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Setting Out to Restore Your Piano

By November 8, 2017Piano Restoration
Steinway M Grand Piano

Steinway M Grand Piano Before restoration.

A piano is a fine musical instrument that can easily last a lifetime and beyond with the proper care.

Regular servicing and tuning by a qualified technician is required to fully enjoy your piano, and extend its life to the fullest.

In real life, pianos tend to receive far less than the care and maintenance they need over the years. And, because pianos are constructed of great amounts of wood, felt, and leather, wear is inevitable as all of these materials change along with the climactic conditions.

Swelling and contracting of these materials during swings from hot to cold weather can affect the piano’s tuning, touch, and response.

After 80 or 100 years of piano wear, we receive many inquiries about “restoring” the piano.

Five Major Restoration Areas

In our experience, we break down the large task of piano restoration into five major areas.

Of course, there are many sub-areas, as well as additional steps and tasks within each of these areas that we have omitted in this article in favor of the most common scenarios based on our experience in the past.

  1. Piano Action and Mechanical Parts
  2. Strings, Wire, Bridges, and Soundboard
  3. Dampers and Damper Lever System
  4. Keys and Keyboard
  5. Cabinet

Piano Action and Mechanical Parts

The Hammer Assembly is always replaced when we do a restoration. Why?

Yamaha C7 Grand Piano

New knuckles on shanks with new flanges

The first area is action and mechanicals. This includes the hammers, whippens, and all interconnected parts, as well as the back-checks. They key part in this category is the hammer, shank, and flange. We call this the Hammer Assembly, and it is always replaced when we do a restoration. Why? It takes the most abuse during play, thus the most wear. And, the hammer contributes greatly to the sound and tone of the piano.

Other parts such as the whippen can usually be adjusted or re-worked to function as intended. They can (and may) also be replaced depending on their overall condition. Cost can increase significantly when replacing a set of whippens, so we tend to lean towards working with the existing parts.

Back-checks are often overlooked, but they are absolutely essential for proper play-ability, and in particular good repetition. That’s right, repetition. It’s just one piece of the repetition puzzle, but it’s a big one. The back-checks must be in good enough condition to allow strong checking at the proper time. Usually 5/8-inch from the string, but it’s even better if you can get 1/2-inch. Worn back-checks tend to check low, and adjusting them is futile. They will either need to be recovered or replaced.

Strings, Wire, Bridges, and Soundboard

Cracking of the soundboard is a relatively common issue, and probably the area with the most stigma.

Kimball Baby Grand Piano

Bridge Pin Position

Next is the wire (strings), bridges, and soundboard. In all restorations, we recommend string/wire replacement. Steel and copper wires break down over time, and the result is a loss of elasticity that is essential for proper piano tone. We also take this a step further. We examine the bridges for signs of wear, specifically a shift in the position of the bridge pin. This is important because the bridge pin creates one termination point of the speaking length of the wire. When the bridge pin has shifted or changed position on the bridge, that termination point has changed.

Soundboards are evaluated on an individual basis. The most important element here is the presence of “crown”. The soundboard should slightly bow upwards so that there is sufficient pressure on the bridges and wires from below. If crown is not present, we can attempt to restore it, but in our experience, almost all pianos have some crown. Cracking of the soundboard is a relatively common issue, and probably the area with the most stigma.

Cracks occur in soundboards when they become very dry. They also crack when the sound vibrations cause them to flex. Usually it is the result of a combination of both. A cracked soundboard does not mean the piano is doomed. Hairline cracks, and even cracks pushing 1/8-inch can be left alone, if desired. They can also be repaired. Large cracks greater than 1/8 to 1/4-inch should be repaired, and if multiple cracks are present, replacing the entire soundboard is a consideration.

Dampers and Damper Lever System

Cracking of the soundboard is a relatively common issue, and probably the area with the most stigma.

The dampers, when working properly, prevent individual notes from sounding unless a key is depressed. Pressing a key lifts the damper for that key off the strings and allows the note to sound. When the key is released, the damper returns to rest on the string “dampening” the sound. The dampers that contact the string are made of high quality felts attached to large wooden heads in grand pianos or smaller wooden heads in uprights. In almost all cases, damper felts will need to be replaced during restoration.

The underlying system that operates the dampers is called the “back action” or the “under levers”. Essentially, it is a second action within the piano designed to engage and disengage the dampers on a per key basis. It can also engage/disengage all dampers when the right pedal (sustain) is used. The back action can usually be adjusted and re-worked to compensate for wear, thus replacement is not usually required-but in extreme cases it may be necessary. It may also be desirable to replace the back action if a higher-end, fine piano is being restored.

Keys and Keyboard

Repair or restoring an ivory keyboard is challenging mainly due to the lack of available ivory pieces.

Piano Keys Before & After

Piano Keys Before & After

The keys and keyboard include the wooden key levers which extend from the playing area back into the piano, as well as the supporting key frame and structures. The key levers are typically made of spruce – you can see the wood if you depress a key and then look at neighboring keys from the side. The portion of the lever visible to the player is covered with key top material – ivory or acrylic for natural keys and acrylic or wood sharps for the sharp keys. It is worth noting that pianos from the early 20th century are commonly found with their original ivory keys; however, ivory is quite fragile, and after a hundred years, it is almost always in need of replacement or significant repair.

Our approach in this situations is to recommend replacement with factory-grade acrylic material both for uniformity of appearance and durability. Repair or restoring an ivory keyboard is challenging mainly due to the lack of available ivory pieces. The sharps on vintage pianos are usually able to be cleaned up and refinished since they are also made of wood (like the levers themselves). If desired, the wood sharps can be replaced with acrylic or new wood. This takes care of appearances, but there are some mechanical areas that probably need to be addressed as well.

Piano Key Balance Rail

A piano key balance rail where the keys pivot. The balance rail pins show signs of oxidation and corrosion.

First is the balance rail. The balance rail is not visible to the player, and as its name suggests, acts as a pivot point for the key lever. The player presses the key lever and the front end depresses while the back end raises and engages with the other mechanical action parts in the piano. There are felt bushings inside each key at the pivot point which serve to keep the key steady from side to side movement. The front rail which is located directly under where the pianist plays is fitted with similar bushings. Both sets of bushings must be properly fitted to give the player proper feel at the keyboard.

Lastly, we ensure that all keys are level, and that all keys depress the same distance. This is accomplished by using felt under the key levers in the very rear, as well as small felt shims at the balance and front rails.

Cabinet and Hardware

Some people prefer the look of a vintage or weathered piano, while others appreciate the design of the cabinet, but would like it to return to its former glory.

The cabinet and hardware is the most subjective part of the restoration process. You could do nothing with it, or you could completely redo it. It’s largely a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer the look of a vintage or weathered piano, while others appreciate the design of the cabinet, but would like it to return to its former glory.

Most older pianos from circa 1900 – 1930 can be refinished in a straightforward fashion. We remove all existing finish and take the surfaces down to bare wood. Then we reapply multiple layers of finish during the process. There are 12 distinct applications of finish material when we are working with bare wood. The final applications are lacquer sprays which give our finishes lasting durability.

Pianos produced after 1930, and especially after World War II vary greatly in their existing finish. We have encountered consoles with thin veneer over particle board (which is almost impossible to refinish). We have also seen grand pianos with finishes that are difficult to determine their composition. These can be worked on, but need to be addressed on an individual basis.

Pianos are difficult to refinish when they have been “sprayed over” or “painted over” with consumer grade products. At this point, we have essentially two finishes to remove to get back to bare wood.

As for hardware, we do not normally replace the hinges, casters, screws, etc. unless they are badly damaged or beyond re-working. Our preference is to re-work these hardware pieces. Casters are sometime a necessary replacement due to their heavier use.

Bottom Line….

Lots to Consider...

New Strings Being Installed

New Strings Being Installed. Steel wire will stretch due to its elasticity.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to piano restoration.

Here at Reed Piano Services, we can help. Whether you are looking for a complete A to Z restoration or something more targeted, let us know or call us (682) 222-1092.