Care and Maintenance
of Your Piano
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 article 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 instrument now.
If you have a newer instrument, give it a regular application of a good, no-wax polish such as Old English Lemon Oil , Citrus Glow 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 Scratch Cover Polish, available in many supermarkets, hardware and furniture stores. 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 directly responsible for your piano’s sound. As with everything metal, the enemy is the same: rust or corrosion. And rust or corrosion will not only impair the piano’s sound, but 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 (such 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 the 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 your soundboard.
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:
- 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.
- Avoid keeping the piano in a place where the temperature fluctuates significantly. This is not a serious problem in 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.
- Avoid the greatest enemy of all pianos: basements! The severe air humidity, as well as dampness in the floors 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 pinblock. 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 bridge, it may require serious repair or even replacement, which can be quite costly.
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.
SOME 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.
Resurfacing 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.