetime of many decades, I don't
think anybody has reason to complain if the roll he purchased for a
dollar or two fifty years ago is nearing the end of its useful life.
It's also a fact of life that roll companies had nothing to lose if
their rolls did not last forever. Rapid product obsolescence was as
profitable then as it is now.
I'll close with the observation that no storage medium lasts forever.
Libraries that worry about the shelf life of their newspapers, books,
and microfilms now have to worry about how long their CD's and DVD's
Irondequoit, New York