Factory trained -- well, almost!
I learned player repair from Mr. Reed, who worked in a player factory
when he was a young man. He then worked with my grandfather on the
railroad until he retired. To keep busy and earn a little extra money
in retirement, he repaired player pianos and nickelodeons.
Our paths crossed because my other grandparents had an old upright
player piano that had stopped working and they had been told it could
not be repaired because the bellows had been tied. (I never have
figured out what that meant.) Being interested in all things mechanical
at the age of 12 I saw this as a real challenge.
My grandpa, who was an old practical Iowa farmer, said I could work
on it as soon as I learned what I was doing. I explained my dilemma
to Dad, who said, "I think your grandfather's friend, Mr. Reed, does
something with those."
Dad took me to meet Mr. Reed and I spent close to an hour asking and
answering questions about the piano. He determined it had a Simplex
action. He offered to answer other questions as they came up but said
I would need to do the work as he didn't have time to fix it himself.
Grandpa was impressed with my initiative and let me start replacing the
rotten and brittle tubing. Remember that this was in 1959 or 1960 and
the Simplex had leather pouches that were still good, so we actually
got it to make some noise with new tubing. It required much more to
make it play right as the lower unit material was leaky and the wind
motor cloth was split in the folds.
For Phase 2, Grandpa said more education was in order, so it was back
to Mr. Reed with the wind motor. He showed me how it worked and came
apart. Our deal was he would do the first bellows and then I would do
the rest with his guidance. It was a long process. If I didn't get
it quite right I got to do it again, and again. I must have finally
gotten it right as it worked perfectly when done and still worked great
tonight when I played a few rolls.
Grandpa got sick about this time and died. Grandma halted all work on
the piano as she was afraid it would be taken apart and not be put back
together without help from Grandpa. To prove I could fix it by myself,
I started hanging around Mr. Reed's shop again. He got tired of me
just hanging around asking questions and put me to work after school
and on weekends.
I worked with him for a little over two years before we moved. He was
a great teacher and a true gentleman. Today I regret not asking him
more about his days at the factory. I never learned which factory he
worked at or what he did there. I did date his granddaughter for
awhile but that's another story.
Years passed and when Grandma could on longer stay on the farm she gave
me the piano. As soon as it was at our house my mother announced that
Grandma was going to visit in about a month. Out came the lower unit,
the governor and anything else that was bad. The stack still tested
good -- well, sort of -- so that could wait for another day. To make
a long story short, Grandma got to listen to her player piano play her
favorite rolls for the first time in about 25 years.
Word got around that I knew how to fix player pianos and my wife,
Annette, and I had a very good part-time business for many years.
I estimate we worked on well over a hundred players during that time.
Over those years the lessons learned from Mr. Reed were recalled on a
regular basis. On many a late night, as I fought to solve a problem,
his words would come back to me: "There's a reason for everything,
you just haven't found this one yet!"
I do think a person who wants to repair player actions needs to start
with a straightforward-type action. He also needs to learn when to ask
questions and which actions to walk away from. The skills learned can
only be honed through experience.
There are also many great books that have been written on our hobby.
Read them all and buy as many as you can afford. Books published by
The Vestal Press were a wealth of information during my rebuilding days.
For many of us it's time to give back to the hobby we love through MMD
and other collector groups, while we still can. There are fewer of us
Bob Stewart - retired in Missouri but still rebuilding players
P.S.: Just for the record, those Simplex pouches and valves finally
gave out a couple of years ago, so after 40+ years and a few thousand
rolls the stack rebuild was done last month and it works beautifully
once again. If they could hear it play I'm sure Grandma would just
smile and Grandpa would say "What took you so long!"