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When A Piano Cannot Be Tuned

By May 8, 2017Piano Tuning

Old PianoIt is generally taken for granted that any piano can be tuned—Even that old piano sitting in the corner that has gone untouched and unplayed for decades. Should just be a simple matter of calling up the piano tuner and making an appointment. Right? Not always.

As a piano technician I have come across pianos that are unable to be tuned as is. When I am asked to describe the how and the why this could be, the piano owner is usually surprised that considerable added expense would be required.

In our world, we pride ourselves on being able to work with and tune virtually any piano, but unfortunately, there are some that we cannot tune. I think I can count the number on one hand from the last 10 years. The biggest obstacles are: tuning pins and strings.

Tuning Pins

Once tuning pins become loose, it is nearly impossible to successfully tune the piano without taking additional action. One common fix to loose tuning pins is to "pound them in".

Over time, the piano’s tuning pins can become loose. Tuning pins must be seated in the pinblock so that the proper amount of torque is required to move the pin.

Piano circa 1910s with original tuning pins.

Piano circa 1910s with original tuning pins.

The time it takes for tuning pins to loosen is sometimes difficult to quantify. Under normal home conditions, it can literally take decades. It is the back and forth swing between hot and cold seasons year after year that can do the most damage. Usually the damage manifests as a dry, cracked pinblock. Cracks and dryness in the pinblock are difficult to see without taking apart the piano.

Once tuning pins become loose, it is nearly impossible to successfully tune the piano without taking additional action. One common fix to loose tuning pins is to “pound them in”. This refers to tapping them into the pinblock a bit more so that they “bite” into new wood. Sometimes only a tuning pin here and there needs to be pounded in, while other times larger numbers of pins need to be pounded. Usually the pin only needs to move a small amount (1mm) to make a difference.

Tuning pins can also become rusty, and this usually leads to problems with the wire coil on the pin which I will cover below. Rusty tuning pins are not a severe issue per se.

Strings

After decades of exposure to these elements, piano strings will begin to behave like a rubber band that has been stretched out for an extended period. That is, the amount of elasticity is lower and the steel is likely degraded from oxidation.

Complete Piano Restringing

The conclusion of a complete piano restringing job. Piano is an H.L. Phillips Full Sized Upright circa 1917.

The strings on a piano are made of steel wire in the tenor and treble sections, and of copper wound on steel in the bass section. In vintage pianos from the early 20th Century, many pianos used steel wound on steel wire in the bass section. One end of each string is coiled around a tuning pin while the other end wraps around a hitch pin at the opposite end of the piano.

Steel wire used in pianos is considered to be elastic in nature. When new wire is used to string a piano (at the factory, for instance), that wire performs optimally because it has not been subjected to any environmental factors. Over time, the strings in a piano are subject to various environmental factors: hot, cold, moisture, dust, etc.

After decades of exposure to these elements, piano strings will begin to behave like a rubber band that has been stretched out for an extended period. That is, the amount of elasticity is lower and the steel is likely degraded from oxidation.

The end result is a string that will likely break while being brought up to pitch.

What Can Be Done

If someone else tells you that your piano cannot be tuned, ask them why. And insist on specifics.

I would like to reiterate that we can work with almost any piano. There have been only a handful over the last 10 years that fall into the categories discussed here.

When pianos reach a certain age, and the tuning pins and strings have broken down to the point that tuning is not possible, restoration of the piano remains an option. Of course, just restringing is also an option, but if the piano is old enough to have issues with the strings, then other functional areas probably need attention as well. A full piano restoration would address everything.

If you are wondering about your unused piano and what its current condition is, please contact us and we can schedule an assessment. If someone else tells you that your piano cannot be tuned, ask them why. And insist on specifics.