CLASSIC PIANO DOC
Southold • New York
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q. How often should I have my piano tuned?
A.The short answer is twice a year. However, this changes with circumstances. A new piano may need to be tuned 4 times the first year before it stabilizes and holds a tune well. The same goes for a piano that has not been tuned for many years. Once stabilized, some well maintained pianos can make it for a year or more in a stable atmosphere such as in a house with central air conditioning and central humidification on a forced air furnace. This is rare in our Long Island climate.
Q. Why does my piano go out of tune quickly?
A. One of the most common causes is your piano may have loose tuning pins. See Tuning Pins under repairs on this web site. This may also be the result of rapid changes in relative humidity (which is dependent on temperature). When the humidity goes up, the soundboard absorbs moisture and swells, thus pushing up on the strings. The strings get tighter and become sharper. When the relative humidity goes down (and can get very low-sometimes in the single digits), the opposite occurs and the tuning goes flat. With multiple cycles of high and low humidity, the piano goes more and more flat as the strings get stretched by each cycle. This happens more quickly in weekend houses that are only heated or air conditioned on weekends.
Q. Is there anything to do to help keep the piano in tune better in our climate?
A. First, place the piano on an inside wall away from any heaters. Maintain a constant humidity by using a humidifier in the winter and air conditioning or a dehumidifier in the summer. Get an inexpensive humidistat to monitor the room. It is better for the piano left in a home for the winter to keep the temperature low in the house. That helps maintain a higher relative humidity.
Q. I can't easily control the humidity with my base board heat. I have heard of a device that can be installed in a piano to control the humidity.
A. Yes, there is a very effective device called a Piano Life Saver System. It is a digitally controlled humidifier and dehumidifier that is installed inside the piano. It works automatically and uses very little current (no more than a 40 watt light bulb). You just need to add water every few weeks when an LED starts blinking. It maintains a steady and ideal 42% relative humidity in the soundboard. This system can prevent the sound board from cracking and other problems like sticking keys, sluggish action, rusting strings, and loosening of tuning pins. Give me a call if you are interested in having me install a Piano Saver System. Prices vary with the size of the piano.
Q. My piano sounds tinny even after it has just been tuned. It used to sound better. Why?
A. This is usually the result of hammer wear. The hammers are made of compressed felt. With use, they get compacted and also get worn down. This can be corrected by reshaping the hammers to their original egg shape or by softening the hammer felt, or both. See Voicing in the repair section on this web site for more information. I love doing this. It is like a miracle to hear the change.
Q. The bass section of my piano sounds dull and the treble is too bright sounding. Is this just characteristic of my piano or can it be changed?
A. This is usually not a characteristic of your piano but is the result of aging. But unlike aging in us, it can be corrected. The bass strings get dull when they get corroded or dirty. See Bass Strings in the repair section of this web site for my unique cure. The brightness is due to hammer wear and can also be corrected. See Voicing in the repair section for an explanation. I can make any piano sound mellower or brighter just by voicing the hammers. This is a bit of an art form and not every tuner will attempt it.
Q. Why is my piano so hard to play? I get sore fingers and arms trying to play it. Am I just getting old?
A. We are all getting older, but most likely, your piano action needs adjustment. With age, (the piano's, that is) the leverage of the action changes as felt parts compress or wear. By adjusting a number of screws and springs that control each key, the normal geometry of the action can be returned to its original configuration. This is called regulating the action. See Action Regulation in the repair section. It can make a world of difference and the piano will "nearly play itself". In extreme conditions, a piano action can get an assist from springs that can be installed and adjusted for each note. This is a Touch Rail System and the installation is easy and adjustable for different players.
Q. I have an old Steinway that keeps having sticking keys and sluggish action. My tuner says it is due to "verdigris" and he can't fix it without rebuilding the action for $1000.
A. Old Steinways, as well as some other brands of pianos have problems with corrosion deposits on the center pins at the pivot joints of the action. These deposits have been a frustration for many tuners. I have discovered a special lubricant that is remarkably effective at dissolving the verdigris and saves many hundred of dollars in action repair. I have treated many pianos that continue to work smoothly for years with a single treatment.
Q. My piano is 20 years old and has developed a zinging sound when I let up on each key. It is very annoying. I have been told it is an expensive job. Is there a less expensive solution?
A. What you are hearing is the sound of hardened damper felt coming down on the string and vibrating against the string instead of muting the string immediately. After trying many solutions for this problem, I have developed several techniques to cure this without replacing the dampers. I have had great success with these techniques and rarely replace dampers any more. See Damper Restoration in the repair section for more information.
Q. A friend came over to play my baby grand and said my soundboard is cracked and the piano is no good any more. Is that true?
A. This is a common belief that has been reinforced by many piano salesmen. It is true that, sometimes, a cracked soundboard can intermittently cause buzzing or rattling that is very difficult to stop. However, 9 out of 10 cracks cause no problem. I have had good success curing the buzzing and rattling on the remaining 10% without taking the piano apart. See Sound Board Cracks and Bridge Separation in the repair section. Even Steinway has demonstrated that a saw cut in the soundboard does not affect the sound quality.
Q. The finish on my piano is dull even though I wax it regularly. A friend said that the wood is dead and there is nothing you can do about it.
A. Actually, the wood is dead and was dead when the piano was new too. That happens when you cut a tree. However, that does not mean the finish is dead. If it is dull, it can be brightened by removing the oxidation on the surface or adding more finish. This is best done by French polishing. It is the technique that was used to apply the original finish on many high end older pianos. This is a nearly forgotten art in these days of sprayed polyurethanes, but the results are stunning. I French polish almost all pianos that I restore and do many pianos in peoples living rooms over oriental rugs with no mess and very little odor. See my French Polishing page.
Q. I am sick over several chips that my grandson made in my antique ivory piano keys. He was hitting them with a toy hammer and he hit the side of the piano too and put nicks in the wood.. Can you do anything?
A. It is possible to replace ivories with other salvaged ivory but they rarely match in color or grain. I preserve the look of a perfect keyboard by filling those chips like your dentist would make a cosmetic filling of a chipped tooth. By properly matching the color, you will never see it. See Chipped Ivories in the repair section. I also can fill and French polish those dents or scratches in the wood with professional dent repair methods so you will not even see the repair. It will seem miraculous and it will save your relationship with your grandson too.
Q. The caterer at a party put a plant on the piano and it left a big white spot and some of the finish is raised. Can you fix it?
A. This is a common problem. I have fixed many potted plant spots on pianos with great success. Some had lost finish down to the wood. This is a preventable problem though. NEVER put a potentially wet or sweating container on a piano. Even a potted plant with a saucer under it can trap moisture from the air and make a ring or do worse damage if left very long.
Q. At our last party, a friend spilled a whiskey sour in our grand piano and the soundboard has a big sticky and dirty spot. Can you clean it?
A. I have seen this more than once and been able to clean the soundboard with special long cleaning tools. In most cases, it will come off with no trace. Straight liquor might melt the finish on the soundboard and may leave a spot.
Q. I am a professional pianist. The middle pedal on my Steinway, the Sostenuto, is supposed to sustain the last note that I played but it only works on some notes and some other notes sustain when I don't want them too. Can you fix this?
A. The Sostenuto mechanism is hidden behind the action and damper mechanism and is difficult to even see, much less work on. It needs careful regulation to work correctly. This is often overlooked or ignored but should be checked at each tuning.
Q. I want my piano to work and play like new but it's an antique and I don't want it to look brand new after it is restored. Steinway said they would just throw away the action and put all new parts in. Can't it be restored with an appreciation for its antiquity and patina?
A. I have been restoring antiques for 50 years. I started when I was 12. My mother collected antiques. I learned at an early age to respect the patina of age and always tried not to make antiques look like newly made furniture. I think the same goes for fine old musical instruments. It sometimes take a bit more work to restore them than to replace parts but the final product is much more appealing and will sound good too. Besides, the new parts are not as lovingly finished and constructed from old growth wood as the old craftsmen had available to them when your piano was built.