The Upright Piano Complete Service Package

One of the main things I do for Portland Piano Company is refurbish used pianos that come in before PPC resells them. My goal is to get them playing and sounding their best. I usually spend 4-6 hours cleaning, repairing, regulating, voicing and tuning. I aim to get the piano as close as I can to “new” without starting to replace parts and “rebuild” the piano.

I’m now offering this service package to customers in their homes at a considerable savings. If your piano hasn’t been tuned or worked on in several years, or if it has some oddities or issues that haven’t been resolved in normal tuning visits, or if you want to give your piano the ultimate “piano spa” treatment, this extensive service visit might be a great way to get your piano back to playing and sounding its very best!
I set aside an entire day for this service and charge between $350 (if it takes less than 5 hours) and $450 (if it takes more than 5).

In a nutshell this service includes:
1. Cleaning
2. Action Regulation
3. Basic Repairs
4. Hammer Shaping & Maintenance
5. Case Touch Up
6. Tuning & Voicing

I recently bought an upright to do my teaching on and documented most of the process. Below are lots of pictures and concise descriptions of the normal steps I take when refurbishing an upright.

I begin by taking the piano apart. This means taking off all the case parts and removing the action and keys before vacuuming and cleaning the interior of the piano.

upright piano cleaning

I usually find mostly dust and dirt from years of use, but there have also been pencils, stickers, magazines, toys, pictures, letters, coins, and sometimes even dead rodents! (Eww) Here I found dirt and a comb… Removing dirt and foreign objects helps avoid keys sticking and making clicking noises. There have been many times I’ve opened up a piano to fix a sticking key and it is just a piece of junk stuck between two keys.

piano cleaning 1

piano cleaning

Next I clean the strings and the keys. The bass strings in pianos are steel wire wound with brass. When dust and dirt gets stuck between the coils of the wound strings, it inhibits its vibration and decreases the quality of sound (makes them sound “tubby”). Cleaning the strings not only makes them look better, but makes them sound better too.

I clean the ivory or plastic keytops, then sand the sides of the keys if they are dirty.The sides of the keys are wood and as they are played over the years they collect dirt and oil from hundreds of hours of playing. They look a lot better and are cleaner when I’m done!

sanding piano keys

I now move from the keys to the hammers themselves. The felt hammers are what actually initiate the sound coming from your piano, so their condition makes a huge difference in your piano’s tone. After years of playing, the felt hammers will develop grooves where they strike the string, and eventually even flatten out from their original rounded shape. Using sandpaper I carefully take off layers of felt until the original rounded shape of the hammer is restored. This changes the surface area that comes into contact with the string and improves the quality of tone and the length of sustain. You can read more on this process in a previous post.

This is a large part of the job and can easily take two hours or more if there is a lot of wear on the hammers.

hammer reshaping

Next I ease and space the keys. Piano keys sit on a “balance rail pin” (the middle of the teeter-totter), and the “front rail pin.” The wood and felt around either metal pin can get tight and/or dirty which adds friction and slows down the piano action, making it harder to play the key and slower to return to place when released. If the keys have become wobbly, the felt might be worn out. If it has to be replaced, I consider it a separate job.

piano key easing

I also straighten and space the keys evenly so there is no gaps between keys or keys rubbing together.

Piano key spacing

The keys get still more attention! They have to be carefully leveled so each is at the exact same height, and the the “key dip” (how far the key depresses before stopping) has to be set. These are set by putting paper and cardboard punchings of different thicknesses under the key at the balance rail and front rail.

You can see some of these keys (below) need to be raised a little. Having all the keys level and responding the same when playing is essential for real control when playing the piano.

piano key leveling

I finally move to the back of the key and adjust the “capstans,” an adjustable metal post which connects the key to the main part of the piano action (whippen and hammer). If this metal post is too low, the hammer will not begin to move right away when the key is depressed, giving a sloppy feel to the action. If the capstan is too high, it will not let all the moving parts reset when the key is let go, and it won’t be ready to play again on the next depression of the key. This makes a huge different on how your piano action feels.

adjusting capstans

Next I set “let-off.” An essential part of the piano’s action is the “escapement mechanism.” When a key is depressed, it throws the hammer forward towards the string. At the last millisecond, the “jack,” which pushes the hammer forward, stops pushing so that it flies freely towards the string and can bounce off. The string can then vibrate freely. If the jack trips too late, it will push the hard felt hammer right into the string, keeping it from vibrating at all. You will get just a “blat.” No note. It’s┬álike pushing your finger against a guitar string. If the jack trips too soon, the hammer will never reach the string when you play the note softly. Setting the let-off gives you much more dynamic control of your piano.

setting let off

The last part of regulating the action is setting the “hammer checking.” I regulate how far the hammer is able to bounce back when the note is struck. If it bounces too far back, the note will not repeat quickly. If set too close, it could block the hammer against the string on a strong blow.

Each “backcheck” is on a metal wire that has to be bent to the correct position.

Regulate backchecks

These hammers are all checking evenly and at the correct distance.

regulat checking

At this point, the piano plays well and I will spend some time on the outside of the piano. I first clean the case parts, then touch up any small chips or scratches that I can. (This is basic touch up. There are several men in Portland that do piano case repair full time. I do small touch up, and not major miracles. The bench in the picture below had been chewed on by a dog. I made it look better, but not perfect.)

case touch up

I will touch up the wood finish on the bench as well as tighten the leg bolts. I also polish any brass pedals, locks, keyholes and knobs that can be shined up.

polish piano brass 2

When the piano case and bench look their best, I finally get to tune the piano! This includes a pitch raise if necessary (if the piano hasn’t been tuned for a long time or has been through drastic climate changes.)

piano tuning

After the piano is finely tuned, I voice the hammers so each produces the same quality of tone. Often some notes will stick out as really bright and noisy, or dull and soft compared to the notes around them. Through a combination of filing and needling different areas of the felt hammer, I even out the tone production throughout the keyboard.

Last I will regulate the pedals (fixing any squeak problems) and put the case parts back on the piano. I’m finally finished. I’m impressed if you made it to this point in this blog post!
This long process will look a little different on every piano I work on, and will include necessary repairs specific to the instrument (broken or missing strings, gluing loose parts etc.).

completed piano

This Complete Upright Piano Service Package usually takes about 6 hours for a well-used, but quality piano. Doing all this work in one visit saves me a lot of time in dismantling the piano and travel, and gives you as the customer more service for your money! If these various jobs were done individually, most piano technicians would charge well over $1,000.

If you know your piano needs a good bit of work, or if it has been getting a lot of use and hasn’t been worked over for a long time, this service could be very beneficial for your piano. Give me a call and I would be happy to schedule a day to come out and give your piano the deluxe treatment.

Please note that this service is for upright pianos. I am not currently offering this type of one-visit service for grands.

Hammer Shaping

The hammers are one of the most important parts of a piano. Their shape, density, texture and weight are all important to getting a good tone out of your instrument. Piano hammers are made of layers of dense felt over a core of wood. The top layers of felt are the softest, moving to harder layers towards the core. Over years of playing, the hammers, which start out rounded, or a little pointed at the strike-point, develop grooves where the strings contact, and eventually become flat. As the hammer gets more flat, the point of contact between the hammer and the string grows from a few millimeters to 1-2 centimeters. As that strike point gets bigger, your quality of tone decreases. In extreme cases, the grooves in the hammer become so deep, you can actually hear the strings rubbing against the walls of the grooves as the hammer hits and falls away from the string.
worn hammers

Piano hammers should be shaped several times through the life of the piano to maintain good tone and give the player good control. When I reshape hammers, I carefully remove layers of felt with different sanding paddles, working mostly on the shoulders of the hammer until I restore a focused strike-point. Since the inner felt is denser and harder than the outer layers, voicing is necessary after hammer shaping, or the tone will be much brighter than before, or in extreme cases, brittle or tinny.before after piano hammer

Hammer voicing consists mostly of careful and judicious needling around the shoulders of the hammer to loosen or “fluff up” the felt. A hammer voicing tool has from 1 to 3 needles about 1 centimeter long.
The last step in hammer shaping is matching the hammer to the string. Most notes on the piano have three strings that all sound in unison. The hammer has to strike all three at precisely the same time to get optimal tone. If the strike-point of the hammer is a little crooked, or one string is higher or lower than the other two, not all strings will be struck with the same force. This can cause all sorts of odd sounds from a ringing echo sound to annoying buzzes or vibrations. So I will match each hammer to the strings to make sure it is meeting all three strings simultaneously, and if not, I will use my 1000 grit sanding paddle to shape the hammer to perfection.

IMG_6134
This process can be done several times through a piano’s life if there is enough felt left on the hammers. Eventually the hammers will become too light to get a good sound, or will be worn down to the wood core, and then the hammers have to be replaced.
If your piano’s tone has deteriorated over the past years, it may need its hammers shaped. You can visually check for grooves on your hammers. If the grooves are getting long, or deep, you could be getting a better sound out of your piano with some hammer maintenance.