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MMD > Archives > November 2004 > 2004.11.19 > 06Prev  Next

Rebuilding Player Action Valves
By John A. Tuttle

Hi All,  Like Bryan Cather, I have my own thoughts about why player
valves didn't get rebuilt from the 1960's on to the present day.
From the rebuilders' point of view, it starts with 'intimidation'.
Following close behind is 'tedium', and following that is 'tenacity'.
From the customers' point of view, it's 'money.'

Although you're not likely to find many people who will admit to being
intimidated by valve work, I remember how scary the first job appeared
to me: hundreds and hundreds of tiny little parts, so perfectly spaced;
seals and valve caps that looked like they were never intended to be
taken apart; the lack of adequate references which fully explained the
correct order of events, etc., etc.  All good reasons to be intimidated.

Then, after working on just the first Standard valve, it became obvious
that the work was extremely tedious and quite demanding in terms of
tolerances.  And, here again, the lack of references and specialized
tools made the job that much more difficult and time consuming.

Enter 'tenacity'!  Had it not been for the fact that I had already sold
the repair job and taken a deposit -- which was used to help pay my
mortgage -- I still wonder if I would have had the tenacity to finish
what I had started.  In my case, there was no option.  I had to make
the tools, develop the skills, and perfect the testing techniques that
insured a positive outcome.  Back then, I didn't have a network of
other rebuilders to call or write to.  In fact, I didn't know anyone
else in the business.  All I had as my guide was Larry Givens' book and
the PPCo parts catalog, which was quite helpful at that time.

After the first job was completed, I, perhaps like others before and
after me, realized that I sold the job too cheaply, and I immediately
raised the price.  That scared off quite a number of potential customers
and set up the scenario for doing more partial rebuilds, which were
comparatively inexpensive.  The fact is, most people weren't looking
for perfection.  They just wanted to hear the player piano work again.
And, in most cases, replacing the tubing and recovering the bellows
rendered a "working player".  (Naturally, I learned how to check the
valves _before_ taking a deposit or getting too involved in the job. ;-)

My business continued in that vein for quite a number of years, and I
had so much business that I had to hire people to help me keep up with
demand.  Mind you, I only bought and sold these "rebuilt" players for
my first few years in business.  After the word got around, through
advertising and word-of-mouth recommendations, that I worked on
players, I no longer needed to buy or sell players to make ends meet.
In fact, I had my hands full just servicing the wants and needs of the
general public.  (I never did avail myself to piano dealers or other
piano technicians.)

It wasn't until the early 1990's, after almost 20 years in business,
that some of my early 'restorations' started to 'fail' because of the
valves.  In most cases, due to the cost of doing the valves, most of my
customers opted to have me install a [electric] vacuum pump to compensate
for the valve leakage.  It was (and still is) a comparatively
inexpensive alternative to a valve job; the vast majority of those
pump units are still functioning today.  A few people 'bit the bullet'
and had the valves done.  The remaining units fell into silence after
nearly twenty years of enjoyment, which cost the owner about $100/year
over that time period.

Wrapping this up, there is no doubt in my mind that virtually all
player pianos made during the heyday of the player piano need new
valves.  And yet, I still encounter numerous working players that have
original valves.  And, as it has been for decades now, only a small
percentage of people are willing to spend the money to do the valves
when faced with the reality that player pianos are not a viable
economic investment.

When you put it all together, it's pretty easy to see why so few player
pianos get new valves.  Bottom line, it's really all about the money!
Today's rebuilders have volumes of information about rebuilding
techniques and materials and, from where I sit, they know how to charge
for their patient and meticulous efforts.  I also encounter quite a few
recently sold, and supposedly "completely restored" units, that have
the original valves.  And you can trust that I inform the customer when
I inspect such a unit that is not performing well.

John A Tuttle
Brick, New Jersey, USA

(Message sent Fri 19 Nov 2004, 12:41:59 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Action, Player, Rebuilding, Valves

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