Piano Care and Maintenance

Posted: July 14, 2011 in Piano Regulation

Piano Maintenance -Sep 2009 f

Image by The Queen's Hall via Flickr

Pianos require general care and periodic maintenance.

General Care – All pianos should cleaned of dust inside the piano at a reasonable interval. A good technician will be able to provide this service, usually at no extra charge during the tuning appointment.

No water should ever be used to clean any part of the piano or the piano cabinet. The external cabinet can be dusted with a soft cloth. Fingerprints and smudges can be removed from polished ebony finishes with an ammonia based window cleaner. Apply the liquid to the cloth to avoid over spray. Do not use any type of wax product on a polyurethane finish.

On lacquer based finishes, use a recommended furniture polish. You can buy piano polishes for pianos, but these are the same products that are available for other types of furniture.

On old wood finishes you can use paste floor wax. Nicks and Dings can be recolored using Old English Polish (for dark woods) or a magic marker of matching color. Keep in mind that such an application is not a furniture repair. It is only a cosmetic disguise.

Cleaning the Keys – The keys of the piano should be cleaned occasionally. Dirt from the fingers can cause an unsightly build-up over time. Use an ammonia based product applied to a soft cloth. Do not spray directly onto the keys.

Permanent magic marker can be removed from plastic keytops with a white toothpaste. (Gel does not work). Use in small quantities and scrub with pressure. Use a damp cloth to wipe away the residue. Repeat as necessary until all the toothpaste has been removed.

Shining Brass Assignments and Pedals – With few exceptions, this is not a general care item. Shining brass is a chore which can cause irreparable damage to your flooring or carpet. Brass is coated with lacquer or other solvent to prevent tarnishing. If you polish brass, this protective coating is removed and must be reapplied. Leave the brass cleaning to your technician.

Periodic Maintenance

Some maintenance is required at certain intervals. This maintenance can correct existing problems, but more often, it is intended to prevent excessive and unchecked deterioration of the piano.

Tuning – A piano does not have strings. It has wires. A piano needs to be tuned when it goes out of tune. That might be three months; it might be two years. A new piano should be tuned at closer interval than an older piano, as long as the older piano was properly maintained during the first ten years of its life. The reason for this is quite simple. New wires stretch more than older wires. It is a characteristic of steel that its molecules are very rigid. When a wire is stretched, heat is created within the string as pressure (force) is applied to the molecular structure of the steel. As the wire cools (which is almost immediately) contraction within the wire occurs.

In new wire, a more frequent interval of tuning permits smaller adjustments to the wire. The expansion/contraction of the wire is less. The wire stabilizes with age within a smaller variance.

If the wire is tuned beyond the interval of one year, then the wire will have to be stretched further in order to bring it back to its assigned frequency and tension. The trick here is to find the right interval for your piano, based on several factors.

Quality – A better quality piano requires fewer tunings. Likewise, a poor quality piano will go out of tune frequently, usually as soon as the technician leaves the house!

Frequency of Use – The more you play a piano, the more often the piano will need to be tuned.

Style of Playing – The harder you play, the more often the piano will need to be tuned.

Humidity and Weather – Wide swings in humidity and weather can cause a piano to go out of tune overnight. For instance, a three day hard freeze, with extremely dry and cold temperatures, can cause a piano to go out of tune dramatically. Over the period of a year, the normal changes in humidity will cause most pianos to drop in pitch.

Piano TechniciansAn experienced technician can help you understand which tuning interval is best for your piano.

OTHER PERIODIC MAINTENANCE ITEMS

RegulationThe parts of a piano action need to adjusted occasionally. This is called regulation. Your technician will probably make small adjustments during each tuning episode. A full regulation is needed on an interval of about once every ten years. A piano regulation should only be performed by a bench technician. There are some exceptions to this, so I will add a few comments about this.

Regulating a piano is a labor intensive operation. There are 9,000 parts in a piano action. Many of those parts need to be adjusted during the regulation. The person you want to hire to do this is the person who does it more often. A piano technician who travels from house to house tuning pianos most often does NOT perform regulations often enough to develop a keen and unwavering skill at regulation. However, where you can find a rebuilding shop in your town, you will also find a technician who rebuilds the actions for piano that are rebuilt. This is the person you should hire to regulate your piano.

Exceptions: The piano industry is an unregulated industry.  There is no credible and organization which certifies or guarantees a technician’s credentials, qualifications or ability.  Piano maintenance is an art, based on a science, but one which is very fluid and tolerant of very broad interpretations. A few field technicians (about 10%) have advanced skills at regulating pianos. Most do not know how to regulate, or regulate so infrequently that the quality of the work will be suspect.

My recommendation is to have your regulation done by a bench technician. The better piano stores know who the best bench technicians are. Technicians whom I respect will disagree.  Let’s leave it there.

Hammers – Depending on use, the hammers will need to be replaced at least once during the life of the piano. If you own a new piano, hammer replacement should not be necessary for at least 30 years. If you own a used piano, you may either want to place your hammers, or NEED to replace them. Your technician can advise you on this. Hammers should be replaced by a bench technician. If your technician says he or she can do it, ask for references.  Then call the top three piano stores in town and get a recommendation.  Replacing hammers is not as difficult as a full regulation, but when you replace hammers, a full regulation is required. Hire the bench technician.

Pedals – The pedals will be inspected and adjusted if needed at every tuning interval. The pedal works usually last for the entire life of the piano.

Extraordinary Maintenance – Anything that can go wrong usually will. Pianos are built rock solid. From time to time though, an unusual repair is needed. A rib may become unglued from the soundboard which produces an irritating buzzing sound when the piano is played. A soundboard may crack. If it causes a buzz, it should be repaired.  If it does not, then chances are it should be left alone. These types of problems fall outside the topic of “Periodic Maintenance”, but if a serious problem occurs, it is best to hire the technician who is most experienced at fixing that particular problem.

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