One of my customers had an older grand piano and asked about cleaning under the strings. I always carry one of my little cleaning tools for demonstration, so, as she watched I poked it down in between the strings and made a swipe across the soundboard and over the decal. I lifted it up to show her what I had picked up and she was totally shocked. Hanging from the tool was this large clump of dust. She put her hand to her opened mouth, "Oh My" she said "that's awful". Then we both noticed that the decal was visible where I had swiped. "I can see the decal now" she said. "It's a good thing we dust the other furniture eh?" I said as we both had a chuckle.
Cleaning a piano is pretty much like cleaning other items in the house. The exterior of a piano is similar to any other piece of furniture. The finishes on pianos usually fall into three categories;
Shellac (older finishes)
Polyurethane is another common finish for furniture but not common for pianos. Other parts on the piano are made of metal and plastic and require their own method of cleaning. Of course most anything can be wiped free of dust with a damp rag (not wet). Let's take each part and make suggestions for cleaning and maintenance. Regular piano cleaning for the most part is easy and well worth the effort. So, get out your vacuum and read on.
The case or wood exterior of a piano is normally stained and finished clear or painted a certain color. Most anything that is painted or has a hard clear finish can be cleaned with a clean, soft, damp (not wet) cloth such as a new diaper or other soft cotton material. A good feather duster can be used to remove heavier dust before the damp rag is used. Polyester finish is a little different. Many late model pianos have polyester finishes. Polyester is quite shiny and very hard and durable. It's actually fiberglass without the glass fiber. It can take harder hits and bumps than a lacquer finish. One drawback; if it's hit really hard, it breaks apart. Broken polyester is difficult to repair. Another drawback relates to cleaning. Polyester is susceptible to tiny scratches. If there is dust on the piano and you draw a dry cloth across it, there will be tiny scratches left behind. Using a damp rag helps to alleviate this. If there is a lot of dust on polyester it is best to spray a liquid such as water, a light vinegar solution or even windex on the surface before wiping. The liquid will act as a lubricant to help reduce scratches. There are plastic cleaners that are made for this very purpose. See our Store for more information. The more often you dust a polyester piano the less it will develop those tiny scratches. Lacquer is much less susceptible to scratches and easier to repair if damaged.
The metal parts such as the foot pedals, leg decoration, hinges and other hardware are normally made of brass or chromed metal. Because brass will tarnish, sometimes the manufacturer will spray a finish over the part to protect it. If there is a finish over the brass all that can be done is to wipe it clean with a damp rag. If the brass is bare then you will need to use a brass cleaner. Be careful, brass cleaners are caustic and can ruin the pianos finish as well as your flooring and hands. Follow the directions on the brass cleaning container and take precautions to protect yourself and things around the part your cleaning. If the metal is chromed then use a chrome polish and follow the above precautions.
The white keys are made of plastic or Ivory. The sharp(black) keys are made of ebony or plastic. For regular cleaning use a damp (not wet) rag. For serious cleaning buy a plastic cleaner or use a rag dampened with a light soap solution then rinse with a clean damp rag. For stubborn dirt or glue residue try a clean rag dampened with rubbing alcohol. Be careful with alcohol on the sharps. Many sharps, even though they are made with ebony wood which can be varied in color from black to tan have been painted black. Alcohol might destroy the black paint on the sharps. It's best to use the alcohol on the white keys only.
If the keys are in really bad shape you have two options. One, have them replaced with new plastic keys. Or two, have a technician sand and buff them. If your looking for an ivory look there are plastics that imitate ivory but it will cost you. There is also reclaimed or old ivory stock but that will be over $1,000.00 maybe more.
For some reason cats like to be around pianos. Who knows the reason why. Several customers speak of their cats liking to curl up in the bass string area. The problem with cats in the piano is twofold. First, their little paws touch the bare copper strings and pretty soon you have paw shaped corrosion spots on the strings. Second, they leave things behind that are hard to clean up; hair and other things that come out of their mouths, The worst case scenario would be a cat deciding to store the mouse they caught and killed somewhere inside your piano. What is that smell?
The kittens on the keys in the photo above probably won't do much harm unless they start scratching or chewing something. If they start to crawl inside the string area the risk of damage is greater.
I certify that the information on this page is true to the best of my knowledge. It is based on my experience and does not obligate me in any way.
The tricky part of cleaning a grand piano is the inside under the lid. This part of a piano is called the belly. It includes the tuning pin area, strings, soundboard, bridges, dampers, and plate (big metal thing), As you look inside this area it becomes obvious that it would be a challenge to clean the soundboard area that is underneath the strings. The solution to this; specialized tools, see our Store. Complications arise if this has been neglected. After several years of dust and soundboard residing together they become fond of one another and form an attachment (literally) and become almost one. As you clean off the top dust it becomes clear that the soundboard will never again look like new. To illustrate; imagine not dusting your coffee table for 30 years, maybe just covering it occasionally. That sounds absurd! This is the case with piano bellies. People are afraid to go where no man has gone before...into the bowels of the piano. They dust off the plate but are nervous about touching the other parts. See Be Careful below. Our store carries the video "Cleaning Your Piano". This will describe in detail the procedure along with what tools to use. The video will be sold separately or bundled with tools if you like.
Vertical Piano / Inside?
The upright piano is much easier to maintain. The case is closed and the inside is out of view. Although it gets dirty inside, most people don't care because it is never seen. Like a cabinet you never enter, things can happen in there that you will never be aware of. See Piano Stories. Most cleaning for an upright will be the exterior of the case and the keys. The inside can be cleaned occasionally with a vacuum cleaner or compressed air. See Be Careful below.
There are things that could be damaged as you clean a piano. Other than the items mentioned in the left column, when cleaning the moving parts of a piano it is wise to use gentleness. Our video "Cleaning Your Piano" goes into detail on the things to avoid and the ways that certain parts can be safely cleaned. It's really not difficult at all. You just need to be aware of a few things. It's better to clean a piano on some type of regular schedule than wait several years to dig in.
Insects and rodents like to reside in pianos. There is a virus called Hanta that people contract from rodent dropping dust. Even though the virus apparently isn't carried by rodents that frequent pianos, it would be wise to be very careful if there are any signs of rodent life such as chewed wooden and rubber parts or nesting material like torn up paper and plastic.
Always wear a good dust mask when cleaning a piano. It's better to be safe than sorry! Insect carcasses and dropping dust are not good to inhale either. Please be careful.
I once read an experience of a technician that was working inside a piano and scratched his arm on the wooden keybed. He thought nothing of the small scratch until it started to turn red and swell. apparently the wood contained some dangerous bacteria that infected his arm. Be careful around old pianos! These types of occurrence may be rare but they do happen and you won't want to be the one it happens to.
A piano could be built with many different kinds of wood. Actually you could use 2x4's from the local lumber yard and make a piano that would work quite well.
Over the years piano manufacturers have experimented with various kinds of wood for all the different parts of a piano. Since a piano is a stringed instrument *, the same wood that is used for guitars, violins etc. is used for the sounding board of pianos namely; spruce. The soundboard is the most important part of the piano and spruce is the wood of choice and has been from the start. The other parts are not as critical to the sound of the piano and thus the choice of wood is based more on stability, strength and weight. Listed below are the different parts of the piano and the materials most often used.
* The piano is technically a percussion instrument because it has hammers that strike the strings. Think of a piano as a giant dulcimer.
Pianos like the one in the photo above are beautiful pieces of furniture due in part to the choice of wood, and also to the craftsmanship of the wooden parts. Steinway has always chosen to use exotic veneers for their choice pianos. With the rainforests becoming endangered, many of the exotic woods that have been used for musical instruments are becoming rather scarce and expensive. It's interesting that despite the great beauty of some woods used to cover the exterior of pianos, black is the most common choice for a piano case. Perhaps Mr Ford had something going with the "black Model T" and we failed to see it. I know I have a black car and will never buy black again. Black shows dirt and dust like nothing else as all you black piano owners know. Despite the dust issue, black has a certain class. In fact what color piano adorns the stage for most of the piano concerts in this world? That's right.....BLACK.
What are we going to do about the bad piano tuners? Is there some sort of organization that regulates their activity. Can they be disbarred or can their license be taken away. How can I know if the person I am hiring to tune my piano knows what they are doing? Yes these are all valid questions. The answers are not always comforting.
For starters, if we live in the USA then we must accept the facts of a free market economy. This means any Tom, Dick, Harry or Sally the piano tuner can hang a shingle out to advertise their piano tuning business. Wherever they live, there are usually local requirements to operate a business. This usually involves obtaining a business license at the least and possibly a sales tax certificate to collect sales tax. Beyond those and maybe some other governmental fulfillment's, a piano tuner is out there for all of you to hire. Whether they know how to tune a piano to your satisfaction or not...well, the government really doesn't care for the most part. The skill level is really up to the tuners themselves. You may say; If bad piano tuners were doctors or lawyers, they would not be allowed to practice anymore.
But really, the treatment of our pianos is not the same as the treatment of our bodies or what to do with murderers or thieves. It's true the rare piano tuner may actually be bordering on thievery, but a report to the Better Business Bureau or even the police of fraudulent service activity could be in order. If any business person is conducting business that violates local, state or federal laws then they are accountable to the court of justice.
Bad piano tuners make it hard for the others. Just like all other professions in this world, it's sometimes hard to find someone that is "really" good at what they do. Most piano tuners do a fairly decent job. Some excel and are placed before Kings (professional performers) while others tune for schools, in homes, restaurants, clubs, for piano manufacturers or stores all their lives, helping families and all kinds of people to enjoy music. Find a good tuner and you have found a good thing. Be loyal to them. They will treat you well. I hope.
Try the Piano Technicians Guild. Those tuners go through some pretty tough testing to be able to become a Registered Piano Technician (RPT). See our "Links" page
Talk to other piano owners and ask if they have a tuner they are happy with.
Looking for the logos to the left with the technicians name next to it will assure that you have found someone with "some" proven competency. Happy hunting!
It's a fact. The piano is a machine. You don't have to fill it with gas or plug it in to make it go, never- the- less it is a machine of sorts. (see diagram to right)
Some Parts of the Piano Machine:
As these parts work together here is what they do:
Hit each other
Move against each other
Press against each other
Go up and down
Compress and decompress
Catch one another
If we apply the above interactions to people, what happens?.......they can break, right?
This interaction must be done as quiet as possible and there are basically three substances used to accomplish this:
Felt (sheep hair)
Rubber (used very little)
Sometimes synthetics that try to imitate the above
Because of stress and age here is what happens:
Felt and leather dry out and get stiff.
Spring wire gets brittle and can break
Wood dries and cell structure can fail.
Glue joints dry and fail
Rubber dries and gets brittle.
Felt and leather compress and wear.
Felt, leather and wood can form mildew and deteriorate.
Bugs and mice chew felt, leather and wood.
There is also abuse from people.
To add even more in the way of torture, some pianos were not made well in the first place and have never really functioned as they should.
Imagine buying a car and never having it serviced. This is the situation for many a piano. Even if a piano is adjusted regularly and lubricated properly it will still wear and need repair somewhere down the road. Eventually parts will need to be replaced or reconditioned.
Parts can break on newer pianos too. Manufacturers all have their strong and weak areas. For more information on this subject check out our Links page for "The Piano Book " by Larry Fine.
If you find a broken piano or your technician condemns your piano, think about how you might use some of the parts for something else. Old ivory piano key tops are good material for guitar or mandolin picks. The sharp keys are usually made of ebony wood. Ebony is a very hard and durable wood. I would imagine all those parts could be used for a modern sculpture. If you remove the inside parts of a piano you are left with something that resembles a desk....hmmm. Take the insides out and put your electronic keyboard where the old keys were and presto! A piano you will never have to tune.
To ensure that your piano will keep working at it's best, have your piano serviced at factory recommended intervals. In most cases this will be once or twice a year. The service should include:
Pitch raise & tuning
Parts alignment check
Trapwork (pedals) adjustment
Check for proper parts function
Humidity level check
Signs of corrosion and mildew
Check for parts wear
Sound quality discussion
Check for excess noise
Concerns of owner
If your piano is new have some extra work done within the first year to ensure proper alignment of parts, regulation adjustments, and lubrication. Be prepared to pay for this. It will be worth the extra payment to avoid future problems. In most cases the work will be minimal but necessary. Even the smallest misalignment can cause problems down the line.
If your piano is older, here is what should be done to restore good mechanics
Have technician tune the piano and check for tuning stability. If tuning stability is ensured, do the following items.
Repair all broken parts
Align all parts
Lubricate all parts
Adjust & lubricate pedals & trapwork
Seat strings on the bridge
The cost of this work may seem quite high, however, keep in mind that neglect may have caused the needed repairs. Proper maintenance is always the best course to follow. If the piano has had a lot of use this will also contribute to the work needed. If the piano is old but has not seen much use, the work needed will be far less and the cost will be lower. Usually you can tell how much wear a piano has by seeing how deep the grooves are in the hammers.
Very used and old pianos may need reconditioning. See the article "What is Reconditioning."
The beauty and feel of real ivory is for the most part unmatched for piano keys. Different plastics have been used over the years and do a good job, however the look of ivory is hard to duplicate.
Aids To Determine Keytop Material
Use your eyes.
Add a magnifying device if needed.
Have a good light source. Window light will work good if it hits the keys well.
Either move the light or your eyes around to try to determine the following points.
Keytop seam - will be visible at a point where the sharp fronts meet the corners of the white keys.
Grain pattern - ivory has a wood grain-like pattern. In many older keytops the ivory has yellowed and the grain is obvious. If the ivory is still fairly white, you may have to move either the light source or your eyes to determine if there is a grain pattern.
If there is no seam as described above, the keys are not ivory. All ivory keytops where glued to the keys in two parts. (Note: on rare occasions piano were made with one-piece ivory keytops. In this case identification would be made by the grain pattern.)
Some plastic keytops where made to try and duplicate the look of ivory. These will have some sort of variation or pattern but will normally not have the seam.
Use the photographs to the right for comparison.
Ivory is now illegal for piano manufacturing. All new pianos use some sort of plastic as keytop material. Some manufacturers will occasionally use a plastic material with a variation or pattern to simulate ivory. In rare cases bone might used. Bone is a good substitute for ivory but not cost effective like plastic is for mass production. Bone will also have a grain pattern like ivory.
If you are rebuilding your piano you have several choices for key top material.
Plastic in white or off-white
Plastic with variation to simulate ivory
Reclaimed ivory (very costly)
Bone (costly too)
Any material of your choice (be creative but realize the effect on resale)
Notice the seams and grain patterns in the above photographs showing these are ivory keytops.
These keytops are plastic. The light reflection helps in seeing there are no seams or grain patterns, however, you might find plastic keytops with patterns imitating ivory.
Which wall applies to a vertical or upright piano. A grand piano of course does not go directly against the wall but on the floor and perhaps near a wall.
The easy answer would be near or against an interior wall. Or, more accurately, NOT against an outside wall. Why? The outside walls of a building is where humidity if any will be coming in the building.
Climate And Construction
There are two factors that affect the problems associated with pianos near or against outside walls.
Climate - When the temperature outside is drastically different than the interior, the chances of moisture collecting on exterior walls is increased. Just like a container filled with cold liquid in a warmer environment will start to form condensation on it's side, a cold wall in a warm room will do the same.
Construction - If the wall lacks insulation the problem worsens for two reasons. 1) the inside wall will get colder and 2) outside humidity will migrate in.
This problem is worse in colder climates. Warmer climates pose a different set of problems.
Hot And Humid Climate
If the outside is hot and humid this will cause a different set of problems in regard to humidity yet similar. If air-conditioning is on, this will cause pressure to increase in the building stopping outside air from coming in. This will help to keep humidity and pollutants out. If air-conditioning is not used, then the outside humidity will have a greater chance of entering the building. If windows are opened you in effect are putting your piano into the outside environment.
Be careful with a piano near the window too. Open windows could lead to moisture transference to the strings and parts.
A/C And Pianos
Air-conditioning protects your piano from corrosion and mold. Use it when possible.
Leaving the air-conditioning fan on all the time while the compressor cycles on and off is not a good idea. Why? When the compressor is off and just the fan is running, it will take the moisture that has collected on the coils and transfer it into the building. This transfer does not occur while the compressor is cooling the air because the system is actually removing moisture from the air. However, in very dry environments this could be a benefit if the humidity level is monitored. Swamp coolers use the same science.
If your piano has not been tuned in years it's not the end of the world for it. In most cases it can be tuned (not without plenty of elbow grease.) The consequences of this neglect though are listed below.
Results From Years of Neglect
Tuning instability (goes out of tune sooner)
Corrosion on wire With regular service this could be caught and prevented.
Mold and Verdigris(gunk) forming on action. (regular service could catch this development too.)
Distortion in sound. In rare cases major tuning work can bring bends into the speaking length of the string causing distortion in the sound. Restringing is the only solution in this case.
Over drying of Parts. If a humidity heater rod was installed without a controller, the wood and glue can dry out and fail. (regular care can catch this incorrect installation)
Did you notice that a lot of the problems could be caught before damage is done. It's like catching the cancer before it kills you. A qualified technician is the key to success. He or she will know what is best for your piano.
What Should I Do If It Has Been Years
Hire a good tuner and have him tune your piano. Then have him come and tune it again within six months for added stability. You won't regret it. In rare cases it may not be tunable. Damage to strings or the tuning pin system can render a piano useless unless major repair work is done.
What To Expect On "it has been years" TuningVisit
Happiness In most cases your piano will sound 100% better and you will have fun playing again.
Parts could break Years of neglect mean missed repairs, lubrication and adjustment.
Tuning instability The wire wants to go back to where it was....out of tune. And soon too.
Piano condemnation The technician may condemn your piano as untunable and junk or useless until major repairs are made.
Strings could break while tuning Replacement is recommended but optional.
Some tuners will offer to make the middle keys usable for a new student in order to save you the expense of a new or newer piano purchase.
Some Neglected Pianos Are Junk
Some pianos are not worth tuning or fixing. Get guidance.
New Piano Care
If you have purchased a new piano you have no doubt spent a considerable amount of money. Have your piano serviced at least once a year. Even if it sounds good to you or others it needs care to remain in good condition. If you give it regular care it can last your lifetime and the generations after you as well.
The cost of regular care is less than repairs that will need to be made from neglect.
Climate control systems will prevent damage to your piano