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MMD > Archives > March 2000 > 2000.03.21 > 15Prev  Next


Proper Restorations
By Craig Brougher

In the last MMD, Larry Broadmoore made a very important statement that
I would like to mention again. He said:

> However, most rolls on most instruments do not play optimally, and
> at a minimum, the PowerRoll affords a rare and exciting window into
> the intention of the manufacturer of these instruments as regards
> performance capabilities.
>
> We don't approve of ever using this ability as an excuse not to
> complete the restoration of any instrument, in the area of paper roll
> operation or otherwise; to do so is the responsibility of the owner
> and the restorer.  On the other hand, the reputation of reproducing
> pianos stands to gain when instruments can be heard playing at their
> best, more frequently.

I am re-restoring many instruments which still look brand-new, as
their rebuilding took place only 15-20 years ago.  Without exception
the performances are weak now, or altogether non-functional.

What I discover is that these pianos' valves were not fully rebuilt as
advertised.  In every case I have ever worked on, the inside pump flaps
and seats had never been replaced.  But neither is a job that would
require the reproducer to be torn completely down again to accomplish,
by the way.  When that hasn't been done, neither have the valves been
completely restored and reregulated, either.

Pneumatic reproducers are so much more powerful an instrument than are
the commercial solenoid electric pianos, that comparing the two doesn't
really make much sense, unless you are comparing the differences
between a partially  "repaired" pneumatic instrument (with weak valves
and old leather still in it) and a modern solenoid piano.  (I like
solenoid players, but not as classical instruments.)

Keep in mind that the pneumatic reproducer debuted on stage in places
like Carnegie hall, accompanied by world-famous artists.  In several
cases, the art critics of the day were given score-cards to guess when
the artist was playing, and when the piano was playing.  Is there anyone
reading this who would decide that we could also do this with the
modern solenoid-operated players, today?  In that case, why not ask
yourself, "Why is it then, that my reproducer doesn't really come up
to concert standards, even in the size grand that I presently own?"

Owners of reproducing pianos should consider themselves a bit more
important than "one of many owners."  You are actually one of the few
custodians of a piece of art, designed at the beginning of the 20th
century, of which there will be no more!  And when you get it repaired,
you must insist on correct and proper rebuilding.

When a legitimate museum finds a valuable document or painting, they
don't send it to Kinko's for restoration -- they take it to someone
who's business it is to restore fine art.  That person knows, by many
years of experience, what works and why.  Anyone who thinks that an
experienced hobbyist can do equally good work in every case, with all
the exceptions and situations one encounters is no different than those
in every art and field of endeavor who believe they can save some
money, and ultimately spend three times what they would have otherwise
spent, and will never get it right, again.

That owner is making sure that the remaining instruments become just
that much more valuable with time.  Wise custodians also know that the
name of the person having restored the player is as important as the
player to its price.

Unfortunately for many, some of the most well-known and expensive
reproducer restorers in this country were (face-it) con-artists who
didn't do valves unless absolutely necessary, and then, only as many
as they had to do.  I can say this with knowledge, knowing what was
claimed, versus what was discovered later.

I am presently rebuilding all the valves in an instrument restored less
than 15 years ago by someone that most everybody in these discussions
has probably heard of.  His name was even mentioned a few days ago in
one of the posts.  His problem was clear: he had built his reputation
around complete rebuilds that no one questioned because the final
result was beautiful and enormously expensive.

But what you *can't* see in a restoration is far more important!  That
is not to minimize the proper finish and appearance either.  It is
rebuilds like these that have hurt pneumatic reproducing more than any
other single thing.  It causes one not to trust anyone to rebuild for
them.  Once burned, twice shy, and the piano just sits there.

If a player is anything it is valves (and that includes pump flap
valves).  To the degree that the valves have been replaced and properly
set is the degree that you have a chance to hear your reproducer
perform the way it was designed to.

There was an era when you could get away with not fully rebuilding the
valves.  Even today in certain environments, leather deterioration is
slow, but move that piano to a warmer climate with less salt in the
air, and draw air through it that is filled with mold spores from crops
or woods nearby, and very quickly you have a non-playing reproducer.
Ultimately, you don't get away with a thing.

Some owners search for the "rebuilder close-by," but they are not
really primarily interested in quality, but price and convenience.
That is not how a conscientious custodian of a 20th century work of art
would do it.  They should look at the track records of rebuilders they
know they can trust, wherever they happen to live.  They would consider
the experience and all factors, and then, they will send the piece to
him to have it properly restored, with a guarantee that everything will
be restored to like new quality and its performance also guaranteed.

Here in the United States, we have a general tendency to not be too
critical, and we have extended this typical mediocrity to an art form:

  "If it plays, hell, what more do you want?  Missed note?  No biggie
  -- they all miss notes once in awhile.  Not as much power as it
  should have?  Aw, they're all a little different.  It plays well
  enough for me."

It is one thing not to be able to afford to rebuild your piano.  It is
another thing altogether to be able to afford it, and just let it go to
pot.  When you don't play it anymore because it doesn't sound too good,
why let it go to waste?

To my way of thinking, at least, someone who really would appreciate
that instrument and who would get it taken care of properly is
deprived, along with everybody else who would be educated and would
appreciate the genius of its long-lived design, which still has not
been surpassed.  Think of the museum whose doors have long been closed,
encapsulating valuable works of art which the owner selfishly refuses
to part with.

It is the responsibility of the owner to understand these things and
have his piano tended to once in awhile.  They are mechanical, and
sometimes things wear out.  That doesn't mean it wasn't properly
rebuilt at one time, either.  But the responsibility is the owner's.
That is not just "his" player piano, in the sense of our own
forebears' mutual contributions to that culture.  There will never
be another one of these ever built, and your care, maintenance, and
demands of that instrument will forever direct what eventually happens
to it over the generations to come.

I would strongly encourage owners of these instruments to have them
restored professionally, with some iron-clad written guarantees that
they can put in the bank.  Don't let anyone tell you that, "Well,
it's just an antique, and nobody in their right mind would guarantee
an antique."  That is not so.

Wouldn't it be nice to know that if you ever have a problem, it will
be a "new" piano problem with a straightforward repair, and it is not
caused by a truckload of old leather or stiff pouches needing global
removal and replacement?  Get it in writing.  We've had enough
con-artistry in this business.

Start demanding and getting artful restorations.

Craig Brougher


(Message sent Tue 21 Mar 2000, 14:24:03 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  Proper, Restorations

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