A piano consists of a strong wooden cabinet fitted with a thin wooden soundboard. Wooden bridges are glued to this soundboard and connect with steel strings stretched across it. The strings at one end are fixed to tuning pins mounted in a block of high grade laminated wood.
Wood, you may have gathered, is the predominant material in a piano - but it doesn't stop with the structure; there is the mechanism, the ‘action’ and also the keyboard, again, all engineered somewhat remarkably out of wood.
The soundboard, a very thin board of sitka spruce, amplifies the sound and contributes
greatly to the tone.
The musical vibrations must travel unimpeded through the fibres of the board. Only fine quality, knot-free wood is used. It has to be a perfect resonator.
The bridges affixed to the soundboard are of hardwood, often beech. They need to withstand considerable downward pressure from the strings - the 'downbearing.' The soundboard is crowned - it bows outward slightly in the centre to help it resist this pressure and ribs are glued to the back of it for added stability. In the first picture above you can see the strong wooden back posts of an upright piano. The golden coloured wood is the soundboard with its diagonal ribs. Often on an upright piano this part of the instrument is hidden by a backing cloth and on a grand piano the rib structure can only be seen if you crawl underneath.
The downbearing exists to ensure good contact with the strings and good transference of the sound. The main force exerted by the strings however, is their combined tension from top to bottom (front to back on a grand piano). Over 200 strings at high tension exert nearly 20 tonnes on the structure. This is where wood alone is not enough. A heavy cast iron frame therefore completes the picture
and this item alone unfortunately makes a piano a difficult musical instrument to move around – which is why it is important
to find the ideal spot for it before it arrives in your home.
The tuning pin
plank, wrestplank or pinblock is a thick
piece of laminated wood fitted at the top of an upright piano or near the front of a grand piano. It is drilled
with over 200 holes to take the tuning pins to which are attached the strings. Each pin must be tight enough in
its hole to hold the string at the desired pitch, but not so tight that the pin will not turn smoothly to allow
Wood is very responsive to humidity levels. If it is damp, then it swells. If it is dry, it shrinks. Even
though the wood used in a piano is of the best grade and is carefully seasoned, it still behaves in this way.
Great care needs to be taken to ensure that a piano is not exposed to extremes or extreme fluctuations of
When humidity is high, keys can stick, actions can become sluggish, the soundboard swells and bows
outward slightly at the centre, pushing the bridges out, thus increasing the tension on the strings, sending
the pitch sharp. If conditions are very humid then strings and other metal components can rust or corrode.
Conversely, if humidity is too low then the soundboard shrinks and flattens out and the pitch of the strings
The board is actually made of several thin strips of board glued together at the edges. If it shrinks
too much then these joins can pull apart and cracks can appear.
A cracked soundboard does not resonate as it
should; the piano suffers loss of tone and tuning instability due to erratic movement of the separated boards.
It may even produce unwanted buzzes and vibrations.
The above picture shows a crack which has been repaired. Such repairs
can only be effected when the strings are removed from the piano and the iron frame taken out - major work!
Excessive dryness can also cause splits in the hardwood
connecting bridges and can loosen the tuning pins so that the piano sounds permanently honky-tonk.
Picture shows old rusty tuning pins. One or two larger pins have been added to stop those particular
strings from slipping out of tune.
You may think that in a home, conditions would not be so extreme. To a large extent this is true. Pianos enjoy
a similar environment to us – not too hot or too cold, not too humid or too dry. So a room suitable for human habitation
should also be
all right for a piano (That rules out the kids’ bedrooms then!). However, care must be taken not to position a
piano too close to a heat source such as a central heating radiator or in direct sunlight, as these can quickly
dry out the wood and cause severe damage as described above (not to mention the effect of sunlight on the casing).
Also steamy places such as kitchens or cold out-buildings or even near to a regularly opened window may not be
suitable locations as the combined effects of high humidity, fluctuating humidity and possibly condensation could
cause serious harm.
Humidity is the main consideration and, within certain parameters, more important than temperature
– although the two often go hand in hand.
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The acceptable humidity levels are between 50% - 60% relative humidity and the ideal temperature should be normal room temperature. By achieving
these levels you will not succeed in preventing the piano from going out of tune but you should save it from going out
of the house into a skip!
Treating Damp. Excessive humidity can occur on the inside of outdoor facing walls or in other parts of
old properties. That wonderful 14th century cottage in the country can be a hostile environment for a piano.
There are several devices available to control the climate around your piano. Please email us
if you would like to know more or look up The Piano Life Saver from Dampp-Chaser® products.
Care of the casework. Most of today's pianos need only to be dusted or wiped with a damp cloth.
It is unwise to use furniture creams, waxes or sprays. A satin finish requires only wiping with a cloth dampened with
water to which a drop of vinegar has been added. Glossy polyester finishes can be dusted and marks can sometimes be removed
with a chamois leather but care must be taken not to scratch the surface.
Older pianos were often french polished. This polish can sometimes be revived using a proprietary french-polish
reviver. Always try it on an inconspicuous part of the piano first. Try not to keep things on top of your piano.
Any vessels containing liquid, such as vases of flowers, etc. could well spill and seep inside to damage the action of the
Piano Tuner. Care of the internal parts of the piano is best left to the piano tuner.
Regular tuning ensures not only that the piano is kept in tune and at the correct pitch but also in good working order.
During a tuning small adjustments can be made eg. to ensure parts stay aligned - thus avoiding premature wear. If the action
requires more work, the piano tuner can advise.
Picture shows worn hammers where the felt on the hammer nose is wearing close to the wooden centre core.
time gap between tunings is too great then the condition of the
internal workings can be more difficult to monitor. A more out-of-tune piano can take more time to put back in
tune, leaving less time for other adjustments. Economising on tuning may not be a good saving in the long run.
Key care. A piano's keys need to be treated with respect. The front lip of the white notes is particularly vulnerable to damage. Generally though, the keys need little attention other than periodic dusting.
The piano's keys can however get grimy over time.
The best way to clean the keys is with a finger wrapped in cotton cloth
and moistened with a solution of water and washing-up liquid. The cloth should not be saturated - only dampened. It is imperative that water
is not allowed to run on the keys or spill down the sides as the key coverings could become loosened.
It is difficult to remove
yellowing, particularly if the coverings are made of plastic or celluloid. Yellowing of ivory can sometimes be
prevented by leaving the fall (The lid that covers the keys) open as exposure to sunlight helps keep them white.
A piano is not just a musical instrument it is also a piece of furniture. Unlike many other instruments
it cannot be shut away in a cupboard when not in use - it has to live with you and you have to live with it.
to the care it receives by giving years of lasting pleasure. This may be the reason why many people get attached
to their pianos which become loved and cherished and passed down through generations.
If you are looking for specific advice or if you would like
to use my services as a piano tuner, please do not hesitate to make contact.
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