What do overstrung and straight strung mean?

This is the type of stringing the piano has (usually applied to upright pianos—almost all grand pianos are overstrung). Overstrung pianos have their bass strings fitted diagonally from the top left of the piano (uprights) to the bottom right over the treble strings, which go from top right to bottom left. All modern pianos are overstrung apart from a very few small, short-compass examples.

What do I need to know about strings?

The sound of a piano is made by hammers hitting the strings. There are treble strings and bass strings. The treble strings produce the highest notes. These are found at the right hand end of the piano. They are made of steel, the highest (thinnest) being gauge 13 (0.775 mm), and the lowest (thickest) being gauge 22 (1.224 mm). They are together in threes, called trichords.

The bass strings produce the lowest notes. These are made of a steel core with copper wound onto it. When the strings are new they are very shiny, like polished brass, but they soon tarnish and become dull. When bass strings are very old, the tone becomes deader. Sometimes the copper windings become clogged with dirt and the string just goes “donk” when struck! There are over two hundred strings in most pianos.

Each string is under a tension of up to 100 kilos. This means that the combined tension can be twenty tons in a concert grand! This enormous force is kept in check by a very strong cast iron frame. Some old pianos have a wooden frame. This tends to move under the tension of the strings and the tuning is not stable in these.

The string tension is held up (and can be adjusted) by the tuning pins. The bottom end of the string goes over a hitch pin, and the top end of the string goes through a hole in the tuning pin and is wound around three or four times. The piano is tuned by adjusting the tension on each string. This is done by winding the tuning pin tighter or looser.

What is overdamping and underdamping?

The terms overdamped and underdamped apply to upright pianos only. Overdamping is where the dampers are above the hammers, near the top of the strings. This method of damping is not as effective as underdamping, and the notes on an overdamped piano often tend to ring on even when the key has been released.

Underdamping is where the dampers are below the level of the hammers. The dampers are near the middle of the strings and so the damping is quite effective. This arrangement usually gives a nice, clean note cutoff once the key is released.

What is a "birdcage" piano?

This is an overdamped piano where the dampers are controlled by long wires which are connected to the back of the wippens. Thus the action looks like a birdcage.

How does a piano work?

A piano makes its sound by having tuned strings which are struck by hammers. When a key is depressed, it activates a mechanism which throws the hammer at the appropriate string (or strings) and lifts the damper off to allow the string(s) to vibrate freely. The hammer strikes the string, bounces off and is caught by a checking device. The string(s) vibrate at a set pitch or frequency (different for each note).

The strings are stretched tightly across bridges which are mounted on the soundboard to which the vibration is transferred. The sound is amplified by means of the soundboard which is a large, flat piece of wood that effectively acts as a large loudspeaker. When the key is released, the hammer falls back to its normal resting place, and the damper is pressed back onto the string(s) to stop the vibration, thus ending the sound.

How much does a piano weigh?

The weight of a piano depends on the make and type of piano, but as a rough guide, you can reference the following:

• Baby Grand 4′ 10″ Approximately 240 Kilos
• Concert Grand 9′ Approximately 490 Kilos
• Small Upright 112 Cm Approximately 180 Kilos
• Large Upright 131 Cm Approximately 215 Kilos

What is concert pitch?

Concert pitch means merely that the A note above middle C is vibrating at exactly 440 times per second. Assuming that the piano is in tune with itself, the whole piano is at concert pitch.

Sometimes in older pianos, the frame will not take the strain of concert pitch (the higher the pitch, the more tension on the strings and frame). This means that it has to be tuned lower, flatter, or down, which is where, with the piano in tune with A above middle C, The A is vibrating at fewer than 440 times per second.

A common pitch for older pianos is one semitone down (A=415); this means that if you strike the
C key it will actually make the sound of B, and if you strike an F key it will make the sound of E, etc. With this tuning, you cannot use the piano to accompany other instruments unless you transpose all the piano music back up a semitone (which is a feat done only by rare musicians).

It also plays havoc with people who have perfect pitch, as their hands tell them one thing but their ears tell them another!

What should I know about grand pianos?

Grand pianos come in many different makes, types, and sizes. Grand pianos are considered to be better than upright pianos for two reasons. First, the bass strings are longer than in an upright piano: the tone of a piano depends mainly on the length of string, the longer the better. Second, the roller action found in modern grands gives a much better playing response than the best upright pianos’ vertical action. Concert grand pianos are over nine feet long. The sound they produce is very powerful. Some models even have an extra eight keys in the bass so they have ninety-six notes altogether (compared to the usual eighty-eight or eighty-five.)

Baby grands go down to four feet in length, but in our experience, these pianos are not a patch on a good upright. You can hear the difference in bass tone between a baby grand and a good upright in an auditorium.

What size is a baby grand, boudoir grand, etc.?

These terms are not really in use any more. Grands are now simply classified by size.

However, a rough equivalent is:
• 5’8″ or Smaller, Baby Grand
• 5’10” Boudoir Grand
• 6′ (183 cm) Professional Grand
• 6’4″ (193 cm) Drawing room Grand
• 6’8″ – 6’10” (203 – 208 cm) Parlor, Artist, Salon, or Music Room Grand
• 7’4″ (224 cm) Half-Concert or Semi-Concert Grand
• 8’11” (272 cm) and Larger, Concert or Orchestral Concert Grand

Credit to Arthur A. Reblitz’s book Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding for this list.

How much is my piano worth?

The value of a piano depends very much on the make of piano, the type of piano, its age, general condition, and so on.

How often should my piano be tuned?

This is a matter of personal taste. There are two extremes. Some people never have their pianos tuned, believing themselves to be tone deaf (which is a myth). Pianos used for concerts are usually tuned before each concert, and often during the interval as well. Most domestic pianos require tuning every six months. This is not because they suddenly go out of tune at the six month mark, but because they are gradually going out of tune all the time, and six months is about the point at which most people notice they sound “off”.

What is regulation?

Regulation or action regulation is essential to having a well-responding piano. It is the setting up of each part of a piano’s action so that it does exactly what it should. This involves levelling the keys, fixing any broken action parts, and setting up each action part to its correct position / travel, etc. A regulated piano has a uniformly graduated touch response and tone throughout its compass.

What causes sticky notes?

A sticky note is one in which the note does not respond quite as it should; that is, the note can be played only once. There are many causes of sticky notes. Common symptoms, causes, and cures (in upright pianos) include:

• The key itself is physically stuck down
• The front of the key is fouling on the slip rail
• Slip rails is warped—shave some off or reposition it
• The front bushings are binding on the key pin
• The key pin is rusty—clean or replace
• The bushings need lubricating and / or easing
• The key is free but the action has not returned
• The note is played and the key returns but when struck again the note does not sound
• The hammer has not returned
• The tape has broken—replace
• The hammer flange is stiff—lubricate or repin
• The butt spring is broken—replace combination of the above
• The jack has not returned under the hammer butt
• The jack (spiral spring) is broken—replace
• The jack flange is stiff—lubricate / repin
• The key capstan is adjusted too high—adjust down
• The wippen has not returned to its correct position
• The wippen flange requires lubrication / repinning
• The front of the wippen is fouling (the frame sometimes)—shave some off
• The damper spoon is corroded / caught against back of damper bottom (underdamper only—replace damper box cloth and or clean / replace spoon

If in doubt, call us for a consultation.

How should I clean my piano?

Piano caseworks are finished in several different ways. Modern pianos often have a black polyester finish or another synthetic finish. These are very durable, but they still need to be looked after with care. The best thing to do is simply use a wax impregnated duster. Older pianos are often “French polished,” which is a process by which many layers of fine polish are built up and cut back to produce a very shiny finish. Some cheaper old pianos are brush polished and veneered or simply scumbled. Some rebuilt older pianos are spray polished with French polish or another synthetic finish such as a lacquer. These old pianos do not take kindly to any kind of spray-on furniture polish which contains silicone (most do). A beeswax polish is the best thing to use, as this will bring out the shine of the piano.

What is the piano’s action?

This is the mechanism between the keys and the strings that controls how the piano responds to the key presses. Sometimes the word action is used to describe the way the piano responds.

Where do I find my piano’s serial number?

A piano’s serial number will usually be found stamped on its soundboard in figures about 2 cm high. Serial numbers are usually between four and seven digits long. A number stamped on the top of the side of an upright piano is probably a dealer’s stock number. A number cast into the frame is almost certainly not a serial number.