To Touch or Not To Touch…

Posted: January 29, 2012 in Piano

English: Piano strings Español: Cuerdas de piano

Image via Wikipedia

I’m writing about strings – piano strings. First, they are not strings. They are wires.  We talk about the “strings of a piano” which reinforces the idea that a piano has strings but in truth, when it comes to pianos, there are no strings attached.

You might think I am behaving like a lonely hunter, just out to split some hares, but piano technicians work in a world of exactitude. We are most often rationalists. We make decisions based on the facts, and the fact is – a wire is not a string. Yes, that kind of scrutiny can be annoying, but it is difficult to solve real problems by working with myth and inaccuracies.

Speaking of myths

A myth is a collection of ‘best guesses” and “long stretches” retold by learned men and women, embellished in pubs and Piano Technician’s Guild meetings, and passed along to the unwary and naïve with the signature of seniority’s  authority.

Make no mythstake: the world would be a boring place without myths. It would be a living Hell if we could only speak about things that are certain. Come to think about it, what is certain? Death, taxes and … what was the other one?

Seniority’s Authority

Politicians and theologians know that if you tell the same story over and over, it will likely be held to be true eventually. If I had a hole for every bagel of truth that has been offered to me, I would have a ton of donuts. (If I had gone with “kernel” of truth, the pun would have been corny.)

A History of Pianos

As America developed, especially during the waves of immigration which occurred in the 1800s, people who were involved in the trades knew where to go in Europe to find skilled labor. They would go to the town where they once lived, where they knew craftsmen who knew the trade, and would help them immigrate to the new world.  With the promise of a job, liberty, a new home, and a few friends, craftsmen of all sorts of ability came to America.  The piano craftsmen were from Europe, and they created thousands of piano brands in the U.S. in the northeast and beyond.

Restringing a Piano

Yes, it is called restringing – not rewiring. You restring a piano. You rewire a house. Actually, you “restring” a wire.  And when you restring that piano, it is customary and highly advised to wire gloves. Piano wire is sharp, and it can put a nice hole in your finger if you are not careful. Gloves also shield the piano wire from perspiration and the natural oils that are on the hands and fingers. Those substances can be corrosive, especially with the bass strings which are wrapped with copper, a softer metal than steel.

Position yourself in that time. There you are – standing in the shop watching a master craftsman restring a piano. You ask, “Must I always wear gloves?” The crusty old German tech turns and nods, “You’d be an idiot not to.”

And so that advice was passed from one tech to another, from shop to shop, from meeting to meeting, and it was soon considered the gospel truth that you must never touch a piano wire with your bare hands, for fear of leaving a corrosive residue of oil and salty perspiration which would cause the piano wire to one day turn to stone, wither and die – during a concert.

How Corrosive Is It?

When people are certain of the truth, confirmation is not needed. I am not privy to any documentation, based on scientific examination, which reveals how much damage is done to a piano wire per specified unit of perspiration and/or oily skin.   It is certainly more true that gloves should be worn when restringing a piano, because that is work which requires physical strength, long periods of labor, and which will promote much perspiration of the hands and fingers.  It is less true that the precaution of gloves is required for changing a single piano wire.

It is always safer to wear gloves when changing a piano wire. What is not known is what risk of corrosion is introduced by a tech that chooses not to use gloves to change a single string. For this, we need to be careful not to produce a myth from a truth that seems similar.

How Oily are You?

Remember the guy who was restringing the piano who advised you to wear gloves? He was a big, burly olive-skinned man of certain ethnic origin. The poor man was a saturated sponge of perspiration from morning to night. The shop was not air conditioned, and as long as he bathed on Saturday, he was as clean as the other workers.  Some people are oilier and smellier than others. As a result, some people produce more corrosive elements than others. Therefore, the advice about wearing gloves applies more to people who are both oily and smelly. If you were just oily, you would not do as much damage to a string. If you were only a smelly person, then oily, smelly people would be jealous of you. “Yea, he stinks, but he is not slippery.”

Let the Tech Be the Judge

There is certainly a correlation between a person’s production of oil and perspiration and the likelihood of introducing potentially corrosive matter onto a piano wire when it is changed. If we could measure the impact, there would be a low impact and a high impact. (I feel the need to draw a graph!) Technicians who are oily but not smelly would be more of a risk to a piano wire than someone who is both oily and sweaty. People who are neither oily nor sweaty would pose the least risk.

The Force of Truth

Of course, people who are neither oily nor sweaty must account to the majority who are oily and sweaty.  And if the oily and sweaty technicians own the status of being senior techs, then the weight of their authority would be enough to cause the dry, non-perspiring techs to slip on a pair of gloves.

As for how much damage is done to a piano wire by touching it, no one really knows. It is certainly safer to use gloves, and that is reason enough to employ them. But as for how much damage is done, or if the damage is even consequential, that data does not exist. Each technician knows if he (or she) is likely to contaminate the wire by touching it. There is no fast rule in this case, except when it comes to safety.  It is not known (and it is certainly suspect) if the introduction of minute quantities of oil or perspiration would pose any detrimental effect to a piano wire.

If you have worked with wood, you know that oil from your hands can leave prints on a piece of wood. Those prints make it difficult for finishing materials to enter the wood’s surface.  Oil from the hands can result in tarnishing the copper windings of a piano wire, but it is not known if this results in any effect which is detrimental to the tone of the piano or health of the wire.

It remains advisable to wear gloves when replacing a piano wire. The practice may not be grounded in exact science, but it remains a common practice, one that is sensible.

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