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MMD > Archives > May 2006 > 2006.05.20 > 06Prev  Next

Replacing Leathers with Artificial Materials
By John A. Tuttle

Hi All,  Using synthetic materials to repair a player piano is
risky business.  While it may seem long-winded, I hope to make what
I consider a few valid and important points.

I'm not a hypocrite, and I clearly remember the work I did on the very
first player piano I repaired.  That was in late 1969, and all I had
as my guide was the book, "Player Piano Rebuilding", by Larry Givens,
and lots of enthusiasm.

Also, I was in the tiny town of York, Nebraska, total population of
about 5,000, which had one small, farm oriented, hardware store and an
auto parts store.  The point is, by today's standards I had a mediocre
reference book and an extremely limited source of supplies.

As I studied the player mechanism and read the book, the basic problems
became pretty evident.  So, I dismantled everything and began working.
I patched holes in the bellows with various thicknesses of what amounted
to raincoat material (nainsook) and contact cement.  I also recovered a
few large bellows with the same material (actually, it was a raincoat)
and Elmer's glue.  For tubing, I went to the automotive store and bought
vacuum hose, heater hose, and radiator hose of the appropriate sizes.
The point here is that I read the book about rebuilding the mechanism
before attempting to repair it.  I didn't tear it apart and then go
looking for answers.

(This morning I re-read Larry Givens' chapter on Supplies.  It's
interesting to look back 35 years and see what everyone had as a
reference.  Unfortunately, I was on leave and between duty stations
when I saw my first player piano, and I only had two weeks to attempt
to get it working.  The point here is that I didn't have time to order
supplies from any of the reputable suppliers.)

Well, in an effort to keep this story from being too nauseatingly long,
I actually got that player piano working a couple of days before my
wife and I had to leave for Spain.  Around 1978, after I had been in
the trade for some 4-5 years, I returned to York, Nebraska, and
'properly' restored the player mechanism and the piano action.

(I say 'properly' because it's of some importance to note that "Player
Piano Servicing & Rebuilding", by Art Reblitz, wasn't published until
1985, the MMDigest was about two decades away from existing, I knew no
one else who fixed player pianos, and Larry Givens' book was still my
only reference.)

The next point I'd like to make is that I wasn't faced with any
conflicting information when I worked on my very first player piano.
I had only one reference, and I had little choice but to believe it
was accurate.  Today, there is a vast amount of information about
player restoration and much of it is contradictory.  This makes it
difficult for the novice to figure out what to believe.

Unless a novice does a lot of research to determine the credibility of
the person who contributes a technical article to the Mechanical Music
Digest (MMDigest), how is he/she suppose to figure out the best way to
do anything?  And while I'm not in any way suggesting that one person's
opinion is any more valid than someone else's, a posting like John
Cabrer's points out that it's fairly easy for a novice to be misled
even though he has a plethora of references to help him reach his goal.

My next point is that we, as a group of well-meaning enthusiasts,
collectors, and technicians, might not be stressing enough the importance
of purchasing the reference materials that are readily available to the
general public.  While the MMDigest is truly an excellent source for
information about specific situations and problems that those who are
in and out of the trade encounter, the postings are seldom if ever
referenced to established or generally accepted techniques or methods.

And here again, while I'm not suggesting that anything be changed, it
might be kinder to the novice, or casual visitor, to point out that the
MMDigest is not necessarily the best place to learn about repairing or
rebuilding complex mechanical musical instruments.  This could be
accomplished with a simple disclaimer that indicates the scope and
purpose of the MMDigest.

 [ Scope, purpose and disclaimer: MMDigest is a discussion forum.
 [ ;-)  -- Robbie

As to the point at hand, i.e. vinyl pouch material, Story & Clark spent
some three years searching for and testing a wide range of synthetic
materials for their pouches.  There are a number of postings in the
MMDigest Archives which chronicle their efforts.  There are also a
number of postings regarding Universal player pianos and the problems
they encountered because they overlooked something as simple as
moisture.  There have been postings about Perflex, Tuftane, and even
Glad Wrap.

My point is that major companies and quite a number of professionals
have searched in vain for a synthetic pouch material that works as good
and lasts as long as regular tan pneumatic leather.  I know for a fact
that vinyl was considered and tested.  It broke down in a short period
of time.  It couldn't handle the stretching and flexing or the
environmental changes that pouches are exposed to on a routine basis.

For comparative information about a number of synthetic materials that
could be used to make pouches, see:
You'll note that vinyl is on the bottom of the list when it comes to
low temperature flexibility.

This leads me to another point.  Novel ideas are great.  In my 32+
years in the trade, I've had a few.  But I would never try to sell
an idea to anyone until it was properly researched and tested.  And,
I certainly wouldn't write to a group like the MMDigest and say,
"I believe I have found the answer...".  Such a statement suggests that
all the people who have done previous research never considered vinyl.

(As a personal note to John Cabrer, you can rest assured that every
known synthetic material which has the basic properties needed for
a pouch were considered, and most of them were tested.  In the case
of Story & Clark, they spent tens of thousands of dollars on the
research and development of Tuftane pouches.)

My closing comment is that it's hard for me to understand how anyone
could read through all of the negative information about synthetic
pouches and still make the decision to use them.  Isn't there enough
information about the superiority of leather pouches to make it clear
that they're the best choice?

John A Tuttle
Brick, New Jersey, USA

 [ Similar sentiments are expressed in the article by Jim Jelinek at
 [ -- Robbie

(Message sent Sat 20 May 2006, 15:04:11 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Artificial, Leathers, Materials, Replacing

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