What Happens to Pianos as They Age?

Look at this gorgeous ornate Victorian piano from the mid 1800's.

As one would imaging, restoring something like this is quite a bit different than reconditioning a 50 year old instrument. For better or worse, I am dealing with those problems associated with aging on my current restoration project.

The guys at Chupp's Piano offer a good summary of the basic steps that go into a good restoration. You should visit their site if you want to know more.

This post might even be interesting if you want to buy an older piano, because in it I want to address what happens as pianos age. For those who tend towards nostalgia and want an older instrument, my next post will teach you what to look for when you buy a used piano, an old one in particular.

Most piano manufacturers recommend tuning your piano four times in the first year of its construction, then typically twice a year after that. The reason for this is that when new, strings stretch and woods settle, causing the piano to lose its pitch more quickly when new. Unless a piano is moved frequently, it should hold tune well after about the first year or so, depending on the conditions where it is placed of course. So, a piano that was stored in a garage and was never played or tuned will suffer through the years more than one which is properly maintained.

Other factors affect a piano over the course of many years and decades. Felts and leathers compact, causing the moving parts to eventually move out of sync as they were originally designed. A piano action has many such felts and leathers in it. They compress and harden over time. The result is that the piano action doesn't work as designed. Furthermore, the piano will lose it's "touch" and will offer a poor playing experience to the pianist. Changes like like these cause regulation problems, and regulation problems impact sound and playability. When your technician "regulates" your piano, he makes minute adjustments to the mechanical mechanism of the action and replaces action parts that are worn.

You can tell when a piano needs regulation because it will feel uneven and less responsive across the range of the keyboard. You may be unable to generate the dynamic and tonal range you once were. Most piano owners don't notice these changes for quite some time because they happen so slowly. Instead, they "adjust" their playing without realizing it until finally they realize there piano doesn't sound or feel as good as it once would. Obviously this can exacerbate problems the pianist has with playing technique and control.

Since regulation involves the action of the piano, I thought I would show you a photo of an action from a grand piano that has been removed. It really is a piece of precision machinery, isn't it? Age adversely affects all of the parts of the action, mostly due to changes in environment over the years.I will get in to how it works in another future post.

Hammers of the piano are responsible for striking the strings and making sound. Old hammers can be fraucht with problems. Old pianos that have been played a lot will have deep grooves in the hammers. This compacts the felt on the striking surface of the hammer and causes a thin, bright, unpleasant sound. This may be able to be repaired by a technician through a process of voicing, but it takes a very experienced technician to properly voice a piano. Novice techs can very easily destroy the hammers to the point that they need to be replaced to restore the tone of the piano. Hammer shape, consistency, and wear have a dramatic effect on both sound and playability of the piano.

Another part of the piano that does not age well is the pinblock. The pinblock is a large board, for lack of a better term, usually laminated of hard maple, that holds the tuning pins tight and allows the piano to be tuned. Age can cause the pinblock to crack or delaminate. A more common problem is that the pins themselves get loose in the pinblock, which means that the piano wont hold a tuning for very long. Usually, the pinblock is hidden behind the metal frame inside the piano which supports the strings. Here is a pinblock that is in bad condition. Replacing a bad pinblock is not a trivial or inexpensive matter.

There are other age related maladies too, but these are the major ones that affect the cost of restoring an old piano. I hope you enjoyed this post. The next post will cover what to look for when buying a used piano. There are some good candidates out there, but there is a lot of junk too. I'll show you how to tell the difference. Thanks for reading!

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