Bill Calhoun - Piano Tuning, Repair, & Maintenance - Rhode Island, Massachusetts, & Connecticut

About Pianos

How often should my piano be tuned? ►

The usual recommendation is once a year.  Of course, it depends on how sensitive you are to the piano going out of tune.  Your piano goes out of tune mostly because of changes in humidity.  The more extreme these changes, the more your piano is affected.  A new piano, or a piano with new strings, will need to be tuned more frequently, usually twice a year for the first two or three years.

Is there anything besides tuning that my piano needs? ►

Routine maintenance includes tightening all the action screws, cleaning the damper felts, realigning hammers with strings, removing free play from the keys and pedals, and lubricating whatever needs it.

The mechanical parts of the piano are coordinated to work with each other.  This coordination is achieved through bits of felt and leather, wires bent just so, springs, and threaded inserts.  The coordination is referred to as the regulation, and over time, it needs to be restored.  The regulation affects the feel and playability of the piano.

The tone of the piano depends on how the strings are sitting in the piano, and on the condition of the hammer-heads.  Sometimes the tone of individual notes can get twangy or brittle or too loud or not loud enough or dull.  Adjusting the tone is called voicing (as opposed to adjusting the pitch, which is called tuning).

Do you recommend humidity-control systems? ►

Your piano is designed to handle normal changes in humidity, but if your building suffers from great extremes in humidity, your piano will suffer as well.  Most humidity-related damage occurs in the summer, when everything in the piano swells up because of high humidity.  You won't notice this damage until the winter, when the piano dries out.  So the first step in humidity control is dealing with the summer, and your best bet is air-conditioning.  If the piano is in a basement, or on the first floor of a masonry building, you might be better off with a dehumidifier for the room.  For the winter, it's best to keep the piano room a little on the cool side to avoid too much dryness.  A humidifier for the room is also helpful.

The humidity-control systems made for installation in pianos need constant maintenance, and do too little.  They won't hurt your piano, but they don't really live up to their billing.  They are useful for pianos in large settings, however, like churches and halls, where room-sized treatments are ineffective.  The combination of dehumidifier rods and a humidistat can be useful for minimizing the problems of tuning instability, sluggishness, and mildew in the summer.

How do I clean the keys? ►

Use a damp cloth, and if you need soap, use dish soap or hand soap.  Wipe the soapy residue off, and dry with a soft cloth.  Try not to get water dripping down between the keys.  This will work on any keytop material, ivory or plastic.

How do I make my piano look nicer? ►

On a contemporary piano with a polyester finish, just wipe the dust off with a soft cloth, and don't overdo it or you'll scratch the finish.  Treat the cloth with Endust if needed.  Do not use a furniture polish.  Use window cleaner or a gentle spray cleaner to get off the fingerprints.  There are special polishes and scratch removers available for these finishes.

For an older piano with varnish or lacquer, try dusting with a cloth treated with Endust.  Use a damp cloth for removing grime, and if you need soap, use a little Murphy's Oil Soap dissolved in water.  Polish the piano with lemon oil on a cloth, then wipe the excess and buff with a dry cloth.  There are stained oils available, called scratch covers or removers, which work wonders.

There's not much you can do to fix any of the following short of refinishing: alligatoring, bleaching from the sun, or water damage.  Please do not try to refinish a piano as a project unless you already have a lot of experience refinishing furniture.

On a grand piano, how do I clean the dust under the strings? ►

As you've probably figured out, the vacuum cleaner won't do it.  A cloth is slid under the bass strings from the hinged side of the piano, then maneuvered using a long, thin, flexible steel strap.  This is something I can do during a tuning visit, but I can also give you one of these straps.

By the way, you can vacuum or wipe the cast-iron plate and strings without causing trouble.  A little brush will help you get into tight spots.  The damper heads (with the little felts that sit on the strings) can be wiped also, but wipe in the direction of the strings, not across.
Help!  I've just been told that my piano:
→  is untunable,
→  is not worth repairing,
→  should be replaced,
→  needs a lot of expensive work.  What do I do? ►

Get a second opinion, and even a third!  Try to find a technician who understands the limits of both your artistic needs and your financial resources.  If your artistic demands are high, your piano might be inappropriate for you.  If your artistic needs are modest, there is a lot of room for "nursing" the piano along, as long as you don't expect the work to last forever.  There are compromises involved, and differing opinions, and what you need is someone who can help you navigate the possibilities.

How old is my piano? ►

Your piano has a serial number located somewhere inside, usually 5 to 7 digits long.  On an upright, open the lid and look in.  The number is usually on the brass-colored cast iron just above where the tuning pins and strings are.  On a grand, remove the music desk or slide it one way or another, and look below for the number on the brass-colored cast iron where the tuning pins are.

You might have to be creative searching for the number, but once you get it, you then have to look up a published list of serial numbers and dates for your brand of piano.  You might find this list on-line, or in the Pierce Atlas at your local library.  Or just email me.

What is my piano worth? ►

To answer this question, you need to know the brand name of your piano, its age, and its height (if an upright) or length (if a grand).  Then look at used-piano advertising and see what similar pianos sell for.  Appearance counts, as does playability and sound quality.

Pianos, even Steinways, do not become more valuable with age.  The used-piano market works a lot like the used-car market.  For a fee, I can inspect and appraise your piano, but I still can't guarantee what you'd get if you tried to sell it.

How do I buy or sell a piano? ►

To sell: place an ad somewhere.  Try the local newspaper, or the newsletter for an organization you are part of, or the want-ad periodicals you can find in the convenience store.  Also try on-line, like Craig's List.  Don't run your ad forever - if you get no response, it's because no one is looking.  Pull the ad and try again a couple of weeks later.  You can try selling your piano to piano dealers, either outright or on consignment, but you won't get much money.  This approach works only if your piano is either valuable or like-new.

To buy: tell everyone you know that you are looking, and of course check local and on-line advertising.  But your best bet is to go to a piano dealer.  The dealer's technician will have gone over the pianos, made repairs and replacements, and tuned them.  There usually is a warranty of some sort.  The dealer will provide moving, and sometimes a free tuning in the home.  Ask your local technician about dealers.  Most technicians will get a small commission on a sale, so they are usually happy to help you.

How many strings are in a piano? ►

It varies, but there are around 230 strings.  About two-thirds of the 88 notes have 3 strings apiece; the bass notes have 2 strings each except for the lowest, which have one string.

How does a piano work? ►

When you press a key, it propels a hammer, which strikes a string, causing it to vibrate.  The string causes the soundboard to vibrate, which radiates the sound into the air.

How do you feel about digital pianos? ►

Digital pianos are wonderful instruments.  They don't need tuning, they're portable, some are inexpensive, there are different voices to use, the keyboard is MIDI enabled, and you can plug right into an amp or PA system.  A decent digital is better to learn on than a cheap, malfunctioning piano.  But digitals are not real pianos.  They sound piano-like at best (some sound terrible, actually, especially when amplified), only the more expensive ones have a hammer-action keyboard (which resembles the feel of a piano keyboard, but without the effect on the sound), the tuning is often pretty awful and can't be improved, and because the tone is unchanging, there is no tone to control.  Very little about a digital is adjustable or even repairable.

A digital piano has its place and its uses, and one of them can be to introduce newcomers to piano playing.  In time, however, the player will need to learn how to control a real piano, and if the need for a digital is still there, will probably have to upgrade the digital as well.

William H Calhoun · Piano Technician