Monday, December 19, 2011

Squeaking Keys

Quick Answer: Your solution might be a simple drop of Protek away (you could also use denatured alcohol).

Quirk Answer: You might have acquired a new resident.  Charge him rent!

Long Answer: While there are several issues that can cause your keys to squeak I will be focusing on one that I came across recently.  The squeak is usually so slight that under normal playing conditions you would not hear it, however this particular squeak is a symptom of a repair that your piano will eventually need.

Subtle enough?  Did you notice that when the key was shifted a bit to the left that when played the squeak disappeared?  Did you also notice the depression in the red felt to the left of the balance rail pin?  Did you also see then angle of the key?  All of these observances will tell the discerning technician what is wrong and how to fix it, however there may also be a simple solution that costs pennies compared to hundreds of dollars.

If you re-watch the video you will notice the note not being played has an area around the felt that appears to be wet.  There are a couple of reasons a key will make this sound:

  • Hard Felt
  • Significant amount of dust
While I cannot prove that significant amounts of dust cause this it does stand to reason that dust or debris between the balance rail key pin and felt could cause this noise.  I usually will attribute the noise to the hardness of the felt.

What makes the felt hard? It often is the case that the manufacturer applied too much glue which then wicked all the way through the felt, this glue has historically be hot hide(animal) glue. Modern pianos use another type of glue or adhesive and I find that some of these glues wick through the felt more than others. Hide glue while not necessarily ideal when used in its "hot" variety doesn't wick as much since it begins to cool as soon as applied to the felt and will be set in a much shorter period of time and many other glues.

In pianos, when two hard surfaces are in contact with no "soft" buffer material you often will get a noise.

Back to our squeak...

The angle of the key can prematurely cause wear on the felt bushing creating more grooving on one side of the key.  This will wear away the felt faster as they key slides back and forth across the felt. This wearing away of the felt will reveal the undersurfaces to where the glue has penetrated. Typically keys whose angles behind the balance rail key pin are to the right (treble) the felt will wear on the left side. Keys with angles to the left (bass) will wear on the right side.  This angle creates more pressure on the opposite side.

Improper "key easing" can cause this uneven wearing also.

The proper repair is to replace the felt ensuring minimal side to side motion allowing the key freedom of movement with minimal friction.

A quick and effective treatment is what I will describe below the video which shows the same key as the first video but without the squeak.

Using my trusty favorite non-destructive lubricant (Protek) I apply a drop or two to the felt. Viola, squeak resolved.  This lubricant is not generally available to the public.  You can try a drop or two of denatured alcohol which would hydrate and soften the felt but leave behind no lubricant.  Be warned I use a hypo-oiler with a very narrow needle.  If your felt was glued on with hide glue, too much liquid in any form could dissolve the bond between the felt and key forcing you to have the "proper" repair done.  Some woodworking shops will carry a fine point glue applicator that will allow you to apply a drop of this liquid onto the key bushing felt.  The drop you apply should be less than 0.03 ml which is the standard medicine dropper drop size, you must have a drop smaller than this.  See the picture below to see the difference between a regular medicine dropper and my hypo-oiler bottles.  I use the small bore needle and bottle with my lubricant.  These particular bottles are from Gaunt Ind. "Hypo-25" (3oz. Small bore) and "Hypo-494" (6oz. Large bore) and available through some piano technician parts suppliers.  Prefect for applying just the right amount of lubricant.  Without a dropper, it might be possible to brush a thin amount rather than trying to apply a drop on the felt.  Should you choose to attempt this with an inexpensive artist brush, be sure to vacuum the tops of the keys and felt to prevent further possible contamination of the felt.
Dropper (Left), Large Bore (Top), Small Bore (Bottom)
As with all my technical tips, use caution when applying the "fix"

I always inform my client that if this treatment does not resolve the problem they will need to have the key bushing felt replaced which can be done in about three days (day one - felt removal, day two - new felt, day three - customize fit to the piano). Day three is minimal if I have done the glueing and pre-sizing properly. The actual time it take to perform this is 8 - 16 hours.

Hopefully you can delay the inevitable felt replacement for another few years or until a more financially appropriate time.

To translate my quirk answer... what little house pest squeaks? A Mouse, and mice love piano houses... there is so much to chew and destroy.  Trust me, if you have mice in your piano, it's best to get them out as quickly as possible, they cause significant damage that could ruin your piano.  The next time I come across one I will post my process of cleaning after they have been removed from the instrument.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A String Broke, can it be repaired?

Quick Answer:  Yes! The string can be replaced and sometimes repaired

Quirk Answer:  Nope, sorry, you need to replace the instrument with a new one, or spend thousands of dollars replacing all of the strings.

Long Answer:  Of course the string can always be replaced independent of the other intact strings.  There are several criteria I suggest using to evaluate whether it is advisable to repair the string or replace it, or suggest more intensive service.

  • Where is the string broken?
    • If broken at the tuning pin it is possible to tie(yes we make a special knot) a leader string to the original string.  The key to this working is whether the knot can be positioned in such a way that when tension is applied to the string the knot will tighten and be outside of the speaking length of the wire.  The speaking length of wire is where the string vibrates.
  • How old is the piano?
    • As a piano ages the strings will loose some of their elasticity and be more prone to breakage.
    • Typically pianos over 80 years old may not benefit from repair or replacement.
  • What condition are the strings?
    • Strings that exhibit signs of rust or other corrosion are weakened and prone to failure.
  • Where is the pitch of the piano prior to service?
    • Pianos that are significantly low in pitch may experience a number of string breakages in the process of bringing the piano to proper pitch and I have not found the gradually increasing the pitch over several appointments will prevent breakage of strings.
  • Is there evidence of other strings having been broken in the past?
    • Look at the strings, if there are strings that are more shiny than their neighbors, those are replacements. If there are more than a few, your piano might be better served with a complete restringing or replacement with a newer instrument.
    • Older string repairs are more difficult to see, I always will inspect the string as it wraps around the tuning pin.  Unless the technician is meticulous in their copying the original manufacturers stringing, you will likely see evidence at or near the tuning pin.
  • Is the broken string a bass string or other string with copper wound around a steel core wire?
    • I rarely will tie this type of string, I have in the past but I believe the result is less than perfect. I generally will send the string back for duplication to achieve the best sounding string that matches the original as closely as possible, I do not like to use "Universal" strings (more on that later)
I advise my clients that all broken strings should be replaced, but that due to the nature of new string the pitch of the replacement will drop significantly faster than the rest of the strings in the piano.  To combat this I will tune the pitch of the new string high and then insert a mute (when possible) to stop the new string from vibrating.  This allows the customer to enjoy the instrument without the need to a repeat visit after less than a month.  When the piano is serviced again, I remove the mute and listen.  If the pitch is close I will leave the mute out and be satisfied the new string is staying close to pitch. If however the pitch has dropped significantly, I again tune the new string sharp and mute it again.  When the pitch is stable, the mute is removed permanently.

On occasion a client may decline the replacement of a string due strictly to financial reasons, I understand that the added expense may not be in the budget, but advise that they may be allowing for greater damage to the mechanical workings on the note(s) with missing strings.  This damage would, in a normal home, take place gradually over several years and that the customer has some time to decide. I generally do not charge for the plain string itself when making a single string repair, but do charge for the labor and labor cost of each visit if the only service is tuning the replacement string.

This brings me to bass strings.  Because bass strings are either a single or double string per note, I prefer to replace the string as soon as possible, when you lose a string on a single string unison you will play the note but will have no sound, and on a two string unison when you play the note with a string missing you will experience a reduction of about 50% in volume.

I mention above that I do not like "Universal" strings. These are strings that are generic which allow a technician in the field to replaced the string broken by trimming the copper winding to the proper length and fitting it in the piano.  I find that even when I am using the original string as my template the sound of the universal string doesn't match the original intact string creating a note that doesn't sound as good as it should.  I prefer to take the original string and ship it to a string maker who will duplicate the original.  This duplication is a bit more expensive but for the quality of the sound it produces, worth the price.

If your piano has had numerous strings broken, it might be worthwhile asking for an estimate on replacing all of the strings.  It is generally not cost effective to make this repair on old uprights, consoles or spinets.  If however you are attached to the instrument and have the funds to make the repair ask for references of the technicians clients whose pianos for which he has done similar work. Complete string replacement is generally over $1000 and can be several thousand depending on the hourly rate, quality of materials, other repairs that might be necessary for the best quality repair (pinblock/wrestplank replacement).


I Need Some Piano Wire (or) A string broke and it needs to be replaced

Quick Answer:  Call a qualified technician to have it replaced.
Quirk Answer:  Get some bailing wire and a crescent wrench or square tipped socket wrench and expect to need to follow the advise of the quick answer plus a few hundred dollars to correct your mistake. (I don't believe this is a valid user repair, a technician is the best route on this one)

Long Answer:  This, for me, is one of the most frustrating things customers ask for, it is rare, but it happens and often if I am not provided a sample string the customer gets the wrong size wire.

Scenario: Customer calls and wants to repair their own string (not advisable but it happens), or they are calling to have the string ready but do not want to use my services.

How to order piano wire:

With a micrometer measuring in the thousandths of an inch measure the diameter of the wire in any straight section (micrometer prices range from $30 - $250 or  more).

What is a micrometer?
Micrometer Micrometer 0 reading Micrometer 0.210"
How piano technicians measure and/or order string:

Piano Strings are usually ordered by a "gauge" number and weight. This number is often marked on the bridge of modern pianos (Asian Pianos: Kawai, Yamaha, Young Chang, etc) or in the tuning pin area (Steinway & Sons).  If your piano has these numbers, Fantastic!!

Look at the bridge or tuning pin section on key number 88 (your highest note), if there is a number printed in either of these locations on the highest strings this means this is the start of the section of this particular gauge of wire. The piano was likely strung right to left (highest to lowest)

If however you have to look 4-6 notes down (12-18 strings) to find the printed number then key 88 is the last string of that section. This piano was likely strung left to right (lowest plain string to highest)

Where this number is located is extremely important in determining the proper size of wire for replacement.

Right to Left Stringing:  Look to the right of your missing string, the first printed string size is the correct wire gauge

Left to Right Stringing:  Look to the left of the missing string, the first printed string size is the correct wire gauge.

Unknown String Gauge:  Using a micrometer measure the diameter of the wire (remember thousandths of an inch) - Count the number of hashes (my micrometer is 0.025" per hash mark as the barrel hashes go to 24 before rolling back to 0). Measure the wire in a few different places to be sure you get the most accurate measurement.

The measurement you will get for modern piano wire will be no less than 0.029"
To figure the wire gauge you need to order: Subtract from 29 the number 5. Now divide by 2.

29 - 5 = 24 / 2 = 12

You will need to ask for 12 gauge wire.  The largest plain steel piano wire I have seen in a piano is 22 gauge. Calculating in reverse: 

22 x 2 = 44 + 5 = 49
micrometer will read 0.049"

If your number falls below the 0.029" mark you either are measuring incorrectly or have something other than piano wire you're needing to replace, guitar strings are significantly thinner than piano strings and might be suitable for your needs. Piano gauges are sizes by halves, so 12, 12.5(or 12 1/2), 13, 13.5, etc.

A technician usually orders plain steel piano wire by the 1 pound or 5 pound roll.  I carry in my kit a case with the normal 1 pound rolls of each wire gauge needed in pianos and use these when strings break.  In the shop that performs numerous piano restringing jobs a year you will find 5 pound or heavier spools of wire for each size.

Ordering (gauge + length):  When asking to order string for single replacement ask for the gauge and length of wire plus at least 1 foot of extra wire. Measure the total length of the string you need then add 1 foot or if you need to guess, measure from the tuning pin to the hitch pin (this is the point on the plate the the wire is looped around) then double that measurement and add 1 foot. 

Why do I need the correct wire? During a routine service call I had customer with a Bosendorfer grand where one string had been broken and replaced... inspect the pictures below and see if you can discern the problem:
One of these is not like the other Look closely at the knots Look Closer - Which is Different

In the first picture it is the right string of the 4th group of wires.  In the second picture you will notice the "tail" of the knot is pointing the wrong direction.  In the third picture you will see a close up of the knot and string.

Other than the mistakes you see with the knot, do you notice anything else that is different?  As a practicing technician the mistake caught my eye almost immediately and it is a problem I have seen before and the point of this article...

The technician who replaced the wire did not measure it for diameter! The string diameter is thin enough that without a physical measurement I can visually see the difference, look particularly how the string wraps around itself as compared to the original knots.

How does a competent honest technician approach the customer with a mistake like this?  I informed the customer and showed them what was wrong and why and that if they were unhappy with the quality of the sound or the stability of the note they should contact me regarding a replacement string with the proper diameter and tied in the same manner as the original strings.

Why is the diameter important?  All piano strings are set to a certain pitch. Strings of different diameters will hold the tension differently based on their diameter.  A thin string tuned to the same pitch as a thicker string will resonate differently.  I would suggest that the quality of the sound is much like the sound of a "false" string, or a string that has an audible beat-rate when played individually.

This sounds to be a string that will not be in tune when the pitches when listened to individually are correct, but when set in motion with the other regular sized strings has an audible beat-rate as though it is out of tune.

When two strings of nearly identical length but of differing diameters are tuned to the same pitch their tension will be different which will directly affect the harmonic overtones the strings produce and cause the sound to be less than ideal.  Aural piano tuners will hear this "inharmonicity" quite quickly.  Hopefully my machine tuning colleagues do as well.

This article pertains only to plain steel strings, it doesn't consider the complexities of bass strings or other strings wound with copper.  This will be addressed at another time... 

Monday, December 12, 2011

What is this Lost Motion?

Quick Answer: Wasted movement between the interaction of certain piano parts.

Quirk Answer: Check your butts, they may be dragging you down.

Long Answer: Technicians may tell you that your piano has too much lost motion.  Lost motion is a condition where you have movement but no action.  Generally there are two places in the piano where you will need some lost motion; the pedals & the keys.  Without the proper amount of lost motion in your pedals (especially the sustain pedal) and the keys will ring after being played. In keys that have no lost motion you may have difficulties repeating the note after it is played.

How do we create lost motion?
videoBy creating a slight delay between the primary part (key or pedal) and its secondary part.  While watching the video notice the almost imperceptible motion of the 3rd back check (count from the left) then a few seconds later you will see the 5th back check. Notice how much further the 5th moves before the butt check starts moving?

This adjustment is critical in the playability of an instrument.  Too much lost motion and the parts move at the wrong time and could cause a bobble sound (a hammer hitting the string multiple times with a single key stroke).

The goal is to have as little lost motion yet still allow the mechanism to reset and cycle.

Now you're likely asking, what is a butt check and a backcheck... I'm mean really aren't you checking the back when doing a butt check? Moving on...

In all modern vertical pianos (spinet, console, studio, upright, upright grand) what you see in the video will be similar to your piano. You will notice a block attached to a wire, this block in the video is yellow with a pad of green felt glued to it. This block is called a back check, it catches or "checks" the hammer approximately 5/8" from the string after being played when the key is held down.

The next block you see is the butt check if you play your key fully at mezzo-forte the leather covered block will come back and be caught by the backcheck.  When setting the "lost motion" of the keys you want to see a slight movement of the backcheck before the butt check moves. If you can feel the lost motion in the key you will need to have an adjustment made.

Can you make this adjustment on your own? Likely.
The tool you will need depends on your instrument.  Generally a long tapered thin steel rod will work.

Remove the case parts from the piano to allow access to the keys, you should be able to slide the keys off of the guide pins (balance & front rails).  You NEVER should remove all the keys at the same time unless the keys are clearly numbered.  They keys fit into the piano in a specific order and do not generally fit well when placed in the incorrect order.

If you remove a key from the piano at the end of the key, closest to the strings there will be an adjustable part, either a brass fixture or a dowel screwed onto a threaded metal rod, this is the capstan.  Your long tapered steel rod should fit in the hole provided in the capstan, if you're capstan is hexagonal or octagonal you will need a tool to fit this shape.  This adjustment is most easily made with the piano keys in place as you can test your progress as you make adjustments.  Note: When turning the capstan your tool should not contact neighboring action parts, you could damage the mechanism if you're not careful.

Insert the tool into the hole and turn to the treble(higher notes) to reduce the lost motion making the key more efficient.  If you release the key slowly until it comes to rest as you able to play the note again? If not you likely don't have enough lost motion.  This is a subtle adjustment that will take some practice to perfect, the good news is you have 88 chances to get it right, the bad news... you have 88 notes to get perfect.

This adjustment normally will take an experienced technician less than an hour to complete, and in most circumstances can be done at the time of service, provided they are notified prior to the appointment to allow the proper amount of time for the adjustment.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stop the over ringing and zinging of my piano

Quick Answer: Unfortunately this will take time to resolve... read the long answer for more info

Quirk Answer: Stop playing the piano.

Long Answer: When you stop playing your piano or play staccato does your piano ring for longer than a second? Or are there loud overtones leaking through for a second or longer after you stop playing the piano? You might have a problem.

Having just recently completed a repair on an older instrument to resolve this, I thought it would be interesting to share with you the potential causes and cures for this issue.

The names of the pedals from left to right are, una corda, sostenuto, sustain. Our concern today it the sustain pedal. This customer's recently acquired instrument had a significant amount of after ring or resonance. Additionally the damper pedal when pressed exhibited an unusual amount of sound.

We must diagnose the problem!

First: Does the pedal have enough lost motion (extra space where the pedal is pressed but the dampers do not move)? Too little or no lost motion leads to after ring, over ring, or leaking dampers. The proper amount is up to the player and technician, but I always suggest a minimal amount of lost motion. In this instance yes, there was enough, in fact too much.

Second: When the pedal is allowed to return to rest position (up) is there a loud hard noise? In this instance yes. This indicates some of the padding to prevent this type of noise is failing, or an obstruction of the damper lever preventing full motion. In this instance, compression of the padding allowing too much movement and contact with a hard surface.

Third: Is there enough lost motion between the back of the key and the damper movement or under lever? Press your key down slowly and watch the damper rise. Does it rise immediately? Or is there a delay? You must have a slight delay, how much of a delay can alter the "feel" of the piano. Too little delay and you again will have after ring, over ring, or leaking dampers. In this instance enough delay between the key and damper mechanism.

We have quickly determined (5-10 minutes) that the extra ring is not due to an improperly adjusted pedal or key... what could be the problem?

Trimmed Tri-Chord Felt
If you look at these dampers you will see what we call "tri-chord" felt having been trimmed until it is almost flat.  Depending on how you look at the felt it should have a "W" shape.  Notice the far right damper felt, the legs or fingers of the felt have been completely trimmed flat.  Now look at the profile picture and see how uneven the felt is.

Trimmed Tri-Chord Felt Profile
This in addition to the hardness of the old damper felt was causing a "zing" on releasing the key.  Customer was frustrated and not happy with the sound of this otherwise beautiful instrument.  The solution?

Replace all of the felt on the damper moulding with new felt, and re bush the pedal rods and adding additional material below the back of the pedal and to the pad on the damper lever.  Confused yet?

How to proceed:

Damper underlever & Set screws
1. If you're satisfied with the damper lift from the key, locate the end damper from each section and loosen the set screw 1/4 - 1/2 turn.  Remember you're only going to loosen the ends of each section, you should have no more than 8 dampers.  Keep them in order!

2. With a sharp razor blade cut off the felt being careful not to remove any wood.  It is better to leave a bit of the glue residue than to cut into the wood.  You can use your razor blade like a scraper to remove the rest of the residue. (alternately if the glue is a clear brown or amber color(hide glue): I have in the past used a 80/20 solution of water/jasco wall paper remover to dissolve the glue holding the damper in place)

Felt Removed
Damper with original felt

Glued and ready

Glued and ready to install
Samples set, remaining section removed

3. With a non-runny glue (I like Weldbond PVA it is a multipurpose glue similar to the industry PVC-E glue) the glue should not slide around once you have applied a small amount.  I then take the replacement felt and use it to make the bead of glue a thin layer on both the damper head and replacement felt.  Hide glue will also work for this but I find it not always the best choice as it is more temperamental in colder weather and doesn't set fast in heat. You will want a glue that setup up quickly enough that the felt doesn't absorb the glue to deeply.  Once you have glued your samples and reset them in their proper place I block the damper tray up to the correct position.  The damper tray is the long rail the moves when you press the pedal causing the damper under levers to rise and fall.  If you block this at the proper height you will find no need to determine when the damper should rise from the key. Since you only took out samples and were happy with the damper lift from the key you will reset the samples to the level of the still installed dampers

One thing I like to do when replacing dampers is to lubricate the damper guide rail bushings as seen below.
Lubricating the guide rail bushing
Why?  I find that this step will flush out any dust or debris from the bushing giving a smooth, quiet sound when the pedal is used.  It is not necessary, but while you have easy access, now is a good time to do it.  Do not use household lubricants! I use only Protek Prolube in all lubricant applications in the piano and @ about $70 per quart it's expensive, but a few drops to saturate the bushing is adequate for quite a long time.

After replacing all your dampers you will likely need to align the damper head to be straight. I cinch the damper set screw slightly then with a pair of needle nose pliers, carefully twist the damper wire until the head is parallel with the strings then tighten the screw just a bit more.  When you have replaced all of the damper felts test the pedal.  What you need to look for are dampers that rise too early or too late. Re-adjust as necessary. Your dampers should move at the same time.  One test I like to use is after installation to block the dampers until you just get about a half of a second ring when the string is plucked or played. Every note should have the same duration of ring as your test note. For those that don't ring long enough the damper is rising too late, for those that ring too long, the damper is rising too soon.  If your dampers visually rise properly this "fine" adjust may not be necessary if you use the pedal in only the down or up position.  If however your sustain pedal technique has many "steps" this step will likely be necessary.

Now re-assemble the piano and test again using our three tests from the beginning: Pedal Lost motion, Pedal noise, and Damper lift from the key. Make sure all are in proper alignment. especially ensure you have sufficient space between the back of the key and the damper lift.  I always am a bit more generous with new damper replacement due to the fact that these new felts will compress a bit and reduce the amount of room you have provided between the back of the key and the damper under lever, if you account for this compression you will save yourself a second visit to adjust for ringing dampers.

This process will take an experienced efficient technician between 4 and 6 hours if no other adjustments are necessary.  If the damper wires need to be adjusted for proper alignment this could take significantly more time.  When requesting this type of work ensure that your technician inspects the damper wire alignment and quotes his bid accordingly.  I find however that adjusting damper wire to be unnecessary unless a technician in the past adjusted them improperly, the factory generally does a good job when installing this part.

Note: For a short period Kawai grand pianos had an issue where in the bass section one string would ring while the other was silenced by the damper.  If you have this issue contact your nearest Kawai dealer and ask them to send a technician to adjust the damper rail placement.  The rail may only need to be shifted a very slight amount to resolve the issue and is best done by a qualified technician. This service may likely be covered under warranty if your piano is within the warranty period.  Ask the servicing technician to call the manufacturer's technical support directly for instructions on resolving this simple yet quite annoying issue.  Kawai has since corrected the issue and I have not seen it for a few years.

Technicians, send me a message with your email and I will describe the repair as it was presented to me by Kawai.

Selecting a Piano Tuner/Technician

Quick Answer: If you're in southwest Idaho, me!

Quirk Answer: If you pay for the hotel, air fair, and food, plus a modest per diem($400/day), me!

Long Answer:

Ok, it's not so long, but here is how I suggest searching for piano instructors, the same applies to any music instrument service.

  • Inquire at the local university for the name of the technician they suggest
  • Inquire at the piano dealer who sells either Steinway & Sons(preferred) or your brand of instrument
  • Ask your instructor who they suggest using
  • Friend References (who do you know that has a piano, who do they use?)
  • Phone book (Interview each person although it will be difficult to know until the technician services the piano once and you are either satisfied or not. If not you can attempt to schedule another appointment with the same technician for a free/discounted visit or just move on to the next name in the phone book.
  • Piano Technicians Guild
You may wonder why I list the Piano Technician Guild last... some of the great piano technicians will not be listed there as they either don't want to belong or their clientele is established and they feel they don't need to be a member.  You as the customer are ultimately what matters not the credentials a piano technician may or may not have. The guild was organized to promote the highest possible service and technical standards among piano tuners and technicians.  Whether they accomplish this is for them to decide.  I find the guild members often delve into details that are largely irrelevant and impractical to the average piano owner.  The guild does provide a wealth of knowledge from basic to advanced and if you have an interest you will find them a good resource to begin your path toward becoming a piano technician.
As a practicing piano technician(mechanic) my customer's satisfaction is the ultimate goal!

Friday, December 2, 2011

How often should I tune my piano?

A simple question with a complicated answer...

Quick Answer: At least once per year.

Quirk Answer: If you can hear it out of tune, it's too late, call immediately for professional assistance! If you can hear that it is out of tune, you've waited too long, all is lost!

Long Answer:

Most piano technicians will tell you to tune your piano at least two times per year. In my location this is, for most customers, unnecessary.

What will cause your piano to become out of tune?
There are several factors that will cause your piano to become out of tune:
  1. Fluxuations of environmental humidity
  2. Amount of use
  3. Type of use or music played
  4. Time since last tuning
  5. Frequency of prior service
  6. Temporary direct sunlight on the strings
  7. Quality of the tuner/technician

Going through each of these items seperately:

Fluxuations in environmental humidity - Pianos love consistency. A piano in a stable environment will stay in tune better than in an environment that is moving from humid to dry with the seasonal changes. If you think of the wood as a sponge it will give you a clearer idea what will happen when you introduce moisture. The moisture I am discussing is however in the air, the change of relative humidity is key to what will happen with your piano. A few weeks after the change you may notice the area of the keyboard from middle C and down about an octave and a half is out of tune. When the humidity increases the wood will swell and cause the strings to become tighter increasing the pitch of those notes. When the humidity decreases the wood will shrink causing this same section's strings to loosen a bit and drop in pitch.

Amount of use - The more you play the instrument the more frequently you will need to have it serviced. As you play the piano you are "exercising" the strings, they are bending between two fixed points, vibrating at the pitch set, these small vibrations will cause the strings to stretch somewhat. The more you play the more likely the strings will stretch a bit.

Type of Use - A good example of the difference among piano users is the "University Practice Piano vs. Home Piano". University pianos are generally played 12 or more hours every day often in humidity controlled rooms, these pianos are tuned much more frequently than once or twice per year, sometimes every month. Your home instrument is unlikely to receive this amount of attention for your players. I break down the type of use two ways:
  1. Hourly - If the piano is being played, on average, more than and hour daily, you might hear a benefit in tuning semi-annually.
  2. Type of music played - If you play the piano aggressively and/or very loud (fff) you will likely need to have the piano serviced more frequently.
Time Since Last Tuning - At least once a week and often several days in a row I see pianos that have not been tuned in some time, years, decades or ever. This is setting up the technician (me) to fail. As much as I don't like to tell my customers, I cannot in a regular appointment correct the pitch and create a stable tuning. When I encounter this situation I politely inform the customer that I will go through the piano several times and let them know when they should tune again. This yields great results as the last thing a customer wants to be told is that it is going to take several hours and hundreds of dollars to correct their neglect.

In proceeding with this situation I tune very rapidly attempting to achieve the proper pitch and stability. How do I determine when a second visit needs to be scheduled? If as I tune the piano it is slipping back out of tune rapidly I will suggest a second tuning in as little as 30 days. Often with 3 passes or 3 tunings I am fairly confident that the customer will be satisfied with the piano until the next tuning can be scheduled. I do not charge extra for this service.
What other piano tuners have expressed to their customers (this account is from a client who refused to agree to the work proposed and call to schedule an appointment with me instead):
Because you have neglected your piano for so many years and the piano is "x" cents flat, my fee for today will be 50-100% more than quoted. In addition to these charges I will need to spend more time regulating the piano and making it as perfect as possible.
Needless to say, this piano tuner lost this client because their approach to the customer was inappropriate. A stranger comes to your house, implies neglect and then want to charge you hundreds of dollars. Don't fall for it!

An additional fee for tuning is appropriate in some instances, I personally don't do this. As tempting as it is to be able to charge a bit more, I find a more educated and informed customer who is made to feel awesome about their instrument and understands that going forward there is a better way to make the piano last grants me the opportunities to do the more invasive work later on. I prefer to develop the relationship first, this business is about the customer understanding the piano's needs, it is not about the piano technician, their income, or their ego, which I find all too common among my colleagues.

The RED flag indicating a piano may need to have several tunings before it stabilizes?
  • My piano has never been tuned
  • I don't remember when I last had my piano tuned
  • It's been decades
  • When I play at my lesson, it sounds like I'm playing the wrong notes
  • I just got a deal on craigslist
This leads us to...

Frequency of prior service - Pianos that are tuned regularly, whether that is once per year or more often have a longer useful musical life than pianos that are neglected. If you open your piano and it is more than 20 years old there are likely to be business cards, stamps or stickers marking the dates of tuning. Pianos that have numerous marked dates with recent years notated are often in better condition than those without the recent tuning notations.

Regularly I service instruments that receive only annual tunings which need only slight adjustments to the pitch. The better more regularly you service your instrument the better it will sound.

Temporary Direct Sunlight on the Strings - This I discovered one day while tuning a piano that sat in a south facing window with the sunlight shining directly on the strings. As I tuned the piano the sunlight would gradually move from one string to the next and the shade would follow behind. What I discovered was that as the sun would shine on the strings they would heat up enough to cause the string to go out of tune, when that same string was in the shade and cooled off a bit, the pitch would change. A frustrating experience when you don't understand what is happening. After about 30 minutes of tuning I ask the customer about the positioning of the piano and whether they had stability issues with the instrument. Not to my surprise, they had been through several technicians, and not really been happy with their service. I explained to the customer that the direct light from the window was causing the strings to heat up and then cool down after the sun had passed. This heating and cooling was forcing the string to undergo some very small changes that were likely affecting the stability of the tuning and that in order to correct the issue and achieve a tuning that would be more satisfying to them, we should resolve the sunlight issue. In this instance I wasn't proposing any additional fees to the customer, simply that they should move the piano a few more inches into the room and away from direct sunlight and have the windows covered during the times when the sunlight was shining directly into the room.

Prior to this customer I had always known that sunlight was damaging to the finish, but had not thought too much about sunlight heating the strings and causing them to change enough to cause the piano to go out of tune.

Quality of the tuner/technician - Not all piano tuners are the same! I have had a few clients that I could not satisfy, it happens. I have had some experiences with clients who had only had their pianos tuned by technicians that use an electronic device as an aid to their tuning. I believe this to be a crutch for the technician, it does achieve acceptable results for 99% of the piano owning public. I have always and will always be an aural tuner. It produces to me a more natural sounding instrument. But no matter how your instrument is tuned (by the human ear or with the aid of a device) if the technician doesn't understand how to set the tuning pin and equalize the tension in the string their tuning will not be stable and withstand the riggers of everyday playing. Unfortunately there is no real test that you the consumer can be directed to in order to know if the tuning is stable. The only way you can judge is to have someone service your instrument and see how it fares over the next several months. If it doesn't seem to stay in tune, and you've serviced the instrument regularly, try someone else the next time. Continue this process until you find a tuner/technician who satisfies your musical ear.

Stay tuned to find out how to select your piano technician.

Understanding the Mechanics of the Piano Action and what to do when it fails

As a practicing Piano Technician servicing several thousand pianos every year, my customers are always fascinated by the mechanical working of their instrument. I will attempt to demystify this instrument and offer my suggestions for maintenance and repair.

I particularly think you will find useful a common sense approach to your home instrument and potential repairs or adjustments. Often a simple adjustment can cost you hundreds of dollars. If you feel you have the mechanical aptitude and understanding to proceed with simple adjustments you could save hundreds of dollars.

For those who are not within my geographic area, this will be a useful tool to determine whether you have a technician attempting to perform service that may be unnecessary or being done improperly. I will forewarn you, I approach adjustments and repairs with the intent of making the instrument as perfect as possible in the least possible time. Why do I service in this manner? Because it saves you money.

Approximately once a week I will address the most common issue I see among my weekly appointments. If you have a specific question regarding your specific instrument feel free to post a question and I will attempt to inform you of the method I would use to resolve the problem you are experiencing.

I hope you find this information educational and increase your understanding of this excellent machine.