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The Piano Care Guide

By Carl Radford, RPT

What is Tuning?
Why Do Pianos Go Out of Tune?
How Often Should a Piano Be Tuned?
Should a Piano That's Not Played Very Much Be Tuned as Often?
Can the Piano Be Damaged by Not Having it Tuned?
What is A-440?
What is a Pitch Raise?
What is the Best Location for the Piano?
Humidity
How Can I Control the Humidity?
Piano Life Saver Care

How Should I Clean the Finish?
Regulation
Voicing
What is Well Temperament?
Moving
How to Help Your Technician Do His Job
Missed Appointments
Complaints
The Piano Technician
The Piano Technician's Guild
The Structure of a Piano
The Piano Parts Quiz
Additional Reading

What is Tuning?
Tuning involves tightening and loosening the tension of the steel strings in a piano, so that they are organized to sound beautiful, or in harmony, together. The higher the tension of a string the higher the pitch of the sound, and conversely, the looser the string the lower the note of that string will be.

Each string is attached to a steel tuning pin which is embedded into wood (pinblock). The piano tuner uses a tuning lever on these steel tuning pins to raise and lower the tension.

In most pianos there are more than 230 strings and all must be properly tuned to each other to sound musical.

Why Do Pianos go Out of Tune?
The primary reason pianos go out of tune is due to fluctuations in the amount of moisture in the air; in other words - changes in humidity.

Trees accept moisture and food from the ground along small tubes which contract and expand with the amount of moisture available to them. These tubes are what make up the growth rings, and later what we call the grain of the wood in sawn lumber. The moisture in the air still causes some expansion and contraction of the wood, even after the the wood has been cut and finished into a piano. Since about 80% of a piano is made out of wood, changes in humidity can sometimes have a large effect. If you've ever had difficulty opening a sticking door on a particularly damp day, you get the idea.

When the heat in the house comes on in the winter, the air can be very dry and causes the wood in the piano, and hence the soundboard, to shrink a little. Since the strings are attached indirectly to the soundboard (via the bridge), as the wood shrinks the strings lose some tension and consequently the pitch of the piano drops. This is why a piano may go down in pitch, but still seem to be in tune with itself, without the pianist even knowing it. Too little humidity can also cause other problems over time such as loose tuning pins, which could render the piano untunable, irreparable cracks in the soundboard, and rattling keys.

On the other hand, during the rainy season in the spring after the heat goes off the soundboard can swell up, cause extra tension on the strings, and the pitch of the piano will rise. Excessive humidity can also cause sticking keys and rusty strings.

New pianos will tend to go out of tune faster than pianos that have been around for a while. This is because the strings are new and still stretching. If you've ever put a new string on a guitar, you know it takes a while for the new string to stop stretching and blend in with the old ones. This is why most piano manufacturers recommend at least four tunings in the first year.

Playing the piano can have some effect on the tuning. The harder and more frequently the piano is played the more it will go out of tune, but overall humidity plays a much greater factor.

Level pianos will stay in tune better than wobbly ones. Grand pianos have three legs and cannot wobble, but if you have a vertical you can make it stay in tune better by making sure all four casters are making solid contact with the floor.

Drafts, direct heat and direct sunlight should be avoided as these will also affect the moisture content in the wood and cause unstable tuning.

Moving a piano can flex the soundboard and cause a piano to go out of tune. Moving it to a different room, house or environment where there is a different humidity level can sometimes also causes changes, which is why a piano that has held its tune very well for many years, when moved to a less stable environment, may suddenly not hold a tune as well.

How Often Should a Piano be Tuned?
Most piano manufacturers recommend at least four tunings in the first year and two tunings per year thereafter for a typical home piano. This is because of the changes in humidity, and hence tuning due to the changes in season.

Some people like to go as long as a year between tunings. This should be considered minimal and certainly should not go any longer than that. On the other hand, some people who have more sensitive ears, and consider themselves artists, have their piano tuned four times a year or more. Concert halls and recording studios usually tune every performance.

Should a Piano That's Not Played Very Much Be Tuned as Often?
Yes. This is one of the most common misconceptions. Playing has less to do with knocking the piano out of tune as does the humidity. The humidity keeps changing whether anyone is playing the piano or not. So the piano should be tuned whether anyone is playing it or not.

Can the Piano Be Damaged by Not Having it Tuned?
To keep a piano untuned for many years could do permanent damage to the piano. The strings are under a great deal of tension and tend to loose their tension over time. If the piano is kept untuned for too long you run the risk of the total pitch of the piano dropping. To bring the piano back to standard pitch may cause, at best, the necessity for several tunings over several weeks (at a higher cost) or, at worst, string breakage, and split bridges. Not only that, but playing on a poorly tuned piano can cause a potential musician to subconsciously not enjoy playing and hence, not wish to play.

Many piano owners don't realize that not having a piano tuned regularly may also invalidate the warranty. That is why it is a good idea to keep the tuning receipts your technician gives you after each tuning, to prove that you've kept the piano maintained in case of a warranty claim.

What is A-440?
When a string on a piano is struck it vibrates back and forth. The faster it vibrates, the higher the sound. The slower it vibrates the lower the sound will be. The lowest note on the piano vibrates about 27.5 times a second and the highest about 3520 times a second. The number of vibrations per second is called cycles or Hertz and is also the frequency of the tone.

The "A" stands for the A (or the ninth key) above middle C. The 440 refers to the sound frequency of 440 vibrations per second. This means that when the A above middle C is tuned to 440, that string is vibrating back and forth 440 times a second.

Most technicians tune the first A at 440 using a tuning fork, or electronic device, and then they tune the rest of the piano to this note.

Long ago there were many differing ideas as to what frequency pianos and orchestras should be tuned. (That is why some very old pianos and organs still need to be tuned to a lower A-435.) To avoid confusion A-440 was accepted, after the first world war, as the international pitch standard.

What is a Pitch Raise?
If a piano is kept untuned for too long, or undergoes dramatic humidity extremes, the pitch of all the notes of the piano may drop significantly below A-440 (see above). The entire piano may be one, two or more notes low. When the piano is under pitch like this, other instruments or singers may have difficulty tuning with the piano.

To rectify the problem, the technician must roughly tune the piano once to "get it in the ball park". By the time he is done with the first tuning, the strings will have stretched out of tune again and the piano will then need one or more finer tunings. A pitch raise is a fairly radical procedure, and the piano will tend to wander out of tune again faster than normal at first, until another tuning some months later. After that the piano will become more stable with consistent tunings.

Some older pianos cannot be brought up to proper pitch, because the strings are rusty or old and may break if too much tension is put suddenly on them, or the wooden bridge may split, causing buzzing notes.

The bad news is that since this requires more time and effort, the technician is likely to charge extra. The good news is that, if regularly tuned thereafter, the piano will not be likely to need a pitch raise again.

What is the Best Location for the Piano?
1. Away from direct heat such as radiators, heat ducts and fireplaces. Leaving a piano next to one of these over several years will do irreparable damage.

2. Away from direct sunlight. The light will discolor or crack the finish and the heat will make the tuning less stable. However, diffused sunlight is usually alright.

3. Away from outside walls, outside doorways and drafts. Outside walls tend to be colder and wetter and cause tuning instability. However, if you have to make a choice between an outside wall and a heating duct, the outside wall is preferable.

4. Out of the basement or garage, if possible. Basements tend to be too wet and may, over time, warp and rust the parts. Also, many basements flood. If you must have the piano in the basement, proper humidity control is essential. Never store a piano in a garage. The humidity extremes in a garage that is not climate controlled will quickly render the piano unusable.

Humidity
Think of a sponge in a dish of water. The more water in the dish, the more the sponge expands. The less water, the more the sponge shrinks until it becomes dry and brittle. The sponge, of course, is the wood in the piano. The dish is the room, and the water is the humidity in the air of the room.

Now attach a string from the end of the sponge to the side of the dish. As expansion or contraction of the sponge takes place, the string becomes taught or slack; just like the stings in the piano. As this happens the tuning goes up and down in pitch. Obviously, the more consistent one can keep the moisture level, the more consistent the tuning will stay and also the longer the piano will last. It is not too much or too little humidity which causes problems, but the extremes of going back and forth when the heat comes on and off in seasonal climates such as the northern United States. A constant high or low humidity is in actually easier to deal with than these wide swings. On a rainy day the humidity can get up to 100% and on a dry winter day it can get down to 20 or 30% in a heated house. The ideal humidity for a piano is 35 to 45% (or 42% with a temperature of 68 degrees, if you want to get precise).

Hygrometers are devices which measure the humidity. These can be purchased at a hardware, department or electronic store or here. There are needle and digital types and some are more accurate than others, so you need to beware of the really cheap ones. Also, be sure to get one that measu

res the relative humidity (humidity relative to the temperature). Your technician may be able to recommend a good one.

Humidifiers are used mostly in the winter to add moisture to the air. An adequate humidifier is the kind that is a part of a forced air system, however be aware that these can be quite inaccurate. Many, unbeknownst to the owner, aren't working at all.

If you don't have forced air, the next best humidifier, is the portable type of which there are many sizes and styles available. Although they can be quite noisy, they can be placed in the room near the piano and monitored for a while until you get a fairly constant humidity level. It is best to get a large enough tank for when you go out of town. It's also a good idea to get one with a humidistat, which automatically turns the humidifier on and off when it reaches the proper humidity level. Avoid ultrasonic humidifiers, as they can cause health problems and white dust. Clean your room humidifier once a week or so with bleach to avoid health problems and add bacteriostatic solution (easily obtained from your local hardware store) to keep down bacteria growth.

Air Conditioners and Dehumidifiers are a good idea during the Spring and Summer to keep the moisture down if you have a problem with excessive humidity. Again, consistency is the key.

Piano Life Saver- a complete humidity control system. (shown below)

How can I Control the Humidity?
I highly recommend the Piano Life Saver (Dampp-Chaser) humidity control system. It is the ideal solution to the humidity problem. This device works year-round on grands and verticals and keeps the piano at a constant 42% humidity. The unit is silent, hidden, easy to care for, and works better than anything else available.

The system is placed directly into the piano and consists of three basic parts:

1. A low wattage heater, which comes on when the moisture in the piano is too high, and keeps the piano from getting too wet.

2. An humidifier, which distributes moisture at the proper amount when the air around the piano becomes too dry.

3. An humidistat, which measures the current humidity level and automatically regulates the heater and the humidifier.

The climate control system is endorsed by piano manufacturers, the Piano Technicians Guild, and many experienced technicians throughout the country. This product is the most effective way to care for your piano while saving yourself hundreds of dollars in unnecessary repair and maintenance costs. The Piano Life Saver system will allow your instrument to give you its best in performance and sound for many years to come.

More information about the Piano Life Saver system.
To purchase one and have it professionally installed by a Piano Life Saver Certified Installer email us or call 773-761-KEYS (5397).

A PIANO LIFE SAVER SYSTEM INSTALLED IN A VERTICAL PIANO

Piano Life Saver Care is easy.

1. Always leave the system plugged in year around. This is very important! Unplugging the system will cause the piano to quickly go out of tune and defeats the purpose of the system.

2. Whenever the light blinks, fill it with water. Fill it with distilled or filtered water if possible. Add 1 capful of the Humidifier Pad Treatment, which comes with the system or can be obtained from your piano technician. Always water the piano when the light blinks, even when the piano technician is about to come for a tuning.

3. The pads should be replaced about once a year. Your technician will do this for you. Piano Life Savers, Humidifier Treatment and Replacement Pads are now available via this website.

How Should I Clean the Finish?
Don't use
waxes, furniture polishes, oils or dust cleaners, unless one is recommended by your technician. Some oils, especially silicone, cannot be removed when put on a finish. Others can darken the wood or damage the finish.

On most new pianos you can use some soft cloth (such as cheese cloth or a cotton diaper). Take two pieces of the cloth, put a little tap water on one, just enough to lightly moisten it, and leave the other dry. Clean the piano with one stroke of the wet cloth, then wipe it dry with the dry cloth. This works especially well for the high gloss finishes. You may also use a little diluted glass cleaner on the cloth if the piano becomes especially dirty. Just make sure you use glass cleaner without ammonia.

To clean the keys, use the same procedure as above. Avoid spraying water or glass cleaner directly on the keys, as moisture may get in between the keys causing warping and sticking problems.

For yellowed ivory keys, consult your technician.

For inside the piano it usually best to let your technician do the cleaning, for an inexperienced person may do minor damage. However, if you insist and your technician agrees, you may do some interior cleaning.

To clean the inside of verticals, open up the bottom board and the top lid and vacuum, being careful not to touch the strings or suck up any parts which may have broken and fallen from the action. If you find a part and are in doubt - save it for your technician. You may dust with a moist cloth, again being careful not to touch the strings, as moisture will cause them to rust.

For Grands, your technician has a special method to clean underneath the strings and it is best to consult him for a thorough cleaning. You can, however, blow the soundboard area out with the exhaust end of a vacuum cleaner from time to time, but be prepared for a large dust cloud. Be careful to avoid touching the strings with moisture or your hands, since moisture and the oil from your hands causes rust.

Recommended Piano Polishes and Cleaners.

Regulation
After several years of playing, the felt and cloth parts in a piano will wear down or compress from normal usage. Parts become out of alignment, loose or wobbly, and because of this, the touch of the piano may become inconsistent from key to key. It may feel sloppy, not as responsive as it used to, or no longer as comfortable to play. Other signs are excessive noises such as clicking and squeaking sounds.

The remedy for this is called regulation. The technician will clean and lubricate the action parts. He will also tighten, and align and all the parts to original specifications to optimize repetition and responsiveness.

The amount the piano is played and the ability and sensitivity of the pianist will dictate how often this procedure is needed.

A poorly regulated piano can severely hamper and frustrate a beginner as well as an advanced player, and the player will be amazed at how a little regulation can breathe new life and enjoyment into a piano's touch.

Voicing
Voicing means changing the tone of the piano by sanding, needling or applying chemicals to the felt of the hammers. There are three reasons for voicing:

1. After several years of playing the felt on the hammers will wear down, and grooves will form on them from striking the strings. When the grooves become too deep, the resilient shape of the hammers is lost and the tone becomes less pleasing. This happens so gradually, that the pianist will probably hardly notice the change.

To remedy this, the technician will sand the hammers to the original shape and remove the grooves. This process can dramatically enhance the tone, restoring it to its former richness.

2. Another aspect of voicing involves making the tone of the entire piano brighter or more mellow. Making it brighter is done, either by ironing or fine sanding the hammers, or by applying a chemical felt hardener. Making it more mellow is usually done by sanding the hammers, or pricking the hammers with needles, which softens the felt.

3. Sometimes some individual notes stick out as too bright, or not bright enough compared to the rest. In this case some fine voicing is required, which involves sanding and needling, to even out the tone so that it is consistent throughout the piano.

Whereas voicing can sometimes make large changes in the quality of the tone, it should be kept in mind that only so much can be done, given the inherent nature and tone of each individual piano.

When voicing a piano, the technician will probably want the pianist nearby to listen and tell him which type of tone they prefer.

A TECHNICIAN NEEDLES THE HAMMERS TO SOFTEN THE FELT AND EVEN OUT THE TONE

 

What is Well Temperament?
Well Temperament is a type of tuning that all the major composers from Bach to Rachmaninoff composed upon. During the last century this tuning has been all but lost to us until just recently.

Well Temperament gives music more color and depth, because each major and minor key has its own unique flavor. What Well Temperament does is make the music come alive in a way that is really unbelievable. The major keys sound happier, more pure and the minor keys sound sadder, more tragic, more melancholy. And each key is different and unique unto itself. The music sounds the way the composers meant, and when one hears it that way, one is astounded at the brilliance of some of the composers usage of this tuning in their compositions.

Tuners and pianists the world over are quickly realizing that changing to Well Temperament is like hearing in black & white your whole life and suddenly changing to color. Well Temperament may open up an exciting new door to the enjoyment of music that you never before knew existed.

Moving
When moving a piano always use a piano mover, who specializes in pianos, and not a furniture mover, who says they also move pianos. Almost everyone who has had their piano moved has horror stories of broken lids, scratches and ineptitude by unqualified movers. The piano mover may cost a bit more, but they'll do it right and it always pays off in the long run. Your technician usually will be happy to refer you to a tried and true piano mover.

The flexing of the soundboard while moving a piano, and the change in humidity from one environment to another after a move, may cause a piano to go out of tune. After moving, you should wait a week or so before scheduling a tuning so the piano has a chance to adjust itself to the new humidity.

How to Help Your Technician Do His Job
There are several things you can do to make the technician's visit faster, easier and in the process receive a higher quality tuning:

Noise is by far the worst enemy of piano tuners. When a tuner tunes, he listens to very high frequencies, most untrained ears are not even aware of, called overtones. Anything else that produces these high frequencies, such as music, television, running water, vacuum cleaners, clanking dishes, yelling children and loud talking, makes it much more difficult to tune accurately. The technician can still tune a piano through all of this, but it will take longer and be a poorer quality tuning.

Adequate Light in the area of the piano is greatly appreciated, as it can be difficult to make proper repairs without good lighting.

Clearing off the top of the piano before the tuner's visit is also greatly appreciated. The top must be cleared so the tuner can open the lid and get into the piano to tune. Not only does this save time, but technicians are always fearful that they may break some knickknack of importance if they have to move them.

Consistent humidity about 35 to 45%, as discussed earlier, will make the piano more stable and it will not go as far out of tune between tunings. Each time the technician returns, he will be able to achieve a more detailed, higher quality, more stable tuning, because the piano will not have fluctuated as much.

Identifying problem notes can be a problem, because that sticky key that had been sticking for months isn't sticking when the technician arrives (of course!). It's a law of nature; just like the squeaky brakes that don't squeak once you finally get the car into the shop for service.

The best thing to do when there is a problem key, is to write down the number of the particular key(s) in question on a piece of paper. Also, note the problem with each key, and put the paper in the piano bench until the technician arrives. He/she will then know exactly which key to look at during the next service call.

Missed Appointments
Missed appointments can be very exasperating for technicians, because they schedule their appointments very tightly together and often drive large distances only to find no one home.

If a cancellation or postponement of an appointment is unavoidable, it is a good idea to give at least twenty-four hours notice. If even that is not possible, it should be expected that there will be a minimum service call fee, even if there was a good reason to cancel.

Complaints
If there is a complaint or question about the work that was done on a piano, the best thing to do is go to the source; call the technician and consult him. He will probably want to know about it, rather than wonder why he never heard from you again. Usually complaints revolve around failed communication between technician and customer, as they sometimes have different ways of saying the same thing. A "wobbly note" to the pianist may be "insufficient aftertouch" or an "out of tune unison" to the technician. In any case, the technician would rather talk to you and/or make another appointment to rectify the problem, than lose you as a customer.

The Piano Technician
It is usually best to use a piano technician, as opposed to a piano tuner. The difference is that the technician not only tunes, but also understands the maintenance, repair, regulation and voicing of pianos and is able to carry out these services, as well as tuning.

Whereas a few tuners are hobbyists, most are professionals and support themselves and their families solely as piano technicians. It can take three years or more to become adept at piano tuning and maintenance, and several years beyond that to build up enough clientele for a business. Many people do not realize the level of skill involved in doing a fine piano tuning, which is why many consider piano tuners "unseen artists".

There is no licensing for piano technicians. Anyone can say they're a tuner, and hang out a shingle. The best way to find a qualified technician is by referral from a piano store, pianist, teacher or friend. The other way is to seek out a registered member of the Piano Technician's Guild (explained in more detail below). Of course, if you just bought a piano from a store, the technician who first serviced your piano after delivery hopes to keep your business for many years to come; so if you are happy with him / her, you need look no further.

Here is a list of services you can expect from Radford Piano Services, inc.

The Piano Technician's Guild
The P.T.G. is an international, non-profit organization of piano tuner / technicians, who meet regularly to learn more about their craft from each other.

The guild also offers testing for its members to set standards and prove competency in tuning, repair and regulation. There are three rigorous and comprehensive tests, which when passed, entitles the member to use the title of Registered Piano Technician or R.P.T. Only R.P.T.'s are entitled to use the logo displayed below, and if you see these logos, you can be assured of a qualified technician, who has passed these examinations.

 

The Structure of a Piano
The pianist plays the KEYS. The KEYS, which are basically levers, push up on a complicated series of other levers and pivots, called The ACTION.

SIDE VIEW PHOTO OF A GRAND PIANO ACTION

 

SIDE LABELED VIEW OF A GRAND PIANO ACTION

The action then transfers the pianist's blow to the hammers, which are made out of felt, and they then strike the strings. The strings vibrate and create the pitches (notes) at various frequencies. The strings are held in place by steel tuning pins driven into a thick piece of wood called a pinblock. It is important that the pinblock grips the tuning pins tightly enough that the strings stay in tune, but it must also allow the pins to move enough that the piano technician can turn them and tune the piano. The strings are connected at one end by the tuning pins and pinblock. The strings pass over the bridge transferring the vibrations of the strings to the soundboard and are attached at the other end to the cast iron plate.

GRAND PIANO VIEWED FROM ABOVE

 

The soundboard is usually made of spruce and acts like an amplifier, enhancing the tone of the strings. The cast iron plate holds the tremendous tension of all the strings. Finally, the case contains all the parts and keeps the soundboard taut.

GRAND PIANO STRUCTURE

It's amazing to me how many wonderful and talented pianists spend much of their lives in front of a piano, yet have no knowledge of what is inside a piano or how it works.

You can learn the nomenclature and structure of the piano's case and actions parts or test your knowledge by taking the Piano Parts Quiz.


Additional Reading
The following books should be available at your library, piano store or from your piano technician:

The Piano Book, A Guide to Buying a New or Used Piano by Larry Fine

The Wonders of the Piano by Catherine Bielefeldt


Artwork courtesy of: Steinway and Sons, Samick Piano Corporation, and Piano Life Saver Electronics Corporation.
© 1992 by Carl Radford. All rights reserved. No copies or reproductions may be made without the permission of the author.

Email: RadfordPiano@gmail.com

Phone:
(773) 761-KEYS (5397)
 

 
 


 
 
 
      © 1992-2013 Radford Piano Services, inc.