Every morning before I set off to work with my piano tuner’s case in hand, I have to pack the boot of the car with four boxes of spare piano parts – strings, felts, washers, wires, oils, bridle tapes, centre pins, etc. In my main piano technicians case I have three levers, a tuning fork, several different screwdrivers, pin tight, two knives, pliers, protek CLP, teflon powder, super glue, wood adhesive, and several other different-sized regulation tools which are all used regularly. Most piano tuning and regulation jobs can be done with the tools found in the case, but packing the car with spare parts can help safe time with more extensive repairs.
Some of the items in my case were purchased from hardware shops around Leeds and Bradford, but many had to be ordered online from companies who only sell to qualified piano tuners. Should you decide to pursue a career in piano tuning be prepared to spend a lot of money on hardware!
Another eight maintenance tips from your favourite Leeds piano tuner that could help your piano live longer:
- A piano is very heavy and awkward to move without proper equipment. You will avoid possible damage to the instrument and injury to yourself by having an insured professional move it. Get advice from your piano tuner and technician (hopefully yours truly) for a qualified mover.
- Never put thumbtacks on the hammers to achieve the rinky-tink or mandolin sounds they will ruin the hammers. You can purchase attachments, commonly found on player pianos, which will produce these effects without ruining the hammers.
- If a piano is to be stored for a long period of time, be sure the storage facility is adequately climate-controlled. If this is unavailable, at least have a piano dehumidifier and control system installed inside the piano, and be sure that it remains plugged in. The piano may need cleaning and lubrication after storage.
- If buzzes or rattles suddenly develop, check for objects on top of the piano or in the room that may be vibrating sympathetically with certain notes, such as lights, framed pictures, etc. Check to see if objects have fallen behind the vertical piano, or onto the soundboard of the grand.
- When the piano tuner arrives to tune the piano, please maintain a quiet environment for him to work in. While piano tuners don’t always require complete silence, loud noise can be very distracting when try to listen to very small pitch changes. Try not to book the builder and the piano tuner on the same day!
- Pianos are heavy and can leave permanent marks on floors and carpeting. Caster cups are available which will save the surface from some of the strain.
- A ceiling fan above a piano can give the instrument an unusual “warbling” or “beating” sound. The frequency of the fan blade oscillations can clash with the frequency of the vibrating strings, especially when set at higher speeds.
- Discourage smoking around the piano. Cigarette burns mar keytops and woodwork. Smoke and ash can permeate the action, causing discolouration and sluggish response.
- Keep your piano at a fairly stable temperature and humidity. Approximately 20 degrees celsius and 40 – 50% relative humidity would be sufficient!
- Never place potted plants, drinks, fish bowls, or other liquid containers on the top of your piano. Spilled liquid will ruin the finish, and if it gets in the action it can cause serious damage. If spillage occurs, call the piano tuner immediately so he can dry the affected parts.
- Never use oil or grease on any part of the piano. Your piano tuner technician knows the proper procedure for lubricating piano parts.
- Keep the exterior of the piano clean using dusting sprays without oils, waxes, or silicones. An older piano’s appearance can be improved with the use of lemon oil and waxes, but they detract from the appearance of a newer piano, especially one with a high polish finish. Polyester finishes are actually a hard plastic coating, and can be cleaned with a slightly damp rag. Cleaning the inside of the piano is best left to the piano tuner.
- Keys should be cleaned with a slightly damp rag. Stubborn stains can often be removed with a touch of mild white soap or a rag sprayed with mild spray cleaner.
- Do not put moth balls or other pest preventive chemicals inside the piano. The fumes from these products can have a corrosive effect on the piano, and felt parts on newer pianos are now quite effectively moth-proofed. Having the piano cleaned is the best method of keeping moths out.
- Beware of small objects on the top of the piano. Pencils, paper clips, erasers, etc. can easily slip into the action cavity behind the key cover of a grand piano, causing sticking keys and clicking noises. Children love to drop pennies and other objects between the keys of pianos, causing them to bind.
- It matters little whether one keeps the fall board up or down when the instrument is not in use. In years past, people were advised to keep ivory keys exposed to roomlight to restart their yellowing, but this is not necessary for the plastic keytops on most pianos today.
- Play the piano frequently! This helps keep the keys and action working freely, as well as provide the enjoyment the piano is intended for. For obvious reasons, pests are less likely to make their home in a piano that is used frequently.
- Keep the piano out of direct sunlight (if possible). Bright sunlight shining directly on a piano for prolonged periods can cause the finish to blemish, the soundboard to overdraw, and glue joints to weaken.
Written at the request of a Leeds customer. Another ten tips will be posted next week, with relevant information to Leeds and Bradford piano owners.
Have you ever wondered what a typical day looks like for a piano tuner-technician? Let’s find out.
While I usually refer to myself simply as a ‘piano tuner’ (the term is more recognisable to the public), tuning pianos is only a fraction of my daily workload. While I’ve technically been piano tuning professionally for four years, the first two years were not particularly fruitful as I’d yet built up my client base, and therefore had to rely on part-time work (mainly around Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield). It was only the middle of 2016 that I began to earn a living as a piano tuner, but even then I had slow weeks and the summer months slowed significantly when customers were on holiday. As of October 2018, I currently tune 2 – 3 pianos per day, averaging about 10 – 15 jobs a week (I hope to get this number up to at least 20 tunings a week in two years), with most sessions involving minor regulation and the occasional repair job thrown in as well. Once I’ve finished tuning the piano I find myself performing one of the followings tasks to get the piano as close as possible to concert standard (both in pitch and regulation):
- Re-pinning loose hammer and whippen flanges.
- Regulating the capstan screws to increase or decrease lost motion as the need may be.
- Lubricating and compressing the balance and front rail bushings (usually with teflon powder) to free up sticking keys. Alternatively, if the keys are loose and clicky I will replace the bushings with a slightly thicker felt.
- Regulating the dampers: replacing hardened felts, re-allinging the damper blocks, replacing broken damper springs, adjusting the damper wire, and adjusting the damper spoons if the customer desires a lighter or heavier touch.
- Adjusting let-off/escapement i.e. the distance the hammer is released before it hits the string – generally around 3.1 mm – to allow for a more even touch across the keyboard).
- Levelling the back checks so that the hammers fall back evenly to their proper resting position.
- Replacing the bridle tapes (on very old pianos) so that the hammers fall back and stay in their proper resting position.
- Tightening or replacing wrest pins (on very old pianos) so that they actually stay in tune!
- Replacing hammer butt buckskin or catcher buckskin (a common cause of clicking sounds is worn or missing buckskins).
- Regulating the keydip to allow for sufficient aftertouch.
- Replacing broken or discoloured key-tops.
(Important note: please do not undertake these jobs on your own piano! I charge just £25 an hour for regulation and repair work – that’s cheaper than a round of drinks in most places.)
There are many more regulation/repair tasks involved in a typical days work, but these are some of the most common. Probably the most difficult job I find myself faced with is replacing piano strings. I have about one string replacement per month and it generally takes me about twenty to thirty minutes to replace a string. Someone in a piano workshop who replaces strings every day could do this job a lot more quickly, but most piano tuners have to take their time with this particular job as it requires a lot of concentration. Upright pianos are considerably easier to re-string than grand pianos – probably because you have gravity on your side.
If I have a day without many bookings I try and use the spare time to do whatever I can to push my business forward. Last week I had a day when I only had one booking at 9 AM, but spent the rest of the day driving around Sheffield and north Leeds putting cards on advertisement boards and in newsagents, then updated my books in the evenings, sent texts/emails to clients and, of course, updated my blog so that fellow piano enthusiasts would have something new to read. I also find myself undertaking a fair amount of self-study in the evenings – when it comes to pianos, you can never know enough. If you’re thinking about a career in piano tuning because it seems like a relatively low-stress profession, I would bear this in mind – there is a lot of hard work involved outside of tuning pianos. You can never waste a day. Even though it pays well (at times), I also find myself with a lot of expenses re petrol and new piano tuning/regulating tools. That said, it’s a job I love and get a lot of satisfaction from, so I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from becoming a full time piano technician.
Just be prepared!
– Richard Lidster, Leeds Piano Tuner.