A Journey of a Thousand Rolls Begins with a Single Pump

Working at the Piano Company is amazing. The people, the machines, the atmosphere – it’s a fantastic place. When I started I wanted to get an automatic instrument to practice on at home, and much to my surprise I only had to mention a specific instrument once before my parents went for it.

Case in point – found this on the inside of a cabinet door today.

As of mid-summer, we became the proud owners of a Chickering baby grand piano. Chickering among other names was owned by a parent known as the American Piano Company, which in the mid 19teens introduced their version of a ‘reproducing’ player piano. 

During the years of player piano construction before the Great Depression there were three main types. The first kind is your regular run o’ the mill player that can adjust volume only by shifting the hammer rail. The second is an ‘expression’ piano, where the amount of suction in the stack is varied resulting in loud and quiet tones. The last is the ‘reproducing’ player, where the system is designed to precisely reproduce the sound of human playing.

The stack of a reproducing piano is split down the middle, so the bass and treble sections can play at different volumes, intensities, and crescendos. The system was so accurate that a host of world famous musicians recorded Rolls for reproducing pianos. Rachmaninov plays Rachmaninov, Gershwin plays Gershwin, etc.! All brought into your living room in precise reproduction.

Our Chickering piano is in decent shape, but as is expected the Ampico player has seen better days. The rubber hoses, pneumatic cloth, and cork (blech) seals are shot. In order to get the system playing again, everything has to be rebuilt. When it comes to pneumatic systems like the Ampico, that entails tearing the entire thing apart, replacing every soft material in the whole system, and then putting it all back together. And it has to be airtight. Especially in an Ampico.


1923 diagram of an upright Ampico pump.
The inside of our Ampico pump – likely all original.

As the title implies, the first thing that needs to be done is the pump. The electric motor turns a flywheel which pumps all of the bellows inside the pump. In an Ampico, four bellows are going at once, producing a steady flow of suction. In order to systematically test other parts of the system to make sure they are pulling the correct water inches (a unit of measurement used extensively in the player piano industry) I need a suction like that.

After taking notes and disconnecting what I could, my dad and I dropped the pump out of the piano. That night I had the pump pulled apart and got to take a look at how it all works. I cleaned up some of the metal parts including the screwheads, so as I progress I’ll include posts showing the process. I can’t wait to get it working!

The top of the pump with the vacuum distributor removed. The amplifier pneumatic is also visible.