Category Archives: Piano regulation and repairs

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 Piano Tuner’s Library

What does the Leeds and Bradford Piano Tuner do in his time off? Tonight I’ll spend the evening engrossed in study. I always learn something new about pianos every time I pick up one of these fascinating books – there’s always something that didn’t register on the first, second or third readings. The above image shows only half of my collection, there is another box with other engaging reads such as Five London Piano Makers (a charming history of five well-known piano firms: Brinsmead, Challen, Collard, Danemann and Welmar), the definitive Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding by Arthur Reblitz (every piano tuner must own this book), the PTA’s Handbook of Piano Regulation, and several of Brian Capleton’s concise studies of piano tuning and regulation (which are interesting from a more scientific perspective, particularly if you’re interested in the physics behind beats, harmonic overtones, etc). The Reblitz book actually stays with me in the car at all times, so that if I arrive early to a Bradford or Leeds piano tuning, I can dip in and read it for ten or fifteen minutes to pass some time. Even after working in the piano trade for several years, one can always pick up some second-hand knowledge from these books which helps one repair or restore pianos more efficiently.

 

If you’re a trainee piano tuner (hopefully not a Bradford or Leeds Piano Tuner! I don’t need more competition) who has found this blog post via a search engine I’d start with the Reblitz book and then move on to the Carl-Johan Forss books. Obviously they won’t substitute first-hand experience, but they’ll be an excellent way to supplement a part time piano tuning course. If you’re computer-savvy there are lots of other options online, but I’d be more skeptical about things you read pertaining to piano tuning and repairs on the internet. At least on a piano tuner’s forum other technicians can dispute any misleading information until you’re aware of the general consensus. I have found the advice forum on piano-tuners.org and the piano tuner-technician’s forum at Pianoworld to be useful in this way.

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.

A day in the life of a Leeds piano tuner

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.