This text has been reproduced with permission
from John Tuttle (www.player-care.com) and may not be reproduced or used
The Piano ... FIRST (the Player later)!
Although it might not be obvious to some people, the most
important part of a Player Piano is the PIANO. This fact is too often
overlooked, especially when the unit is capable of playing the rolls. And too
often, the quality of the units performance has less to do with workings of the
Player Mechanism than the workings of the Piano. Therefore, I have written a few
guidelines to help anyone determine the condition of ANY PIANO.
1) Are the keys LEVEL?
Before I ever touch the piano, I look at the keys. I get down on my knees on
either the left or right side of the instrument and I look across the tops of
the keys all the way to the other side. They should be extremely level (or at
the exact same height) all the way across. If they are, the chances are very
great that, A) the unit has not been heavily played or abused, B) the Keybed felts are in good condition and C) there is no infestation of any sort.
If the keys are slightly dipped in the center region of the keyboard, this
indicates relatively normal wear since most people play the piano in the center
If the keys are heavily dipped with a noticeable warping look across the whole
range, this indicated relatively heavy wear.
If the keys are unevenly dipped with some keys being noticeably higher or lower
than their closest neighbors, this indicates some form of infestation (see
Moth Damage-click here) requiring much closer inspection and scrutiny.
1a) Are the keys damaged?
If the keys are damaged in any way, be it cracked, chipped or warped, this is a
clear indication of POOR treatment, neglect or down-right abuse.
The condition of the keys can be likened to the condition of the paint on a car
and typically indicates the care and the environment that the machine has seen
(or been exposed to) over it's lifetime.
1b) Are the keys LOOSE?
Before actually playing any of the notes, the keys should be tested for
'side-play'. This is easily done by placing your finger on the front of the keys
and seeing how much they move from side to side. Side-play should be very
minimal and should not exceed 1/100th of an inch (or 0.010 in.) Excessive
side-play indicates excessive wear, moth damage and/or missing felts.
2) Is the piano in tune?
The very next thing I check when evaluating any instrument is how well it is
tuned. The quality of the tuning tells a great deal about the care and
maintenance afforded the unit and the general condition of the unit. It also
tells a story about many of the critical internal components of the piano that
can not readily be seen.
If the piano is well tuned and sounds pretty to the ear, it has most likely been
tuned within the past year or two.
If it sounds reasonably in tune, it probably hasn't seen a tuner in five or more
If it's way out of tune, it might have been twenty years or more since it was
If it sounds pretty good except for a few very sour notes, that's an indication
that the piece of wood that holds the tuning pins in their correct position (the
pin block, pin ply or wrist plank) could be cracked or weak. It could also mean
that the bridges (which transfer the sound waves from the strings to the sound
board) are cracked.
If there is any 'buzzing' or 'fuzzy sounding' notes, that indicates splits in
the sound board, bridges or frame.
The Point Here IS: Every Note Should Sound CLEAR and CLEAN. Anything less
3) Is the VOLUME of each note about the same?
When I play every note on the piano for the first time, I attempt to strike each
one with the same amount of force (usually rather firmly...some might even say
loudly) to determine how even the Volume is from one end of the keyboard to the
other. If they are all about the same volume, this indicates that the piano
action is reasonably well regulated or at the very least evenly regulated.
If some notes are noticeably louder than others or do not play at all, this
indicates a number of possible problems. The worst of these problems is usually
NOT breakage but EXTREME WEAR.
All machines wear out in time and determining the extent of the
wear will be discussed later.
After playing all the notes firmly, I play all the notes very softly. How the
action responds to a very light touch will not only tell how well the action is
regulated, it will also tell a lot about the regulation of the Keybed (the
structure that supports all the keys).
If any of the notes fail to sound when played lightly, this indicates that the
let-off adjustment (which controls how close the hammer comes to the string
before escaping -- or releasing) is improperly set. This is not uncommon in
older pianos that have not been well maintained.
If any of the notes sound like they are blocking (clunking or not releasing),
this could indicate very poor regulation, breakage or missing felts.
If the notes 'flutter' or 'bubble' (meaning they seem to be striking the string
more than one time), this is a clear indication that the Keybed is quite far out
of adjustment or that the felts under the keys have been ravaged by felt mites
or moths (which eat felt).
4) Determining the Extent of Action Wear
Actually, this is not quite as hard as it might sound. First, look at the
hammers (they strike the strings). In a new piano, the hammers have a perfect
tear-drop shape. As the piano is used, grooves start developing in the face of
the hammers. Left unattended for many years, these grooves become quite deep and
eventually, the face of the hammers become flattened. Therefore, examining the
face of the hammers is an excellent way to determine how much usage the piano
has had in it's lifetime. If the grooves are less than 1/4 inch long in the
center region of the piano action, this shows very moderate use. If the grooves
are 3/8 inch to 1/2 inch, this shows pretty heavy use. If they are longer then
1/2 inch, this shows very heavy use. Hammers that are heavily worn will
typically contribute to the 'tinny' nature of the pianos sound since the hammers
are, in essence, slapping the strings with a flat object as opposed to striking
them with a rounded object. This slapping action actually creates undesirable
overtones which detract from the clarity of the sound.
4a) Lost Motion
Another good indicator of wear in the action of the piano is the amount of
free-play between the piano keys and the piano hammers. As the piano is used,
the felts located at all the contact points between the keys and the hammers
wear slightly. Over time, this wear can become so severe that the notes began to
'flutter' or 'bubble' (strike the string more than one time when the keys are
played with a medium strike). Lost motion is very easy to determine. Simply look
at the hammers while touching the key. In a well adjusted (regulated) piano, the
hammers will start to move as soon as the key is touched (depressed even
slightly). When lost motion is present, the key can be depressed slightly and
the hammer will remain stationary. If the key can be pressed down 1/16 inch
before the hammer starts to move, this indicates slightly above average use. If
it can be pressed 3/32 inch before the hammer starts to move, this is considered
severe lost motion and indicates heavy wear.
MORE TO COME AS TIME PERMITS