Older pianos can present some challenges for both the piano technician and the owner. This article details the majority of those issues from the example of a 1892 Heintzman upright piano.
The production of the acoustic piano was at it’s peak back in the early 1900’s. This was the family entertainment centre long before the radio, TV, and the internet came along. At that time, it was a common item to be found in every home. Here we are 100 years later and good number of those pianos are still around – some are in better shape than others. Just as with any piece of machinery, pianos are prone to the effects of aging. There are pianos that have been refinished (as in this photo above) and look great, but on this inside there may be many issues that can impact it’s performance and its’ ability to be a viable instrument.
Any piano that has been around for more than 60-80 years will have been exposed to the vast swings in humidity from the extreme dry conditions in the Canadian winters, to the heavy humidity of summer. As dryness has the most impact, this is where we will focus most of our time.
Impacts of Dryness (low humidity)
Many of the parts of a piano that are critical to the quality of sound are made of wood. As they are exposed to extended periods of dryness, the wood will shrink. In the case of the soundboard, cracks can appear (see image on left with the dark line under the strings). In most pianos this will not impact the sound unless the soundboard pulls away from the supporting wooden ribs on the back. This can cause buzzing when being played.
Piano strings transfer their sound through the bridge and into the soundboard. The strings cross the bridge and are held firm by two bridge pins. If the wood in the bridge becomes too dry, the wood will crack at the stress points where the bridge pins are located (see image on left). In many cases, these minor cracks will have no effect, but as they become bigger the bridge pins will loosen and the string cannot transfer the sound efficiently.
Older pianos used wooden levers in their pedal trap work – modern pianos typically use metal. Dry wood here causes friction between other wooden or metal parts which will produce creaks and squeaks. The tops of the pedal lift rods would have been covered by leather which will also be dried out and add to the unwanted noises. All of these areas of friction can be lubricated as part of the piano technician’s work on keeping the piano in working order.
The hammers that strike the strings to produce sound are made of stretched felt with a wooden core. Dry conditions will make the felt harder and impact the quality of sound. As the hammers become extremely dry and discoloured over time (see image on left) the felt will start to break away causing uneven play of all strings on any given note. If the hammers have heavy wear, they may need to be resurfaced or replaced.
Loose Tuning Pins – As the wood in a piano dries out, the wood that holds the tuning pins tight can start to loosen it’s grip on the tuning pins. If this only happens to a handful of pins, they can be repaired. If all the pins become too loose, then the piano may no longer be tuneable.
Lifted Key Tops – Ivory and plastic key tops can also start to lift up when the glue holding them dries out. Edges will start to lift first, then entire key top pieces may come off. Key tops can be reattached so be sure to keep any that come loose.
Along with facing the extreme dry conditions, older pianos can also be exposed to periods of high moisture. This can cause corrosion on the piano strings that can impact the quality of sound. The bass strings are heavier and thicker to produce the deeper tones. They are made by winding copper or nickel wire around the core metal string, In an older piano the corrosion can build up inside the windings and dampen the sound producing a muddy bass.
Older pianos can also produce some of the most beautiful and resonant sounds you’ll hear – following general maintenance guidelines and having your piano tuned regularly will help to keep it performing it’s best. If you’re looking to purchase an older piano, you will save a lot of time and frustration by having a piano technician assess the piano first.