Piano Pitfalls #3 – Strings

by Richard Smith

At the turn of the 20th century, most over-damper pianos were “straight strung”. This means that all strings, both bass and treble were stretched vertically. The quality of tone in the bass strings was very thin. Length of string, in the bass notes particularly, plays a major part in the quality of tone. You would never see a 4’6″ concert grand piano for instance, more likely a 9’. In order to improve the quality of tone, the bass strings were ‘‘overstrung”. This necessitated the bass strings being stretched diagonally over the ordinary steel treble strings to increase the length of the string, keeping the height of the piano respectable. In the modern pianos, this diagonal bass string design enriches the tonal quality of the bass section and retains a reasonable height.

In older pianos, strings could start snapping. Fatigue is generally the cause of this, (although snapping strings can be found even in the most modern piano, albeit rare). To a tuner, replacing strings can become a real problem, and although not so hard to replace, each section of the piano has strings of different gauge and length. Each replaced new string stretches. This stretching obligates the tuner to make a second, sometimes even a third trip to your house to re-tune the offending string.

Bass strings are not as easy to replace. As the length of a string increases, so must its thickness As a result, copper winding round a steel centre gives bass notes their tone quality. These strings then, have to tailor made to suit your instrument, and several weeks may occur before your bass strings are replaced. The renewed bass strings also stretch i.e. the more it stretches, the flatter in pitch it becomes. Again this is a nuisance to the tuner. The point of this section on strings, is to make you aware of fatigued strings and the problems they can cause to students.

In some rather well known American pianos, the bass strings, instead of copper or brass windings, have an iron winding. This is usually observed where the bass quality tones are dull, but it does not necessarily mean that you are looking at an inferior quality instrument. Replacing the bass strings would in most cases, make the world of difference to that piano.


Over many years of continual tuning and tension, the wrest plank becomes worn.

What is a wrest plank? It is found behind the iron frame at the top. The tuning pins can be seen going through the special holes in the frame into this wrest plank, It consists of very tough plywood approximately 2″ thick and cannot be seen. However, if the piano has several very discordant notes, suspicion is aroused for the piano tuner. Sometimes an over sized tuning pin might solve the problem, otherwise the plank could be split, and only replacement could be the solution.

The problem to the piano tuner is that he cannot hold the piano in tune. Also, finding a replacement plank to suit that particular piano is well nigh impossible. The tuner should refuse to attempt to tune that piano. More money wasted?

Many years ago, the Beale company invented a steel tuning system. This was an Australian company. Although more difficult to tune, it held its tuning much longer, making it ideal for our country. The problem about this tuning system was an inferior tone quality. However, this fine brand of instrument had a lot going for it. Many are around today. What a tragedy the Australian piano industry has ceased to exist. The Beale piano did not have a wooden ply wrest plank. The tuning pins (flared at the end), were inserted from the rear of the frame and secured with a metal thread screw in the frame. Most ingenious.

If, when first inspecting your pre 1939 instrument, with purchase in mind, several of the notes sound very badly out of tune compared to the general sounds, have an inspection. Fifteen or so dollars could save you several hundred.


Mr Richard Smith was a highly respected teacher of keyboards in the City of Wollongong NSW.