Player piano roll repair: a report from Conservation

December 3, 2018
Elizabeth Ryan
Red Welte rolls await treatment

By Beth Ryan and Jill Sison

The Conservation Department is working with the Player Piano Project to ensure the physical stability of the piano rolls through the scanning process and for long-term preservation. Our involvement in the project began during the testing phase in December of 2017. Conservation Department Head, Kristen St. John, and Beth Ryan, Conservator, observed the scanning process and helped prepare guidelines for the operators to standardize safe handling procedures.  At this time we also experimented with repair techniques on deaccessioned rolls and developed protocols for piano roll repair.

Player piano rolls are constructed of long sheets of paper with perforations representing prerecorded music punched in specific configurations and wound around a cardboard core.  Piano roll paper is generally thin with a slick surface and can easily tear if torqued.  The rolls have a leader on one end that contains information about the music and a reinforced hole to anchor the roll.  

Piano roll leader

The trailing end of the roll is adhered to the cardboard core, and flanges on the ends of the tube secure the roll in place.  A number of manufacturers are represented in Stanford’s Collection. Each had different specifications for paper width and color, perforation placement, leader and flange style and other features.  For example, Welte rolls captured classical piano performance, and perforations quite close to the roll edges correspond to interpretative elements of performance like dynamics, phrasing and accents.

Numerous piano rolls have been damaged through general use and poor storage conditions.  Some of the problems we’ve dealt with in Conservation are frayed edges, paper tears and holes, tears with folded edges, broken perforations, poorly executed repairs, and damaged leaders. Other challenges include previously taped repairs causing planar distortion and rolls in which the trailer has become detached from the core. Additionally, when two different rolls have been joined together by the previous owner to compare two performances or for a longer musical playing time, curators have requested that we separate these into two rolls to the way they were originally issued.

Small tears and feathering at the outer edges of the roll paper as seen in the example below can be safely run through the scanner.  

Small tears at the edge of a piano roll

More heavily damaged rolls like this, however, require conservation repair for safe scanning and accurate image capture. 

Damage to a piano roll, including old tape repairs, missing leader, broken perforations, and missing paper

Old tape repairs, missing leader, broken perforations, tears, and missing paper


These problematic rolls are identified by the scanner operator prior to or during scanning.   When detected during scanning, the operator slowly stops the machine, rewinds, and sets the roll aside for transport to Conservation.  

Rolls tagged with notes on condition

Red Welte rolls await treatment

These rolls are currently in Conservation for repair.  The white tags in the upper photograph are the scanner operator’s condition notes.

To date, only red Welte rolls have been repaired in preparation for scanning. To mend most tears, we use heat-set tissue (Filmoplast R). It’s light, flexible, and quick to set with a tacking iron through a protective sheet of silicone release paper. Large holes, meanwhile, are filled with Japanese tissue of similar thickness and flexibility to the roll paper.  Wheat starch paste is used to adhere the paper fills.  Since the purpose of the repairs is functional rather than aesthetic, the mends and fills are not colored to match the color of the roll.  

The biggest challenge currently is working with the curve of the rolls for larger repairs. Paper possesses dimensionality and memory – this is most apparent in the rolls when a large enough piece is torn or detached, and it quickly springs back into the curled shape it’s been stored in for so long. 

Roll mending in progress

Ways of working around this include: using very light weights along with Mylar strips to gently re-open the detached piece as fully as possible; making small anchor mends along the length of a long tear to hold pieces in place before applying the final mend; and setting long final mends a little bit at a time.

Roll mending in progress

Mending in progress

Tools set up for use

A microspatula and tweezers help undo brittle folds as well as manipulate mends, torn edges, and detached pieces into place. Scalpels or a utility knife cut mend strips and trim their overhangs.

For flat paper conservation, these are common materials and tools. However, the piano roll format poses some challenges – chiefly how to quickly locate problems based on notes made by the Digital Project Group or previous owners; keep track of any newly discovered problem areas; take up any unwound length that is not being worked and hold the roll steady.

Repairing a piano roll on a regular table surface by unrolling and rewinding it by hand is time-consuming and slightly awkward, especially when rolls can be over 100 feet and must be checked to the trailing end.  To help with these issues, Conservation has acquired two piano roll tables.  Both have hand cranks for quicker rolling. 

The workspace accommodates long rolls

The fixed width table on the left accommodates most rolls.  The table on the right employs roller arms that can be adjusted to different roll widths and flange styles.

Larger mends or problem areas and their locations on the roll are documented with photographs and notes. 

Further down the line, as rolls from different manufacturers and time periods arrive in the lab, we anticipate having to adapt materials and techniques to the particular physical quirks of each type. Despite its seemingly simple format, there is still a lot to learn from working hands-on with piano rolls!