A Piano is not just a piece of furniture. It needs proper care. It is a delicate musical instrument, and the slightest change in humidity can change the tuning and even the sound.
Most people never notice those changes, but if you want to protect your investment - read on.
Humidity Kills Pianos
You can very easily prevent your piano from dying before its time! The big problem is humidity.
Changes from high or low humidity can kill your piano. The cabinet, soundboard, frame, bridges, pinblock, and action parts are mostly made of wood.
The care of these parts can prevent damage from either too much moisture or not enough. When the wood expands and contracts too much, problems can start and if you don't take the care necessary for the piano - well, pianos do die!
But prevention is relatively easy. Keep the humidity ideally between 35 and 45% relative humidity and your piano will thrive.
And what if you can only maintain the relative humidity at 30% year round? Wonderful - just keep it there all the time. The changes back and forth are the real problem.
So what happens to the parts of your piano that can be a problem?
Pinblock is the Heart
The pinblock is the heart of the piano. It is a block of wood that holds the tuning pins - hence, pinblock. When the tuning pins become loose, the piano simply can't stay in tune.
Loose tuning pins are caused when the pinblock expands and contracts with the change in humidity. When it expands with moisture, the wood around the tuning pins is crushed. When it contracts due to dryness the tuning pins have a wider hole to sit in.
With our weather near the great lakes that process happens every season and even during seasons. Without proper care the result is loose tuning pins and a piano that won't stay in tune. Whatever your climatic conditions, a good technician in your area will know what to do to provide the best piano care.
When you look inside a grand piano you can see the soundboard underneath the usually gold-painted cast iron plate. Some plates these days are being painted silver and one piano manufacturer in my area years ago was painting the plate a bright green!
In an upright you can see it easiest by looking at the back of the piano. In this case you see the soundboard with the ribs attached behind the wooden posts unless the piano is very small and then there may not be any wooden posts.
Whenever the humidity goes up, the soundboard in your grand piano takes on moisture and tries to expand. The same effect takes place in your upright piano. But because the soundboard is hemmed in by the cabinet of the piano it expands upward in the grand, and towards the front of the piano in the upright.
This causes the strings to stretch and your piano goes out of tune or sharp. When the humidity drops the opposite effect takes place and the piano goes flat.
After a lot of this the soundboard can possibly crack leaving a poor sounding musical instrument. It also can cost lots of money to repair - because in a grand piano, all of the strings have to be removed to do a quality repair. An upright can usually be corrected much more easily.
Moisture related problems can also plague the bridges with most damage taking place in the bass bridge and lesser damage occuring in the high treble.
Here, lack of or too much humidity causes the bridges to crack. This usually happens where the strings come in contact with the bridge pins.
This can result in poor transmission of sound from the strings to the soundboard. It can also cause the strings to vibrate against the bridge pins resulting in buzzing sounds.
While it is unlikely that action parts will crack within the first 30 - 50 years of the piano's life, the action parts have other problems such as too tight or too loose center pins.
As well, have you ever tried to play a piano with sticky keys? Drives me nuts!! I'm sure it drives children nuts that are trying to practice and learn.
Sticky keys are usually a sign of too much moisture. The wood has simply swelled or warped from the moisture and is rubbing on another part. Or the bushings can be too tight as a result. There could also simply be something stuck between them.
Having your technician service and provide needed care for your piano at least once each year will probably take care of this type of problem.
When the frame has problems with moisture, it can lead to glue joints that fail. Frame problems can make a piano not tunable. The reason is that if the glue joints fail, the frame moves as the tuning is done and allows the cast iron harp to actually bend. Hard to believe - but they do.
And yes - this can even cause the soundboard and ribs to break and may even break the cast iron harp. Need I say these repairs are very costly?
Preventive Care - What to Do?
First off - DON'T put a jar of water in the bottom of your piano. It doesn't work, it may invite mice, and you'll probably forget it's even there.
There are several things you CAN do. I have noticed over the years that pianos that stay in tune the best tend to be in areas where airflow is at a minimum. I think this restricts the piano from being influenced as much by the humidity changes.
For an older gentleman, I tune a piano that literally sits in a little alcove. The alcove is about 30 inches deep and 62 inches long. I tune that piano about once every 3 years and you'd swear it had been tuned just the week before.
With the above in mind your best care may be to avoid draughty areas, cold air return vents, and definitely hot air vents.
In the winter, rooms with fireplaces are killers. They dry the air out like nothing else. And in any season direct sunlight can heat the cast iron plate in your piano hot enough to fry an egg as well as dry the wood quicker than maybe even a hot air vent.
While basements in our area of the country in the past have tended to be damp, modern heating and insulation have erased that problem for the most part. Because there is less airflow in a basement and because the humidity tends to change slower there, that may actually be a good place for your piano.
If you live in an air conditioned home, your piano will do better. You do too, don't you? Because the humidity is kept within certain perameters, the piano feels better, plays better, and sounds better.
If you can't afford to air condition your entire home, perhaps you should put it in the room you DO air condition. But then you might have to sleep on top of the piano.
The other option would be to put a room humidifier or dehumidifier in the room the piano is in. These work very well and then both you and the piano feel great in that room.
And lastly, the best care for your piano would be to put a humidity control system right inside your upright piano, or underneath the soundboard of your grand.
I have installed a number of these in places where there was no other alternative and they work wonders. I have a client, a church where I tuned their piano every time they had a wedding or a funeral - sometimes even twice in a month. No Joke! That's for real.
I finally convinced them that I could care for their piano better as well as their monetary interests if I installed a Dampp-Chaser climate control system inside the piano. I went from tuning that piano on average of once per month to twice a year and the piano certainly has better care and plays better.
The initial cost was not cheap, but they sure don't need me so often! They save $100's every year!
Before you put a piano anywhere, just consider sitting in that spot yourself for 24 hours. How would you like to sit in that beautiful window and have the sun on you and you can't move? Would you really like to sit in front of a fire and never have a drink of water? If your basement is damp, imagine sitting there all year. I think you get the idea. If you wouldn't care to be in a certain location in your home for some climate related reason, your piano probably won't either.
If you have a particular concern, and you live in Southwestern Ontario, call me and I will be glad to help.