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Admonition and Introduction to Piano Care

Look here now, I can tolerate a lot of ignorance, but don't let me ever catch you calling a piano by the above Hillbilly name. If you call it a pie-anna, those big city tuners will automatically start snowing you with imaginary problems and labor charges.

An Ethiopian masenko (violin) has all the aspects of a stringed musical instrument, but, it has only one string, and a short one at that. So, it lacks a lot of tone quality. If you like your confusion in larger packages, order a Sitar from India. You Bible believers better "exercise" it though.

The piano has over 200 strings and nearly 1000 moving parts, and you certainly do get your money's worth in that it covers seven octaves, but the piano is the ultimate mechanical jungle as an instrument.

The first piano was called a "virginal."   It was very small, sat on a table, had about two octaves, and was plucked. Lousy, but it was a start. With time it turned into the harpsichord- vastly improved, more octaves, but it still was plucked.  Plucking produces more of a twang. 

The harpsichord eventually gave way to the piano forté. This is the piano as we know it, and its real "forté" is that it has a long decay (time it takes for a tone to die away), and the wires are struck by hammers, giving a much more pleasant sound.

From the virginal to the grand piano, every piano was a box laying on its back. Legs were eventually added to eliminate the problem we see in Schroeder's style, in "Peanuts," that is, sitting on the floor to play. It's hard on the lumbar, though we hear that Beethoven preferred this method!

The box on its back (grand piano) has two distinct advantages.

First- the hammers and dampers (See diagrams in the back of the book.) operate very naturally and simply by using gravity to the greatest advantage. This prevents a lot of maintenance.


Please go have a look at the various piano actions so you know what we are talking about.

Especially in the case of a modern grand piano, the box up on three legs has really got class-- especially with its lid open and a candle stick perched up on the desk.

However; with time, it became obvious to most folks that these boxes on their backs took over the living room unless you lived in Buckingham palace. In Amsterdam a grand piano can take up the whole first floor. The solution-- the upright "Grand."  The word "Grand," on the name decal of old uprights in the past, was a gimmick to try to convince you that you really had a grand piano-- it was just conveniently shoved up on its end and over in the corner.

The problem with shoving the piano up against the wall was that they couldn't leave the keys along the side, or end, as with the traditional box-on-its-back.   Leaving the keys on one side, grand style, presented the difficultly of trying to play the piano laying on the floor.

The solution was to put the keyboard on the side of the piano (where the top is on a grand piano). This was a trick, and it drove designers nuts for many years. Eventually some clever German invented the "vertical repeating action."   It had a lot of bits and pieces poking and kicking around, but it worked great. Best of all, now we can all sit in the living room while Aunt Maudy plays Amazing Grace for us-- even sing along!

One day some frugal Fanny got teed off over the room taken up by her upright. She might have even been some crowned head in Austria.  In any case, a designer went to work and shrunk the upright. The result was the console.  It went over so well that he shrunk it again, and wallah-- the spinet.

The spinet is a runt of a thing, and the action is like the aging sailor-- his chest dropped into his drawers. (See the diagram of the spinet action at the end of the book.)

If you have one of these spinets, working on it will test your patience. It may help you to feel better to know that Queen Elizabeth II had to practice on one of the smallest spinets made- an Evanstatt. Nary a complaint I presume, and she played regally.

There was one curiosity in all of this evolution. It was the butterfly grand piano. It was very short and the top hinged like two wings right down the middle of the piano. Look for it in your nearest museum. If you have one, my condolences to you.

I must also mention the square grand. It was popular about 150 years ago before modern grands came into their own. It was a rectangular box on four legs with the key board along one side. If you have one, don't let your piano tuner's reaction discourage you-- they can usually be made to come back about 70%.


The Piano as Furniture

Rather than try to list everything that can go wrong with the outside of your piano, I will list the main trouble areas and candidly describe what can go wrong. I refuse to become technical. It's much too boring.

If you are a piano tuner, go mind your own business, OK :-)

The first place you can expect trouble in a piano is in the furniture qualities. The legs on the stool will work loose first. Tighten the nuts inside the box, in the corners, from time to time. If it has one of those sliding brass hinges, PLEASE help it close every time, and keep the screw almost tight.

Also, tell the players not to drag the bench when they move it. This loosens the legs.  Don't try to see it you can stuff your whole music collection into the bench box. When you overfill it, then sit on it, you can push the bottom right out of it. 'tain't a pretty sight to see a piano bench commit hari-kari!

The desk is the next trouble spot. That's the rack where you put your music book to follow the music between peeking at your fingers. In the case of a grand or spinet, it is the most fragile thing on the piano. DO NOT load it up with 50 pounds of books. Pay attention to the hardware that holds it together, and keep it tight. Lubricating a grand desk is possible with silicone spray ONLY if you take the desk off of the piano to spray it. Don't get over-spray on the carpet unless you have good liability insurance.

If you have a full size upright, you can't hurt the desk, but sometimes it won't open or close right. Read Chapter Five on dismantling a piano, take the desk off, and fix it. They are NOT complicated, and if left to malfunction long enough, some upright desks can murder the action inside.

Do not shove a hymn book into the triangular space at the right or left end of the desk to keep it open.  Eventually, the book will fall down inside, and it can bust action parts to bits.

Polish the piano with a good quality polish. Old English is OK, and Lemon oil works. But, to be sure you have a really compatible polish and cleaner, you may want to invest in products made just for the piano. CLICK HERE for our catalog page for these needs.

NEVER polish the bench top or the keys. Read that again please. I customer in Nogales, Arizona had a beautiful grand, and their maid polished it carefully every day. She also polished the bench and the keys. The keys felt like I was striking pieces of raw bacon, and the bench top wanted to stick to my trousers. Had to clean the polish off before I could proceed.



Grand pianos have some unique furniture problems.

The worst is the lyre. That is the dingus that hangs down under the piano and has the pedals at the bottom end. I don't care if your have a brand new Steinway, ALL of you grand piano owners find an old copy of Shakespeare or an old Homer Rodeheaver hymn book, and shove it under that box with the pedals in it (between the box and the floor).

Make sure it is a tight fit so that when you push down on the pedals, the lyre is not taking the work. If you don't do this because you think it looks weird, well that's nice for me.   I'll get some good labor money trying to get it up off of the floor and back attached to the piano.

Grand piano legs have pretty brass casters on the ends of them. Please, just look at them. NEVER try to roll the piano on them. If you have to move it, bribe two friends with pizza, and CARRY it. If you need to move your grand (or upright) regularly in an institutional situation, please consider buying a trolley for it From our Catalog. We carry many choices of trolleys or trucks.

After the piano is moved-- If you have the piano moved "professionally," get under it after it is assembled, and see if the legs are really in place. There is a swivel piece of wood on a lot of grands which is supposed to be wedged into the leg to hold it in place. Make sure the taper on the swivel is really wedging tight. Tap it home with a hammer, then tighten the screw.

If the legs are held on with two big screws each, make sure they are tight. If they are stripped, fill the holes ONE AT A TIME half full of tooth picks and Elmer's glue, and run the screw back in. Do the same for the lyre (pedal holder) screws where they attach to the under side of the piano.

If it is a Steinway (and several other brands), there will be three pieces of very expensive lumber cut in a funny looking way which wedge into place between the legs and the frame to do the same thing as the swivels on a normal piano (Steinways are weird). If the moving boys hand you the three wood wedges and walk away, as happened south of Sonoita, Arizona recently, your piano is a real road hazard. Someone has to crawl under there and tap the wedges into place. Form a committee at once, elect yourself chairman, then appoint someone else to do it.

Grand pianos also loosen up at the lid hinges. Keep an eye on the screws-- keep them snug, but don't strip them out. If stripped out, they can be brought back with the toothpicks and Elmer's glue treatment. You can save lots of repair bills with toothpicks and Elmer's.

Always have your whole attention on lifting the lid. Make sure the prop is seated in the round doo-wap under the lid which keeps it from slipping away during a two part invention-- thus bringing you rudely Bach to basics. When putting the lid down, make sure the two brass hardware pieces on the right side of the lid are meshed right. If not, they may do so later in the night giving you a real fright.

An old grand will get loose in the legs and rock around. If you want to cure this, build a pile of bricks under the legs one at a time. Lift each leg off of the floor one at a time so that you can remove each leg (see Chapter Five). There are interlocking plates on most grands, in the box and in the top of the leg, which can become loose. Know the leg sideways, adn the plates will come apart and the leg come off. Tighten the screws, adding toothpicks and Elmer's glue to fill the hole some.  Slide the legs back into the slots, and tighter the wedges, or whatever holds the legs in place.

Keep your big grand shut! Put the lid down when not in use. I know, it looks so classy sitting there with its left arm gloriously raised skyward, but dust settles forever my friend, and dust is attracted to grand pianos. If you insist on keeping the lid up for the ambiance factor, then go to our COVERS PAGE, and buy a piece of scarlet felt to cover the strings and inside of the cabinet.

Nothing is more sorry than to look into the innards of a grand piano for that big ornate $200 decal bragging about all the manufacturer's awards at the Colombian fair, the 1896 World's Fair, and the Paris Music Supurbioix, and ugh-- nothing but DUST. It is also hard on the action, and in the case of the grand, can actually affect its movement. Close you lid after striking, OK? If you already have such a situation, go to our TOOL PAGE, and find the grand cleaning steel. You can use it to clean under the strings.



Two additional things go wrong with spinets and consoles.

They all have desks which are attached to the piano with two small brass hinges. Once a year these hinges should be tightened down from the under side. See Chapter Five on dismantling the piano to get at the screws.

The screws on the ends of the desk should be tightened lightly, but they WILL eventually strip out. If you use the toothpicks and Elmer's treatment here, be sure you do not over fill the hole. It could burst the wood of the desk as you put the screw back. The desk is very fragile, so don't load it down with lots of books. Look at the back side of the spinet or console, and see if you can place something back there to support the desk against the top of the piano.

The other thing about spinets is the fragile legs that hang down front with the cute brass casters on them. NEVER try to roll the piano on those casters. You will break the front legs off. Get your friends, and CARRY the thing. You can roll it on the back casters, but keep the front legs up off of the floor. The safe way to move these pianos is to rent a moving truck. We sell many kinds of Piano Moving Trucks.



Made in Japan:
The Piano
The Music "Mario Brothers"
The Musician- Martin Leung
(Possible exception- Chinese American?)


Because uprights are the most heavy of pianos (except for concert grands), they are the best furniture of all pianos, but they have one weakness of their own-- they ruin casters. If you cannot get the casters to track right when you move the upright, help it along carefully. A jammed caster can rip a big hole in carpet or floor covering. Get a couple of pieces of plywood to move it around if you are not sure. As soon as possible, order casters from me-- See them on our CASTERS PAGE in our Catalog. You can put casters in yourself if you have moderate mechanical ability, but you MUST lay the piano down to do it. Put toothpicks and Elmer's in the screw holes again.  

For caster mounting procedures, see 10. Casters-  Replacing and Servicing

When laying an upright down (This is getting downright upsetting, eh?) be sure to lay it on two 2 x 4's. Without them, you will not be able to get your fingers under it later to pick it up. A little 3 in 1 oil on old casters will often get them operating right again, but a bent caster MUST be replaced. A NO NO-- NEVER use hardware store casters. Order the piano type from a piano tuner or from me. The piano casters I sell are actually cheaper and better than hardware store models! Regular commercial casters raise the piano too far off the floor.


You got ta get da polish

Pardon me, but I must stress a point already covered. Polish your piano to your hearts content, but NEVER polish the key tops or the top of the bench. Polish on the bench top combines with the varnish and your body sweat (perspiration with ladies), and the result is a kind of gummy substance that ruins the wood and causes the musicians to become "glued to the spot" after playing for over 15 minutes. It is very embarrassing to stand for a bow and have the bench stand also. Also, this gummy mess will never come out of the wood later if you try to restore the bench.

If you have a bench with a gummy sticky top which embarrasses you, go to Bench Repair for a couple of good solutions.



Clean piano keys with a damp cloth and a couple of drops of mild soap-- Shaklee or other organic soap suggested. DO NOT use enough water to run down between the keys.  NEVER POLISH THEM.

Keep keys white by controlling light

Ivory key tops- leave the key cover open.
"The sun shines bright on the white elephant."

Plastic key tops- Close the key cover.
"The soy beans yellow in the sun."

Avoid direct sunlight on your piano cabinet. It will bleach out the wood under the finish, and you can end up with one end of your piano looking like another kind of wood than the other end. If an ivory key chips, it can actually cut a musician's finger. Dress it with a finger nail file. If many are chipped, you might want to remove all of the keys and file off the over hang completely. You can purchase USED IVORIES to replace your missing or chipped ones from our Catalog, or you can watch for a piano on its way to the dump and salvage the ivories. Slide a thin flat blade under the ivory key tops to pop them off.  See Chapter Seven, sub-title under Key Tops- Ivory replacement, for more details on key top repair.


Suave and Debonair

Do you have a piano player who lounges all over the keys to give the impression that he is in some mystical trance and the piano is his guru speaking out sweet nothings? Does he look off into space, or at the group around him, like some affected New Age space cadet? This mellow mystic will have this habit of sliding his fingers forward on the narrow part of the white keys, and his (or her) finger nails will gouge the key cover (fall board) like the kitty's scratching post. Tell him to sit up straight and play the front of the keys or you will slap his New Age knuckles with a Fundamental Baptist yard stick-- or, make it a New World Order meter stick if you're an agnostic.

Also, the above character, and many other players, often develop the habit of sliding their fingers around the front ends of the black keys. Black is in the minority, in society and on your key board. So stop rubbing them the wrong way. The sharps will eventually become worn weird, and it looks terrible. There is also the guest musician who pounds out at top volume such famous classics as "Chop Sticks" and "Like Young."   If your tuning pins are a bit loose he will knock wires down and set the piano to twanging. Give him a harmonica or tell him to go play on the linoleum in A flat- preferably his own flat.



NEVER, NEVER, NEVER put a live potted plant on top of the piano. One day it will run over as you water it, and the water which runs inside will wreck maximum havoc. Put some of those plastic flowers up there. Besides, the plastic hybrid Taiwan flowers are aphid and drought resistant.

Forget the lighted candle stick on the grand piano like the famous Amos you saw on TV. Hot wax is not useful inside the piano or on its finish. NEVER place a drink or ash tray on your piano. Beware of Suave Harry who lays his cigarette on a piano key at the far end. I have had to try to repair many a hole Harry burned in a piano key top.


The Myth of the Mason jar

For many years tuners told people to put a Mason jar of water in the bottom of their piano. The science of humidity is now understood. Water moves through air better than heat. You have to move heated air to transfer the heat. Water enters the air like it soaks into a sponge, so the jar of water in the bottom of the piano humidifies the house, not the piano.

If you want to really control the humidity in your piano you will have to invest in a $500 system including a $150 quilted cover in order to really control the climate in the piano. If you have a Steinway or some other very expensive piano, you should consider it. Why? Answer: You can afford it, and we tuners need the business.

Kidding aside, a tea kettle on the kitchen stove or the wood stove during the winter will do some good. What you are trying to do most of all is save the tuning. Extremely low humidity CAN do damage to the wood frame and box of the piano, so call your tuner if you are in doubt.

We no longer sell the complete humidity control systems. We have reports of the systems running wild and damaging a piano. It is rare, but I don't ever want to be the one who sold such a system. We do sell a couple of humidity control devices which do not have the hazard factor. They are simple and depend on you to give them some attention. CLICK HERE to see this section of our Catalog.


"Don't put the Piano against an Outside Wall"

This myth applied to homes in the past where there was little or no insulation in walls. If you want to put it against an outside wall, and IF your walls are R-12 or better, go ahead. If your insulation is only moderate, leave about 10 inches of air space between the wall and the piano during the winter.

Do not place a piano in the direct blast of either a warm air vent or a cooling vent. This is very hard on the piano as furniture. Keep it out of the blast of a door which is opened from the outside in the winter, and never put a piano near a hot water or steam radiator.


Winter strategy

If you run away from home during the winter, don't worry about turning the heat way down-- even off. It may mess up the tuning of your piano, but it will do no real harm as long as the piano is dry. In fact, it may be better in northern states because the piano, in an unheated house, is following the humidity of the outdoors, thus not drying out. NEVER cover a piano with plastic sheet wrap. It may sweat inside and make havoc of the finish and rust the wires.

But take warning please-- DO NOT turn the heat way down low then back up over and over during the winter if you are coming and going. This is very hard on the tuning, the wood frame, and pin block.

Country churches often turn the heat all the way off between Sundays, then run it up to 80 degrees on Sunday. This is why their pianos go out of tune within three months after a tuning, and it explains why the action parts fall apart. If you have to do this, invest in a total humidity and temperature control and a quilted cover. We do sell COVERS.

This ends our discussion of pianos as furniture. We now have to move on to the musical and mechanical malfunctions. The rest of the book is much more terrifying, so get a cup of coffee and turn the lights down low, and get ready to scream.

Not really. That's just another of the myths about pianos-- that they are very mysterious.



This is a great short description of how a piano is made



 On to Chapter Three