Apart from a piano’s main frame and strings, an acoustic piano is mainly manufactured from wood.
From the early 19th Century to modern times, the piano has changed very little; consequently, much has been learned about the best way to look after this profoundly complex instrument.
There are many do’s and don’ts some of which we will highlight and which will undoubtedly enhance the long-term performance of your piano.
A piano is not too keen on environmental change. In a perfect world, a piano would live at a constant 72°F (22°C) at a 45% RH (relative humidity). However, this is not practically possible; therefore, manufacturers have designed pianos with materials that will be resilient over a wide range of environmental conditions.
Let’s take a look at the factors that can affect your piano? For practicality, we have considered a moderate Northern European environment, with a piano housed inside a dry building.
Buildings can vary between freezing in the winter and high summer temperatures. In a family home or studio setting the extremes will be much less. The piano is not unhappy with small and gradual changes in temperature, but sudden changes can have some detrimental effect.
Room heating will have an impact on the longevity of a piano. It’s not so much the heat as the drying of the air; resulting in a drying out of the hundreds of wooden components and glues.
High humidity – damp environments (very high RH) cause the wooden components and chassis to draw in moisture, which can result in swelling and the unseating of glued wooded and felted components. In time the action’s tiny pivots can seize up and keyboard surfaces (ivories) become detached. The tuning pins that hold the strings are wedged into a large wooden plank (the wrest plank) which can become less able to hold the string’s tension, thus it will drop out of tune more easily. Dampness in the sound board will deteriorate the sound quality and the copper-wound bass strings will start sounding dull.
Low humidity – usually exists in modern centrally heated homes and studios and can result in just as much damage as high humidity. The drying out of the wooden components will cause brittleness and an inability of the string’s tuning pins in the wrest plank to grip the strings, resulting in the piano’s ability to hold tune.
Moving a piano to a new home – We see many instances of an older piano that is in good condition being re-housed into a village hall or a retirement home, which has a contrasting environment. As a result we have sometimes seen a rapid deterioration in the pianos performance due to the piano trying to adjust to its new environment.
Steps you can take to look after your piano
In a modern home with central heating, a piano should be happy. However, there are a few matters to consider.
- Avoid putting your piano next to a hot radiator, as this may rapidly dry out the piano.
- Avoid allowing the sun to shine directly on the piano.
A dark coloured piano will absorb heat and may result in components drying out. Also, the sunlight will damage the casework (as with all furniture).
- If you have underfloor heating, then you can purchase a special mat that helps isolate the piano from the worst of the effects.
- You can put a small open topped container inside the piano that is filled with water to allow the wood to breathe in some moisture.
There are many myths about the benefit of having a container in the bottom of a piano. In the UK we usually have very mixed weather in terms of variable humidity, therefore a piano will have plenty of opportunity to consume moisture.
If dampness is a problem then it may be necessary to adopt a de-humidifier for the room or install a very low power specialised heater in the piano. These will help quite significantly, but of course can never cope with extremes.
The modern acoustic piano
Manufactures have become adept at selecting the most appropriate materials for the purpose that they have to perform. Sometimes people ask “why is one manufacturer of a piano so much more expensive than another?” Answer: The choice of material has a lot to do with this.
The Japanese manufacturer Kawai have (for some years) spear-headed the use of new material technologies to compensate for the effect of the environment. Their ‘Millennium III’ action uses carbon impregnated plastics that are more resilient to high or low humidity and temperature while offering exactly the same playing performance as traditional materials.