Posts tagged upright

Cause & Effect: Piano Rattles

HOPEFULLY you don’t have a rattle like this snake inside your piano! But you have to admit… it DID grab your attention right? Well… needless to say, sourcing out rattles in pianos are tough tough tough… Yep… A rattle in a piano is a difficult thing to find the source of.  Why? Because the piano emits vibrations and the vibrations usually excite some part on the piano unrelated to the string that is loose.  Generally there are 4 main areas that cause rattles in pianos:

    1. Something loose on the soundboard (especially on grands) – a pencil, paperclip, ummm (don’t laugh) rat poop (ewww i know…), marbles, combs, pieces of paper
    2. Loose hinge pins are HUGE on the list – the centre pin of the hinge is sitting too loosely in it’s frame and rattles sympathetically with the string
    3. Loose pedal rods or trapwork
    4. Buzzing unseated string – where an individual string is not snug against the bridge or capo
      The solution? I start by removing any extraneous things (like pictures or ornaments from the area). Next, try to localize the source.  Move your ears around as you play the note and try and find out the general vicinity where the noise is coming from.  If you see any loose item, now’s the time to grab the tweezers and pull it out.  It may be something simple like that.  Then start holding things – start touching all the hinges or piano parts until the noise stops.  When all else fails, try touching individual strings that are being struck by the hammer.  If for example there are 3 strings being struck at once, place your finger on each one and then strike the key again.  You may find that one of them is creating noise.  Now when it comes to loose parts, you MAY be able to tighten a screw down and stop the noise.  But if you feel like you’re over your head, simply ask a technician about it next time he/she comes to tune.

Piano Maintenance – Cleaning and Polishing

Go ahead… ask me. Ask how many different products i’ve used over the years trying to find the best polish and cleaner for pianos.  Well the answer would be about 15.  Generally there are 2 types of finishes on pianos – lacquer and polyester.  Polyester is usually the mirror finish on grands and uprights.  Although lacquer can achieve the sheen, polyester resin is by far the product of choice to obtain that look due to its intrinsic properties.  While lacquer is somewhat hard, it also is thin and brittle.  Poly (as they say in the biz) is thick and durable.  I usually tell people that is has similar properties to glass – looks beautiful for a very long time.  Chip it and it doesn’t really repair well.  Lacquer however can be easily touched up but doesn’t have the same long term durability.  I’ve seen 20 and 30 year old poly pianos that look showroom condition but i can’t honestly say that about lacquer.  Regardless, the do-all product that seems to work well for both is Cory Polish.  It cleans, it polishes and most important, it doesn’t leave a greasy residual film.  Keep rubbing with a soft cloth and it can even burnish the top layer to rub out superficial scratches.  To boot, it smells nice.  Now if you have a satin piano… Cory also makes a polish for that as well.  Give it a go… it’s the best i’ve found over the last 14 years.

Cory Website

Lost Motion in Pianos

If you own an upright piano and it hasn’t been maintained other than tuning, it’s time to do a simple test.  Ever so gently, press some keys down on your piano.  The first 1-2 millimeters (1/16″) does it feel kinda loose? If so, you may have a case of something called ‘lost motion’.  What is lost motion anyway?  Well before we discuss it, take a moment to look at the two videos below.  The one on the left has gaps in the parts.  Notice how the one green part is moving significantly before engaging the assembly? The one on the right is a snug fit – I just finished adjusting the same piano.  So what actually is happening here? Glad you asked.  Over time, parts wear and compress and create spaces or gaps between parts.  And instead of moving smoothly together, the parts start travel at different times.  At the keyboard i would describe it as feeling ‘loose’.  It’s called lost motion because the green backcheck is moving without pushing the hammer towards the strings.  In essence, the hammer has lost some of it’s power or force due to the gaps between parts – thus the name.  And the fix? Easy – there’s an adjustment screw to take out that lost motion.  A technician can have that fixed in no time at all.  So if you’re feeling like you’d your piano isn’t quite right, do this little check and ask your tech the next time they come to tune because is probably the quickest fix with the most drastic results on a piano that i know of.

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So you have an Upright Grand?

This is the most frequent misnomer in the piano biz.  True story.  On a daily basis people come into my shop and whisper to me “Do you know that i have an upright grand at home?”  I think they’re hoping my eyes will pop out of my head in amazement at such a rare and wonderful find – that we’ve truly discovered the queen’s jewels! Sadly… i’m a skeptic at heart…. possibly even cynical.  Y’see… the term “upright grand” was started in the 1920’s as a sales feature.  When you lifted the lid on some pianos there was this embossed slogan “Grand piano in upright form”.  This got bantered about so much so that it became a coined phrase – the “upright grand”.  And customers would then feel proud about their acquisition of a piano they thought was so much more grandiose than any other upright piano.  So what exactly were they referring to? Well… size is one thing.  Very tall old upright pianos (usually about 55 inches in height) have similar string length and soundboard area as about 5’8″ – 6’1″ grand pianos.   That said, a tall upright WILL  deliver similar depth of tone as some grand pianos, granted.  But the bigger difference that started all of this is a small little piece that was usually only found on grand pianos called an agraffe.  Agraffe is a french word that means ‘staple’.  In fact… check out the picture of my box of staples from my desk drawer.  See that? It says agrafes (missing an F for some reason…)  Agraffes on grand pianos ‘staple’ the exact position of the string to the cast iron in a piano.  It sets the left-right position spacing of the strings and also the ‘downbearing’ of the string (how much pressure the string is placing on the bridge).  Because agraffes are usually found on grands, some manufacturers who put them on upright pianos started calling their verticals upright grands.  Most don’t know of this crazy little factoid but that’s in my mind the true meaning of the term.  Ok wait… it gets better… recently someone came in and told me they had a “Concert Upright Baby Grand!”  Oh for heaven sakes… from the sublime to the ridiculous!

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…

Size matters…

When it comes to pianos… size matters!  Bigger is ALWAYS better.  In pianos there are four areas where size comes into play: the soundboard, the hammers and shanks, the strings and the keystick.  All of these four areas contribute to a piano sounding as rich as possible and feeling as consistent as they can be.  The soundboard is the amplifier to the piano.  The more square inches of soundboard, the greater the resonating area (if it’s manufactured correctly).  The longer the stings on a piano (which means either length in a grand or height in an upright), the deeper the voice of the piano.  The longer the shank (within reason), the better the blow distance of the hammer to the string (and also less of an arc is required).  And finally, the longer the keystick, the greater the control.  That is why taller uprights are considered ‘professional’ and semi-concert grands and concert grands are 7 and 9 feet long… Bigger is ALWAYS better.

Pictured are two pianos – the one above  is a small upright piano.  The one below is a tall professional instrument.  Note that the size of the ‘action’ – the mechanism is considerably taller in one than the other.  This provides better control over the keys – especially in the area of quiet playing.

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