Archive for category Regulation

What causes my piano strings to break, or keep breaking?

Why do my piano strings break, or keep breaking?  Here’s a question that I don’t hear that often, but one that may have an answer you may not have thought of.  Until I studied piano technology, I wouldn’t have thought of it either.  There are the obvious reasons, that we’ll discuss, but there are a couple that I would have not thought of had it not been brought to my attention.

So, what are some of the things that can cause a string to break? 


If you think of anything that’s under tension, like a taught rope, a stretched rubber band, and things like that, we know that if the material is compromised in any way, that is the most likely reason for failure.  For instance, we see in the movies the hero, (I’m thinking of Wesley from The Princess’ Bride), climbing the rope up the Cliffs of Insanity, and the villain is at the top feverishly cutting the rope to send the hero to their certain death.  He’s not using an ax, but with a knife…strand at a time…weakening the rope until it finally cannot take the tension any longer.

While a single plain piano string doesn’t have strands, it can weaken to the point of breakage when things such as rust (from excessive moisture in the air) or mouse/cat urine that corrodes the metal on the string.  Each of these are common reasons for string failure.  Unless the damage is very localized, rust throughout the piano can cause many strings to begin breaking, either during tunings, during normal or excessive playing, or even during the day/night when no one is even playing it.   That’s always a joy to hear when you’re not expecting it.


Rusty Strings and Tuning Pins

Another way strings fail is excessive tension.  Just like a rope or rubber band, each can only take so much tension before it gives way.  Have you ever pulled a rubber band back…just a little further to get the best flight distance…..just a little further……….snap!  Yes, we’ve all done it, and it always surprises us when it happens.


A piano string can fail if excessive tension is placed on it, just like that rubber band.  It can happen by playing excessively hard, or maybe by someone that tries to tune the piano but doesn’t know whether he is above or below pitch, gets disorientated, and before you know it, has raised the string too far leading to a broken string.  Also, a common thing to happen to less experienced tuners, and sometimes to even experienced tuners, is for the tuning lever to be inadvertently placed on the wrong tuning pin, and thus raising the tension of a string that is muted off.  Pitch doesn’t change, so they keep turning the pin and snap!  Oops, only to find that they were turning the wrong pin.  Sometime a loose tuning pin will cause a tuner to accidently apply too much pressure too quickly, raising the pitch too far and breaking a string.  This happens usually when most of the piano has normal or tight tuning pins and the tuner’s muscle memory is used to applying a  certain tension in order to get the tuning pin to move.  Then when the tuner gets to a loose pin, that same tension will be way too much for that pin, causing it to raise quickly.  Here’s a funny and practical example to illustrate that.  My mother used to have a plastic bowl that we used for serving popcorn, however, it looked like cut glass.  We had company over and everyone is passing the bowl around the table.  When it came to our guest, they were expecting a heavy leaded crystal bowl, so they prepared their muscles to counter act the weight.  Needless to say, their upward force was MUCH more than necessary for the light, plastic bowl, and popcorn went everywhere!  Same thing happens sometimes to tuners.


Less common, maybe, are causes dues to defects in the string, or a defect in how the piano was built.  Maybe the pressure or capo bar has too much “V” to it where the string passes over/under and when the string is hit hard with the hammer, that “V” acts like cutters on a pair of pliers, weakening the string at that spot over time until it finally gives way.  Again, this is not very common, but on some models of pianos, I’ve heard that this was a problem.


Now to the reasons that I think piano owners should be aware of that maybe aren’t as obvious as those mentioned already.


There are two things that can contribute to string breakage beyond what was mentioned already, and that is worn or hard hammers, and a piano out of regulation (adjustment).


Hammers that are worn can get very flat on the crown where the string contacts the string.  A properly shaped hammer has a sort of tear drop shape that is very symmetrical and the point that contacts the string is relatively small.  The hammer hardness should allow for a good rebound off the string, kind of like a super ball…but definitely not hard like a marble or a soft like a cotton ball (forgive the extremes).  When the hammer is flat and worn on the crown, there is more surface area, and more force applied to the string which can cause breakage.


It is VERY important to keep the hammers properly shaped and voiced, not only for the better tone it provides, but for the very health of the strings and other action parts that may be affected.

Another contributing factor is a piano out of regulation.  When a piano is badly out of regulation, it throws many things out of whack, including how much force it takes to throw the hammer to the strings.  You should not have to pound the keys to get a medium loud sound.  If you do have to, this is a good sign that there is (what we technicians call) lost-motion.  In plain english, this means that your key is moving downward a bit before the jack ever contacts the hammer to start the hammer’s movement toward the string.  The more lost motion (slop as some call it), the less power you have, and the more you feel you need to bang the keys to get it to play.


Worn hammer vs Properly Shapped Hammer

Let-off is a VERY important adjustment that if not correct can lead to broken hammer shanks and sometimes broken strings.  Let-off adjusts exactly how close the hammer can get to the string while being forced there by the key (pressing up on the jack, which presses on the hammer). As soon as let-off occurs, the jack trips out from under the hammer butt, or knuckle and the hammer finished it’s travel (about 1/16″ or so)  to the string by inertia alone.  If this setting is incorrect, the hammer will either let-off too soon, losing power, or it will not let-off soon enough…or not at all and the key then is slamming the hammer all the way to the string, full force and the hammer is not allowed to rebound by itself.  This is called blocking, and usually will sound more like a “thud” than allowing the string to ring freely.  This is because the hammer is being slammed, and held against the string for as long as the key is held down.  This needs to be corrected immediately.   


So, any one of these factors can cause string breakage, but in reality, it us usually a combination of several of these factors that cause strings to break.  I am continually amazed at the number of 100+ year old pianos out there that still have their original strings and are tuned up making very acceptable music for their owners!  I guess that I am amazed that more strings don’t break than do.


As long as we have strings, we will have strings that break…so go easy on your tuner if a string breaks while they are tuning.  It does happen, and it’s usually not their fault.  However, if you are having an issue of broken strings, you may need to talk with your technician to see if there are any repairs or regulation that needs to be taken care of.


Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

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What’s the difference between Tuning, Repairs, and Regulation?

Today’s topic will attempt to answer what may seem to most like a silly question, as the answer seems so obvious. However, I get asked this question from time to time, so let’s try to sort it out.  Keep in mind that we could write books about each of the three processes, so today we’re going to keep to the basics.


A few months ago, just after I had finished tuning for a client, I was loading my things in my truck when their neighbor greeted me and kindly inquired about what exactly “regulation” meant.  He had seen these three words on the side of my truck, Tuning, Repairs, and Regulation, but wasn’t sure what the real differences were.

It was a very good question which gave me “cause for pause”.  Not because I didn’t understand what the differences were, of course, but because of the fact that here I was advertising something that people may have to guess what the services were that I was advertising.  I could have just as easily printed “adjustments” or something of that nature on the side of my truck.  (Well, maybe not! I think I’ll stick with “regulation”).

Anyway, I’ve run across this on several occasions where especially Tuning and Regulation were confused.  Really, not too surprising when I think of the times the A/C guy has come to repair my furnace…all I really cared about is that he knew what he was doing, and that it was working properly when he left.  So, it makes sense that my piano customers pretty much feel the same way. We come in, greet them, do our thing, and wallah…it sounds good again.

So, the gentleman’s question led me to believe that “Tuning” in many people’s minds is associated with everything involved in the service call, rather than realizing that Tuning refers to one type of process, and that Regulation refers to an altogether different type of process.  Let me explain.

Tuning refers to the adjusting of the strings to proper musical pitch, Repairs refer to either fixing what’s broken or replacing parts, and Regulation (or regulating) is moving, bending, turning, shimming, etc. all the parts in the piano to make them work together properly.



Tuning (according to me !) is the act of turning the metal tuning pins in order to either tighten or loosen tension on the strings in order to place them at a correct musical pitch.  There are over 200 tuning pins, each attached to a string, on a typical piano, so this is why your technician can take nearly 1.5 – 2 hrs. tuning your piano.

So when you schedule a “tuning”, that is all you are purchasing…so to speak.  Granted, I always try to do little things here and there for no extra charge (tighten bench, adjust (regulate) pedals, fix a sticky key…those seemingly small things are things that I, and most tuners, like to do as part of their general tuning service call.  A 3-5 min. repair or adjustment doesn’t take a lot of time, they add a great benefit, and it is great for customer relations.  However, that is not what the tuning fee is generally for.  Specifically, a tuning is primarily for just bringing the piano to pitch (given that it’s close to pitch already….and doesn’t need a significant pitch adjustment…sometimes called a pitch raise or lowering).  We’ll save that topic for another time.


Just for fun, consider the fact that if you removed all the keys, action (including hammers, dampers, etc.), pedals, and leave nothing but the strings strung across the plate, that the “harp” could still be tuned…although you couldn’t do descent sounding or stable tuning by just plucking the strings. But TECHNICALLY it could be “tuned” with the action out of the piano, just as you see in the photo below (however, no one ever would…I hope!)

So, you can see that tuning is really just the adjustment of the string’s tension by turning the tuning pins only.  Yes we use the keys to make the hammers strike the strings during tuning, but the adjustment has nothing to do with the keys or internal parts other than the tuning pins.

Tuning is a very different process than regulation which is the adjusting of all the other parts of the piano that make up what we call the action and pedal works.  Let’s first talk about repairs and then we’ll get to regulation in a bit.

Piano Without its Action


Repairs are generally fixing or replacing what’s broken or damaged.  A repair, (according to someone who’s just broke something!) usually means several things…1) it’s going to usually cost something, usually unexpected, 2) it usually is necessary to fix in order for the instrument to function without further damage, 3) it always begs the question…”what caused the damage?”  There are lots of reasons parts need repair…neglect, misuse, accident, or just normal wear with age, and 4) smiles from happy customers when the repair is done correctly.

Broken Key

We all know all-to-well that things just don’t last forever, parts break and need repaired or replaced.  The good news is that most pianos are built to last a good long time if treated properly.  So, again, referring to yesterday’s post, regular visits by your piano tuner can catch things that may need repair before the problem gets worse. A broken hammer, like you see above, may not only fail to work properly, but if not repaired, it’s flopping around in the piano can damage other parts as well.

Examples of common repairs in a piano might be a broken hammer shank that either needs to be mended or replaced, loose glue joints are common on older pianos (or those who have been exposed to extremely low humidity over time), squeaky pedals that need felt replaced or lubricated, broken keys, and the list could go on.  We’ll save some of that discussion for another post on repairs someday.


Piano Regulating


Regulation is one of those words that can mean a number of different things.  In law, a regulation is a rule or something to abide by.  A regulation sized basketball means the “official” size…the size that an “official” game must use according to the rulebooks.  So it is in pianos, well sort of.  Regulation basically refers to all the many, many adjustments that can be made throughout the piano to make all the parts function and interact properly. If parts are “in regulation”, or “well regulated” we mean that they are adjusted to function well.  If the parts are “out of regulation” or “poorly regulated” we mean that the parts are out of adjustment and may not function at all, or marginal at best.  Technicians can change the regulation of your piano to affect how your piano plays and feels to you (heavy touch vs. light touch, loud vs. softer, clickety-clackety sounding parts (bad) vs. quiet and smoothly functioning parts (good)).  Many things can be regulated in your piano, and over time, they will need to be.

Note: Broken parts cannot be adjusted or regulated to other parts because they must first be repaired.  That being said, many adjustments cannot be made, at least not well, until the piano is at least in good repair.

So, why do we use the word Regulation when referring to the adjustments in the piano. I think it’s because it sounds more sophisticated!  Well, maybe not.  I believe it is really referring to the fact that a piano is designed to function a certain way, and for that to happen, all the parts must be at certain distances from each other, so that when they are moved, they will engage the other part at the correct spot.  When a piano is built at the factory, it is built to a designed plan with certain specifications.  Specifications are numbers, distances, tolerances, or whatever you want to call them, that they have decided work best for a particular piano. They are saying that for this piano to work properly, all these adjustments need to be made “just so…”  (the rules, for that piano and how it works best).  Now, over time, felt wears, hammers get filed down to shape them better, wood swells and shrinks, thus moving the screw adjustments that were once tight in the wood.  NOW, the adjustments are not according to regulation (the rules for that piano regarding where those parts need to be to function correctly). So, it is the technician’s job to “Regulate” the piano, or in other words, systematically place all those parts back in regulation (or proper adjustment). There are some regulation process that can be done in a couple hours that will help to improve your piano’s playability, but to properly regulate a piano, it can take between 10-15 hours. It can very tedious work, but the musical payoff is well worth it.


Just for the record, since my fellow technicians are biting their tongue right now wanting to say this,…the factory specifications are just a guideline for the technician, and what actually works best for a particular piano may be slightly different from the “rule”, so to speak.  Your technician is trained to make it function properly.


Here’s a little example that might help with understanding the need for repairs and regulation, and in that order.  Suppose you played baseball.  Picture yourself selecting a bat, stepping up to bat, you stand slightly outside of the batters box, you hold the bat incorrectly (grain going the wrong way), you hold your hands the wrong way on the bat, here comes the pitch.  As you swing, you have to reach in to connect with the ball, your momentum is interrupted because of your awkward stance, and the ball doesn’t hit the sweet spot of the bat, and since the grain was the wrong direction, the bat breaks.


Now, let’s look at the situation.  We know the bat will HAVE to be replaced (repair won’t do in this case) before going on, but why did it break in the first place?  You weren’t standing according to “regulation”, what we know works.  So, by “adjusting” your stance, and adjusting the hold on the bat so the ball would hit the sweet spot, all of that could have been avoided.  With a new bat and the proper stance, you are ready to hit that home run.

At some point all analogies fall apart, but I think you get the picture, that repairs must be done before regulation will do any good, and at the same time, proper regulation of your piano can prevent many unnecessary problems in the piano that can lead to costly repairs.


So, in summary: Tuning is the adjusting of the strings to proper musical pitch, Repairs are fixing what’s broken or replacing parts, and Regulation (or regulating) is moving, bending, turning, shimming, etc. all the parts in the piano to make them work together properly.


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Until next time…make a joyful noise!

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