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MMD > Archives > July 1999 > 1999.07.28 > 17Prev  Next

Restoration Techniques and "Purists"
By Craig Brougher

Purists are what have kept the rebuilding of all these old instruments
going.  I was glad to see the three letters yesterday, and hope to see
some more.  We really need letters from rebuilders, backing up the
basic materials and why they are so necessary.  As Don teach said, It's
because they are far better than alternative methods and materials."

We are professional rebuilders.  We make our living doing this, and
this is about all we do and think about.  But this is a forum for
everybody, and by far, most of the writers to this forum are hobbyists
or sometime rebuilders who are in the piano business, making their
living with tunings and such.  There is a difference that can be
appreciated only by those who have done it both ways.

I'll just relate one little story to prove a point.  I offered to help
another professional (an organ builder) to restore a small instrument
he contracted to do for a customer, called a Melodion.  It was in sad
shape, but a family heirloom.

When he got to the bellows, out came the yellow glue.  I asked myself,
"Shall I allow such heresy in my own shop?" (chuckle)  So the answer
was, "No, I will show him the joys of hot hide glue."

Well, the minute he saw me coming over with that dreaded pot, he made
the sign of the cross with his fingers in front of his face and
cringed.  He wanted no part of my plan.  So I told him, "Hey, let me do
the first one, and you can see if you like it.  You just stand there
and watch."

So I scraped around and cleaned off the old stuff, and then put the new
material on one of the pumping bellows.  I showed him how nice and
clean it was, not to have to smear glue with your fingers, and how
tacky it got right away, and then the next day, how hard and flat it
was.  And then I showed him how to clean off the edges with a damp rag
and iron down the covers with a warm iron.

When he compared what his best work would look like, compared to that
example, and how much quicker and cleaner it was, and how all he had to
do was to flow on the glue from a large brush, he was really hooked.
He finished the job with hot hide glue.  His "vampire protection" was
not needed, after all.  This was not only better, it was easier,
quicker, handier, and cleaner.  Exactly what Don Teach said.  And, I
don't ignore Ed and Art, either.  They all agree.

But with that said, there is another perspective to "Purism" that
should be mentioned.  Technically, a purist restores only with original
materials, not necessarily the "best" materials.  We have all run into
instruments that failed initially because their original materials were
poor choices to begin with.

For example, I have restored player pianos with pot metal transmissions
that self-destructed, waxed paper valve seats that delaminated and
lifted, rubber coated cloth pouches that harden and become immobile
(because the original rubber was soft-cured to allow stretching),
cardboard separators in stacks that could not be reused, cork goods
that are so porous that it leaks like a sieve, inside valve seats
"glued" flat from the vacuum side with sealing shellac which sealed the
poppets in their wells underneath the fixed outside valve seats which
then could not be resealed with anything but hot shellac (unavailable)
or 5 minute epoxy, and dozens of other things too numerous to mention,
none of which can be repaired by using original techniques.  Nor should
those original techniques be used again.

Another problem with 3rd-generation builder methods is that the
original materials have changed, or not even available anymore.  Zephyr
Skin pouch material is one good example.  Use what you can buy today,
and you'll be very sorry soon enough.  So here is a good example of an
original material that is just as disastrous as Perflex.  Leathers is
another good example.

The original materials are totally unavailable today! In the heyday of
the player piano, leather was a huge industry, and the leathers used
were wonderful stuff, almost all of it industrial leather grades.
There is no such thing, anymore-- generally speaking.  The only
leathers still available seem to be garment leathers, which are made
from well-watered animals and soft-tanned.  That means, the collagen
fibers are not compacted and the skins are not pre-stretched or staked
during tanning.  The pouch leather is no longer from registered herds
of 2 year Scottish sheep bred specifically for the product.

The rubberized cloth can be made identical, but when it is, it is very
expensive, and there is no ability to really check and see what the
factory sent you.  Nor would they take it back if it didn't meet _your_
criteria, because they will not make it to your specs, anymore -- with
the exception of weight.

So the professional rebuilder must take this and much more into
consideration and take special precautions sometimes with what he has
to use, if it is to last as long, and endure the same usage as
original materials could take.  For the most part, he has two things
going for him: 1) Most of these machines today only get played on
occasion, not all day and all night anymore, and 2) He is able to
detail each machine personally to assure himself that each component in
the instrument has no individual problem that could cause it to fail in
40-50 years.  A good restorer thinks in terms of a half-century-- or
should.  He won't always succeed, of course.

The original philosophy of almost all player companies in existence was
that whatever machinery they added to a piano should have the same
expected lifetime as the piano, and that expected time was an unspoken
50 years, usually.  That means, if you seal your pouches with rubber
cement, will that sealant last 50 years.  or-- probably not?  If you
have a choice between two cotton and rubber pneumatic cloths, which do
you choose?  The cheapest?  The same with pumping cloth and heavy
cloth for motor driven pumps.  How do you test it?  How do you know that
what you bought is the best available?  How do you insure yourself that
you will get the maximum life out of that cloth? If you use shellac to
seal wood, and you mix it yourself from flakes, how long will it last,
and how do you know?

Purism is very important, but there is also a balance between what is
the very best today, versus a few products that represent original but
inferior materials, and a vast array of new products that are largely
untested and can get your customer into a lot of trouble.  Getting hung
up on the holy grail of purism is no better, ultimately, than going the
other way and getting strung out on new and exciting materials and
methods.  neither is any good, and both will get you into trouble,
whether you want to admit it, or not.  It is the wise balance and not
the extremes, which will always take you far and make you ultimately

This is something that all legitimate professional rebuilders know and
talk about among themselves occasionally, and acknowledge.  But do
they talk about it with hobbyists?  Usually not, because it will be
taken wrong, and they'll go overboard.  I am going to mention it here,
hoping that all of you catch the "vision," and don't take it any
further than the limits I've given here.

Just remember, "Is it workable, durable, reliable, replaceable, and
affordable?"  Because if it isn't, these 5 things, what's the next
rebuilder going to do?  Do for him what you would want him to do for
you.  Foresee the problems, and eliminate them best you can.

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Wed 28 Jul 1999, 13:38:26 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Purists, Restoration, Techniques

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