Pictures from My Summer Work

I’ve been very busy lately and haven’t written here much. My wife and I had our third child join us at the end of May and we’ve been very busy ever since!

I’ve run into a lot of interesting and odd instruments over the summer, so I thought I’d share some pictures of some of them here.

First, I’ve been working hard on a harpsichord that I bought this summer and got into my teaching studio. My alma mater, George Fox University wasn’t using their instrument and they gave it to me for a very good price! I worked on this instrument while I was in college, but it has been very gratifying to have more time to get it playing really well. I have also been experimenting with historical tunings, specifically the Lehman-Bach tuning which sounds awesome on the harpsichord.



The week after I picked up my harpsichord, another harpsichord came into Portland Piano Company and I’ve been working at getting it back into shape. It was extremely dirty, and I found that cleaning the delicate harpsichord is much more time consuming than cleaning a modern piano! One of the two courses of strings had no tension on it at all, so it has taken a lot of tunings to get it stabilized.

IMG_4378I got to tune an interesting Grotrian piano from the 1950’s again this summer. I’ve worked on these pianos before, but I always enjoy coming across them.



And inside the piano….IMG_4712

I’ve been tuning at Reed College all week and they have 3 harpsichords along with around 25 pianos in their music building. I just tuned a vintage Bosendorfer there this week:



This little harpsichord was very entertaining. Harpsichords were often custom painted for the owners, inside and out. This tiny instrument has a painting of Reed College buildings inside the lid with “The Swing” in one corner and tonsured monks playing Frisbee in the other corner!



Those are some of the interesting instruments I’ve run into this summer. I hope you enjoyed those pictures and have a good remainder of your summer. I hard at work getting school pianos in shape before school starts again in a couple weeks!




Tuning Stability

You wish that once you get your piano tuned, it would stay in tune! (I don’t wish that because I’d be out of a job, but I do wish pianos would stay in tune longer!) Why do pianos go out of tune? And why do some pianos hold a tune so much longer than others? Here are three main factors that contribute to a piano’s tuning stability:


  1. The Environment
  2. The Piano
  3. The Technician’s Skill/Technique

The environment is the most important factor in helping most pianos hold a tuning. Humidity changes are a piano’s worst enemy. Pianos are 80% made of wood which absorbs and dissipates water as humidity fluctuates. Piano soundboards have a “crown,” being higher in the middle than they are on the edges. When the soundboard absorbs moisture, the wood gets bigger, and since the soundboard is locked within the cast-iron plate, the crown will rise. When the crown rises, it raises the bridge the strings pass over increasing the tension on the string, raising the pitch and putting the piano out of tune. If the air dries out, the opposite will occur. Pianos often go flat in the winter as we turn our our heaters.

The temperature of the room makes a difference as well. I was once tuning a grand and the air conditioning came on. It was blowing straight on the strings. The cold air chilled the steel strings, shrinking the metal and made the piano go sharp as I was working on it!

On the other extreme, I tuned a piano in a second story music studio that had no air conditioning. It easily got up to 90 degrees during summer days and cooled down to mid 50’s at night. Even a wonderful piano with a very careful tuning won’t stay in tune for more than 24 hours in those conditions!

Climate control is very helpful in keeping your piano in tune. If you can keep the humidity between 45% and 55% and the temperature fluctuating no more than 10 degrees, your piano will have a much better chance of staying in tune.


Heavily rusted strings on an old upright

Heavily rusted strings on an old upright

2. The quality and condition of the piano are major factors in tuning stability as well. Quality factors include the style and make of the pinblock, the quality of the steel used in the strings, the precision taken in manufacturing brass wound bass strings, the care taken in making the piano’s bridges, and the angles and precision in the various pressure bearing points along the string.

Example of a pinblock and tuning pins

Example of a pinblock and tuning pins

A brand new piano will be unsteady for a couple years just due to the elasticity of  new steel strings. The steel will stretch for at least 18 months. After 2 years a new piano has reached “maturity” and will be at its most stable for the next 10-20 years, depending on its environment. As a piano gets older, some parts may begin to wear and make the piano’s tuning less stable again. The steel in the strings wears over the pressure points, the strings grind into the”v-bridge” in the treble, the strings may get corroded so they no longer slide smoothly over the pressure points, and eventually, the pin block could wear out or crack so the tuning pins themselves won’t stay tight. Other major problems that don’t routinely come up can completely destabilize a piano. The cast-iron plate which holds the piano’s 40,000lbs of pressure can crack (very bad!), the soundboard could crack, or the bridges which the pins pass over could crack.

A severely cracked pinblock

A severely cracked pinblock

The current tension on the strings plays a factor as well. If a piano hasn’t been tuned in many years, the stings usually stretch bringing the piano very flat of A440. If the pitch is raised (or lowered) more than a few “cents” (there are 100 cents between each tone), the pressure load on the piano’s plate and soundboard is drastically altered. It’s quite easy to add 500 lbs of pressure to a piano’s plate while tuning a long-neglected piano. Over the next weeks and months, this pressure will redistribute over the instrument and knock your piano out of tune again!



A cracked upright bridge

3. The skill of the tuner/the quality of the tuning is the last factor in how long your piano’s tuning will last. Tuning a piano is tricky and complicated! Some technician’s tunings last longer than others. Some of this difference is observable technique, and some is just a tuner’s touch! Understanding how the piano works, how the string is divided into several (usually 4-5) different tension bearing sections, and how the tuning pin can be manipulated will help in getting a solid, long-lasting tuning. I use firm key blows while tuning to help equalize the tension over all four distinct sections of the string. The more intensely the string vibrates on a strong “test blow,” the better those several segments will equalize. If this isn’t done well, the first time a strong player plays something loud on the instrument, the strings will equalize, and it will go out of tune.

piano pin diagram

The manipulation of the tuning pin itself is also very important. The tuning pin is a round, ridged steel rod about 2.5″ long driven into the hard pinblock. Since it is steel, it can bend a good bit, side to side and forward and back. If you use the wrong technique, its possible to twist the pin’s tip outside the pinblock so the note is in tune, but as that steel bends back, the note will go out of tune in a few days.

I hope this was helpful to you and if you have any questions, feel free to give me a call!

Case Touch-Up

While rubbing shoulders with some skilled refinishers and touch-up artists, I’ve picked up some skills to help your piano not only sound its best, but look better too! I’ve been doing some case touch-up work that can dramatically improve how your piano looks. Here are some before and after photos of a piano I recently worked on.


This kind of touch up doesn’t take large amounts of time and I’m happy to include it in a tuning visit for minimal additional cost.

1877 Steinway Upright

I recently worked on another old piano and I thought I would share some pictures here.

Steinway upright name

This Steinway upright was built in 1877. The workmanship is beautiful! It has new strings and hammers, but most of the action parts are original.

Steinway upright action

I was there to repair a spring on a bass damper that had finally broken after 127 years of service.
The repair took about 20 minutes, but it took another 45 minutes to solve a mysterious buzzing noise and the pedal squeak.
Steinway upright serial number

This piano cost around $500 in 1877, which is about $18,000 in today’s money. Every detail was beautifully made. Even the screw the held the front panel in place was decorative. The only person who would ever really see this is the piano tuner who takes the piano apart!

Steinway upright pin

Tuning a Square Grand Piano

There are upright pianos, there are grand pianos, then there are square pianos. They were made from the late 18th century through the 1890’s.

1892 Kranich & Bach Square Grand

1892 Kranich & Bach Square Grand

They are beautiful looking instruments, but they are very different than the modern piano. There are less keys, there are only 2 strings per note through the upper range instead of 3, the tension on the strings isn’t as high, the hammers are much thinner and lighter, and most challenging for me, the tuning pins are in the back of the piano instead of the front like the grand piano’s.
There aren’t very many square grands on this side of the states so I don’t get many inquiries about them. I have received several calls from people excited about a “really cool, old square piano that they found pretty cheap” and they want to know if it is worth a lot. They actually aren’t worth very much as instruments, just because the design isn’t nearly as good as the modern grand or upright. But someone recently called asking me to tune their square piano that came with their house. Many piano technicians won’t tune them, but I hadn’t ever done it, so I decided I would help them out and give it a try.
I took a few minutes exploring the piano when I got there. I almost damaged the wall behind the piano when I went to open the lid (about 80 or 90lbs of beautiful Brazilian rosewood) and one of the hinge pins was missing so the lid started to slide off the piano!
I took apart one of my mutes and used the metal rod as a hinge pin while I worked (I have since ordered a wide variety of hinges and pins so I can easily fix issues like that).
Next I had to take parts off the piano until I could actually get to the tuning pins to start tuning. The music rack was screwed in (unlike modern grands), so I took that off. Then I had to dismantle part of the damper system for the bass strings which was covering the tuning pin in the back of the piano. I measured the pitch throughout the piano and it was very flat. Going off what I knew of the piano and my customer, I decided it would be best to play it safe and tune it at a pitch lower than modern A440 in an effort to not break strings (I talked to another tuner later that week and he said he broke 20 strings on the only square grand he ever tried to tune). My post on deciding what pitch to use on older pianos can be found here.
I got to work tuning and it went well! The strings didn’t move very smoothly, so it took several tries on most of the strings to actually get them into tune, but it sounded pretty good when I was finished! Since the tuning pins are in the back, I had to stand, bent 80 degrees at the waist for the full 90 minutes tuning, which was pretty brutal on my back. I kept taking little breaks and lying flat on the floor to rest my back.TuningSquareGrand
The middle section of the piano actually tuned faster than usual because there was only two strings per note instead of the three unison strings found in modern pianos. The highest section of the piano actually had three per note, which is unusual for square grands. The highest section was the hardest and my back was really tired at that point!
I spent about 90 minutes tuning, then played a couple pieces. The touch felt considerably different. The keyboard is actually shorter with 15-20 less keys. The keys themselves are physically smaller, both shorter and narrower than our modern piano keys. They weren’t as narrow as a harpsichord or fortepiano, but they did feel different.
I finished up by replacing a couple tight parts in the damper system that were malfunctioning. By this time in the evening, my customers’ young daughters had come home from school and were very interested in what I was doing. I had to be careful where I set these antique parts as I was working!
The piano played a little heavier than most pianos, but decently. The sound wasn’t as brilliant as we are used to (due to less strings, thinner strings, and lower tension on the strings), but it was pleasing. My customer was happy with an in-tune, well functioning piano when I was done, which is always my goal!
Working the square piano is harder than usual, and I did have to charge a little more than my normal tuning fee, but it wasn’t near the horrible job some piano technicians make it out to be. I would be happy to do it again and I hope I get more chances to work with these interesting instruments.

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.
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.