How Should I Take Care of My Piano?
by Carol Beigel, RPT
Tuning. Tuning is the adjusting of the tension on the piano wires so they vibrate at the proper pitches. The standard pitch is the A above middle C vibrating at 440 Hz, similar to the dial tone on your telephone. If you have purchased a new piano, it can take about 3 years of regular tuning before the new strings stop stretching, and the soundboard adjusts to the moisture in your home. It is not uncommon to have a new piano tuned 4 times during the first year. When the piano player is taking lessons, a piano should be tuned twice a year to make sure it stays at the proper pitch during seasonal changes. Player pianos may require two or three tunings per year if they are heavily used. I recommend that pianos be tuned at least once a year, even if not being played often, or more frequently for hard-used pianos. For churches and schools, I think the ideal schedule is 3 tunings during the heating season - October, Christmas and Easter. For more information about how a piano is tuned, see Piano Tuning and Harmony
Voicing. Although your piano may get tuned regularly, after a while it may not sound the way it did when it was new. This happens when the strings cut grooves into the felt hammers creating hard areas contacting the strings. Through enough wear, the curve on the hammer head will flatten creating a larger amount of felt hitting the strings. Voicing is also referred to as tone regulating. It is adjusting the quality of the sound for brightness, mellowness, power and sustain. Most of the time, I include a little touch-up voicing of the grooves in the piano hammers at each tuning to keep the piano from sounding "brassy". The degree of voicing depends on how hard the piano is played, or how far the piano action settles. This effort can range from restoring the original shape of the piano hammer through filing the felt, to a complete piano action regulation to ensure the piano hammer is hitting the strings properly.
Humidity Control. The ideal environment for a piano is a relative humidity of 42%. More important for tuning stability, is the relative humidity around the piano be kept to a close range so the soundboard is not constantly swelling up or drying out from changes in moisture. The amount of moisture in the air that can soak into a piano just by opening a nearby window for a few hours on a cool, damp day can take as long as 6 weeks to evaporate from the piano. If you think of the cell structure of wood like holding a handful of straws, you see that moisture can only leave through the ends, not the sides of the cells. Round holes drilled into wood turn to oval shapes when moisture is coming or going, creating a binding tightness or warping that can cause piano keys to "stick" when the humidity is either too high or too low around the piano. Maintaining a stable range of relative humidity somewhere between 35% and 65% is achievable by using a combination of Dampp Chaser rods with humidistat, and a whole house humidifier installed on the home heating system. See Humidity and Climate Control for more information and illustrations.
Regulating. Adjustment of the piano action is necessary when the piano is not playing optimally. Settling and wear of the action felts, combined with changes in the dimension of the wood parts due to warping from humidity changes, can alter the piano action geometry. Common symptoms that adjustment is needed are your hands may tire easity and the keys feel heavy; the keys don't play fast enough to "trill"; the hammers "bounce" on the strings; or the piano tone has lost power. Some new pianos need the keys eased when they come too tight from the factory. You may be having this problem if you can slightly lift the front of the key and it does not drop by its own weight. NEVER use lubricants on your piano as they have a nasty way of traveling to the tuning pins and ruining your pinblock! To see how a piano action works, go to Piano Action Adjustments.
Cleaning the piano. Today's cabinet finishes only require cleaning with a soft, damp cloth. No furniture polish is necessary, especially on the polyester finishes. Never use anything with silicone on your piano. Dry anti-static wipes like Swiffers will actually remove dust instead of just moving it around. The keys can be cleaned with a damp cloth. Should something sticky smear and not come off with water, spray a glass cleaner like Windex onto a rag and wipe it off. Although these polyester finishes are impervious to alcohol, they do scratch easily, but can be buffed out and waxed much like a car. Most manufacturers sell special cleaners and waxes for these finishes. For grand piano owners, the string area under the lid can be gently vacuumed. Use a dedicated long haired paint, artist or pastry brush while vacuuming to remove dust from under the strings. Use of a piano string cover can be helpful in keeping pet hair out the piano. See Piano String Covers for more details.
Placement. You do not have to place a piano on an inside wall. Keep it out of direct sunlight, or have the windows treated with UV film to keep the cabinet from bleaching. Do not place the piano under a fire sprinkler or in front of a radiator or wood stove. Air conditioning blowing across the piano is all right, but not hot dry air. Do not keep the piano near a window or door you open frequently. Young children often like to be within close range of a parent while practicing instead of isolated on another floor of the house.
Sound dynamics are different if the piano is sitting on carpeting, or on wooden or tile floors. Often, a ceiling fan operating above the piano will affect the perceived tuning as the sound waves are batted back and forth creating echoes. Casters cups placed under the wheels keep them from rattling on non-carpeted floors. Make sure the piano sits level on the floor and does not rock front to back. Disklavier grand pianos MUST be plugged into a grounded, three-prong electrical outlet. Use surge protection when using the piano, and unplug it from the wall when not in use.
Do not keep plants, flowers or candles on the piano! No matter how carefully you water plants, the water eventually ends up on or in the piano whether it leaks, spills or sweats. Water and wood just do not mix. Flowers die and parts fall off and get between the keys and under the strings. Candles can melt into your piano action if they get warm enough. Sometimes air conditioning failures will allow the temperature to rise enough to allow a candle to melt through the lid hinge on an upright, or ooze into the tuning pins on a grand.
Pianos will be more readily and thoroughly serviced if the piano technician can have easy access to the piano action and enough light to see the strings. This means for grand pianos having enough room between the piano keys and the closest wall to be able to remove the piano action without moving the piano.
Also see Removing Foreign Objects and Critter Concerns in the Piano First Aid section.
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