Piano Maintenance and Care
- Humidity Control
- Finish Care
- Making sure you have the right technician
How Often Should I Have My Piano Tuned?
This is a common question and optimally for regular home use, your piano should be tuned twice a year – once in the spring and once in the fall, or optionally, summer then winter. This is not an arbitrary suggestion. It’s based on the fact that the changes in weather, especially humidity, heavily affect the inside of your piano.
If you just purchased a new piano, it is recommended that you have it tuned four times in the first year, once with each change of season.
This helps the piano settle and stretch the strings. This will help your piano hold its tune well for subsequent future tunings. At a minimum, you should tune the piano no less than once a year.
To put this into better perspective, twice a year is relatively infrequent in comparison to recording studios. They have their pianos tuned before each session. This could be multiple times a day! Concert pianists or performers have the stage piano tuned before each show and sometimes twice. Schools and churches generally tune their pianos four times a year, once at the change of each season. So, the frequency of when you have your piano tuned really depends on how in tune your ear is.
Our recommendation is that you should have your piano tuned twice a year. Not only will this help your piano sound better, but it helps extend the life of the piano.
Piano Maintenance and Care: Humidity Control
Humidity, when it comes to pianos, is important to consider year-round. Pianos don’t like extremes. Much like Goldilocks (of the three bears fame) pianos prefer temperatures not too hot, not too cold – and they need the humidity to be just right.
Pianos are made of wood, which is great for sound production. Unfortunately, wood is also very responsive to changes in the environment. Water in the air can cause the wood to expand and contract. Why is this a bad thing?
Just some of the problems humidity can cause in your piano:
- Keys and action parts can swell, resulting in sticking and sluggish notes.
- Felts can become hard
- Tuning pins can loosen
- Steel strings can become rusty
- Tuning becomes unstable
In winter, the problem tends to be a sudden lack of humidity. We turn on the heater to chase the cold away, and in doing so, we also remove moisture from the air. If your skin feels dry, then chances are your piano is feeling the effects of the low-moisture air too. So, what’s a conscientious piano owner to do?
Do not place your piano near:
- Heating vents
- Drafty windows
- Gas heaters or space heaters
Also, be aware of how sunlight ‘travels’ over the course of a day in your home. If possible, your piano should not be placed in direct sunlight. Also, the old adage of not placing your piano on an outside wall is somewhat of a farce, especially for today’s well-insulated homes. If you live in a well-insulated home that has heating and air conditioning, then placing the piano on an outside wall may be OK. If there are any discrepancies, then adding the humidity control system will be the answer.
About 90% of your piano is made up of two things: metal and wood. They seem like sturdy enough materials, right? Well, they are, but one of the properties of wood causes a problem. Wood swells and shrinks with changes in humidity, and presses against the metal parts. And thus, we have the age-old battle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
In the summertime, when it’s hot and muggy, the wood inside your piano is going to take on moisture. That is the unstoppable force. Even the best climate-controlled homes are not perfect, and the wood in your piano will absorb any increase in humidity. The same applies in the winter when the dry, arid air draws any remnants of moisture embedded in the wood, and subsequently shrinks it. This seasonal game of tug of war between the wooden and metal parts ultimately can be very damaging to the instrument.
The process of the wood seasonally swelling and shrinking, pressing firmly against the metal components, is what will eventually hinder your piano’s ability to hold its tune. Believe it or not, there are over 20,000 lbs. of pressure exerted on your piano by its strings, all pulling at components called the tuning pins. These pins are drilled and inserted into a large wooden block, called the pin block. Eventually, if that block swells and shrinks enough with changes in humidity, the wood directly in contact with the pins loses its structural integrity and can no longer firmly hold the pins in place. Then, the pressure of those strings pulls the pins out of their intended alignment, the pins lean, and the piano goes out of tune. It’s that simple.
- Humidity Control Systems increase the life of your piano
- Humidity Control Systems make your tuning last longer
- Humidity Control Systems protect your investment
Why am I telling you this? Because there is something you can do about it. You may not be able to control the absorptive properties of wood, but you can do something about the humidity inside your piano. Oftentimes, people think controlling the climate in the house is enough. But as I mentioned before, no house is a perfect vacuum. There are places – like near doorways, windows, and air ducts – that fluctuate in humidity, no matter how powerful a house-wide climate control system is. In fact, areas near AC ventilation tend to dry out the wood inside your piano, even if it is during the hottest, most humid part of the year.
Humidity Control System: A Solution for Your Piano
So, what is the solution? A humidity control system designed specifically for the piano. These systems will regulate any changes in humidity with a built-in humidifier and dehumidifier, keeping the humidity level constant. Thus, there is virtually no swelling or shrinking of the wood, no pressing and receding against metal tuning pins, and no bending and cracking of the soundboard. They also greatly increase the longevity of tunings, meaning you will not have to deal with painfully sharp/flat notes in between regular tunings. And they greatly reduce issues with the action – like stuck keys, which are a result of the wooden parts swelling with humidity.
Humidity systems also have many other benefits:
- They help protect the piano’s finish.
- They greatly decrease the chance of glue failure throughout the piano. When something like a hammer, or pieces of felt around the keys, or dampers come loose, they are very time-consuming to fix and can run up steep repair costs.
- The system also keeps the strings and other metallic parts from developing rust – rusted strings being much more likely to break and rusted tuning pins more difficult to turn during tunings.
- Regulating the humidity within the piano keeps the hammers from becoming too firm (in low humidity periods), which generates a harsh and overly bright tone.
- And keeping humidity levels constant keeps the hammers from softening too much as well (in high humidity periods), which will make the piano sound muffled.
For a small upfront cost, a humidity control system can actually save you a lot of money in the long run and make your playing experience much more enjoyable. Please talk to us today about having one of these systems installed on either your upright or grand acoustic piano! It may just save your piano’s life (and help your pocketbook too!). To fully protect the health of your piano, ask us about having a Dampp-Chaser’s Piano Life Saver humidity control system installed.
Piano Maintenance and Care: Finish Care
- Keep it clean
- Avoid direct sunlight and environmental extremes
- Thwart abrasion
Out of all musical instruments, the piano is unique in that it also serves as a furniture piece for the room in which it sits. It is more than just a fine musical instrument. The piano is such a prominent feature amongst western culture specifically, that the term “piano finish” has been universally adopted to describe the highest quality in wood finishes. Being attentive to the finish of your piano can not only help maintain the value of the instrument if you ever decide to sell it, but it also adds to the overall décor of the house.
Here are a few things to keep in mind to keep your piano’s finish looking its best:
- A piano finish is best maintained by simply keeping it clean, avoiding exposure to direct sunlight and extremes of temperature and humidity, and abrasion.
- Your piano’s cabinet, like all woodwork, is subject to expansion and contraction with humidity changes. Excessive wood movement can eventually cause the finish to develop tiny cracks and even separate from the wood. Moderating the temperature and humidity swings around the piano will help preserve its finish as well as its overall structure and tuning stability.
- Locate the piano in a room with a fairly even temperature, away from drafts, dampness, and heat sources. Always avoid direct sunlight – it will age the finish prematurely and cause color fading.
- To prevent scratches, never set objects on your piano without a soft cloth or a felt pad. NEVER place drinks or plants as spillage and condensation can cause major damage.
- Dust is very abrasive and can scratch the finish if wiped off with a dry cloth. Always use a feather duster or a damp (but not wet) soft- fiber cloth – as coarser fibers can leave scratch marks.
- Before using polish on your piano, be sure it is actually necessary and beneficial. Common household products such as “lemon oil” or inexpensive “furniture polish” should be AVOIDED. Avoid aerosol products altogether as the over-spray can contaminate piano strings, tuning pins and action parts.
Stop by our store today to pick up pre-approved polish specifically designed for pianos (both polyester high-gloss and lacquer wood finishes).
Polyester is the most recent material to be used on pianos. It is a product of modern chemical technology that provides the highest degree of beauty and protection available. Polyester is a very stable product and weather changes have no effect on its size. Therefore, applying a stable finish to a constantly changing surface invites trouble. When the wood changes in response to humidity, the polyester can crack or lose adhesion with the wood. Yamaha utilizes a special resin and wood pulp formula to create a sheet of material that provides a stable surface for the polyester application.
This resin sheet is applied directly to the wood and makes the wood under the finish virtually impervious to atmospheric changes. The integrity of the polyester finish is not subjected to changes that could otherwise take place in the wood beneath the finish. Virtually indestructible, polyester protects against sun, heat, spilled liquids and most other substances that tend to destroy a piano’s finish. It is about ten times thicker and up to seven times harder than lacquer. The extra thickness and strength of polyester not only beautifies and protects the wood from scratches but also seals the wood to protect it from humidity fluctuation.
It is often difficult for the average piano owner to determine what type of wood finish was originally applied to his or her own piano. Many types of varnish, lacquer & other material have been used in the past. Setting up definitive rules in cleaning and polishing of all types pianos would be difficult.
However, there are some helpful ideas, suggestions, and warnings about the care of your pianos finish that we can suggest:
- Avoid silicates
- Avoid polish not designated for pianos
- Avoid direct sunlight
First, avoid anything that contains silicone. Silicone will be absorbed by the finish and can cause the wood to become saturated and difficult to repair or refinish in the future. Second, when cleaning modern high polish and high gloss piano finishes using a damp cloth followed by a dry cloth is acceptable. There are also polishes made especially for these polyester finishes available from most piano technicians and piano stores.
We have had good results using Cory piano finish products on all types of piano finishes including polyester as well as lacquer finishes.
When locating your piano in your home try to keep it away from direct sunlight.
It will cause the finish to deteriorate; fade and will eventually damage the wood. Direct sunlight can also affect tunings, moving action parts, the pianos pin block and the piano soundboard causing tuning stability issues, cracking, warping and pulling loose from the ribs or case. This damage is sometimes not as noticeable as the color difference in the finish of this grand piano after just a few years of direct sunlight exposure but is just as serious and actually more damaging to the piano’s longevity.
Piano Maintenance and Care: Regulation
What is this thing called regulation?
Regulation is approximately 37 adjustments per key of the pianos action mechanism to enable it to play within specification.
Once you do this to one key then you have to do it to the other 87 keys and make them all feel and respond the same. The process is very labor intensive. Even if you have your piano tuned regularly, you may eventually start to notice that your piano doesn’t quite feel the same as it did when it was new.
This will be especially true if your piano receives a lot of use. This occurs for a variety of reasons, such as normal wear and tear to the action, excessive expansion and contraction of the wooden parts, loss of strength in the steel springs, normal felt compression, damage from moths or other bugs with an appetite for felt, or just general neglect. Even a tolerance loss of a few thousandths of an inch can cause the regulation in an action to operate differently. These changes will eventually become evident in the way the keys feel and how the piano plays. Because these parts within your action will inevitably change, it is important to have your piano regulated occasionally to return the piano back to its best playable condition.
A prudent piano owner will have their piano serviced regularly. During routine tunings, a quality technician can check for issues within the action and can even make spot regulation adjustments. A complete action regulation involves the adjustment and timing of thousands of parts that make up the action mechanism within all acoustic pianos, and this needs to be scheduled separately from a tuning, as it is a pretty time-intensive process. Occasionally having this done will keep the piano from developing response issues in the future, and keep your piano playing as you want it to. This kind of preventive care lengthens the life of the piano and allows for the continued enjoyment of the instrument.
Having your piano regulated occasionally will make playing your piano a more pleasurable experience. Next time you have your piano tuned, ask one of our certified technicians to examine your piano’s action to see if there are some changes that could be made to help your instrument sound and play better.
Piano Maintenance and Care: Cleaning
There are many types of piano key covering materials that have been used over the years:
- Even wooly mammoth!
There are also many types of glue used in adhesion. These glues can be unpredictable when used with chemical cleaners. It is best to stay clear of using any type of chemical cleaner to clean piano keys. To be safe use a damp white cloth followed by a dry cloth. Pay special attention to not allow moisture to penetrate into the wood. If necessary, use a gentle soap added to the water solution. Another safe product for cleaning piano keys is Cory Key-Brite which cleans, brightens, and preserves all plastic, ivory, ivorite, and wood instrument keys. Cory’s instructions for spraying directly onto the keys should be avoided. Spray onto a clean cloth and then gently rub onto the key top surface.
See our notes above about finish care on this page.
Cleaning Inside and Underneath Strings
The inside of your piano and underneath the strings are areas that should be cleaned occasionally. Vacuum the action cavity and internal areas of the piano to get rid of unwanted dust and to keep the piano free of foreign objects. There are inexpensive specialty tools available for the cleaning of the soundboard underneath the strings and a couple that we recommend are pictured below.
Piano Maintenance and Care: Voicing
The felt hammers of the piano tend to harden over time, as the felt becomes compressed by repeated impact. They also form grooves at the points of contact with the strings. Harder hammers produce a brighter tone quality, which may ultimately become harsh and undesirable.
Your piano may benefit from voicing if:
- Your piano sounds different than when you purchased it
- You don’t like the sound even after it has been tuned
- Tone varies radically from note to note
- The piano has lost its ability to play softly
Voicing is an altering of the tone quality within each note throughout the piano by adjusting the tension of the hammer felt.
This is achieved by using needles to make the felt more pliable or tense depending on the desired result. Other means of changing the tonal response of a hammer include adding chemicals to the felt to achieve similar effects. Before any voicing can be successfully done, the piano needs to be in good regulation, in good tune and the hammers need to have a good shape especially at the striking point. Piano hammers should not be worn. Preserving good tone within the piano requires a good quality hammer felt that has been maintained properly with correct reshaping and realignment on older worn hammers. On new pianos, voicing is sometimes needed and the final voicing should be done in the final location where the piano will be placed so that room acoustics can be factored into the equation. Musical tastes vary, and no one style or shade of voicing is right for each pianist. Thoroughly discuss the needs of each piano and its owner prior to having the piano-voicing job completed. It is best to have a good idea of what the result will be after the voicing has been completed.
A piano’s tone changes with use. As the hammers wear and compact, the tone often becomes too bright and harsh, robbing the pianist of the ability to produce a sweet, delicate sound. As parts wear, the action becomes uneven – not accurately transmitting motion from the fingers to the hammers – and the pianist loses control over volume and tone.
Voicing is tone regulation much like adjusting the treble and bass within a stereo system.
Piano owners are not always aware that tone can be customized to their own taste and room acoustics and corrected for deterioration and age. If the only service your piano has received is tuning, the sound can likely be improved by voicing. Before a technician can voice your piano, it will need to be well tuned. This is to better evaluate the pianos tonal characteristics and needs. After tuning, a thorough check of the action regulation should be completed, and correction made if need be. Voicing is usually done by inserting needles in the hammer felt to make it more pliable. Sometimes filing and chemical hardeners are also used to adjust the pianos tonal characteristics. Once the desired effect is achieved then individual notes can be modified to make the piano sound as even as possible throughout the entire range of the piano. A well-tuned and voiced piano can be inspiring for the pianist as the level of musical expression is greatly increased with this type of maintenance.
Making sure you have the right technician
Your piano is probably one of the most mechanically complex items you own. There are over 10,000 individual parts in a piano that all need to be maintained in order for the instrument to work properly. Even the best-cared-for pianos require occasional work, and they certainly should be tuned at least twice a year – not only for the sake of the piano player but for the overall health of the instrument too – so, getting the right piano care is extremely important.
Because these instruments are so complex, it is also important to have the right person service your piano.
Here at Piano Emporium, we are fortunate to have experienced Registered Piano Technicians (RPTs) and craftsmen working with us.
These members are part of the Piano Technicians Guild, which is the world’s premier source of expertise in piano service and technology. Between all our techs, we have over 80 years of experience tuning, maintaining, and servicing pianos.
Many piano technicians do more than just tuning when servicing their clients’ pianos. When we are called to tune a piano, it is in our best interest as well as the customers to evaluate the piano’s condition and give the customer our professional opinion of the quality and serviceability of their piano. Many times, when we take the piano apart by removing the front panel or the bottom kneeboard and show the customer the inside they state “Wow, I never knew that even came apart.” or “Wow, that sure is dirty.” ? This is also a good time to clean or vacuum the piano as they are many times “dust magnets” All pianos are in a slow state of disrepair and making the customer aware of possible situations that may arise in the future will allow them to plan for the repair ahead of time. In any potential repair job, educating the customer is the key. The more they understand about their own piano and the service that it needs the more likely they will continue to take care of their instrument for many years to come. Most customers like to know the condition of their instrument and how to keep it in top-notch playing condition. We strive to make this possible for each client who we serve.
Notice keys starting to stick? Your piano doesn’t have the same sound or feel that you remember when you first got it? Any notes having trouble repeating? If you find yourself stuck with any of these problems (or anything else relative to your piano), please don’t hesitate to give us a call! We are here to serve you.