Although summers are busy in all kinds of other ways, the end of the summer season, the start of a new school year, and the change into fall weather brings with it a significant increase in piano work, particularly institutional pianos. A couple of times each year, I have to clean out all of my tool bags and toolboxes and reorganize. This is a small piece of what that looks like! I guess you could call it a “fall cleaning.” As I return to blog posting after a couple month’s hiatus, keep an eye out for some exciting projects and interesting work that took place over the summer!
Those extra shiny strings are aluminum-wound, somewhat of a novelty in the late 1960’s when this piano was built. Though these have held up well, aluminum-wound strings as a rule have never caught on and are all but extinct now. In this case, the aluminum winding was seen as a “transition” from the copper-wound bass strings to the plain wire treble strings. Manufacturers have tried dozens of different ways of bridging this transition point over the years, with varying results. Gordon Laughead was a small, family-run, Michigan-based piano manufacturer that operated from the 1940’s until the 1970’s. They made good quality pianos, and this particular one was a testament to that fact. Unfortunately, like hundreds of other piano manufacturers, they eventually succumbed to an over-crowded market.
I don’t discourage DIY piano work. In fact, I think it’s a great thing for piano owners to learn more about their instrument and even do repairs when they feel comfortable doing it. However, there are some potential pitfalls and it pays to be aware of them in advance. One of the most common accidents when working on a grand piano: pulling the action out without keeping a close eye on the hammers, and snapping off a hammer that was sticking up too high. The previous owner of this piano had done all the work on it himself, and while most of it was decent work, there were three different hammers that had been broken off in this way. They were all repaired, but unfortunately the repairs were causing other problems since they, as well, were each somewhat experimental. So, by all means, learn more about your piano and try… Read More
Did you know that about a third of the piano is strung with copper-wound strings? The lower notes use copper winding because the extra mass helps create lower pitches; without that extra mass, pianos would have to be 20-30 feet long just to have strings long enough for those lowest notes! Usually somewhere in the octave below middle C, pianos switch over to plain wire. On a well-designed piano, the break should hardly be noticeable. Listen for it next time you’re at a piano and see if you can tell where the break is! On this Kawai upright, the copper wound strings continue up three notes past the end of the bass bridge (the point where the angle of the strings changes). That helps make the transition even smoother. Notice also that when the switch to plain wire happens, there is a transition to three strings per note instead of… Read More
When a string breaks on a piano, it often breaks at or very near the tuning pin. This means the majority of the string’s length is still perfectly viable, and in fact is ideally suited to the rest of the piano in age, timbre, and general wear. In these cases, it’s often best to splice the string (tie a knot, essentially), creating a new lead wire to attach to the tuning pin, but leaving the rest of the string’s length almost exactly as it was before. This is especially preferable on bass strings, where the length of the string and the thickness of the copper winding is completely customized, meaning a replacement string must be a custom order, and even still will not match the old strings very well in timbre and appearance. The picture is of a recent splice on a customer’s old spinet piano. The piano is not… Read More
One of the biggest and most immediate factors in how a piano “feels” to the player is the key dip. You’ve probably played a piano with very shallow key dip, and disliked it, but not been able to put your finger on the culprit (pardon the pun).The keyboard may have felt sluggish, clunky, hard, unresponsive, or just plain weird. Key dip is the distance the key travels downward when you play it. As pianists, we are used to a key dip of about 3/8″, and even the smallest fraction of an inch makes a significant difference in how the piano feels. Part of this is due to the fact that the key dip is directly related to several other action regulation items, such as how far the hammer travels, at what point it stops being driven by the action (let-off), how far the key continues to move after let-off… Read More
The Dampp-Chaser Piano Lifesaver system is an all-in-one humidity control solution for pianos. Pictured are three different stages of the installation: 1. All components installed. 2. All wires tied and secured neatly out of the way. 3. Undercover installed. This not only helps protect and “seal” the humidity and temperature levels inside the piano, but also neatly covers up the entire system without affecting the sound at all.This church piano was having major problems with tuning stability due to temperature and humidity fluctuations in the church. It’s no magic bullet, but this system should make a big difference! #pixlr
Cleaning the soundboard and plate of a grand piano can make a huge cosmetic difference! It won’t make the piano look new again (at least, don’t count on it), but if you have a grand piano and like to leave the lid open, make sure you stay on top of cleaning. General purpose, non-abrasive cleaners are fine for the metal plate. The soundboard is a little trickier to clean if you don’t have special equipment to get under the strings, so you may want to talk to your technician about that at your annual appointment. This piano was nearly a century old, and it might have been that long since it was cleaned. There was about an eighth of an inch of dust on the soundboard!
It’s important to recognize when you hire someone to work on your piano (or anything you own) that the fee or hourly rate you pay encapsulates the entire amount needed to run the business and offer you the service. There are significant cost overheads involved in any business; self-employment and in-home services are certainly no exception One of the biggest cost overheads in piano work is tools. In order to work efficiently and quickly, at a high level of quality, while minimizing the risk of any damage to your piano, there are a number of specialized tools that piano technicians carry. One of the most important is the tuning lever, or “tuning hammer.” This Fujan tuning lever is not cheap, but it is one of the best investments I’ve made. With a carbon fiber shaft and precision machined head, it gives the best possible grip and torque on tuning pins.… Read More
Twice in the last week, I have seen significant soundboard cracks on relatively new grand pianos. Both high quality instruments. This was a Yamaha C3, the conservatory model baby grand. Why does this happen? In both cases, the pianos had been stored immediately next to heat sources and/or direct sunlight. As heat and sunlight dry out the piano, soundboard cracks are just one of many problems that crop up. In both cases, I strongly advised the owners to keep their valuable piano away from heat sources and direct sunlight. Thankfully, these soundboard cracks are not significantly impacting the tone of the piano yet. If the pattern continues though, pianos stored in environments like this may lose decades of useful life. If you have a piano, particularly a high quality one, know what’s good for it!