Hacking the Player Piano – Part 1

 

It was only a matter of time before this happened – the player piano (original post) is a real workout to play manually. Since it works on vacuum, I had set aside the motor from an old vacuum cleaner for potential use in powering the piano. Tonight I built a small box to contain the vacuum motor and connect it to the piano. The box is made from MDF, partly because I had scrap that needed to be used, and partly because it’s very heavy & sound absorbing. I made the big fitting by cutting/milling a square from scrap, I then bored a hole in it on the lathe and welded it to a scrap of pipe.

One very large hose goes to the manifold powering all the key bellows, and another smaller hose powers the vacuum motor for the tracker/scroll mechanism. I didn’t notice the smaller connection at first, so I had to go back and tap a fitting into the connection for the large hose; there’s still enough room for both to connect though.

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Overall it seems to work great, this effort was definitely a quick proof-of-concept though and I’ll need to go back and fix/test a few things:

#1 – Motor controller to slow down the vacuum motor. Currently it has way more vacuum than is actually needed and slowing down should reduce noise from the motor.

#2 – Ensure cooling is OK. Especially after slowing the motor down I need to test that air flow is good enough to keep the motor consistently cool.

#3 – Mount in piano base and complete further noise insulation.

#4 – Tee hoses (and potentially add check valves) so that manual operation still works.

Beyond that I do have plans to eventually (could be tomorrow, could be in 5yrs) automate the player mechanism using some small pneumatic solenoids I found on ebay. These would tee off of each line from the tracker bar and when they open it would simulate a hole in the paper passing by. With this it would then be computer controlled and able to play anything. By default these are off/closed, so the paper mechanism would still work fine, in computer-controlled mode I’d just need to block off the tracker bar holes with some tape.

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Saw Milling Test

Last fall prior to Hurricane Florence I took down some good-sized white and red oaks. These were great trees but both had large limbs overhanging/threatening the garage, so they had to go. Rather than cut them up for firewood as usual I let them stay where they fell through the winter. Today was unseasonably warm and I took a stab at milling one of the logs. Drying takes a long time, so the point of this was to get at least something started – this way if I don’t finish milling the rest of it for a while I’ll at least have something in the queue.

To make the milling cuts I just free-handed with the chainsaw and there’s a good bit of variance in thickness as a result; to get straight boards I’ll have to deal with this variation at the joining/planing stage. For the next attempt I plan to build a metal guide frame over the saw to allow it to rest level on top of either a ladder laid on the log (first cut) or the level surface made by previous cuts. Also, my saw is a middle/low power model (3HP) and bogged down occasionally. Normal chainsaw chain is meant for cross-cutting and takes too big of a bite for ripping, for the next attempt I plan to modify an old chain into a ripping chain by grinding back some of the teeth – these converted teeth will help clear chips out of the cut rather then cutting themselves and it should mean less bogging down.

Once milled, the log was reassembled with some ‘sticker’ pieces I cut from scrap 2×4’s to create airflow gaps. It’s under an overhang that should provide enough rain protection. The drying happens from the inside out over a long period of time, getting wet from rain only temporarily increases the moisture level on the outside; this dissipates quickly and doesn’t hurt the overall dry time. Drying should take about a year per inch, the slabs are about an inch and a half on average so I may be able to use these as soon as next summer.

We have some ideas for the wood but no immediate plans; this is just a long-term thinking/prep. The white oak is good outdoors and may become some much-needed patio furniture. The red oak may be used to upgrade the fireplace mantel and be used for a headboard and side tables.

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Dust Collection

This weekend I installed the shop dust collection system. The system consists of several parts:

Fan/Motor: I repurposed a portable dust collector fan I’ve had for a while that’s been underutilized (collecting dust, but not as intended). Space is limited in the mechanical room so since the fan won’t need easy access I mounted it high up above the air compressor near where the dust collector pipe enters the mechanical room.
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Pipes: 4″ PVC DWV pipes; there are a few branches leading to the different tools. I tried to keep the overall length as short as possible and the bend radius’s large.

Blast Gates: The blast gates control the air flow though the system by blocking off unused branches. I made these with 1/2″ plywood and 1/4″ hardboard. Circle cutouts were made on the lathe to match the pipe outside diameter exactly.
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Filter and Collection Bin: The portable dust collector came with a light canvas bag that restricted the air flow massively while still allowing fine particles to escape. To improve this I replaced the bag with a semi truck air filter mounted to a trash can. The theory is that air will exit the filter and larger dust/chips should fall into the trash can below. There are purpose-built dust collection filters available, but the costs are much higher for these and the semi truck filter has the same specs; different economies of scale. To mount the filter to the bin I made a plywood ring, for now they’re just taped together but I may add latches at some point. The design may need some tweaking; I’ll know more after it gets further use, but for now the airflow is excellent.
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Return Vent:  Having the collection bin in the mechanical room created a problem; the mechanical room is well sealed for noise reduction, so there was nowhere for the air exhausted from the filter to go. For heat/air to be retained in the shop, the exhaust air needed to return to the shop via a vent. Since I also wanted to keep the mechanical room noise level as low as possible this meant the vent needed to be sound proof. I built a sound proof vent by creating a 3ft long box and offsetting baffle plates inside of it. The sound has to reflect a dozen or more times off of the baffle plates; at each reflection it gets absorbed some by a fiberglass lining. The air, however, is able to snake around the baffles and find its way out. The inlet to this vent also points directly at the floor away from the sound sources. Somehow after adding this vent the mechanical room noise is actually noticeably quieter than when it was completely sealed. I think this may have had to do with the air pressure changes resonating in the previously sealed room, whereas now any fluctuations are equalized through the vent.
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Control: For now control of the system is via a remote control outlet (repurposed from controlling the vacuum at the old shop), at some point I may integrate some low voltage switches with the blast gates so the motor will turn on as soon as any gate is opened.

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Planer Cart

(I’ve had this built for a while now, but I’m catching up on documenting shop progress tonight)

A while back I got an old Delta ‘Portable’ power planer at a garage sale; it’s helped out in a few projects already so I thought it deserved it’s own spot in the shop design. The planer requires a fair amount of space for it’s infeed and outfeed to keep the material flat, however the planer isn’t used enough to justify keeping it out on the workbench permanently. I also wanted to avoid the need to lift it out of a cabinet, so with this in mind I came up with the cart below that integrates with the cabinets. The cart rolls on double-locking casters and has folding infeed/outfeed tables that align with the planer’s table when upright. I used ‘drop leaf’ style hinges/supports to allow the tables to lock in place.

The ‘dead’ space inside is currently holding the router and router bits; I may convert this to a drawer at some point. When the cart is stored it just looks like any ordinary cabinet door.

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Shop Cabinets

This weekend I resumed work on the shop and made major progress on the cabinets:

– Upper cabinet built

– Another cabinet built for small parts storage

– Doors for existing base cabinets built

The doors are ‘shaker’ style for simplicity; building these is as easy as cutting a piece of 1/2″ plywood to the right size and then wrapping it in the same 1×2 poplar used for the cabinet face frames. All the door frame pieces got a 1/2″ dado to fit around the plywood edge and then the top/bottom frame pieces had 1/8″ removed from either side of their face on the ends to make a tenon. I found that the majority of the build time is in changing between the various setups needed (cut to length vs dado cutting vs tenon cutting vs cutting plywood, etc) so after the first test door I tried to build as many doors at a time in parallel as possible.

I went with ‘inset’ mounting of the doors because i like the clean/simple look. This gives a lot less room for error compared to overlay mounting since the gap is visible and it and needs to be small and consistent. It’s critical that cuts are within 1/16″ and that everything stays perfectly square or things go downhill fast. For the dados I used an old ‘wobble’ style dado blade (these are so sketchy they’ve been banned in europe); the geometry of this contraption is such that it can’t leave a perfectly square bottom. It’s not really a problem since the dado bottom is internal/unseen, but it made measuring and setting the correct dado depth difficult.

I definitely had a few mistakes to correct along the way, but overall I think it was just enough of a challenge to help improve my woodworking. Next steps are to make handles, make/install drawers for the last open base cabinet, and (eventually) do the finish work of filling/sanding/painting.

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Small Parts Organization

Background:

The new shop has given me the opportunity to rethink storage of the miscellaneous small parts I have laying around: nails, screws, nuts, bolts, brackets, cable ties, electrical connectors, fittings, etc. The previous system I had was to sort by type (i.e. nails) into individual plastic shelf bins (the common Blue/Red/Yellow type). This was better than nothing, but the downside was that every time I needed something I had to dump the whole bin into a sorting tray and search.

The new method uses a rack of portable parts storage cases.  These cases give the ability to sort by main type (i.e. nails all in one case) but also by individual size (i.e. 1″ finish nails). The cases also have removable bins inside of various sizes; by swapping these around I’ll be able to optimize storage – swap bins between the cases that have more big parts vs those that have more small parts.

I considered the individual drawer style of parts organizers also; when I’ve had these in the past it seemed like I was constantly opening and closing the tiny drawers to look at parts from above; the drawers also easily jammed closed when full. The parts storage cases should prevent both of these problems.

(There are lots of similar projects online that sparked the idea, so this definitely isn’t something I can take credit for coming up with.)

Construction:

Last weekend I built a cabinet to house the ‘machinist’ toolbox used for the mill and lathe tools; the cabinet also supports the lathe itself. For the countertop I’m again using the “Norm Abrams” design – plywood topped with a varnished hardboard layer that’s cheap/easy to replace when it gets too beat up; I had these at the last shop and they worked really well. I left room in the cabinet for this parts organizer idea, so today I just needed to outfit it with shelves to support the parts cases. The rack consists of the shelves themselves as well as spacer blocks that help support the shelves and make it easy to get the correct spacing. The process for making the shelves was as follows:

  • Rough cut each shelf from the plywood panel with a circular saw.
  • Square and cut the shelf to final dimensions on the table saw.
  • (For the first shelf) Drill holes at the corner of the handle area and finish cutting it out with the bandsaw.
  • (For all other shelves) Clamp the shelf to the first shelf and trim out the handle area area with the flush cut router bit.
  • Run the router over both front edges with a 1/4″ round-over bit.

There’s now an empty space in the cabinet behind the cases that I may eventually tap into and repeat the same idea using the smaller version of the cases; this would be accessed from the side of the cabinet, but for now it’s not needed.

I intentionally got a couple extra cases. This allows more options for swapping around internal bins, but primarily it’s so I have backups in case a case ever gets broken and exact replacements are no longer available.

All that’s left is to add an inset door (the cases are offset to the left to allow room for a door and hinges on the right), a slide-out platform at the top, and then finish trimming/sanding/painting everything.

(I also finished and painted the walls/trim then ground and epoxied the floor over the last several weekends, but I forgot to get in-progress pictures.)

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Sliding Doors

The shop floor plan allows for a large opening between the ‘far’ end of the shop and the auto repair/bus area. This will allow tools to be easily shared between both spaces; during a big auto project the repair bay can become an extension of the workshop. The opening is also big enough to bring in the front or rear of a vehicle if ever needed. When auto projects aren’t underway though I’d like to have doors cover this opening to prevent dust/mess from wood/metal project leaving the shop area and to save on shop heating/cooling costs.

The size of the opening presents a problem – swinging doors would have to swing ‘out’ of the shop to avoid hitting cabinets, and the large sweep would require moving anything parked on the garage side out of the way temporarily, kind of a hassle. To avoid this problem, sliding doors made the most sense.

The shop build project is being run with the materials cost set to minimum and the end-product quality set as high as is practical. This sounds unrealistic but is actually possible with the trade-off being time; it’s not a problem though since I count this as hobby time and there’s no particular deadline. The sliding doors are a great example of this – sliding doors and hardware are outrageously expensive compared to the raw materials cost. Building my own also gives me full control, in this case I wanted to avoid the farmhouse/barndoor/rustic look in favor of cleaner traditional/modern look. Over the last few weekends I’ve built the doors and tracks below, key points:

  • Door frames from 2×6’s, planed down to standard 1 3/8″ door thickness
  • Mortise and tenon joints connect frame pieces (tenons via table saw dado stack, mortises via router and chisel)
  • Slide rail is two 3/16″ x 3″ x 10′ flat bar sections welded in the middle.
  • Door bracket pins turned and threaded on lathe then welded to brackets.
  • Aluminum rollers turned on the lathe, held to the brackets using standard 608 skate bearings.
  • Brackets recessed into door frame and secured to the doors with studs welded to back side for a completely smooth front.
  • 1/4″ Tempered glass sourced from local glass shop.
  • Groove along bottom of door and small bottom bracket keep door located against the wall and limit inward overtravel.
  • Roller to door top spacing and roller flange width prevent door from lifting/falling off rail.

There’s a good bit of finishing work still left, but I’m happy with the results so far.

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Carpentry & Aviation

Today (I have a few days off of work), after a few months of studying in my spare time, I finally took the controls of a Cessna 172 for about an hour. With direction from the instructor I taxied, took-off, climbed to 2000ft, and then maneuvered around and even did part of the landing approach; though the instructor did the landing itself. I’ve got a long way to go but over then next year or so I’ll be flying somewhat frequently to make progress towards a private pilot certificate. Anytime a new skill can be learned (i.e. welding/painting/etc from the bus project) I find that it can be beneficial in unexpected ways, even for seemingly unrelated tasks/problems. So this is about having another tool in the mental toolbox, and I’ve always been interested in aviation anyways…

After arriving back from the flight I starting working on installing crown molding in the downstairs bathroom. For some reason this was the only room in the house that didn’t have it and I always thought it looked odd. In the past, I’ve just propped the molding up at the correct angle and hand sawed at 45degrees in a miter box. Due to the number of joints though I decided to get fancy and make the cuts on the tablesaw. This presents a problem since, when the molding is flat on the table, the angles are in two different directions: a compound angle in which the blade must be tilted and the material angled against the push fence. Luckily I’m not the first person to ever do this so I found tables online of compound angles for a given wall angle (90deg nearly always) and a given trim angle (the angle the trim sits against the wall). There was some scrap made while learning what orientation to use for a given angle; 4 of the 8 combinations don’t make anything useful (i.e. inside right/outside left/etc.) More than a few times during this process I thought back to how much easier flying the plane was (or at least seemed) earlier in the day.

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Building a better air return

Today, as part of a repainting project, I constructed a new air return out extra slats from wooden blinds and some scrap wood. Nothing was wrong with the existing metal return other than being ugly, so it will get added to the scrap metal pile and possible used on some metalwork project. All the materials were scraps from other projects, so total cost was just some paint/glue/staples and a few cents of electricity. As a bonus, the new return seems to be quieter and less restrictive than the metal version.

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