Category Archives: Piano maintenance

A question for the Leeds Piano Tuner. What is meant by minor piano repairs?

Q: To Leeds Piano Tuner. When you say minor piano repairs what distinguishes this from major repairs?

A: When I say I carry out minor repairs and regulation for free after the piano tuning, I am referring to the standard maintenance that must be carried out to keep the piano playing at it’s best. Pianos are subject to changes in humidity which inevitably takes its toll on the action parts (particularly felts and wooden parts) over the years. If the parts become too worn or too swollen (with excess humidity) they have to be replaced – that would constitute a major repair job as I’d often have to order in new action parts. However, it’s often a matter of re-adjusting parts of the action to restore it to it’s past condition.

A quick, minor repair job could be anything from lubricing the key bushing with teflon power (allowing for smoother playing), as shown here:

To replacing one or two bridle tapes that have disintigrated or snapped (replacing every tape on the piano would fall under a major repair job):

Or regulating the capstan screw to stop hammer warbling (not an offical term):

One of the most common job of all is realigning any hammers that have come lose and re-tightening the flange screws or replacing lose centre pins:

Re-positioning the back checks so that the hammers check at an equal distance (another big problem that adds to unevenness of touch across many pianos):

And of course, making sure the pedals are as responsive as they can be is always a priority for the customer (sometimes by oiling, sometimes by regulating and sometimes by re-fitting the lift rod):

All highly technical. You could say some of them fall under the category of ‘piano regulation’ but I see repairs and regulation as one and the same. It’s a matter reversing atrophy. If a piano has been neglected for a number of years I focus on piano tuning first and foremost as there will be a lot more work in that regard. Then on the next visit I focus on jobs that could be considered secondary, but that will greatly improve the touch and sound of the piano, such as voicing, regulating the touch and cleaning out dirt and debris that’s clogging the action.

If you are unsure about the work your piano needs, send me an email at richard@pianotunerleeds.co.uk and I will be happy to answer any questions. Sending pictures of your Leeds piano (particularly close ups of the action, the wrestplank and the strings) will give me a good indication of the amount of work your piano will need and whether or not it’s worth paying for extensive repairs (if needed) or whether you might want to invest in a newer piano. The majority of the time a first piano tuning visit costing £45 will go a long way in bringing your piano back to life.

The tools of the trade

The Leeds piano tuner must always have the right equipment at hand to perform each job. When I first began piano tuning in Leeds, my tool kit was much lighter than it is today. Many rudimentary jobs can be performed with a piano tuning lever, a paps-wedge, a pair of plyers, a set of screwdrivers, some oil, some glue – and, of a course, a decent pair of ears and the sufficient know-how. If you’re considering following in the footsteps of the Leeds piano tuner and becoming a piano technician yourself, there are many things you’ll have to buy to be fully equipped for the job. I recommend starting with the basics and building up your kit as you progress. Once you’ve bought a tuning fork, a lever and a paps wedge, you could start building up your ‘piano repair’ kit with the following items…

 

An assortment of balance and front-rail washers for levelling the keys (this will ensure optimal touch across the piano):

 

A selection of different felts. Hugely important for replacing worn out felts after finishing the piano tuning. A piano with worn felts inside the action will not be regulated as well as it should be:

 

 

 

The number one most frequently-encountered mishap on a piano is sticking keys! A new piano tuning client will often sound worried on the phone, because some of the keys on their piano are sticking down i.e. they won’t return after playing. In actuality, this is one of the easiest things to fix. It can usually be remedied by lubricating the key bushings with PTFE (teflon) powder and adjusting the keyslip:

Another lubricant I keep with me is Protek CLP. I use a syringe to cleanly lubricate the centre pins in the hammer, jack and whippen flanges. If the note is still sluggish I will replace the offending centre pin with one of a narrower diameter (with a difference of 0.25 mm). Alternatively, if the key is wobbling or mis-striking due to a loose centre pin, I replace it with a thicker centre pin. Simple:

Regulating the set-off buttons so that the hammer is released from the action at the right distance from the strings (3 mm is the standard) is an important part of regulation. Badly regulated set-offs makes the piano ‘feel’ horrible. This set-off regulating tool will come in handy for fixing this:

Once the hammer blow distance and set-off has been regulated, it’s time to turn to the dampers. If the dampers lift from the strings too late or too early (for optimal heaviness of touch it should be when the hammer is half way towards the strings), you’ll need to reach for a damper regulator:

A set of Hexacore bass strings are supremely useful. While it’s better for the unison to have a bass string hand-wound to exact size, if a monochord breaks at the bottom of the piano, one of these Hexacore strings could save the Leeds and Bradford piano tuning customer a bit of money as it can be carried out on the day as the piano tuning:

Various glues are needed (I carry PVC-E, super glue, wood glue and hide glue – different glues for different needs), but the most commonly used is wood glue. In older pianos the wood is extremely brittle and you’ll often find parts broken inside – be they flanges, hammer shanks or even part of key:

A bottle of pin-tite comes in handy when you find many loose tuning pins on a 70+ year old piano… which is often the case. The tightness of the wrest pins plays a hugely important role in tuning stability. If it’s a higher-quality upright or grand piano you’d be better off replacing the wrest pin with one of a slightly larger diameter as pin-tite can be a pain to clean up in the long run:

If you’re booked in for a piano tuning at a Leeds or Bradford school, you’ll need a set of keys. School pianos are often locked and the staff rarely know where the keys are! I found this out the hard way (although in some cases you can remove the lid by unscrewing it from the back):

Finally, an appropriate file for hammer voicing certainly won’t go amiss! It’s astonishing how many piano tuners and technicians ignore this aspect of the job, as many pianos benefit tonally from voicing/toning just as much as they do from tuning (though tuning does improve the tone as well). Basic voicing skills should be learned as quickly as possible:

 

There are many hundreds of things that can go wrong with a piano and this blog only covers a fraction of them. That said, if you’re just starting out as a piano tuner, the aforementioned tools/equipment will go a long way!

– Richard Lidster, Piano Tuner Leeds.

 

Are there any jobs the Leeds piano tuner won’t undertake?

For the last five years I have dealt primarily with piano tuning, repairs and regulation – these are the areas I feel most comfortable with and are the jobs I carry out on a day to day basis. While training at Lincoln College in the early part of this decade, I also studied piano restoration extensively – these lessons took up a third of my study time, and while piano restoration requires a full workshop, I have these skills ingrained in my memory. During my career as a Leeds piano tuner, there have been one or two jobs in area of restoration that I have declined to carry out, chiefly because I lacked the tools and/or work space to carry out the jobs to a sufficiently high standard. However, once I have access to my new workshop (late July 2019), I can start to rejig my memory on how to perform several frequently requested restoration services (mainly linked to aesthetics). Two of the most popular that spring to mind are:

  1. Re-finishing are re-polishing. I can do this once I have access to a workshop with an array of high gloss, french and spray polishes. If your piano’s case is scratched or damaged I can bring it back to life.
  2. Fitting piano castors – a frequent request I have to turn down until I’m in possession of piano lifting equipment (all of which are extremely expensive to buy). One of the first things I will buy for my workshop will be a portable bench truck – this will allow me to tilt a piano on its back in order to change the castors. I can then offer this service to my Leeds and Bradford clients – many older overdamped pianos are often in need of new castors. I can re-fit them at the end of the piano tuning once we’ve discussed the extra cost.

Keep reading my Leeds piano tuning blog for more information.

– Richard.

The Leeds piano tuner’s workshop

Firstly, if you live in Leeds don’t worry – I’ll still be piano tuning at least four or five days a week in Leeds and Bradford – that won’t change. However, I will also be spending at least one day a week in my workshop down in the Ranmoor area of Sheffield, where I will be focusing on piano resoration as well – something I enjoy and find more rewarding than piano tuning. The workshop has been purchased but won’t be in operation until at least August of 2019, as I am in the process of buying the piano restoration tools I need. I also need to make sure it’s well-stocked with woods, polishes, action parts (different sized hammers, flanges, jacks, whippens, screws), piano wire, piano key coverings and so on, all of which will ensure I can carry out a full, thorough and first-rate restoration job on every piano that comes my way.

If you have a Leeds piano you’d like to sell or donate, I will accept pianos on the following brands for a restoration:

  • Bechstein
  • Bluthner
  • Bosendorfer
  • Challen
  • Chappell
  • Ibach
  • Lipp
  • Schiedmayer
  • Steinway
  • Welmar

If you have a high-end piano of a different brand, I might be interested anyway. I am unlikely to accept a overdamped piano and will certainly reject straight-strung pianos (they’re not worth the cost of new parts) even if they have sentimental value to the customer. Piano restoration is a painstaking and arduous job, but when you bring a 100-year-old Bechstein back to life, it is certainly worth the effort!

– Richard, Piano Tuner Leeds.

What happens when my piano breaks a string?

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!

Piano tuner’s case – what’s inside?

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 8 maintenance tips from a piano tuner

Another eight maintenance tips from your favourite Leeds piano tuner that could help your piano live longer:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Discourage smoking around the piano. Cigarette burns mar keytops and woodwork. Smoke and ash can permeate the action, causing discolouration and sluggish response.

10 maintenance tips for the piano owner (to keep your piano in tune/alive longer)

  1. Keep your piano at a fairly stable temperature and humidity. Approximately 20 degrees celsius and 40 – 50% relative humidity would be sufficient!
  2. 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.
  3. Never use oil or grease on any part of the piano. Your piano tuner technician knows the proper procedure for lubricating piano parts.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.