Changing A Link Endless Music Roll

The Unfathomable Mess - A Demonstration by Rusty King


Most of the major coin operated piano manufacturers used the rewind system for the handling of music rolls, whereupon the music roll was, unless there was some kind of minor catastrophe, always wound snugly on the music roll spool and/or on the roll mechanism's take-up spool. Thus the music roll was always in a conveniently packaged state. The big advantage of the rewind system is that when the music roll was automatically rewound onto the music roll spool it could be easily and quickly removed from the roll mechanism and replaced with a new roll, i.e., new music. The disadvantage of the rewind system was that once the music roll reached the end of the tune sheet it had to be rewound, and during this sometimes slow rewinding process the piano was essentially out of service. Any electrical lighting might remain on and the interior mechanisms continued to rumble along, but no music, although coins could still be dropped into the coin slot accumulator, causing the next tune to play after the rewinding of the music roll was completed.

A few manufacturers, on the other hand, such as Auto Electric Piano Company, Auto-Manufacturing Company (Encore Banjo), Berry-Wood Piano Player Company (later switched to rewind rolls), North Tonawanda Musical Instrument Works (Pianolin), Peerless Piano Player Company, Automatic Musical, and Link, elected to make use of a very different method for dealing with music rolls, one that utilized endless music rolls where the paper formed one large and continuous loop, which was stored and contained within a large vertical or horizontal bin. Although cumbersome in appearance, this system of handling did not require the complicated roll mechanism as did the various rewind type of music roll systems. But while the roll mechanisms were more simple and easy to maintain, changing music rolls of the endless type was far more daunting than for the rewind type. In fact there were advertisements by brands that used the rewind system that illustrated a perplexed, frustrated, and bedeviled piano owner awash in tangled loops of paper desperately trying to change an endless music roll. But despite any perceived disadvantages the endless music roll systems worked quite well and were easy to maintain--despite any temporary music roll changing challenges.

The early endless roll systems used an easily detachable but bulky vertical bin to hold the endless roll. For cabinet style instruments this vertical bin could be located inside the case, two examples being the North Tonawanda Pianolin and the Encore Banjo, but for keyboard style pianos it was situated externally, either behind the piano or in front of it. Neither position was optimal for one reason or another. For installations behind the piano it forced the piano to be out away from the wall a sufficient distance and to change the music roll the piano had to be rolled away from the wall in order to gain access to the roll mechanism. In the case where the music roll device was in front of the piano is was mounted under the keybed and in front of the piano's bottom board, making it a rather unsightly contraption that detracted from the piano's otherwise distinctive furniture design. It also made accessing the feeder pump and other mechanisms behind the bottom board more difficult to access and repair.

Automatic Musical Company music roll warning label.Sometime around 1909 George R. Thayer, of the Automatic Musical Company (forerunner of the Link Piano Company), redesigned the music roll system to one that made effective use of a horizontal bin (or cabinet) that was housed within the piano cabinetry (click here for the actual patent in PDF format). This did away with the bulky, cumbersome, and unsightly roll mechanism and attached vertical bin disfiguring the front side of the piano. But eliminating any objectionable esthetic issues was probably not much of an incentive for the new design. The top edge of vertical storage bin for the Automatic Musical pianos slid into a channel formed by two L-shaped blocks mounted underneath the keybed, so as to hang down but barely clearing the floor. Thus any unevenness in the floor could snag the roll bin, causing damage whenever the piano was carelessly moved, and if the bin was still attached to the piano. But another and apparently more annoying source of trouble occurred whenever the floor was mopped and the storage bin got wet. Eventually after the bin had been kicked, scuffed, and soaked enough the paper roll got wet too. The Company went so far as to apply a special label to its music rolls warning of the dangers of getting the music roll wet, as shown in the image at right. Happily the new design of putting the endless roll storage cabinet and feeder mechanism within the piano case overcame the old problems and kept the roll mechanism safe from physical abuse and the music rolls high and dry.

The new layout was so successful that it became the standard design that the Link Piano Company used up until production ceased in 1929. The only major change in the design was the elimination of the chain driven finger system to push the loops of music roll paper along the horizontal cabinet, to a bin with a sloped bottom board that used gravity to aid in moving the roll along its length. This change from chain and fingers to sloping bottom board was made by 1914 or 1915. (We will be able to report the date more closely after more pianos are reported to the database.) The horizontal system stretched across the width of the piano, and for keyboard style pianos it was placed at the top of the instrument in a case extension, out of the way but still easily accessible. For cabinet style instruments the horizontal bin was placed just above the feeder pump and below the stack, also an ideal location for easy access and for changing of music rolls.

The Automatic Musical / Link Piano Company Registry

For more detailed information on Automatic Musical Company (forerunner to the Link Piano Company) and the Link Piano Company and its coin pianos click here to visit the Link Registry page.

How to Change a Link Music Roll
A Pictorial Demonstration by Rusty King

The Link instrument used in all but step #2 and step #28 in this pictorial demonstration is a Link Style 2EX (Link #7835). It is a keyboardless cabinet style piano that uses Link RX rolls (61 playing notes). Link RX rolls could be played on all Link coin pianos that were not orchestrions.

  1. The hopeless looking tangle made by an installed Link music roll.The picture illustrates what some might see as a hopeless looking mess characteristic of any installed Link music roll. This picture series demonstrates how to change the music roll without destroying it and losing your sanity.
  1. Link roll feeder with major (roll changing) components lebeled.Descriptive diagram of a Link music roll feeder, courtesy of Dana Johnson. Various critical components that must be manipulated in the roll changing process are labeled.
  1. Making room to unload the music roll feeder.Make room to "unload" the music roll feeder by carefully pushing the mass of paper loops away from the feeder mechanism. The loose folds of paper will easily compress (within limits) before creasing or otherwise damaging the paper.
  1. Removing the drag casting from the top of the drag plate.Remove the rectangular drag casting from on top of the guide plate.
  1. Removing the guide plate.Remove the guide plate. Move the right end up slightly and out of its mounting slots in the music roll feeder, then slightly to the right to release the other end from the bracket it hangs on. Hold the paper up off the guide plate and be careful not to snag the paper below it with the sheet metal ears on the bottom of the guide plate.
  1. Removing the top wooden roller.Lift out the top wooden roller from the bearing slots at the top of the roll feeder.
  1. Removing the metal gravity roller.Lift out the heavy metal gravity roller. Its bearing points ride in slots on the front of the roll feeder and just above the rubberized power roller.
  1. Detail view for the lower wooden roller and bearing.Detail view showing the positioning of the lower wooden roller and its bearing point (picture center) in the roll feeder. The small hourglass shaped metal link makes up the outer bearing for the lower roller's shaft, with the bearing plate held securely to the feeder frame by a small thumbscrew. By loosening the thumbscrew the bearing plate can be pulled outward, thereby releasing the end of the wooden roller so that it can be lowered and then pulled out of the feeder through the large circular hole.
  1. The empty music roll feeder from the music roll's viewpoint.The empty feeder from the music roll's `viewpoint. Note that there is a rectangular space in the sheet metal paper guide below the brass tracker bar and lower rubberized drive roller. In early Link instruments this spacious opening was necessary to accommodate the chain-driven metal finger conveyer system, which was dropped when the slopped gravity assist music roll bin replaced the older flat bottom design. However this opening also serves another important function as an access window to be used when removing the bottom wooden roller from the feeder frame.
  1. Removing the bottom wooden roller through the side of the feeder frame.Remove the lower roller, by first carefully sliding your left hand under the paper and through the gap in the paper guide, so that you can support the lower roller. With your right hand loosen the thumb screw that holds the lower roller's bearing link, and then pull the link out to clear the shaft end, and then turn the link around so it's clear of the large hole and tighten the thumbscrew so the link stays out of the way. Lower the roller so it can fit through the hole and slide the roller out.
  1. Slide rewinder spool's core with attached metal rod over the music roll.Remove the back flange from the rewinder spool and carefully slide the wooden core with attached metal rod over the roll. The wooden core of the rewinder should be below a single layer of paper and the steel shaft should be above. Some Link rewinders have the steel shaft attached to the back flange.
  1. Putting the back flange onto the rewinder spool.Put the back flange on the rewinder and place the rewinder in the slots at the upper left side of the roll feeder frame.
  1. Music roll re-winding instructions.Follow the Instructions and always "Turn Rewind to Left!" The direction in which you rewind the music roll is important!!! If you do not follow this instruction one of two things will happen: (1) If you orient a roll on the hanger bar, as shown in step 19, and it has been rewound to the right, the music scale will be reversed, i.e., treble notes will play the bass part and vice-versa. (2) If you reverse the orientation of how the roll hangs on the hanger bar, instead of the paper coming off of the top and to the right it will unroll from the top to the left, and then around the bottom of the music roll and on to the roll feeder. This puts the thread of paper that should be on the topside on the bottom side, and the music will play backwards.
  1. Rewinding the music roll.Rewind the roll, being careful to keep the two sheets of paper (the rewinder will have doubled it over after the first full turn) feeding in without becoming looped or folded. The paper should rewind evenly into a firm roll of paper, without damaging wrinkles or bulges. When about one-half of the roll is rewound, grip the outside of the paper while turning the rewinder to the left and tighten the roll until it "chirps" slightly. Do this again when the roll is fully rewound.
  1. Removing the hanger rod at the bass end of the roll bin.When the roll is completely rewound (except for the trailing end still looped over the hanger rod), remove the hanger rod at the bass end of the roll bin and finish rewinding the music roll.
  1. Removing the wound up music roll from the rewinder spool.Take off the back flange of the rewinder spool. Lay the roll on a flat surface and hold it there while giving the rewinder a quick quarter turn to the RIGHT. This action loosens the grip the rewinder has on the freshly rewound paper. Next carefully pull the rewinder core out of the roll. It helps to keep the wooden core of the rewinder suitably polished and slippery with paste wax.
  1. Detail view of the feeder frame's tracker bar and rubberized drive roller.Detail view of the tracker bar and rubberized drive roller (below the tracker bar). Now is the time to clean the tracker bar. Notice that this tracker bar has a long, narrow slot along its top side, just above the regular note holes. A steady vacuum is applied to this paper cleaning slot, which removes paper dust from the roll--a late Link feature. The tracker bar should be cleaned periodically of any accumulated dust and lint.

    If the rubber coated drive roller has a waxy build up from the dry waxed music roll paper it can be cleaned with a fine abrasive pad, such as Scotch-Guard.

    Note the little guide rail at the left of the picture between the tracker bar and rubberized drive roller. This is to guide the shaft of the lower roller into its bearing hole. You can't see this when placing a new roll in the feeder, but by gently pushing up on the roller when installing it you can feel this guide pin and it will guide the roller shaft into its bearing.
  1. Disengaging the rubberized drive roller's gears.Disengaging the rubberized drive roller. To disengage the drive roller's spur gear drive, so the drive roller can be turned freely for cleaning and for feeding in a new roll, loosen the thumbscrew just to the left of the small steel spur gear and pull the lever down. This action disengages the small gear from the larger brass gear mounted on the drive roller's shaft.
  1. A new unfurled music roll placed correctly on the hanger bar.Place the new music roll on the hanger rod. Notice that the paper hangs over the top of the roll and down its right side. Placing a properly wound music roll as pictured insures that the treble to bass note holes will be oriented correctly to the tracker bar note scale.
  1. Putting a loose loop of paper over the drive roller and down into the feeder frame.Place a loosely formed loop of paper over the rubberized drive roller and down into the feeder frame. The paper loop needs to be deep enough so that the lower wooden roller can be put back in place so as to keep the lower paper loop intact.
  1. Replacing the lower wooden roller.Replacing the lower wooden roller. With your left hand inside the feeder, place the lower wooden roller through its hole in the front side of the feeder frame, and inside the loop of paper. When the shaft end of the roller hits the inside of the feeder, carefully push it up until the shaft hits the underside of the guide pin (see step 17 above for a detail view showing the guide pin). When the shaft has been slid into its inside bearing loosen the thumbscrew (above the roller) with your right hand, drop the bearing link down onto the outside shaft, and then tighten the thumbscrew.
  1. View of the lower wooden roller and bearing plate back in place.When the lower wooden roller is properly installed it should look like the example in the picture at right. Notice the loop of music roll paper still hanging loosely below the wooden roller.
  1. Putting in the top wooden roller.Replace the top wooden roller by putting it into the deep slots at the top far right of the feeder frame.
  1. Putting in the heavy metal gravity roller.Make sure the paper is square and even on the rollers and tracker bar, and then place the heavy metal gravity roller in its slots above the rubberized drive roller.
  1. Putting in the guide plate.Put in the guide plate. Make sure both of the tabs on the left end of the guide plate are resting securely on the support bracket (jutting out from the back of the roll storage bin), and that the paper guide ears on the bottom of the plate are pressing lightly against the outside edges of the metal gravity roller.
  1. Putting the drag casting onto the guide plate.Place the drag casting on top of the guide plate. The drag casting offers just enough resistance on the paper being pulled under it to keep the paper tension over the various feeder rollers and tracker bar in perfect balance.
  1. Hand cranking music roll paper through the roll feeder.With the rubberized drive roller gears disengaged, turn the large brass gear to the left and move some paper through the feeder. If there is a feeder crank still present (many of these have been lost over the years) thread it into the drive roller shaft, keeping in mind that it has a left hand thread. If the paper wrinkles or runs off to one side re-align it by lifting the gravity roller slightly and centering the paper. It is important that the paper feeds properly before you start the motor and engage the spur gears to play the music roll into the roll storage bin.
  1. The rare sliding finger paper management system.A few Link cabinet pianos had a manually operated "sliding finger"--a sort of paddle that the music roll built up against in small loops as it fed into the bin. As the roll filled the bin the finger was moved to the left, until the whole roll filled the bin, nicely formed into small loops. Once the roll is completely looped up and filling the bin the small bit of paper to paper friction actually helps roll tracking due to a fairly steady tension on the paper. The Link illustrated here is a Link 2B (Link #6418) cabinet style instrument using Link A rolls.

    One trick is to put two music rolls (in their boxes) in the bin, one on top of the other and up near the feeder. As the paper feeds in it loops and builds up against the boxes, as it would against the finger in the picture at right. As the roll plays move the boxes to the left and take them out when the entire roll is in the bin. A roll will eventually build up into small loops in an open roll bin, but it usually takes about three full playings to do so.

If the paper refuses to track properly check the drag casting and guide plate and see that they are properly aligned and securely in place. A hard pull on the paper as it is drawn into the feeder can cause mis-tracking, Also check to see that a new roll on the hanging rod is lined up with the feeder and unwinding freely. It helps to have the bottom board of the roll bin clean and polished with some slippery furniture wax. The feeder itself must be true and square with little bearing wear. If the lower wooden roller has badly worn bearings it will bob up and down as the tension on the paper changes--a few thousands of an inch of movement on one side of this roller is enough to send the paper all over the place. If the metal gravity roller's shaft ends have more wear on one side than the other it will not be perfectly lined up with the rubberized drive roller, and will cause problems. If the rubber coating on the drive roller has deteriorated and is not a true cylinder anymore it can damage the music roll. The more mechanically perfect the Link feeder is the better it will work. Please remember, the newest of these pianos is some 83 years old and many have had hard use under adverse conditions.


Rusty King, Glenn Grabinsky, Dana Johnson, and Art Reblitz.


Terry Hathaway