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Has Your Piano Action ever been Reconditioned?

If you own a piano more than say 30 yrs. old (and that would likely be a great majority of you) then here’s a great question for you to consider…

Has your Piano Action ever been Reconditioned?

 

First you ask…”A Piano Action? What is that? My piano has one of those?” And your next question is likely “What is reconditioning ?” And “why do I need to have my piano action reconditioned?” After all, the nice salesman when I bought the piano guaranteed that my piano would last forever and I would never have to do anything else to it, other than tune it. Well, not to be too hard on the salesperson, but given how pianos are designed and the materials that are used, that sort of statement just cannot be true. As long as pianos are made with materials that wear, they will need routine maintenance to repair, replace, adjust, clean, and lube them.

So, the answer to the first questions is “YES”.  Most (if not all) pianos have an “action”, which contains most of the working parts of the piano (the guts) that need to be removed from time to time for routine service and adjustments. The answer to the second question, “What is reconditioning ?” And “why do I need to have my piano action reconditioned?”,  lies in the below explanations…..

 

First, there are basically two major types of piano actions.  Upright actions and Grand actions.

 

upright action

Upright Piano Action

Upright Actions:

Upright actions (spinets, consoles, studios, old uprights) consist basically of the the hammers, the whippen assemblies, and the dampers. Each is mounted to a series of rails that hold them in proper alignment to the strings and keys so that when a key is depressed to play a note, energy is properly transferred from the key to its corresponding string(s). Upright actions are by nature quite a bit simpler in design than the grand actions. This is primarily due to the fact that the upright action does not have a specialized repetition lever like the grand does.

Most upright actions are pretty easy to remove from the piano for repairs. The exception to this would be most spinets and player pianos. They are some of the most difficult actions to work on.

 

 

Grand Piano Action

Grand Piano Action

Grand Piano Actions:

Grand Piano Actions are similar in basic function, but in many ways quite  different. The grand action parts are also mounted on a series of rails that can be removed from the piano for service and adjustments. Noticebly different, however, is that the hammers are in a different orientation than on the upright action.    The grand action also contains the keys which the upright doesn’t.  In addition to the keys, the grand action also holds the hammers, and whippen  assemblies. The whippen assemblies of most modern grands have a repetition lever which allows a note (the “jack” for those know their piano parts) to fully reset before the key has risen totally back to rest. This allows for better “repetition” of the note than in uprights. An upright key has to fully rise back to rest position for the note (“jack”) to reset in order for the next note to be played.

 

Moving on…..

This is not a lesson on how actions work, however, I did want you to know that there are basic differences between each type action and that all actions can be….and NEED to be removed from time to time for routine cleaning and maintenance.

 

Reconditioning:

Reconditioning is a term which refers to a combination of procedures that is done on a piano action to bring it back to good operating condition again. Actions that I recondition will always be thoroughly cleaned, screws tightened, moving parts lubricated, worn or broken parts repaired or replaced, and hammers shaped.

 

Most pianos I service are well past needing reconditioned, to be quite honest. Years of playing have compacted the leather and felt parts whose purpose are to create cushions between certain parts and keep others in proper alignment and adjustment. The felt hammers that strike the strings also get compacted and deeply grooved over time and tone is eventually adversely affected, not to mention the damage that is occurring to the hammer itself. A piano that is never maintained will eventually begin to deteriorate and fall into disrepair. As one part fails, it puts added wear and stress on other parts, and the damaging effects begin to multiply throughout the piano.

 

Below are some of the main things that are usually addressed when an action comes to the shop for reconditioning:

 

hammer flange screws

Hammer Flange Screws

Tighten all Action Screws: There are close to 300 screws in an average piano action (not including the ones used for adjustments). That’s 300 screws that just hold hammers and whippens tightly to the rails in proper alignment, screws that hold the damper heads at the proper height and alignment to the strings, screws that hold the action frame together, and so on. As humidity in the air changes, the moisture content of the wood rails and wood hammer/whippen flanges will change in size and shape slightly and cause screws to become loose in time. If your piano is making clickety – clackety noises while you play, there’s a good chance you have loose flange screws throughout the action. Other things can cause these sounds too, but loose screws are an easy place to start. Loose screws lead to all sorts of trouble, including, loose, wobbling hammers…which in turn will grind the face of the hammers flat…which ruins the hammers.  Tightening screws is an important, but highly overlooked maintenance item that is very easy and doesn’t take all that long to do.

One short example: I played a piano a couple weeks ago that had a very noisy action, and by simply tightening all the screws, the piano played so much differently…quiet and solid feeling like it’s supposed to be. Amazing.

 

Hammer Shaping

Hammer Shaping

Hammer Shaping: Shaping the hammers can help restore the piano’s tone. After the screws are all tightened, now is the time to shape those hammers to bring back their nice round shape that helps them rebound off the strings as they were intended to do. Flat hammers hit the strings with more of a “thud” and transfer an excessive amount of energy to the string. This can cause broken strings and/or broken hammer shanks. Hammers will always have some grooves, but those that have deep grooves really should be shaped if they can. After being heavily shaped several times, hammers can become too small to function correctly and the set will need to be replaced, but don’t let that concern you. Most pianos have never had their hammers shaped, so they can sure stand it. Once done, if the piano is not a concert piano being used heavily all the time, the shaping will last for many more years to come.

 

dirty actionCleaning and Lubricating Action Parts: Piano actions, like everything else, will collect years of dust. That dust works itself down into all the small moving parts of a piano and can gunk it up quite well, causing sluggish notes, squeaks, a very heavy feel to the keys, notes that don’t repeat, and things like that. Actions can be removed from the piano, moved outdoors, and carefully blown out with compressed air to remove most dust and foreign objects from the action. Some parts can be brushed lightly to remove other dirt that remains, and the action can be lubricated as needed to free up any tight moving parts (note: only special lubricants made for pianos should be used and unless you know what you are doing, any removing of the action and cleaning should be done by a trained piano technician to prevent costly damage to your action).

 

bridle straps

Bridle Straps

Bridle Straps: A very common repair is to replace the bridle straps on an upright action. These straps are necessary to be in good condition and adjusted properly so that the action can be removed and replaced in the piano properly for servicing. Without going into too much explanation, suffice it to say that without the bridle straps in place to hold certain piano parts in place (whippens), the action is very difficult to put back into the piano without damaging parts. During reconditioning, these are almost always replaced if worn or missing.

 

Much Felt/Leather in an Action

Much Felt/Leather in an Action

Worn Felts/Leathers: There 88 keys on most pianos, therefore on those pianos consider that there are also 88 hammer assemblies, 88 whippen assemblies, and either 88 keys(grands) or 88 dampers (uprights) on the removable action. So, for every note on the piano, (see grand piano note in picture which shows a key, whippen assembly, and hammer assembly) there are approximately 15-25 small pieces of felt or leather that are used to cushion, control friction, stop hammer travel, quiet action noises, dampen strings, etc. That’s between 1320 and 2200 pieces of felt/leather just in an average piano action.  They do wear with age, harden, get dry and brittle, fall off because of failing glue, not to mention those that become nesting materials for mice or insect larvae, as well as damage caused by moths. So, there is a very good chance, especially on older pianos, that some felts/leathers may need replaced in order to help your piano action function properly as it should.

 

 

old dampers

Old Dampers

Dampers: Damper felts will harden, compress, and deform over time and can cause poor string dampening. Sometimes you will hear a “zoink” sound, or a slight buzz sound just as the dampers contact the string as you slowly let up on the key after playing a note. While not necessarily a standard thing to replace while doing an action reconditioning, if yours needs it, while the action is in the shop is a great time to have them replaced.

 

If your piano action has never been reconditioned, it would be wise to ask your piano technician to evaluate whether or not your piano is in need of being reconditioned. If done correctly, you will be amazed at the difference that a clean, well functioning action will make to your playing.

 

Until next time…”Make a Joyful Noise!”

 

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What Lurks Inside Your Piano? Time to Clean!

So, what does lurk inside your piano?

Have you ever even seen the inside of your piano?

I was thinking a lot about this yesterday as I was designing a new page for my website: www.RichardsPianoService.com/cleaning.htmlI’ve come to the conclusion, through many years of servicing pianos, that most customers that I see for the first time have never even seen the inside of their piano, especially owners of uprights.  That is somewhat surprising to me since, at the very least, the lids on uprights need to be raised and the front music desk needs to be removed just in order to tune the piano.  Beyond that, the key cover is often removed and keys sometimes removed for key repair, key adjustments, or to remove that coin that is jammed between two keys, causing them not to function.  On top of that, the bottom knee board is usually removed to inspect the bridge and make any pedal adjustments, and the entire action has to be removed in both uprights and grands in order to service any of the mechanical parts of the piano that have been broken or need adjustment.  While much of that is all in a days work for me, many tuners never make those simple repairs or adjustments, never pull the action, or never clean anything, so all the customer ever sees is the tuning pin area…which on uprights, usually doesn’t collect much dust. That tells me that those customers who act so surprised that their piano comes all apart like it does during regular servicing have either never had their piano tuned, OR, IF their tuner did more than a bare minimum tuning, the customer wasn’t there to see it.  It also tells me that there are a good MANY pianos out there that could stand a good cleaning!

On a grand, only the lid needs to be raised in order to tune the piano, and much of the time, the piano has been left open, so the customer is used to seeing the pinblock, dampers, and strings on their piano.  However, the insides of the piano look somewhat mysterious and fragile, so most grand owners leave the inside pinblock, damper, and string area alone…not knowing what to do.

While keeping your piano closed up all the time will help considerably, a piano will still collect a lot of dust and dirt over time and it will eventually need to be cleaned out to free up the working mechanisms of the piano.  The fact remains that a vast majority of pianos have not been kept closed up all the time and have been collecting dirt for ages.  Many old uprights have never been cleaned in their 80 to 100 years, and it shows when I go to service them!  Grands are often left with their lids up for looks, and dust and dirt will quickly collect on all the horizontal surfaces.

So, what does lurk inside your piano? Every piano gradually collects years of dust and grit inside the piano in places where the piano owner rarely, if ever, will see.  The dust and grit eventually works its way down into all the little nooks and crannies of the piano where all the working mechanisms of the piano are, and it can lead to premature wear and eventually to serious, and costly, mechanical problems.

Typical Junk Found in and around Piano Keys

Typical Junk Found in and around Piano Keys

It is really common to find paper clips, coins, can pull tabs, stamps, stickers, bobby pins, straight pins, rubber bands, pencils, and other foreign objects under the keys and amidst the action’s working parts, especially in homes where there are small children…or if the piano once resided in a home with small children.  Very often the key lid can act just like a postage drop box, depositing pencils into the action area when the  key lid is opened.  A single pencil can cause 5 or 6 keys to jam if it gets lodged in the wrong places. When the jammed key is pressed, small wooden parts inside can break.  Mouse nests and their droppings can jam up the action and cause trouble.  Debris in a piano can sometimes lead to hundreds of dollars in repairs down the road if not removed before permanent damage is done.

 

Years of dust build up under Key Bed.

Years of dust build up under Key Bed.

Technicians (that I happen to know personally)  have found dead birds, mice (see important note below about Hantavirus), envelopes of cash, and “hidden” whiskey bottles from husbands who swore they quit drinking years ago!  I found a home-made dehumidifier once….basically a 100 watt light bulb on a frayed cord, waiting to burn the house down if plugged in.  I found a mouse nest measuring over 15″ in diameter and 3-4″ tall on top of the key sticks in an old upright, and all sorts of other things that don’t belong in pianos.
Your piano will only work as freely as it was designed to if it is clean and free of such debris.

 

 

Grand Key Bed being cleaned

Grand Key Bed being cleaned

Because of all the fragile parts in a piano, it is not recommended for the piano owner to attempt to clean the inside of their piano.  Water and chemicals, etc. can be corrosive to the fragile metal parts of the piano.  Sprays containing oils can cause pin block damage which will lead to slipping tuning pins. Even dusting and vacuuming can cause serious problems if any of the thousands of fragile parts are bumped, snagged, mishandled, broken, misplaced, or accidentally sucked up in the vacuum cleaner.  Cleaning the piano’s interior is best left to the professional piano technician.
I will, however, offer a few things that you can do yourself to help keep your piano clean, and I’ll also suggest things you should leave to guys like me who have the proper training to deal with the more fragile parts of your piano.

 

Here are some things you can do yourself (at your own risk, of course):

All piano owners: First of all, you can keep your piano covered or closed up as much as possible, and vacuum your home on a regular basis, especially if you have shedding pets.  Don’t get in the habit of setting small objects on the piano (paper clips, loose change, etc), and don’t allow children to play on or around the piano with small toys.

Refer to the Piano Technician’s Guild’s webpage for recommendations for dusting and cleaning your piano’s exterior case.  In summary: dust with a feather duster, then slightly damp rag (flannel or microfiber cloth).  DO NOT wipe in circles, but in direction of the grain or direction the finish was applied. make sure any water residue is light enough to quickly evaporate.  Avoid most sprays and polishes, as they can contain oils that can damage the strings and pin block.

Upright owners:  Most of the time it is perfectly alright for you to lift the top lid, and remove the front music desk board. There are usually either a couple screws on either side that hold the board to the piano, or some sliding or rotating wooden latches.  Once the lid is up and front board off, you may vacuum (see important note below about Hantavirus) anywhere along the tops of the keys and off to the sides of the keys at either end of the piano.  Be SUPER CAREFUL not to touch or snag any part of the action.  If there is dust on the felt hammers, you may carefully vacuum the tops of the hammers, but in a front to back motion.  If you snag a hammer side to side, it can wreck the fragile hinge parts inside the action.  I would stay away from the dampers since they are very fragile and a vacuum can do harm to them!  You may also vacuum the tuning pin area, and or use a toothbrush to get any tough places if you wish.  Next, you may remove the bottom knee board by pressing up on the spring retainer clip(s) and pulling the top of the board out first. Lift the board off the pegs that hold it in place at the bottom and set aside. You may vacuum the entire area around the pedal rods and levers.  Not much you can hurt down here, unless you have a humidity control system installed.  Replace the knee board when finished and close up the rest of the piano.  You may clean the key tops with a damp (not wet) rag with some mild dish soap.  For the exterior case, refer to the Piano Technician’s Guild website for recommendations.

Grand owners, It is perfectly fine, and recommended, to vacuum the pin block area and use a toothbrush, pipe cleaner, etc. to loosen dirt in hard to reach areas around the pins and strings. Just be gentle as to not pry against the strings, causing them to shift position.  That can altar your tuning.  Use no water or sprays around the tuning pins!  If you need a bit of moisture to help remove the grime, very lightly dampen the tip of a rag, but keep the water source away from the piano!  You don’t want a cup of water tipped over on your pin block!

Grand Piano plate and soundboard

Grand Piano plate and soundboard

You may vacuum (see important note below about Hantavirus) anything you can see, being careful around the dampers and being careful not to scratch the plate or soundboard with the vacuum nozzle.  If you want, you may purchase a set of felt soundboard cleaners that will help you reach under the strings to clean the soundboard in places the vacuum won’t reach.  Some have used a cloth and yard stick or something flexible to reach under the strings.  Again, for the exterior case, refer to the Piano Technician’s Guild webpage for recommendations.

 

IMPORTANT NOTE about Hantavirus: Mice fecal material can carry Hantavirus, which can be extremely dangerous.  Be sure to use proper mask, latex gloves, etc. while removing mouse/rat infestations.  Scoop and dump the majority of it very carefully so as not to get the contaminants airborne.  Then use a vacuum (with hepa-filter if possible) to clean up the remainder. Click here to find out more information on Hantavirus.

 

If your piano hasn’t been cleaned in several years (or ever, in many cases) it could greatly benefit by having a complete cleaning.  Almost inevitably, you will notice a difference in how your piano plays and sounds just by having it thoroughly cleaned…and hey, any money found in the piano is yours! : )  Usually that amounts to only a few cents…but you never know!

Until next time…Make a Joyful Noise!

 

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