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.

Working with Old Pianos

I recently had the opportunity to tune an 1888 Vose & Sons upright. Its amazing to play an instrument that has so much history! My Great-Great-Grandmother could have played this instrument! This particular piano was shipped around the horn of South America (before the Panama Canal) and sold from San Francisco in the late 1880’s.
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As interesting as old pianos are, there are plenty of tricks and risks when working with them. Most pianos made before 1900 weren’t actually designed to be tuned to our modern A440 standard of pitch. The combined high tension of 200 strings on a modern piano creates about 40,000lbs of pressure on the iron plate. Smaller, lighter metal plates and weaker (and often corroded) strings on old pianos often can’t hold up to that kind of tension. They weren’t created to withstand that amount, and they have over 100 years of wear on the original materials.

So when I start to tune an antique piano, I have to decide where to tune it. First I will check to see if there are any missing or replaced strings which would indicate a history of strings breaking. Then I will measure the pitches of several notes through the piano to find out approximately where the piano’s string tension currently is. If all looks good, no broken or replaced and no or minimal corrosion on the strings, and it is fairly close to pitch, I will carefully tune it to our modern A440. That way the piano can be played with other instruments and it helps the player develop a good sense of modern pitch. If there are broken, replaced or corroded strings, I will usually tune the piano to a lower standard, usually (but sometimes a good deal lower) A435 or A432.

Deciding what pitch standard to use is the most stressful and dangerous part of working with older pianos. If I choose incorrectly, strings could break which mean costly repairs and several return visits to tune brand new strings which go out of tune constantly while the new piano wire continues to stretch over 1-2 years.

Old pianos also have odd and non-standard parts which are often brittle and fragile with age. So not only do they break easily, but they are hard to replace or reproduce.

This well-built 1888 Vose & Sons had some replaced strings and was a good bit lower than A440. I chose A435 as a good place to tune and it sounded great when I was finished. I eased a couple tight parts to help the action move faster, and everything responded well to my work. The piano sounded and played much better when I was done! The owner was happy and I was satisfied in “doing no harm” and keeping a beautiful old piano working well for its owners.

Tuning For a Teacher

I always enjoy tuning for piano teachers, partly because I know the piano is being used and enjoyed, and partly (being a piano teacher myself) because I get to see how another teacher runs a piano studio! I tuned for an excellent teacher in Portland this week with two pianos (in addition to the harpsichord). A newer Kawai 6′ grand, and an older, elegant Knabe grand of the same size. This teacher had an extensive sticker-based tracking system to keep track of which scales and arpeggios each student had mastered at different metronome markings. Three different charts! Some students probably had up to 100 stickers!! I was impressed. But I won’t be doing that. I don’t get along with stickers…
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But this teacher is doing it right! She has consistently had excellent students completing, performing and composing in the Portland area since I was taking lessons as a teenager (at least). It was an honor to tune these pianos.

Tuning in the Dark at Portland Center Stage

I’ve recently been tuning a piano for a play at the Portland Center Stage. The particular stage this play uses is very small and dim, with the piano behind a mesh-covered dividing wall. I came and tuned early in the morning and the main lights were on motion sensors that only stayed lit for about 5 minutes. So I tuned this Baldwin with only my LED mini flashlight as a light source!
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Working on the New Kawai Pianos

Through the ever changing piano-dealership situation in Portland, I have been able to have a lot of hands-on time with brand-new Kawai pianos recently. Kawai, a long standing Japanese piano manufacturer has been making quality instruments for a long time at a price that people can afford. They come in a cut above the Chinese and Korean pianos, but are still much less expensive than European or the few American piano companies now left in business.
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After new pianos are un-crated, I get to take out all the protective foam, makes sure all the screws are tight, the hammers are perfectly aligned to the strings, ease the keys to reduce any extra friction, the fine-tune the regulation so it will play its very best before it is shown on the floor. Pictures is a Kawai K-200 console piano with the case parts removed. The regulation is complete and I’m part the fine tuning, the very last step.

Another Double Tuning

I recently tuned for a customer with a magnificent custom built home. The whole end of the main living area was devoted to two beautiful pianos, a 1973 Steinway B and a vintage 1939 Baldwin F, both around 7′ long. The room had wood floors, walls, and 20′ ceilings: great acoustics! I didn’t get a great picture, but you can see the glass wall at the end of the room. You can enjoy a view through the trees and over a deep valley while you play one of these wonderful pianos.

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The Finest Pianos in the World

In preparation for Portland Piano Company’s Selections Sale, I have been tuning some of their finest European handmade pianos. The Fazioli piano came on the piano scene in 1981 with the goal of making the best piano in the world. Portland Piano Company is lucky to have the best selection of their pianos in America right now! They aren’t cheap, but they are beautiful and luxurious in every sense of the word.
Handmade in Italy, every step of the crafting process is carefully controlled by the small company to keep their quality the very highest. The visual beauty of the instrument is matched by the full and rich chocolaty sound produced by these wonderful pianos.
It’s a piano tuner’s dream to work on one these, and I got to tune two here in one day!
Fazioli

Tuning for a Two-Piano Concert

I had the privilege to tune one of Portland Piano Company’s rental pianos for Portland’s Monday Musical Club this week. Portland’s Monday Musical Club puts on concerts to raise money to give out in scholarships through the year (I received one of these scholarships myself as a teenager).
Their concert this week was a program of two piano music, so they brought in an additional Steinway B to match Reedwood Friends Church’s own piano.
My job was to tune the rental piano as soon as it arrived so it would be ready for their concert at 1:00.
After the piano was delivered at 10:00, I first checked the “home piano” and found out it was 7 cents (7/100 of a pitch) flat. And since these pianos were going to be played together, I had to tune the rental piano 7 cents flat as well to match the “out of tuneness” of the piano already in place. I touched up the unisons on the church’s piano and was on my way at 11:30. Wish I could have stayed for the concert at 1:00!

Two 6' 10 1/2", 760lb Steinway B Grand Pianos

Two 6′ 10 1/2″, 760lb Steinway B Grand Pianos