| The piano . . . that cumbersome
beast that's impossible to move and equally impossible to destroy . . .
scratch and scuff resistant, flame retardant, bullet proof and wrecking
ball fortified. Is this your view of the fine and delicate instrument
you've invested in? If so, think again and consider . . .
The modern piano is indeed a technological
masterpiece. It is made from some of the finest raw materials available
and, to give credit where credit is due, has been known to live through
100 years of abuse. Yet there are often regrets, and sometimes even a
point of no return, for those who push their pianos over the limit.
Consider the following stories from a long-time
piano technician's case file. One customer called a tuner for the first
time when the piano was about seven years old. "No one ever told me it
needed to be tuned," she said. That may be true, but it cost her three
tunings and several broken strings to get the piano back in tune.
Another said after five years of neglect, "We didn't have the money."
But getting it back in shape ended up costing her almost as much as if
she had had it tuned every year. Another customer, a career military
woman, said, "We were moving, so I decided to wait." After ten years
and several moves, she finally got it done--but at a cost much higher
than she had planned on.
The purpose of this pamphlet is to keep these testimonies from becoming
yours. Here, then, are some basic guidelines for taking care of each
aspect of your piano, one component at a time. Following them will not
only spare you grief later, but give you more enjoyment out of your
If you have a newer instrument, give it a regular application of a
good, no-wax polish such as Old
English or Liquid Gold.
It will keep
the wood looking fresh, clean, and new. On the high-gloss finishes,
most common on Oriental and European pianos, a regular cleaning with a
glass cleaner such as Windex will keep it clean, but to keep it
streak-free and impart a nice shine, find a polish that is formulated
for polyester finishes.
If you own an older piano with an old varnish that
has become scratched and "checked" like alligator skin, you may
consider the cabinet too far gone already. But don't give up yet! Try
one of the scratch cover polishes like Old English
Polish, available in many supermarkets, hardware and furniture
For a more thorough job, spread newspapers around the piano, pour a
little of the polish into a coffee can, and use a small brush to work
it into the cracks and corners. Then rub in the polish with a rag
using a circular motion, and wipe off all excess polish. After it dries
to a dull sheen, keep it looking fresh with the standard polish. You'll
be surprised how good an old piano can look.
Most pianos made since about 1930 will probably have white keys covered
with some type of plastic (primitive though it may be). They, as well
as the newer "molded plastic" white keys, are best cleaned using a
well-squeezed rag dipped in ammonia and water. Doing this once a month
or so will prevent grease from little fingers (or big ones) from
building up, and will keep the keys looking and feeling new. This works
for the black keys as well. Do not, as one customer did, take the keys
off and soak them in the dishpan. Her keys have not been the same since.
If your piano has genuine ivory keys, usually
evidenced by the seam separating the wide front portion of the key (the
"head") from the narrow back portion (the "tail") of the key, keep them
clean in the same way as plastic keys but be extra careful about excess
water, which can soak into the porous ivory and cause it to warp or
lift. After they are cleaned, try this technique for giving them
a nice smooth feel: Old ivories that have never had any attention
will often have a rough, "chalky" feel. They can be smoothed up, after
they are cleaned, by rubbing them lengthwise (with the grain) with
extra fine steel wool, either 4/0 or 6/0, then by buffing them with a
soft rag. This will bring out their natural beauty as well as make them
feel like new.
The Strings And Tuning Pins:
These are the metal parts of your piano, and those components most
for your piano's sound. As with everything metal, the enemy is the
or corrosion. And rust or corrosion will not only impair the piano's
may result in breaking strings as well.
The best way to prevent rust damage is keep the
area around the piano as protected as possible. This is somewhat easier
in uprights, since they are already closed in and somewhat more immune
to humidity. Yet in extremely humid climates, especially those that
remain so for all or most of the year, some sort of dehumidifier bar
as a Dampp-Chaser, the
most well-known), is advisable. These mount inside
your piano and use only about 25 watts of power, but they do help keep
air inside dry (between 40% and 60% is the ideal).
In grands, it is better to keep the lid closed
when the piano is not in use, to keep out direct sunlight, excessive
humidity, and dust. But since most people will find this advice too
bothersome to follow, at least keep the piano away from direct heat and
sources of moisture, such as open windows. Another way to keep the
inside looking new is to buy a piece of felt
large enough to cover the entire inside area of the piano, and cut it
to fit. Now the strings and soundboard are protected, and the piano can
even be played (with only a small loss of volume) without removing the
cloth. Then, you can periodically remove the cloth and shake away
all the dust -- outside --
that would have settled on
Remember, rust protection
is all that is
necessary, not rust cleaning
(which helps appearance only). Rust is not
alive like a fungus; even if a little is present, it will not "grow" or
continue to build up as long as the above steps are taken to protect
the piano from damp conditions. (Do not, as one customer did, wipe the
strings regularly with a damp chamois cloth to keep them "clean." It
took a lengthy interrogation to get to the cause of that rust
problem.) If you notice excessive rust on your strings or tuning
pins and would like it removed for appearance' sake, many piano
technicians will use a combination of steel wool, wire brushes, emery
blocks, and other such things for rust cleaning.
Soundboard, Bridges, And Pinblock:
These are the major wood components of the piano. Like metal, they are
affected by excessive humidity; unlike metal, they are also damaged by
extremes in temperature, and by excessive dryness as well. Thus, all
the advice about protecting the piano's environment applies here, as
well as the following precautions:
1. Avoid direct sources of heat,
such as wood
stoves, radiators, heat registers, and direct sunlight. These can dry
out and shrink wood, causing it to crack or split.
2. Avoid keeping the piano in a
place where the
temperature fluctuates significantly. This is not a serious
a room where the heat is turned down to, say, 60 degrees when not in
use, and then up to 70 degrees when in use. It is a very serious
problem in an unheated garage or porch in a northern climate where the
temperature with the heat off will drop to near freezing or below.
3. Avoid the greatest enemy of all
basements! The severe air humidity, as well as dampness in the
and walls, will almost certainly cause cracks, rust, mildew, peeling
veneer, and weakened or splitting glue joints in a piano left there for
any length of time. A finished basement with a dehumidifier that runs
regularly during the humid months may be acceptable, but ask your piano
technician to monitor the effects of such an environment.
| All of the
above advice will probably prevent
most wood problems in your piano. But even in the best of homes a piano
can develop a cracked soundboard, split bridge, or dried-out
A case of a cracked soundboard,
despite what you
may have heard, may have little or no effect on the performance of the
piano. Most older pianos, and even many newer ones, have cracked
soundboards (which in many cases have been that way for years) that
cause their owners no grief at all. If you don't hear it, don't fix it.
If it is audible (it usually sounds like a buzzing sound that dies away
quickly, long before the string stops ringing), the solution is often a
simple and inexpensive repair.
A cracked or split bridge,
which is usually heard as a "twang" or
metallic buzzing sound, may also be a simple procedure, especially if
it affects only a few notes. This problem is most likely to occur in
the bass section (where it is also the easiest to repair), but it can
show up in any register of the piano. If the crack runs a
substantial length of the brideg, it
may require serious repair or even replacement, which can be quite
A cracked or dried-out pinblock results in
enlarged holes that do not grip the tuning pins as tightly as they
should. This is usually the cause of a piano that goes out of tune very
quickly, expecially if some notes go extremely out of tune. A mild case
can be remedied by having your tuner tap the pins a little deeper into
the block, or apply a special liquid tuning pin solution that "swells"
the block to grip the pins tighter. If these simple remedies do not
work or are not recommended for your piano, prepare yourself for either
heep big repair bill or a new piano. Get some good, objective advice,
maybe even a second opinion, before making a decision.
The action is the mechanical or "moving" portion of the piano, and
because it is made out of wood and felt, both sensitive to temperature
and humidity, all of the above precautions for a good environment
apply. Excessive dryness will cause screws to loosen up, causing
clacking or rattling noises. Excessive humidity will cause the tiny
metal "center pins," the pivot points for all of the moving parts, to
rust or oxidize, causing a "sluggish" feel.
Just a few of the regulating tools a piano technician might use.
Be aware that even a piano in a perfect
environment, through normal wear and tear, will develop certain
conditions that should be serviced regularly. These are too technical
to explain here, but should be checked regularly by your
tuner/technician. You may want to mention them periodically, however
(every few years), since some tuners will not automatically point them
out to you. These include:
- Adjusting the
key capstan or "sticker": This
adjustment will take up any lost motion in the keystroke, thus enabling
you to get the most out of your fingerpower.
the hammers: This simply means
removing the outer layer of felt after the strings have worn
significant grooves in them. Left unserviced, the grooves produce a
muffled or "hollow" sound, and adversely affect the piano's touch.
- Adjusting key
dip: This is the depth of the
keystroke (the distance the key goes down when you depress it). It
should measure about 3/8 of an inch. If it is considerably off, every
other aspect of your piano's action will be out of whack.
You may have noticed a common theme in all of the
above advice: that regular servicing will correct or prevent any small
piano problem from becoming a large one. You wouldn't dream of driving
your car for several years without giving it regular maintenance. Give
your piano the benefit of a yearly or twice-yearly checkup, and your
piano will never cease to thank you.