Restoring Player Pianos

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on November 23, 2008
David Mudd Zook repairs a vintage Baldwin player piano.

Tom Zook, 54, pumps the twin foot pedals of a 1915 Brinkerhoff player piano in his workshop in downtown Casper, Wyo. (pop. 49,644), testing the inner workings of a musical instrument that once resounded with ragtime classics, religious hymns, Tin Pan Alley tunes and other popular songs of the era.

If its functioning properly, it will play music, says Zook, who has restored 100 of the melodious machines since 1992. Otherwise, I listen for air leaks.

Zook, a former wallpaper contractor, began tinkering with player pianos in 1988 after he bought one of the upright models at a garage sale. He replaced a few hoses and tubes, repaired a small set of bellows and, voilà, it played a 1939 waltz titled The Last Letter as he pumped the pedals.

I did what I could to make it play, which wasnt much, luckily, recalls Zook, one of a few dozen people in the United States who repair player pianos.

From the outset, Zook was fascinated with the automated instruments and their internal mechanisms. Whether foot-pumped or motor-driven, all player pianos operate on a vacuum system that unwinds a paper roll punched with holes. The perforated paper triggers piano key movements and produces music.

Zook began researching the antique instruments, reading books about their repair, and before long was fixing player pianos for other people. In 1992, he opened Mechanical Music and turned his hobby into a profession.

During a restoration, Zook repairs or replaces worn or broken parts, restrings the instruments and occasionally refurbishes the exterior woodwork. Each job typically takes a month or two and can cost from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the extent of repairs.

Problems in a player piano usually stem from aging, deteriorating components. Cloth bellows rupture, rubber air hoses harden and crack, and leather gaskets can disintegrate. Sometimes Zook finds original replacement parts, but more often he patches old components with new materials.

I try to use the same materials as when the pianos were built, he says, like hide glue, shellac, and certain kinds of wood and leather.

In the early 20th century, player pianos were on the cutting edge of recorded music. Americans bought 2 million player pianos between 1900 and 1930 for their living rooms and businesses because they resounded with full tones and swelling crescendos unmatched by the cylinder phonograph records of the era.

Parents often purchased the instruments so they could introduce their children to classical music, but player pianos are best remembered for the pop tunes of the period, including Nora Bayes and Jack Norworths 1908 Shine On, Harvest Moon, George M. Cohans 1917 patriotic march Over There and James P. Johnsons 1923 dance tune, Charleston.

Even today, the antiquated technology remains impressively efficient. As Zook clicks a switch on a 1926 Haines Brothers grand piano that hes restoring, the motorized instrument plays a Greek concerto recorded by pianist Marguerite Volavy.

When you play it back, it sounds like her playing, Zook says of the 1922 recording. It has all the expressions that she played and it imitates her version of that song very well. Some of it is very soft and other parts are very loud.

Unfortunately, the heyday of the player piano ended when the Great Depression forced most piano manufacturers out of business and the musical marvels faded into obsolescence with the emergence of broadcast music and improved phonographs.

Still, Zook takes pride in restoring the increasingly rare pieces of American musical history. I get satisfaction when the owners get to hear their piano playing again, he says. Often these instruments havent worked for many years, and I get to bring them back to life.