Modello Player Piano – Arrived!

Look what made it to my house!

Modello Player Piano

My Great-Grandmother bought this piano.  If I understand correctly, she bought it in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.  It’s a Modello brand piano, with a pneumatic player that plays the paper rolls.  It was at my Grandparents’ house until the early 1980’s, when it moved to Mom and Dad’s, so my sister and I could have piano lessons.  In 2017 it moved to my house, so Mom and Dad could have the end of their rec room back.  My sister, who got way more out of those lessons than I did, lives in a tiny apartment she rents, and has no place to put a piano so it came here.  When she gets settled into a more permanent place, she and I will talk about where it goes.

In about 2008, Dad and I had the player restored.  This was cool, and we learned a lot about the piano at the time, but we still had questions.

We learned that Modello was a house brand of the Baldwin piano company.  They made a lot of pianos under several different names.  We found a serial number, and a list of what serial numbers were made in what years.  That was confusing, because our serial number was said to be made in 1954.  As far as we knew it had been in Grandmother’s house for fifteen years in 1954.

However, just yesterday I found additional detail about the Baldwin serial numbers.  They had two different sets; the grand pianos used one numbering sequence, and the uprights used a different one.  They made a lot more uprights than grands.  The chart of numbers I first found on-line was for the grand pianos.  The correct chart shows our piano was made in 1920.  This makes much more sense.

The piano hasn’t been tuned in ten years, and then we trucked it from Seattle to San Jose (via Los Angeles, due to a mix-up with the trucking company) and I expected it to sound utterly terribly horrible and need a serious tuning.  It is a little out of tune, but not nearly as bad as I thought.  I’ve read that pre-Depression pianos hold their tune better and are not as finicky as newer pianos.  Many of them were installed in homes with no central heating, and expected to bear the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter, often freezing through the coldest months.  And to still work.  So maybe it isn’t a surprise that this piano still plays nicely.

The piano action itself seems to be working well.  All the keys strike the correct strings, and no strings are broken.  All the dampers work, and the sustain pedal does as expected.  I haven’t figured out yet what the other two pedals do, if anything.  I’ll have to crawl around under it with a flashlight and see if I can find that.  The left pedal seems to be a soft pedal, but the middle pedal may not do anything.  As in most uprights, the “soft” pedal appears to be a half-blow pedal rather than the una corda pedal in a grand piano.

The player, despite an expensive restoration, is not working as well as I hoped.  It will need some work, and I have to decide how much work to do on it.  Send it off for a complete rebuild?  See if I can fix the worst parts myself and be happy?  Still thinking.  There are monstrous vacuum leaks.  You can hear one of the exhausters hissing constantly, and I found a tube lying disconnected inside when I took the music desk and fall board off to reveal the whole player mechanism.  Several of the player bellows go down and never retract.  Several more don’t seem to move with enough force to cause the hammer to strike the string.

Despite that, if you pump like a maniac, the machine produces music.  It’s always impressed me how badly these  systems can leak and misbehave and still bang out hearty songs and recognizable music.

The air motor and tracking system both seem to be working normally so it is capable of handling rolls, and I’m getting some cardio in every day by playing it, probably much to the annoyance of my housemates.

I have a clue what the three mystery buttons on the front of the keyboard do, too!  At least two of them are “expression” controls, to soften the sound of that part of the keyboard.  The left quiets the bass, and the right quiets the treble halves of the notes.  The middle is unclear to me, but it may do both, and effectively be the soft pedal.  Never knew what those did!

I also fixed the door that slides in front of the player’s pedals when they are not in use.  It runs on a bar suspended above it, and that bar had slid one way and fallen out of one support.  The door bound up near the closed position because of this.  I wondered if the move had done it, but noticed in our “before” pictures from the player restoration that the bar was out of place in the same way.  So it’s been a while.  It took a flat head screwdriver and two minutes to sort it.

Here’s a little video of me driving the player:

I have to figure out what I want to have fixed and how.  I’m tempted to send it off for a full restoration, and have the whole player stack rebuilt, again, as well as the outer case refinished.  I read up on the common saying that “refinishing it will destroy the value” and discovered that’s mostly true for unique, hand-made pieces made by specific craftsmen.  Anything factory made can be refinished if it will make you happier and suit your life better.  This piano was factory made, one of hundreds of thousands they made in the 20’s – it isn’t a museum piece, or anything that a piano collector will ever pay big bucks for.  Do I want to refinish it, so it’s shiny and nice and give it another hundred years of life?  Or is it not worth the money?  What color to refinish it?  Light oak?  Golden oak?  Piano black?  Haven’t decided yet, still thinking about it.

I do wish the right exhauster worked better, and wonder if I can get that sorted locally.  Or even take the thing out and take it to TechShop and try to find the flaw myself.  It’s nothing but leather, bellows cloth, cardboard, and hide glue.

Lots to think about.

Leave a Reply