Posts tagged wire

Piano String… Repair or Replace?

I was introduced to the concept of repairing bass strings only 5 years ago.  A fellow tech friend of mine showed me this simple knot in order to ‘save’ a bass string.  Now before i get down the path too far, some of you might be thinking…’well why not just throw it out and replace with a new string?’  First of all, it it’s plain wire, you do.  Plain treble wire is readily available and there’s no magic in the wire.  When it comes to the bass strings however, they are custom made for the size, model and scale of each piano.  The core wire, the copper winding, the length of the copper and the speaking length all come into play.  You don’t just pick up the phone and ask for a new one… especially when the company has been out of business for 60 years.  In addition, a new bass string will not carry the same ‘weathered’ sound as a the more brilliant brand new string.  Aged strings tend to be duller.  So there’s a lot to be said for splicing a bass string.  This knot (shown in a diagram and also picture) tightens up wonderfully.  There are a few criteria however…

1. The break cannot be in the speaking length.  That’s the part where the string sings.  A knot will inhibit vibration.

2. You must have enough steel to make the knot.  Most recently i went to a home where there was a broken bass string and although i was hoping to splice, the broken wire only had about 1/8″ or about 5mm before the copper… not enough to work with

I usually use brand new wire of the same core thickness at the tuning pin because if it has broken once, it’s probably brittle enough to break again.  Once tight, the string usually acts as normal and you can once again listen to the bass with a continuous flow or sound rather than one note ‘jumping’ out at you.

Piano Scale Design

There are SO many differences in piano design.  “Well aren’t all pianos kinda the same?” you ask.  Not at ALL!!!! (I can’t emphatically add more stress to this point).  Yes pianos operate the same – they all have soundboards, strings, keys and actions.  Think about cars… BMW, Toyota, Honda, GM… they all drive but do they feel identical? Of course not.  Even within the same company there are huge differences between models.  Toyota makes (my beloved) Landcruiser but they also have made the Tercel (and trust me… i’ve owned both and there are few similarities).  Pianos, within the same company have different designs.  These designs are called “scales”.  When you play hundreds of pianos you will appreciate a good scale.  So what’s the difference between a good scale and a bad one?  Oooohhhh (rubbing hands together) where do we start? Hmmmm let’s start at strings: There are 2 types of strings on any piano – plain wire steel treble strings and copper wound bass strings.  In the steel wire treble strings, there are about 2 dozen sizes of wire (plus half sizes!) ranging from 0.029″ to about 0.059″ in thickness.  To look at them, they all kinda look the same but they are INCREDIBLY different.  So each note is matched in length and tightness to the pitch of the note.  Someone then decides “OK let’s use size 14.5 wire for that note on the piano”.  Now that’s part of the design – part of a decision to make a piano sound a certain way.  Now getting into the bass section… OMG! There are hundreds if not thousands of permutations on what could be used for the centre ‘core’ of the string but also the copper winding… how much mass, how long is the copper blah blah blah… there are HUGE choices to be made on JUST the strings alone.  Which reminds me… i should write a blog about great sounding bass strings… cuz trust me, not all strings are equal (far from it).  And believe it or not, there are different grades of steel wire as well – all factors that play into the overall sound of the instrument.  So that’s just one tiny tiny element of piano design… then you think about hammers – the quality, the weight, the placement… the action – the various types…. the frame, the soundboard, the quality of the wood… even the expertise of installation… the list goes on and on and on!!! Someone once told me “The piano requires the attention to a thousand details”.  I believed him… THAT’s scale design.

All this to say… i have found that there are 2 pianos that i tune that i REALLY REALLY enjoy.  One being the Yamaha C7 – it’s the 7 foot Yamaha grand.  The other is a Boston 6′ grand (designed by Steinway, manufactured by Kawai).  Both have SUCH smooth scales… meaning that the sound from one note to the next is like a string of pearls – matched in tone and timbre – fundamental and overtones.  Nothing beats a good scale.  Shout out to Steve in Metchosin who has me regularly tune his C7 and to Hillary and Lawrence on their choice of such a wonderful Boston.  Thanks… those pianos remind me of why i love to play.

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…

Piano Trivia

Tri-Chord Piano Strings

 

Ok time to do the math.  Here’s the question of the day: How many pounds of string tension are there on one piano, meaning… each string is tightened to produce tone – how many pounds of tension are the combined strings?  Well to answer that, you need some data.  First of all, how many pounds are pulling on one wire? The answer – on average, about 160 lbs.  Next question – how many wires are on a piano?  Well this varies greatly from piano to piano.  “IT DOES?”, you ask.  Yes – it all depends on the design or “scale” of the piano, the length, and the amount of bass strings there are.  “Well aren’t there the same notes on each piano?” 

Bi-Chord Piano Strings

 

Yes, of course there are 88 notes on each instrument but if you’ve ever looked inside you’ll see that there are Monochord, Bichord and Trichord strings.  (Think: Monocycle, Bicycle and Tricycle – need i say more?)  Some notes have one string, some two and others three.  Depending on the manufacturer, the length of the piano (usually longer has fewer bass strings), string amounts will vary considerably.  All pianos have “crossover” meaning that the copper bass strings cross over the steel wire strings.  Sometimes that crossover point is quite high on the piano, sometimes it’s lower.  Having said ALL that… on average there are about 225 wires on a piano (45 bass strings and about 180 treble strings).  

Mono-Chord Piano Strings

 

 So whipping out my handy dandy calculator… 160 pounds of pressure on 225 strings (on average) = 36,000 pounds! or about 18 tons of string tension.  This necessitates having a cast iron frame (which in turn makes the piano REALLY heavy). There…. small piece of trivia you can talk about at the next cocktail party. Enjoy!

When You’re Smiling the Whole World Smiles With You

Piano strings

Piano strings

I don’t know why i was chosen, but i was the ‘lucky’ canditate to have been called to tune a piano recently.  I have to say though that this was no ordinary piano;  this one was better part of a 100 years old.  I touched my hands to the keys.  What came out sounded like a steamship!  I politely asked the elderly lady “Sooooo….when did you have it tuned last?”  “Well” she replied “my husband passed away 3 years ago and we had been married for 53 years and never had it tuned”  OH MY! i’m thinking to myself (thus i’m the ‘lucky’ one who gets to deal with this..lol).  She was a sweet older lady but the piano sounded simply bad – it sounded DULL.  Many people do not know that piano wire comes in about 24 different sizes for the treble.  Each size is about a paper thickness different.  What’s interesting to note – quite often if a piano is not ‘up to pitch’ – meaning that the instrument is not tuned for the frequency it was designed for, it sounds lackluster.  Each note on the piano was designed for a certain gauge of wire.  If the pitch doesn’t match the guage,  it sounds simply dull.  There’s no sparkle.  In my mind i hear the vowel sound “oh”, but in tune it quite quickly turns it into an “ee” – just like a smile.  You see… pianos can smile!  Take that out of tune instrument and with a bit of work it is transformed into a singing, resonating piano.  So before you pass judgement on a piano always remember:  it won’t shine until it’s in tune.  Oh and BTW, that old piano, after tuning the lady remarked “I’ve never heard that piano sound so good!”  “Yep… that’s because it’s smiling” :)

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