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!
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.