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MMD > Archives > February 1997 > 1997.02.19 > 08Prev  Next


Estimating Player Repair Costs
By John A. Tuttle

[ Editors note:
[
[ In Digest 970218 Marc Finlen described his Marshall & Wendell piano
[ and asked for information. His description sounded to me like the
[ piano was complete and probably worthwhile investing in repairs, and
[ so I commented, "Sounds like you have a winner, Marc. Now let's see
[ what the technicians have to say about it."
[
[ Many other folks have also written recently, saying they are
[ interested in the value and rebuilding costs of pumper pianolas.
[ In this article John Tuttle tells his evaluation method (and he's
[ been doing it a long time!).
[
[ Robbie Rhodes


(You asked for it Robbie. This is what a conscientious technician would say about it.)

Hi Marc,

First, according to the Pierce Piano Atlas, your unit was manufactured in 1920. However, between the years 1920 and 1921, the company appears to have made almost 30,000 units. That's a tremendous number of units even with today's technology. The company was averaging around 2000 units per year from 1910 to 1920 and it is doubtful that number changed significant- ly in one year. So, when was it actually made? I can say the 20's with great certainty and between 1919 and 1922 with a fair amount of certainty.

Secondly, the unit you have is known as a Full-Size Upright Player Piano, pedal operated style.

Third, if the bellows appear sound and all of the tubing and mechan- ical pieces seem to be in good working order, it should play. That is obviously not the case. What is important for you to note is the suppleness or flexibility of the bellows cloth. If it feels stiff or crunchy, it's shot and needs to be replaced. Our average cost for replacing all of the bellows is about $2000.

Fourth, replacing missing ivory heads is not difficult and can be accomplished for about $25.00 per key installed and includes sizing, grain matching and filing of the edges. We replace missing ivories quite often and have a stock of approximately 500 assorted ivory heads and 200 assorted ivory tails. We do require samples if you elect to install the ivory yourself. We charge about $5.00/ivory head.

Fifth, when you say some of the felt pads need replacing, I have to presume you mean the piano hammers. They are the piece that strikes the string. Typically, piano hammers are changed in sets of 88. Some technicians do change individual sections of hammers but this is ill advised because of the tremendous difference in tonality between a new hammer and an old hammer. We charge a hefty $850.00 to replace a set of hammers with a custom made set. Custom made hammers are virtually identical to the originals in size and weight.

Sixth, getting the piano playable is a relatively easy task barring any unusual problems, i.e., moth, felt mite or spider infestation. Typically, the felts under the keys need to be replaced because they have hardened with age or become riddled with holes created by felt mites. This is a very common problem in circa 1920 players that have been allowed to sit idle for more than ten years.

Also, the dampers, which quiet the strings after the key is released, become hard with age and no longer quiet the strings properly (this is also a very common problem in the bass and sub-bass regions of the piano). We usually charge between $1500 and $1800 to completely rebuild the piano action and key bed. This price includes the complete regulation of the action ( ten adjustments per note), the replacement of the hammers, dampers and bridal straps and miscellaneous action felts, the regulation of the key bed and the tuning of the piano.

(Are you getting nervous?)

Seventh, one primary concern that you should have is the tonality of the sub-bass register and, in many cases, the complete bass register. As strings age, they loose their 'bell-ish' tone due to oxidation and a relaxing of the twist, which gives the copper-wound string it's 'crisp' almost 'raspy' tonal character. Sometimes, simply re-twisting the stings will dramatically improve the quality of sound. Other times, it does hardly nothing. In those cases, the strings really need to be replaced.

Replacing all the bass strings runs around $500-600. This price includes tuning the bass section eight times. It must also be said that in numer- ous cases, the crown of the soundboard has collapsed somewhat thereby reducing the amount of down-bearing. In most cases, this problem, which occurs primarily due to the aging and drying of the wood, results in the piano having a slightly lower volume level and a reduced resonant capability (how long the notes resound).

(Now you're getting concerned!)

Finally, (and this by no means indicates I've covered all the aspects of a piano) what I am most curious about is the type of player mechanism in the unit. Marshall & Wendell was closely associated with the American Piano Company which manufactured the Ampico reproducing player action. My question to you is: Is the word 'AMPICO' stenciled anywhere on the key cover (fallboard) or in the spoolbox (where the roll goes)?

In closing: if you waded through this entire treatise, you are most likely now more educated in the fundamental aspects and considerations that a qualified player piano technician goes through each time he visits a player for the first time.

People often ask, "Why do you charge so much just to give me an estimate?" The fact is, it takes about 1.5 to 2 hours to dismantle, test and reassemble the majority of components in the average 'straight-line' player. I tell people frankly that it's cheaper, (excuse me -- 'less expensive') to hire me in and get to work than it is to do a full-blown evaluation. The fact is, by the time I've located and identified the problem, I'm already halfway done (in many cases).

Fixing the problem -- except in the case of rebuilding, replacing major components, i.e., bass bridges and structural damage, or replacing complete sets of parts -- usually takes only minutes per problem. What I tell people is: "If the unit has functioned within the last ten years and it just stopped working, chances are it needs only relatively minor repairs, or else it has finally worn out and needs to be completely rebuilt."

This past Christmas season, I visited 21 player and/or reproducing pianos. Seven needed rebuilding. All the rest were 'working' when I left. Average cost: $350.00/unit (parts included) plus the service charge ($42.00) and the mileage charge ($0.85/mile based on a one way trip from my home to yours). All repairs are guaranteed for one year.

Musically, John A. Tuttle

John A. Tuttle "Self-Playing Pianos" 908-840-8787 (leave message)
407 19th Avenue http://www.concentric.net/~tuttleja/
Bricktown, NJ 08724 E-mail:tuttleja@concentric.net
"We Keep Your Music Rolling" Authorized QRS Music Roll Dealer

[ Great job, John, thanks for sharing your advice with all of us.
[ I'm sure your points apply in general to a lot of other makes too.
[ -- Robbie

(Message sent Thu 20 Feb 1997, 00:56:25 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Costs, Estimating, Player, Repair

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