Archive for October, 2010

The Best Time to Tune

First of all, let me say that if you haven’t had your piano tuned in YEARS, the best time to tune is RIGHT NOW.  This article relates to people who tune their pianos regularly and would like to know how to optimize their tunings so that they last longer.  (and i just heard someone say “You can optimize tuning???”) The answer is a resounding YES! But before i give you the goods on that answer, i’ll keep you in suspense and drag you through the proverbial mud on the why’s of this answer first.

There are 3 elements that affect tuning stability.  Tuning pin torque, stretch in piano wire and soundboard fluctuation. Tuning pin torque has to do with how tight the tuning pins are in the pinblock.  For those who can’t place what part i’m talking about, these are the steel ‘pegs’ the tuner loosens and tightens to tune the piano.  The wire is stretched across the piano and are wound around these at either the top of the piano (on an upright) or at the front (on a grand).  Tuning pins are held by friction in a pinblock – a wooden (most often laminated) block of wood which i found out a few years back is called a wrestplank in Europe.  The word ‘wrest’ has its origins in ‘wrench’ which makes perfect sense really.  It is the part of the piano the tuner uses the tuning hammer (or wrench).  So if the friction is not there, the torque is not there and there will not be tuning stability.

The second factor affecting tuning is the steel wire itself.  Now this only applies to new wire.  Believe it or not, there’s HUGE amounts of stretch when new wires are installed on a piano.  Generally, i’ve noticed that it takes about 5 tunings to get new strings to stabilize.  If you’ve EVER had one broken string on a piano, you’ll know that the new wire will go out of tune quite quickly for the first few tunings.

So if your piano has good tuning pin strength and the wires are not new, that only leaves one alternative as to why pianos go out of tune on a regular basis (remembering that there are 18 tonnes of pull constantly at work as well!)  The last factor affecting tuning is the fluctuation in the soundboard.  The soundboard is the giant ‘amplifier’ that takes string resonance and multiplies the volume.  Without soundboard there is little sound on a piano.  Now similar to a guitar, the strings of a piano cross over the bridge which is directly attached to the soundboard.  Since the soundboard is dynamic – meaning that it is constantly moving, fluctuation in tuning will occur.  And what affects the soundboard? You guessed it, humidity.  Humidity affects wood CONSTANTLY.  It absorbs moisture and swells and dispells humidity and shrinks.  There is a constant contraction and expansion of the soundboard. 

So back to the question: When is the best time to tune the piano? The answer: after the major adjustment in humidity has occurred – namely spring and fall.  In the fall, the humidity shifts into the rainy/snowy season and in the spring the humidity moves into the dry/sunny season.  As soon as that shift has taken place, the piano will then be adjusted for the next 6 months.  So what happens if you tune before that time?  Well, you’ll nicely get your piano tuned, the humidity will shift and then you’ll notice notes will start to sound a little bit ‘out’.  To optimize your tuning, wait until AFTER the shift.  Where i live those months are October/November and March/April.  Just a thot to make your hard earned dollars last a bit longer…

The Black Hole of Pianos

Every piano has one… a black hole.  It’s the place where all the pencils disappear to.  Paperclips magically are sucked into it… Heaven forbid anyone should be doing their theory homework at the piano and an eraser falls inside.  And once inside the abyss… gone forever!  HAhaa… at least that’s what i used to think when articles would fall inside the piano when i was a kid.  And on pain of death we were threatened to never go tinkering around the inside of the piano (which is still probably good advice for kids and pianos…lol).  So when the piano tuner would come, he would unravel the mysteries of the universe… “Well… looks like that click sound is actually coming from a pen that fell inside.  Oh and here’s another pencil.”  I remember seeing the inside mechanism of a piano for the first time in my early teens.  (Formally called the “action”).  When i witnessed the hammers and levers i remember having this brainwave. “Sir? Can you make the keyboard on my piano heavier?”  We had an old upright piano and with 4 kids – 3 of which ended up with diplomas in piano, you can imagine the beating it endured.  But when i went to my teacher’s place where there was this beautiful modern 7′ Yamaha grand piano, i noticed how vastly different the touch was.  And so the answer from the tuner? Simply “No”.  No explanation. End of Story.  I thought to myself, in all this gobbledeegook of levers maybe there was some adjustment that could be made to give me a grand touch.  I was young and naive and this technician had no time to explain and so i was left with no alternative than to think that it’s impossible.

For the most part, however….unfortunately he was right.  I’ve had MANY people ask me to transform their piano into a firmer touch but to understand piano touch more, i’d like you to think of your piano like a scale.  On one side is the key of the piano – the black and white notes.  On the other side remain the hammers and the action.  So most pianos have about 55-60 grams of touch on each key.  What that means is:

                         Finger Pressure (55grams) = Hammers + Friction

Most of the weight of a piano is in the physical motion of the hammer itself.  Now if you know anything about hammers, put one on a scale and you’ll find out that it weighs about 8 grams.  Attach it to a piano action and all of a sudden, there is a 5:1 ratio of hammer weight.  What that means is that the lever system in the piano multiplies the hammer weight by 5.  An 8 gram hammer then will feel like 40 grams at the keyboard.  Add 15ish grams of friction and VOILA! Piano touch.  A 9 gram hammer (times 5=45) plus 15 grams of friction forms a touch of 60 grams at the keyboard.  ONE gram on the hammer makes a 5 gram difference at the keyboard.  When you think that a nickel weighs 5 grams, adding one-fifth of that is not a whole lot of weight and yet you’ll EASILY feel the difference installed into a piano due to the ratio.  Make sense?  Is it not possible then to simply add friction to the piano? Adding friction is not the answer.  Friction is a careful balance.  Too little and the piano feels too ‘loose’ and results in noise. Too much friction and the piano has sticking parts and feels sluggish.  If your piano is old however, you may have worn out “joints” or pivot points.  There are 2 areas which can be monitored which make any piano feel more “positive”.  One is key bushings (see the article entitled “Aye There’s the Rub) and the other is called the hammer flange.  (A flange is just a fancy word for hinged part on a piano).  The hammer flange… if you follow your eye down the stick (called the shank), you will see that it is jointed at the base.  New flanges (albeit costly) and key bushings are the biggest culprits for too much/too little friction.  And so without opening pandora’s box more… my original question to the tuner:  Can’t you change simply change the touch on the piano?  Operative word in that sentence is “simply”.  It can be done.  It’s just not simple.

Pentatude

Penta comes from the word Pentatonic while Etude is the French word for “study”. Together they form Pentatude – an all black note book written for the piano. 

Repertoire:

  1. Big Bad John – this song is simply an easy black note blues tune
  2. Coming Home – represents that place we hold dear to us… and when we return home, the peace it provides
  3. The Harpist – Let’s face it, every kid loves to do glissandos.  Fill yer boots.  This is the right song for those gliss-lovers.
  4. Hey Jimmy – Pure unadulterated funk.  Groove at its best.
  5. Inspiration of Ghana – Was written to sound like mallets playing
  6. On My Morning Run – If you ever come to Victoria, BC Canada… take a walk along the inner harbour and you’ll understand the scene.
  7. Never Supposed to End This Way – A melancholy end to a relationship.
  8. Nothing But Blue Skies – And when there are blue skies… you just want to get up and dance.  This is the music for the blue skies.
  9. Raindrops and Lilypads – 5/8 time, it depicts a very gentle scene of water droplets on lilypads.
  10. Saltair – Live near the ocean and this smell is unmistakeable.
  11. Slowpoke – Yeeee hawwww. Giddyup.  A wee tune for them thar country folk.
  12. The Deep South – This is 6/8 time old gospel.  Give it a listen.

Click here to visit the Pentatude book and listen to recordings.

Down and Dirty… the basics of refinishing pianos

I wish, i wish, i wish i would’ve had someone guide me through the process of refinishing when i was young.  A friend of mine says “Good judgement comes from good experience.  However, good experience comes from bad experience.”  Hahaaaa and he also says “The difficult we can do… the impossible may take some time”.  lol… so refinishing has been years (read 15) of learning what NOT to do.  And in an ever changing world of finishing… (ie products are now switching from solvent base to water base) there is still a lot of trial and error involved. 

Why refinish old pianos? Well i consider pianos about the same size as small elephants in a living room.  So who wants to look at a crusty old elephant every day.  And besides, the manufacturers of yesteryear took GREAT pride in beautifying these instruments.  I remember this one time buying an old piano that they couldn’t GIVE away because it was so ugly.  Below is the picture of this piano.  I had NO idea that under layers of darkened ‘alligatored’ finish – where it becomes rough and bumpy – was this BEAUTIFUL wood.  Presently i’m working on yet another beautifully carved instrument (top left and bottom pics).

So if you want to get into refinishing… i just want to say that you need to know some facts.

1. 99% of pianos are veneered – meaning the decorative wood on the outside is only about 1/16″ thick.  Now before you start blathering on about how your piano is solid blah blah blah… i just want you to know that i’ve heard it all before.  And i’ve only seen 4 pianos in my life that are solid wood.  Decorative woods are generally not great structural woods.  So if your piano is beautiful… it probably is not the core wood but rather laminated to another firm wood like oak.  The oldest grand piano i’ve had in my shop dated 1855… and yep, it was veneered rosewood.  Believe it or not, they had the technology back then.  And i doubt whether many of you have older pianos than that.  FYI, it was a Broadwood 8′ straight strung piano – a 30 year newer version of Beethoven’s.  It’s now in a museum.

2. Piano finishes consist of layers.  What you SEE consists of 3 layers – veneer base, color coat and clear coat.  So our eyes see through the clear coat to the color layer on top of the wood (veneer).  When you refinish a piano, what is happening is that you’re actually removing the top clear layer (which has gone bad – cracked, chipped, alligatored) and with that quite often comes off most of the color layer down to the veneer. 

3.   There are ONLY 2 ways to effectively remove finish: chemical and scraping.  I have seen TONS of mishaps by people who think they can sand their way through the finish.  In 15 years i’ve NEVER seen a competant job of ANYONE who has successfully done this.  Why? Too high a grit paper (220-400) and the finish will melt with friction and clog the paper.  Too low grit (50-180) and it’ll not only chew through the finish but right through the veneer as well.  So how does one remove the finish? Chemical stripper (nasty stuff) is what is used mainly by furniture refinishers.  The alternative is to scrape off the finish using a scraper.  Scrapers will only get off about 85% of the finish and the remainder still must be done by chemical washing.

CAUTION: Please please please protect yourself if you ever venture into refinishing.  Use gloves and mask to protect your skin and lungs!

Well those are the basic facts about the finishes on pianos…stay tuned for more info on the HOW-TO’s of refinishing…

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