Antique Mechanical Restorations
Restorations Since 1973
Restoring the Ampico A
About the author
I was introduced to player pianos in my junior year of high school when a classmate of mine invited me to his home. His family had a rebuilt upright foot pumper in their basement. There were four children in the family, and so the piano saw a great deal of use. My friend's father, Jim Elder, had owned several players through the years. Jim showed me copies of the Vestal Press as well as sales catalogs of music machines from Bower and MacKinnon, firms dealing in mechanical musical instruments during the 1960's-1970's era.
I also read Larry Givens' book on rebuilding the player piano. The book explained how player pianos worked. I studied the diagrams of a pneumatic stack but couldn't imagine what valves and pneumatics really looked like. I wondered how 88 valves and 88 pneumatics could fit in such a small space. Jim told me that he took his piano apart twice a year to service it. I had to see what the player mechanism looked like and so I asked Jim if I could come over the next time he serviced his piano. That day, I got my first look at a stack. As soon as I saw all of the mechanical parts, I was hooked. I wanted to restore a player myself.
Shortly thereafter a piano playing guest at Jim's home was playing ragtime on the piano. This was before "THE STING" had been released, so it was the first time I heard ragtime. I was so taken with this music that I learned to play many Scott Joplin rags by the time I was a senior. I also took a tuning and servicing course from a local piano tuner, Mr. Charles Heuther. He was a very patient teacher, as I was a student who had never done homework.
In my senior year I bought my first player piano for $25. The day I graduated high school I began to restore it. Sometime in August of 1973 I completed refinishing the case and rebuilding the player. It worked very well. I was pumping a roll on my piano in Jim's garage when a neighbor peeked over the fence and asked: "Was that you who was just playing the piano?" I was so proud of my accomplishment. I told her it was a player piano that I had just finished restoring. She then said: "Well, my husband is sick and he can't sleep with all that noise. Please stop playing it!" I was only slightly discouraged.
I began to restore player pianos that fall, and in 1974 I rented a retail store in Lyndhurst NJ. I restored players for customers as well as restoring players for resale. I visited anyone who restored players so that I could learn as much as I could about restoring. In 1976 I was introduced to Alan Lightcap. When I visited Alan's shop I was impressed with his fine craftsmanship. Alan was kind enough to show me the fine points of restoration. This set me on very solid ground.
In 1976 I began to deal in music machines. There were so many friendly people connected with the business that I made many lifelong friends with restorers and collectors. My business and friendships allowed me to visit other restorers often and so I saw many different types of mechanisms both in my shop and in others. Through my dealing in pianos I owed at least 300 reproducing grand pianos, hundreds of upright players and looked at countless players that I was unable to purchase. To date I have restored almost 500 pneumatic machines. Out of this number at least 75 of these were Ampico "A" mechanisms.
In 1987 I moved out to eastern Pennsylvania. Through the years I did manage to set aside some instruments for my own collection. My sole income is from restoration work. When I'm not restoring for a customer I spend a good bit of time restoring my own machines.