Re: Boats and Player Pianos are Luxury Items
The idea that boats and player pianos are a hole to throw money into
is a subject that has several points of view, of course.
I understand why that seems to be the case. I can attest to it myself,
having done 49 valve jobs "on the road" in otherwise completely re-
stored players and reproducers over a few year's time. I don't do that
anymore, but I sure learned what was not being done in these "totally
99% of my business is out-of-state even yet today. Almost all of it
is reproducing grand pianos. My customers have had no problems sending
a piano to me and having it shipped back, because they know from the
grapevine that they will have no more trouble with it in their life-
time, as a rule. The reason is, I tell people that the most reliable
machinery ever invented is a pneumatic player piano. But that only
holds water when you refer to a restoration in which the working soft
materials are all replaced. In a home environment, there is two things
that usually go wrong:
1. Dirt and dust clog the trackerbar holes.
2. The player materials gradually get old and hard, break and leak.
Everything in that original player was as old as everything else.
And all working leathers are closing off the vacuum together. When
you look at old valve leather and say, "This looks fine, there's no
need to change it," you are asking for it. If you were to test that
leather on a bubble jar tester, you would find the original finest
leather in appearance is at least 4 times leakier than new calf leather
of good quality. Old pump flaps that look perfect are still gassy when
you check them out! If each valve in the player had a total seepage of
the equivalent of a shirt pin hole, the accumulated leaks would be the
equivalent of drilling a 1/4" hole through the pump!
So when you return the player with old leathers still in it, although
it may play very well initially, it will start dropping notes and
finally stop playing rather quickly after awhile because its leakage
tolerance is finally exceeded. It happens so fast in some cases that
the owner thinks it's probably a minor problem that can be easily
fixed. They call a technician and are told "valves." And he is shown
the door. They think he's trying to get a big job out of it. And the
piano usually just sits there from that time on.
I have found from experience that the guy that stuck it to them was
the rebuilder -- not the fellow troubleshooting it. 90% of the time,
it will be valves, because that's where all the work is concentrated.
I have visited players that I have restored, usually after 20 or more
years, and find one thing they often need consistently -- patches on
the air motor bellows, and a little lubrication.
Not all player materials are good enough quality to last a long time,
by the way. But the selection of materials is the purview of the
rebuilder, whose responsibility it is to make sure his materials are
fresh and good quality to begin with. That means, he has to test them
out. He should not buy in bulk until he checks out several different
sources and materials. And just because he got good quality from a
supplier one time, doesn't mean that from then on, he will always buy
from that supplier. It doesn't work that way. He has to be diligent
and never assume that what he bought is just as good as the last batch.
If an owner likes to be nickel-and-dimed to death over the years trying
to keep his player going, then I suggest he tell a rebuilder to "just
do this and that, and don't go over this amount." That's one very good
way. And when you see old leather nuts here and there, and old gaskets
and pallet leather and switch leather still here and there, you know it
wasn't done conscientiously or thoroughly. So what do you expect from
it, eventually? And when the rebuilder didn't even replace all the
things that are obvious, why would he replace everything else that you
You don't always get what you pay for, but if I was a customer, I would
have the rebuilder put in writing that he will replace all working soft
materials, and then pay the price for a proper restoration. It will be
Pneumatic players are the most reliable machinery men ever came up
with. To say that they are a "money hole" tells you something about
the work being done on some of them. You have to understand what fails
and why, and where to put more effort, but it's worth it. Don't
shortcut the rebuild, or you will be sorry.