When buying a used instrument from a private home it is not uncommon to be greeted with “it was Grannies, hasn’t been played for thirty years and it’s in beautiful order!!!”
Question: When was it last tuned and by whom?
Any instrument without regular attention is an attractive place for vermin. The most common are:
- Mice: The most destructive in my opinion. These little rodents make their home under the keys near the balance rail, using all the felt tapes in the piano for their nests. The stench they create sends every piano tuner running for cover. Acidity on the strings and balance rail pins has to be seen to be believed. Many keys may be gnawed almost in half by this pest. Damage can be enormous and repair costs very high.
- Moth: The little white moth known as the cabbage moth, must rank as number two. This pest lays its eggs in the lint and felt in dark places, and beneath the keys and in the action are ideal spots.
All felt disintegrates as the eggs expand, and damage can be considerable. The first noticeable signs are small clicks as certain notes are released. To the tuner, this means that the cushions are in need of attention, in all probability caused by moths. By this time, they (moths) have had a feast, requiring new felt everywhere.
To overcome this problem, regular cleaning beneath the keys should be sought. If you look after your instrument anyhow, ask your tuner to clean it for you. You may have to get your vacuum cleaner out and pay the tuner a cleaning fee, the savings in repairs will mean much more.
After cleaning, a little moth repellent dropped down each side of the piano every three months will help. Do not drop anything into the middle of the piano as it could wedge between notes creating sticking keys, or use sprays inside your piano. At one time, old pipes were placed in the bottom of the piano. Whether successful at keeping the moth at bay was questionable, but the stench of some of the pipes certainly kept the piano tuner at bay. Leave that to the experts.
- Borers: Where do you look for this pest? The first noticeable indication is small piles of wood dust beneath the piano. However, the most prevalent places to find them are under the key bed, i.e. above where the pianists knees are (you will need a torch), the trusses (legs) in the sides, and in the posts behind the piano, if necessary taking off the wire gauze. Small holes in the timber indicate borers. Once in the piano, the only sure treatment is fumigation, however claims are made that injecting anti-borer fluid into each hole is successful. A painstaking process.
A modern problem. All manufactured pianos are designed for humidity. All pianos have a certain sap content in the timbers.
Some powerful air conditioning is operating during the afternoon and evening and switched off in the early hours. This results in a drying process when on and humidity returning when off. In such an environment tuning stability may be a problem. Often string failure is a nuisance. Home air conditioning is not as severe and usually pianos can cope better. Be careful of excessive heat around that piano.
A fault most frustrating for a student or player is to play a note forte or piano and have no sound. This could happen anywhere, however, if the environment is damp or the piano is in a draught, the chances of sticking notes are multiplied. Should this happen, please take the name of the offending notes, for your piano tuner. Often sticking notes can be like a toothache, disappearing when treatment has been arranged. The problem is then called a intermittent problem. However, if the offending notes are known, your tuner can soon rectify the problem.
Up to now, only pitfalls have been written about. This should make the reader very cautious in the selection of that used piano. However, let us imagine one is confronted (when answering an advertisement) with a three Crown Ronisch, Bechstein or Steinway, built in the 1920/1930 period for example. Providing it has been looked after, what a buy! Select a reputable piano man to inspect and if need be – repair, regulate, voice and maintain it, and you will have a joy. There are many fine American, British and German pianos around and of course Australian Beales, and many post war instruments. Belling, Victor, Mignon, Symphony, Knight, Beale etc. all post 1945 Australian made pianos, with perhaps years of service still in them. Collard and Collard, Steinway, Broadwood, Bosendorfer, Bluthner and many other fine imported pianos and others not very well known pianos are still around. Although an old firm originating in keyboard instruments and not very well known in Australia prior to 1945, the Yamaha piano from Japan, with its superb piano bond and first rate quality control has made a big impact on the world market since 1945. The quality control and treatment of timbers of these instruments has even surpassed many of the better known overseas pianos and they are becoming more popular. Japanese pianos are being built for Australian conditions. In new pianos, look for evenness and quality of tone, touch, durability, appearance, and tuning stability, not necessarily in that order.
Fully reconditioned pianos are rare these days. There are some firms and some piano tuners who do a first job in reconditioning, but not many. Suitable pianos for reconditioning are hard to find. The cost difference between a fully reconditioned piano and a new piano is really very little.
First published in Keyboard World magazine, January 1981.