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!

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.

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.

Tuning for the Portland Tree Lighting

The day after Thanksgiving I had the dubious honor of tuning the piano onstage for the tree lighting festivities at Pioneer Courthouse Square. This kind of events is always an interesting experience with lots of unknown factors for me as the piano’s caretaker.
The first disadvantage for this kind of event is the weather. Any outside event is going to present a tuning challenge. If it is cold or hot, or humid or dry, the piano will throw a fit and go way out of tune and in most cases, keep going out of tune as fast as I can tune it! This event was cold. High 30’s I think. And it was also wet! I had rain blowing in on me while I was tuning and even hitting the piano occasionally!
The next disadvantage for event tunings is you never know how much time you will have. I got there early and the performing group was warming up and testing the sound system. I was supposed to tune at 4:30 and they were still singing when 4:30 came and went. When I got on stage and started to tune, I overheard the group’s director talking with the TV newsman and learned I only had about 15 minutes to work! It normally takes about an hour to tune a piano in the best of conditions!

7' Steinway B tucked in on the left. the NW Community Gospel Choir onstage.

7′ Steinway B tucked in on the left. the NW Community Gospel Choir onstage.

You also never know what the background sound level will be when tuning for an event. I’ve tuned over sound checks, white noise (the worst), or even pressure washers! In this case the newsman was riling up the crowd and making them scream getting ready for his clip he was going to take in a few minutes. The bass player made eye contact with me and just shook his head.
So I had 15 minutes, the environment was horrible for the piano, and I could hardly hear to tune over the high noise level!
I just had to stick my head down inside this poor Steinway and work through the piano, tuning the worst notes until I ran out of time. In this kind of scenario, if they haven’t planned well for the tuner, I just have to do the best I can with the hand I get dealt! The piano sounded decent when I was done, but certainly wasn’t perfect. But, even if I had done a perfect tuning, within 20 minutes, there would have been notes out of tune just because of the cold!
Oh well. It was an adventure.

This video was from last year’s ceremony, but Pink Martini performed this year as well. I hope the piano sounded good for them!

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.

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!

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.

photo (1)

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!

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