The piano tuner has recently received several enqueries from piano owners in the Leeds and Bradord region requesting a complete piano restringing of an antique piano. Now, if a piano is in a condition where it needs a complete restringing then it will almost certainly need other extensive repairs on the action, pinplock and soundboard.
Pianos made before 1950 can be nice to look at, but unlike other instruments such as guitars and violins, pianos unfortunately do not increase in value (or tonal quality) as they age. Even a top tier Bluthner or Bechstein will likely not hold much value today if it was made before 1930, even if it’s in good condition. If you live in the Leeds or Bradford area, then the piano tuner will be willing to tune and tighten the wrest pins for a modest £40. But if you are going down the expensive road of restoring an aged piano, you first need to be aware of the pianos worth. I’m certainly not averse to a partial or complete restoration job, but I need it to be cost effective for the customer before I can start it in good conscience. The price of restringing a piano will be in the range of £1000 to £1200 when taking into account the price of a set of strings and wrest pins plus labour costs – and as I say, it will likely need other extensive repairs to the action and/or the soundboard and pinblock.
One can usually tell a pianos age by certain features that date it from a certain peroid. For example, a typical Victorian piano may be adorned with candle holders on a tapestried front panel or it might have quaint London or swan legs on the front of the keyboard. Failing that, a serial number is often found inside the piano, which enables the Leeds piano tuner to identify the exact year of manufacture.
Well wishes to all my piano tuning clients in Leeds, Bradford and West Yorkshire – I hope 2018 brought you lots of joy. As glasses are raised and fireworks explode in the sky I hope you spare your piano a thought. If it’s been longer than six months since your piano was tuned and serviced, it’s time to give piano tuner Leeds a call. While piano tuning in the Kirkstall area of Leeds I found an important message inside a 1970s Bentley piano:
As New Years Eve approaches, many people are planning a party for family and friends. Don’t let them use your piano as a resting place for drinks and nibbles. I was chatting to a piano tuning customer in Alwoodley, Leeds earlier today who told me a dreadful tale of how he once spilt can of coke all down the interior of his 1929 Steinway upright. The hammers, jacks, flanges, wippens, centre pins and dampers were drenched! He immediately phoned the piano tuner who came round and told him off. When someone spills a drink inside a piano the damage is often irreversible, so prevention is better than cure. Your Bradford and Leeds piano tuner will have the appropriate cleaning tools to clean the piano action and reduce the damage, although some regulation work will probably be needed if sticky liquids have come into contact with the centre pins. Whatever you do, be careful!
Have you ever thought about a career in piano tuning? The 1988 Jobs rated almanac rated Piano Tuning as the second highest in a list of high-paying/low-stress jobs, ranking it above petroleum engineer and historian and just below actuary. In that year in the USA the average salary of a piano tuner was $43,600 a year… It should be noted that with the growing popularity of digital pianos, the trade isn’t quite what it was in 1988! And there’s certainly some stress that comes with piano tuning but that’s part of any job.
Large, densely-populated cities are gold mines for the piano tuner – Leeds seems to be a very good location. I’ve also heard that London is good place to work, if you can afford the living costs. You need to be willing to travel and prepare to work long hours if you are to earn a living. I’ve not found much piano tuning work in Manchester or Bradford yet – perhaps I need to promote myself more in those cities.
To become a piano tuner you’ll have to study a course in the subject. The only one I’m aware of that’s still running in the UK is the piano tuning and restoration course at Newark college. That is three years but it will give you a thorough grounding in the field and teach you most of what you need to know how the construction of the piano and how to regulate the action. A basic knowledge of music theory will certainly help in the early stages of learning, as will a musical ear and a love of music. If you play the piano you might progress quickly than those who don’t, but contrary to popular belief most people can become very good at piano tuning with a lot of practice – 10,000 hours is the oft touted figure.
You’ll have to accept that for the first one to three years working in the trade you won’t be earning very much money, as it takes a long time to build up a client base. Working in music shops; buying, restoring and selling second hand pianos, or teaching an instrument are possible part-time jobs that could sustain you through the hard times. If you live in a big city like Leeds it might be easier to find part-time employment. You’ll need some money coming in to buy the tools needed for the job. I must have spent at least £2000 on tools, parts and reading materials in my first three years on the job.
Hope that advice helps. If you do become a piano tuner please don’t work in Leeds until I retire as I don’t need more competition!
In about one in a hundred piano tuning jobs, the piano technician is faced with a rusty or worn-out string which snaps as the tuning pin is tightened. When faced with this problem, we have a few options…
If it is on the bass, the customer will be charged for a new string which is hand spun by a professional and sent back to me within ten days. I then charge the price of the new string (which is usually in around £20 – £25 depending on its thickness and amount of copper required) plus £20 labour to fit the string. There are no specialists in Leeds or Yorkshire that I know of, so the string has to be sent to Bath in order to be remade.
There are three different types of strings on the piano: monochord, bichord and trichord. The lower middle and bass section of the piano consists of copper wound monochord and bichord strings (the hammers hit either one or two strings in this section), which have more length and thickness than the upper two thirds of the piano. In the treble section of the piano we find trichord strings at which each hammer hits three strings, creating a richer sound. The farther up the piano you go, the shorter the strings are as obviously the shorter the string the higher the frequency. One of the most important skills that a piano tuner needs to master is tuning the bichord and trichord strings so that they are exactly the same pitch (we call these the unisons). If they are even slightly out of tune with each other it creates a horrible chorusy sound, which ruins the tone of that particular note.
When I pack my car to each morning before driving into Leeds, I have a box of different sized piano strings, which I keep as back ups for emergencies. I have a selection of hexacore bass strings which can be used as a temporary fix, but the pitch and intonation of a piano string never sounds quite right unless the string is exactly the right size. If the diameter of the new string is even a few millimetres off, it can give that particular note a nasal or thin quality, so this is usually done only for emergencies until the replacement string has arrived. For the trichord strings I have lots of different sized plain wire which can be measured with a micrometer and fitted after the piano tuning.
It is rare that every string on a piano would need to be replaced, but in a full restoration job it could be worth it if the piano is of a sufficiently high quality. Seeing as there are 230 strings on an average-sized piano, the cost of labour and materials is usually upwards of a thousand pounds, but there are some very old pianos that have benefited from this as part of a full restoration – and have greatly increased their value in the process.
As always, call your local piano repair man (hopefully me) – don’t try and do it yourself! Piano tuners go to college for three years, this isn’t a job for an amateur!
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.
Often when on my travels in Leeds and beyond, I regularly see pianos in desperate need of cleaning. Most customers never see the interior of their piano, but have to live daily with the sight of the keys and case, and when the case gradually loses its shine or the keys become yellow or grimy, the owner will be discouraged from playing as often as they should. For the piano to work at its best, it’s important that the action and the keys are cleaned to a high standard (and kept that way!). Although I primarily work as a piano tuner and technician, I offer various add-on services outside of my regular piano tuning, repair and regulation work – one of which is cleaning, for which I charge an extra £25. This is purely an optional extra which I will often recommend (politely) to clients who are looking to get their piano tuned and regulated to the highest possible standard.
In my piano tuner’s tool kit I keep some cleaning materials: a bottle of Key-Brite Key Cleaner, a 100ml bottle of high gloss piano polish, and a set of cleaner and polish cloths. These are primarily used to keep the exterior of my client’s pianos looking brand new!
For the piano’s action I target each area with a different cleaning product. If I’m contacted before the piano tuning about cleaning, I will bring my own hoover which has enough power to remove the overwhelming majority of dust out of the interior of the piano. For the soundboard, bridge, frame, pin block, hammer shanks, hammer butts, dampers, flanges and key tail, I will use both a duster and a variety of very soft cloths with different textures.
For the white piano keys I use a solution of vinegar and water or lemon oil. If your piano has ivory keys then different cleaning products will be needed. Ivory is essentially dental bone and using vinegar or lemon oil will wear it down over time. I recommend a damp cloth (dampened with water or milk) followed by a dry cloth, rubbing vertically to prevent excess dirt and debris falling down the sides of the keys.
– Richard Lidster, Piano Tuner Leeds.
On eBay and Gumtree I often see pianos that are overpriced, but also see many that are a great deal. Keep in mind that many piano sellers don’t know the worth of what they’re selling, so if you’ve done some reading up on the subject you probably know more than they do. I’ve seen completely worn out, untunable pianos from the 1890s priced at £500 or more! They should be paying people to take them to the skip! Before forking out money for a second hand piano it is always a good idea to try it out for yourself and/or to call the piano tuner to evaluate it – I charge a £25 call out fee to inspect pianos in Leeds or Bradford.
A common problem in old pianos is tight and loose centre pins. To see if the piano has this issue, press the sustain pedal and gently play several notes. If keys are sluggish or sticky there may be trouble ahead – with 264 centre pins in a piano, it could require extensive regulation work to bring it up to standard. I recently spent an afternoon after a piano tuning in Leeds replacing centre pins in a used upright and while it can be done, the more notes that are sluggish or sticky, the more work will be needed.
If the piano sounds relatively in tune with itself but one or more notes sound badly out, that’s a worrying sign of loose tuning pins. Loose tuning pins aren’t always a problem in themselves (there are fixes), but if there are a lot of them it’s a sign that the piano has not aged well (and an indicator there will be other problems). Also look for rust around the tuning pins, excessive rust could cause you problems down the road with strings breaking. If there are several or more strings missing that’s an indicator that the piano won’t be able to be brought up to concert pitch.
Take the front panels off and check inside. Check it’s not been ravaged by mice and that the pedals are working properly. Check that there are no cracks on the soundboard (the wooden area behind the strings which is the main resonator of the sound), as wide cracks will cause buzzing and tuning stability problems. Check the bridges (the part of the piano that the strings run over) are in good condition and that are no cracks (cracked bridges will ensure that the piano is out of tune again right away and causes buzzes). These structural problems will mean major repairs which often aren’t worth it on a cheaper instrument.
If you find the serial number, there are books and websites for you to date the piano. Sometimes the date of production is written on the side of the bottom key. I would advise against buying anything made before 1950 unless it’s a particularly high quality instrument like a Steinway or a Bechstein that has had extensive restoration work (when buying a piano: the newer the better in the majority of cases).
You also need to use your ears and listen to the tone! Get an idea whether it’s an instrument you could fall in love with. If the piano is badly out of tune this will be harder as it’ll be difficult to hear past the horrible tuning. But if you get a feel for the instrument before its been moved, once its at your house and been worked on by the piano tuner, it will become one of your most cherished possessions.