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.

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 like 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.

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

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.

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.

Spinet Repairs

spinet diagram
In an effort to make less expensive pianos that would fit into smaller spaces, piano companies started making the “spinet” piano in the 1930’s. The spinet is the shortest of pianos, usually around 37-40 inches high, and considerably thinner than other sizes of uprights. The defining element of the spinet is the “drop action.” The action (hammers and escape mechanism) usually sits right on top of the keys, so when you push down a key, it pushes the action parts up and propels the hammer forward. In the spinet, the action sits below the keys which a connecting rod (or “sticker” in piano technicians’ language) that reaches down from the key and pulls the action parts up instead of pushing. This makes it possible to make a piano cheaper and smaller, but it also decreases the performance and reliability of the action.

plastic elbows
During the 60’s and 70’s, piano makers decided it was a good idea to use plastic parts in these spinet actions without properly testing them. Fifty years later, I’m seeing these plastic parts, usually the “elbow” that connects the sticker to the rest of the playing mechanism (see above diagram), getting brittle and breaking, which leaves the key disconnected from the hammer and totally useless.

The repair, while a little time consuming, isn’t that hard and can give new life to an otherwise well-functioning piano. I recently replaced 7 broken plastic elbows on this small spinet.

photo 1

If you are looking at buying a spinet piano, I recommend taking off the lower panel and checking the action for plastic elbows. They will eventually become a problem and need to be replaced. Either stay away or plan on having me replace those parts someday! If you have a small piano with some keys that stay down and no longer play, its possible your piano has broken plastic parts that need to be replaced. Call me up and I can repair them for you!