Author Archives: tunerben


Let’s talk about uprights for the moment.  Avoid birdcage (over-damper) uprights if possible.  If the first thing you see on opening the front is 65 vertical wires instead of the piano hammers, it’s a birdcage.  Some are perfectly good but most are not and they don’t get in as good tune because access to the strings is so limited.  Here’s one, courtesy of David Boyce Pianos .

  1. Look at a few pianos in your price range.  You might fall for the first one but see as many as possible.
  2. Ask to remove the front panel.  Undo the catches on either side inside the top of the front door, lift it off carefully so as not to nick anything or anyone.  Ask permission to lean it against a wall out of the way.
  3. Inspect the tuning pins to see that they are all original (same fatness and colour) and all the coils where the strings attach are original and not missing any.  You don’t want to see any replaced shiny ones nor any missing coils.  Also check that the bottom of the coil is not flush up against the metal plate (or wooden pin block depending on the configuration).  A scant 1/4″ minimum means nobody has tapped in the pin to combat a faulty pin block.  You don’t want to have to spend £1500 on restringing.
    coils well off pinblock

    coils well off pinblock

    coils too close

    coils too close

  4. How are the hammers and shanks?  You won’t easily see them in the case of birdcage pianos but try to peer inside there. You don’t want to see any replaced parts in there as with the tuning pins and strings.  Check the top few hammers.  Are they worn down to the wood?  A bad sign!!  Old hammers can be reshaped to restore the former glorious tone on most pianos unless there’s no felt left to shape (see my short video on hammer shaping
  5. Play a chromatic scale (hit each white and black key) from middle C down to the bottom.  Are any horribly discordant?  In other words have any the tuning pins slipped?  A sign that you’ll have to treat the pin block (a couple of hundred ££ unless you can do it yourself, see my blog on loose tuning pins).  Start in the middle again and go to the top note, same thing.

Play a song on the piano even if you can’t play at all.  Improvise.  Try the pedals.  The piano’s probably horribly flat, but then again most pianos are neglected and tuning is only £55.  But you’ll get a feel for the gestalt of the piano.   Then call a tuner if possible while you’re at the piano and ask him to have a listen.  If you like the piano then hire the tuner to check it out for you before you take the plunge.  Moving will often cost more than the price of the piano so don’t start moving it about before you’re sure it’s a keeper.

How to Fix Loose Tuning Pins

Here’s what to do when the tuner complains you have a bad pin block and she tells you your piano’s dying because the pinblock –  due to fluctuating humidity – is so dried out the pins got so loose that the strings pop out of tune, or that they’re impossible to fine tune.
Don’t worry.
Get some 2-oz bottles of thinnest superglue with an applicator cap.  You’ll probably use two, maybe even three.  And borrow a brute or two to help tilt the piano on its back.  
Call around piano shops and see if one will rent you a piano tilt truck.  Probably they won’t!  You’ll have to lay the piano flat on its back, which means letting the top end rest on a 2×4 so you can get your hands under the piano when it’s ready to stand back up.  
Borrow or buy a respirator good enough to keep superglue fumes from clogging ye lungs.  
Important: 1) clean the pinblock thoroughly before applying glue, otherwise you’ll be permanently gluing old dog hairs and dust to the block.  2) super important: go back over the pins until they don’t soak up any more glue, and do not spray the NCF accelerator.  If you let the glue dry before it has a chance to wick into the holes you’ll seal the holes prematurely and no glue will get in far enough to make enough difference. 
Take a bottle, snip the applicator cap and apply several drops of glue around the base of the tuning pin until the capillary action stops.  Try not to make a mess of it, but it does dry clear so you can be a bit generous with the application.  Do this in groups of 15 pins. Go back a second time and add a few more drops proceeding onto a new group.  Let it soak in an hour or two before standing it up. This is a smelly and time-consuming process but it will very likely save your piano’s ass.

Hector’s 1820 Grand Piano

Friday, Sept. 13th County Antrim N. Ireland

Old age pensioners from New York are given free bus travel anywhere in Bonny Scotland, or Sconny Botland as they call it in County Antrim north of Belfast. This beauty spot is where the brother of the 469th Earl of Antrim has his farmhouse with studio where he produces paintings such as

when not writing books about Irish history or cooking gourmet feasts for guests such as me and Zsofi (8 – she insisted on coming to Ireland).
     You may have noticed that County Antrim is not exactly in Scotland, which is the fraud Hector perpetrated on me in response to the one I tried to pull on him.  In a desperate ploy for recognition the Underwater Piano Shop offers free tuning in the Highlands and Islands, as long as you put me up under the piano, and Hector is the only one who’s taken me up on it.  When I mentioned that even an American knows that Ireland is not in the Highlands he offered to pay my ferry from Cairnryan.  He said he has several pianos needing tuning.  It was then that I mentioned that only the first tuning is free, subsequent ones are charged at my normal £55.  But by then I had him and vice versa.
     Hector has at least three pianos.  The only one made within the last 200 years is a William Stodart 8’ grand #6712 (1820).  It looks like this 
     It was almost a full tone low. Those tubes – forerunner of the modern cast iron plate – are of one metal for the bass and another for the tenor and treble.
     The piano was strung 30 years ago and has that primal plate so I saw no reason not to bring it up to pitch but it seems like a valuable piece which I would hate to destroy in an explosion due to adding tons of tension.  So I very gingerly brought it up seven beats to about 3/4 tone low.  Nothing broke.  However, antique tuning pins have no hole for the wire and several started slipping under tension.  That was the first night.  In the morning after a full Irish breakfast for me and Zsofi and Hector and his labradoodle Coco I brought it up another quarter tone to exactly half a tone low.  415hz may have been the original pitch because the treble suddenly came alive.  But the slippage at the tuning pins was frustrating.  In desperation I dribbled superglue on the coils and presto they tightened right up.  Then we all went over to Hector’s friend Ms. English’s house and spent the night there by the lovely seashore next to an old church she and Hector were trying to save from the wrecking ball by holding a Saturday book fair there.  Complete with raffle which Zsofi won.  Lots more gourmet eating.  Antrim is magical.  We saw a leprechaun’s house in Ms. English’s forest.
     Sunday morning it was time to leave (6:30) after a final midnight tuning and some predawn damper regulation.  The other pianos will have to await our return.  We had enough tuning and eating for one visit.

Improve your bass and never buy a bass string

Piano bass strings rarely have to be replaced – the occasional broken one should be tied – better looking and matching than a new one.

If your strings are dead and tubby or they rattle it’s an easy fix.  To determine whether your strings are dead, step on the damper pedal and pluck some strings just below the upper nut.  They should twang, not thudd.  If they thudd it’s because of corrosion built up between the winding and the core, and because they need whipping and twisting.  My method, learned at Tallman’s Piano and Organ in Salem ORE in the 1970s (I worked there for a minute after Steinway NYC), takes an hour or two and results in 80-90% new-sounding strings.  You’ll need a tuner to do the fine-tuning afterwards, so plan this for when you want a tuning anyway.

Note: More than one broken string, consider a set made and installed by Alistair Edmondson, great string maker of Edinburgh.





Whoops Tallmans seems to have been demolished since I was there.

Get a pillow.  There’s lots of kneeling and standing.  You also need a cheap tuning hammer and a medium screwdriver and a medium hammer.  And some medium sandpaper for cleaning, along with a dust mask to keep that toxic copper oxide out of you.

Remove the action.  You should replace all the bridle tapes if more than one is broken.  Not a very technical job.  I can explain that later.

Loosen every other bass string.  Carefully.  Like this: grab the string at its middle pulling towards you while relaxing the tension at the tuning pin.  You must do this, pulling hard enough to make the coil uncoil (but not hard enough to break anything), otherwise the coil will get kinked and will break when you restore the tension. Loosen each pin 3/4-turn.  Then kneel down on the pillow and pull each one hard, towards the bottom of the string.  Then you should be able to remove each one at the hitchpin.

Grab them all (put on ye dust mask now especially if the strings are copper-wound – or your next cigarette will taste funny).  Don’t worry about the order.  But be sure to hold all the ends together. Scrunch them up past the keyboard and hang them over the keys.  Use a towel if you’re afraid of scratching ye ivories.

Take a handful starting with the skinny ones, maybe 10-12 strings.  Make a large loop, always holding tight to the hitchpin end of the strings, and pass the end inside the loop.  This is hard to explain pending the video, but easy to do; the only thing to always remember is not to make the loop too small.  You must not kill the strings by kinking.  Run the loop up and down a few times to loosen the corrosion built up inside the string windings over the years.  Unloop the loop, holding the hitchpin ends firmly.

Take the top string, pull it towards you (always noting the position of the coil at the tuning pin to make sure you aren’t bending anything) and with a piece of sandpaper CAREFULLY (in the case of the top few skinny ones where it’s easy to wreck the string by unravelling some of the winding; the bigger strings are not fragile) clean the tops of the strings.  Don’t clean the whole thing, just the part that’s visible above the dampers.  This is strictly cosmetic, and be sure to have your mask on.

Look at the top of the winding and note which way it’s wound, usually clockwise but in the case of Japanese pianos counterclockwise.

Pass the string down past the keybed and go down on your knees and meet it.  Look again at the winding, and give the string a full twist in the same direction as the winding (later when you do the fattest strings half a twist will do).  Pop the string back on its hitchpin (you can hold the twist in place with needle-nose pliers on the bottom coil) and bridge it (thread onto the bridge pins).  Repeat until all the strings are on and ready to retune to the alternating strings you left tight.  Best to replace one at a time so you don’t confuse the order of strings.

Pop the strings back onto the top nut. Take the tuning hammer and put a bit of tension back on each string while lifting the coil with the screwdriver to make sure it’s tight.  Do not mess up your coils.  Do not scratch the metal plate.   Pluck the string and tune to its mate in the case of the doubles section.   If the string is worse than before you started, you’ve twisted in the wrong direction, so loosen and twist the other way now.  In the singles section, it’s safest to tune the note to the one below THEN up the remaining 1/2-tone to pitch.

Go back down on your knees.  Tap each string back down on its hitchpin with the screwdriver whacked with the hammer.  Give each bottom coil a whack towards the hitchpin (Zsofi where is your video?).  With your palm against the screwdriver, punch each string back onto its bridgepins.  Not too hard, you don’t want to dent the bridge.  With your thumbs push each rejuvenated string violently to the side at the middle to take up more slack.  Stand up.  Squeeze your tits (with a needle-nose, force the flags – the place where the coil enters the tuning pin – back into the holes).  Then give each tuning pin coil a whack downwards with the hammer against the screwdriver.  Tune again.  Repeat for the alternating strings.  You will be stoked at the improvement.  You can do the same with wound guitar strings by the way.  I’ll explain later.  -blt

Will tune for lunch and SEO

Edinburgh Newtown

Ruaraidh has a Carl Ecke (Berlin,1909) tiny 58 inch weird-shaped – cocked hat – grand.  It was wildly out of tune BUT desperately needs restringing so I brought it to concert pitch very gingerly hoping to avoid further breakage. The piano, formerly unplayable, landed at 8 on a scale of 1-10, but playable. Ruaraidh, of and gourmet chef, provided lunch and Search Engine Optimisation in barter so no money changed hands, but Ruaraidh took the Underwater Piano Shop from 20th or 30th, well off the first page of Google, to #1 when you search for a piano tuner in Edinburgh.

Strings: missing one bass, several replaced bass and two treble wires, a missing crucial low B broken bass string candidate for tying a knot with a new wire leader, HOWEVER my fat wire gauges are still in NYC thus, alas, could not knot.  I must return with some borrowed wire later.

Belly: soundboard, bridges: excellent. pin block: several loose pins, removed one offensive bass pin and daubed superglue on it and drove it back in with excellent results.

Action: innovative but excellent German invention.  Wippens are basically upside-down with the repetition spring exposed on top.

Plan: return with 21 gauge wire to tie low B; superglue the few other offending tuning pins; hope Ruaraidh’s landlord, the piano’s owner, will have  Wilson and Sons, piano rebuilders of Wallyford, restring the piano. Pending restringing: tune occasionally or when another string breaks.

Knight studio upright in Penicuik, never goes out of tune

October 12, 2013 Penicuik, Edinburgh

I am extremely grateful to Scottish ratepayers and local and national bus companies that give me free rides to anywhere I care to travel in Scotland just because I was born before 1954.

This is a lovely country.

Knight lite; two tuning hammers

Knight lite; 2 tuning hammers (photo: Bethany Halcrow)

The bus to Penicuik, under an hour out of Morningside and along country lanes, passes strange university research centres and plenty of horses.  Bethany’s bungalow is tucked away in a side street and tucked in her room is a 1965 Knight (standard English piano) studio upright.  But I’ll seldom see it again.  That piano, delivered in 2005 and last tuned in 2008 – by Graham MacDonald, part-time tuner and pianist in the traditional Scottish band Fantoosh!- was still right at 440.  It’s difficult to tune; the pins are extra tight and I had to break out my £250 Cyberhammer impact tuning hammer (the one 2 octaves above middle C in the pic).  But I’d be surprised if Bethany has to spring for tuning more than twice a decade, which is too bad because I’ll miss her.  A wonderful singer, amateur dancer and former carer she still remains friends with various disabled youth three of whom dropped in to visit when I was there.

My latest desperate attempt at marketing is the Underwater Piano Shop Loyalty Card, by which every 7th tuning is free.  Bethany’s should pay off in about 2025.

Sunshine on Langer

October 8, 2013 Leith, Edinburgh

It’s a schlep from the wilds of Leith back to civilisation if you have no sense of direction and you take the bike paths.  Otherwise it’s not too bad, but that night I biked 16+ miles r/t, in circles.  Next time, city streets.

Claire plucked her free piano off Gumtree.  I wasn’t worried, free/cheap pianos here in Edinburgh are excellent.  Her Langer birdcage upright (1910ish) presented a challenge though, over half a tone low with brittle treble strings.  But Claire and her man are perfect hosts and I don’t mind returning to fix my four broken wires.  Plus they live above a Chinese ostrich-in-oyster-sauce joint where you can feast on fast-wokked Bigbird/veg on rice for £7 including tip.  Plus Leith is tops  after that lovely if cheesy Sunshine on Leith  re: Proclaimers.

Sunshine on Langer birdcage upright

Sunshine on Langer birdcage upright

It’s lucky Claire is a photographer (and chef, among other talents).  I could never have described the beauty of her piano.  Here’s it is basking in Leith sunshine

another, of the

demented-but-fine straight strung bass; another,

birdcage action with new bridle tapes

birdcage action with new bridle tapes

of the birdcage action with its new bridle tapes (pretty good for a free piano, those must have taken 4 hours and to install and they cost £15 to buy),

Demented-but-fine straight strung bass

Demented-but-fine straight strung bass

and another, of the 4 strings I broke just as I was finishing up thinking I had got away breakage-free.

Raising pitch on straight-strung pianos is tricky for American tuners.  In this case the bass had to be tuned twice because it came out flat, where on the Filmhouse Bechstein upright they had to be tuned twice because they came out sharp.  The pitch ended up solid on 438 after one pass, but they’ll have to have me back by January – after I return to fix those strings (£35 probably).

4 strings I broke

4 strings I broke

Claire is about to take her first lesson from Natasha (like me, also from Gumtree), at £12.  I’m dying for her report.  My wife and singer friend are looking for a brilliant teacher.

Tuning a birdcage upright in Dalkeith from a tone low

September 25th, 2013 Dalkeith, Edinburgh

The Halleys are prime customers.  Tea just how you like it – plenty of cookies – and boogie-woogie by 82-yr-old Ronnie upon completion of tuning.

The piano, Mortons of London birdcage upright, is a typical Scottish job; straight strung, overdampers, two semitones down – but responds perfectly to attention.  I was there three months ago doing the bulk of the pitch raise – brought it to 440 but the treble collapsed so I tuned it again to 445.

When I returned today it was still 445hz.  So tuning down to 440, via impact hammer, which should have taken 1-1/2 hours took 2-1/2.

Tuning birdcages, you have to pretend to be a blind tuner (the movie Five Finger Exercise featured an Australian tuner who gets work by pretending to be blind, but after tapping around the corner from the customer’s house he gets into his car and drives to the next job). Forget about trying to see where your Papps mute goes between the strings and do it  blind, by feeling.  It’s almost as fast as doing a normal upright if you don’t count having to remove and replace the mute-felt bar.

The action will be getting an overhaul soon to perfect this piano.  I left a set of spring clip bridle tapes to install on my return.  Only then will it be possible to remove the action to address the clatteriness caused by hundreds of loose screws (clattery hammers wear out quicker).  At the same time I hope to do a quick regulating job.  Let’s see if I can’t keep the time down to 3.5 hours.

I met a daughter, Margaret.  We talked about smoking – me with a foolproof method of quitting – while I puffed away!

Bechstein Rides Again

October 10th, 2013 Penicuik Edinburgh

action pretty perfect perfect case perfect ivories

The upright at 101 years old (Bechstein Model 10 upright #104090 (1912) is perfect – perfect ivories, beautiful cabinet, excellent original strings and action.

In August it came right up to modern pitch from A=433 (approx. quarter tone flat) in spite of loose pins making it very difficult to tune: not enough resistance at the pin.

But Frank is a handy fellow and in the next days he lay the piano down and dripped the secret goo (watery superglue) onto the pin plank.  It didn’t work at first.  When I returned for the fine tuning the pins were still loose.  So you might think it was a wasted hour or two on the bus from Morningside, but there’s a nice Italian cafe next to the Penicuik Tesco which made the journey worthwhile.  Little Italy.

problem pinsFrank tried again, still no success but this is a perfect piano and I wanted to save it from having to be restrung.  So I tapped all 235 pins in a smidgen and THAT, along with the superglue trick, worked finally.  Bechstein Rides Again.      -blt