Piano Pitfalls #4 – Wear & Tear


by Richard Smith

The most beautiful feel to any pianist is the smooth, even and soft touch of an ivory keyboard. In Australia, we may have seen the last of ivory as a keyboard top, due to the customs law regarding imports of endangered species, ivory now prominent on the list. At present, ivory is only seen on new concert grand pianos. At one time, all piano key tops were ivory. It is easily recognisable, as it was originally glued into two section. As a piano ages, so does the white glue holding the ivories until the inevitable flick, when off it comes. When one ivory comes off, usually others follow in quick sequence. Before long you have a very discoloured keyboard, with perhaps some of the ivories lost. This does not mean the end of the piano’s life. Keyboard tops can be easily obtained, preferably replaced by your expert tuner. However, new sets will not be ivory, and will add much value to the appearance of your instrument. Ivory can be bleached and repolished, but this work must be left to the expert.

During the war years and immediately after, a composition keyboard top was used. However this composition keytop was of inferior quality, and perished like rubber as the fine cracks appeared in the key top, and sweat from the fingers filled the fine cracks. This usually caused the key tops to go black and have a dirty look. Key tops made from this material also chipped very easily, as seen on many pianos.

The condition of the keytops does not necessarily tell the condition of the instrument, although it is a fair indication.


Generally made of spruce, the sound board is found behind the iron frame. It is easily seen when the bottom door is taken out, or when viewed from the rear.

When a piano is new, the sound board has a crown in it. It is put together under pressure until the desired shape has been achieved. As the years progress, this crown tends to flatten in some pianos causing a deterioration of tone quality. You can compare a sound board with the roof of your mouth, or the belly of a violin, without which any amplification of sound would not exist.

Great care is taken in construction of this sound board to ensure it will not split. As time progresses however, splitting does occur in many pianos. This has the effect of a buzzing on certain notes on a warm dry day. “Most irritating for a pianist”.

Repairs can be made by a tuner, however there would be no guarantee of the buzz not returning some other time.

It is said that the early Steinway pianos, had had their soundboards exposed to snow, rain, heat and dry to ensure that all cracking and splitting could not occur again. Their soundboards timber was approximately one hundred years old when used.

Most times, splits in sound boards are visible when the bottom door is taken out.

If you are not sure, contact your reputable firm or reputable piano tuner for inspection.


Today’s pianos are very plain in design when compared with the more ornate of the early 1900’s.

One of the greatest indignities any piano can suffer, is a vase of flowers on top of it. Of course flowers must have water. Pianos must not. When inspecting your instrument, has the veneer on the top been damaged? If the veneer is rough and rippled, or even in some cases missing, it is pretty safe to say water has been spilt on the top. If the water is not mopped up immediately, the glue is damaged and the veneer lifts. It does not stop there, water runs through the hinges and onto the strings and action. Strings rust, the action, which consists of wood, felt, and glue is damaged.

The dampers after having been wet become hard. This is the end of their life, replacement the only solution. Having become hard, they vibrate on the strings with a very irritating buzz after the note is released.

In a number of older pianos, trusses (legs) have been replaced, top and bottom doors reversed, and the piano given a relatively modern look. Casework on a piano can be refashioned by any carpenter, joiner or polisher with great effect. Please do not be fooled. IT IS THE INSIDE THAT COUNTS.


First published in Keyboard World magazine, December 1980.

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