Acoustics – Alex's Piano Service

Dampp-Chaser Long-Term Humidifier Supply

During the winter months, many clients leave the state of Maine. Their piano is left in Maine, which means there’s nobody to fill the Dampp-Chaser! This is a solution.

My best estimate is that this system can supply a Dampp-Chaser with sufficient water for three months during the winter, or perhaps longer. Normally, they have to be filled once a week!

There is no pump or water pressure: The two containers are self-leveling using nothing but physics. This means that, in effect, the interior tank has nearly the entire capacity of the external tank. The lack of electronic components remediates risk of severe failures. The external tank I use is the Barker 10-gallon tote.

Although not necessary for operation, an Arduino micro-controller is installed to monitor the water level and send updates using cellular data. This gives us confidence everything is working as it should, even during long absences. This is in development, although the source code I’m currently using is below. At present, I’m using the Botletics SIM7000 shield and an Arduino Uno Rev3. I connect using Telnyx.

The setup outside of a piano, with the Barker tote and the Dampp-Chaser universal tank connected by a hose. The universal tank will sit inside the piano, and the Barker tote will be outside.
This is the monitoring website for the above unit.

Source code for the Arduino monitor:

Evaluation FAQs

I want to get my piano tuned, but is it worth tuning?

If you want to schedule a time for me to come evaluate a piano, I’ll apply the cost of that evaluation towards the tuning if you decide to get it tuned at a later date.

It’s free on Craigslist! Do I need to get it evaluated?

Yes! Pianos are incredibly hard to move, and when considering cost, potential for personal or property damage, and the subsequent disappointment of discovering you now need to move it the dump, the cost of an evaluation could represent saving hours of your time and hundreds of dollars.

My piano has a crack! Is it serious?

Soundboards are constructed out of solid spruce, and generally crack along their laminates over the course of decades. These cracks are usually not a big deal. Soundboard cracks become a big deal when they allow the soundboard to significantly change shape—to lose its crown—or if they form in such a way as to rattle or cause the ribs to separate. If you notice that one side of the crack is higher than the other, or that the crack is large enough to allow daylight through, you might have a serious crack. The worst cracks are often tangent to the bridges. If the piano sounds okay, it’s sometimes possible to continue tuning the piano with even a rather serious crack if you don’t have any other option, or if the piano is an heirloom with sentimental value, and you work to keep the humidity stable. Otherwise, it’s time to contact a rebuilder.

Cleaning FAQs

How do I clean my keys?

Carefully! My favorite key cleaning solution is Cory Key-Brite, which is available on Amazon. It can also be purchased at Starbird Piano in Portland or through me. Lacking this, the actual keytops can be cleaned with a damp cloth, provided that the cloth is well wrung out. You don’t want the keys to get wet, as the keys are very sensitive to moisture and will warp easily.

Another good product is MusicNomad’s Key One Cleaner, also available on Amazon. I use Cory Key-Brite when doing detail work, but Key One is also a good option if you’re wiping down your keys on a more regular basis. (With Cory you can expect to do a little more scrubbing, whereas Key One is thinner and behaves a bit more like Windex.)

If you are a regular customer of mine, please order these supplies through me. I can provide them at a lower price than Amazon.

How do I clean the rest of the piano?

Microfiber cloths dust off the outside of the piano effectively. If you have a high-gloss piano, it is worth investing in Cory Super Gloss Polish, which can also be purchased at Starbird Piano in Portland or through me. Cleaning underneath the strings and cast iron plate of a grand piano is an involved process, generally taking hours. This is a service I provide; however, if it is something you are interested in doing yourself, or you are located outside of my service area, consider purchasing your own professional piano cleaning tools:

Spurlock Tool’s “Squeegie Type” Soundboard Cleaner is a very professional tool costing about $80, but will give you excellent and reliable results, without having to remove the lid of the piano. (This tool now has to be ordered through a trade supplier. If you’d like these squeegies, let me know and I’ll order them for you. Send me an email at se*****@al************.com, and I’ll arrange the payment through PayPal and get them sent on their way!) I especially recommend these tools if you have a venue or other location where cleaning is important and routine.

Alternatively, the Soundboard Duster is a much simpler tool (about $50) for dusting underneath the strings. Soundboard steels are inexpensive ($5 plus the cost of a microfiber cloth), but they are a very labor-intensive option and will require removing the lid of the piano for convenient access. If you have patience, this is an inexpensive solution.

My piano smells awful! What can I do?

The folk remedy for piano odor, which I learned working on consignments at Starbird Music, is to put dryer sheets inside the piano. This is pretty effective for dealing with smoke odor, but as with any strong, offensive smell it’s important to find the source of the problem. Over the years, I’ve seen a number of pianos devastated by moths, mold, and mice. If you believe your piano has fallen victim to any of these, it needs a thorough and professional cleaning as soon as possible.

Often, in cases of serious mold, I will clean the piano out and then install a Dampp-Chaser dehumidifier system inside the piano to make sure the problem doesn’t return.

Recently I’ve been tenting and ionizing pianos. In extreme cases, such as very moldy pianos in homes where residents have mold allergies, this can be a very effective technique. See “Can you clean out smoke, mold, and bad smells with an ozone generator?” below.

What can I do about mold?

Mold invades the felt and wood inside the piano, and it can be extremely difficult to remove in older pianos where it has been allowed to flourish. Newer pianos are generally chemically treated, and mold invasions tend to be much smaller in scale, although not always. In any size invasion, the entire piano needs to be professionally cleaned and treated with the action and keys removed. If possible, the piano should be left disassembled and placed in direct sunlight for several days to kill the remaining mold.

When cleaning mold, I’ve found 12% hydrogen peroxide to be an optimal cleaner. I purchase 1-gallon containers of 12% peroxide. This peroxide is devastating to mold, but needs to be handled with gloves, safety glasses, and caution. In addition to being highly effective against mold, peroxide ultimately leaves behind nothing but oxygen.

(Please note that most studies I’ve seen imply that returns rapidly diminish after a 10% concentration, so purchasing higher concentrations of peroxide simply endangers the user without more effectively killing mold.)

If somebody has a mold allergy or the mold is particularly severe, I also recommend using an ozone generator. See “Can you clean out smoke, mold, and bad smells with an ozone generator?” below.

A dehumidification system must be installed directly inside the piano. You can either install an entire Dampp-Chaser® Piano Life Saver System, which both keeps the piano dehumidified and humidified when the weather is dry, or you can install their dehumidifier only system. The dehumidifier is is all that’s necessary for controlling mold. These work really very well, and will (under all by that most extraordinary circumstances), keep the interior of the piano cabinet below 40% humidity. Most mold won’t grow well or germinate below about 80% humidity, and most of the data I’ve seen has implied all strains are effectively unable to germinate below 60%. This humidity control is absolutely mandatory for controlling mold from here on, even if we think we’ve killed basically all of it.

Finally, consider a humidity monitor. This is a tiny sensor installed inside the piano, which will operate on battery power, and will set off an alarm (in the form of an email or text message) if the relative humidity clears a certain threshold (such as 50%). You’ll get an immediate alert if there’s the potential for mold to grow inside the cabinet, and an correct it quickly. Most likely this would happen if the dehumidifier were unplugged.

This device allows us to trust that the dehumidifier is operating as intended. This is important, since you can’t actually see or hear the device, people might accidentally unplug it, and so forth.

Can you clean out smoke, mold, and bad smells with an ozone generator?

In severe cases, I ionize the piano. Starting about a year ago, at the recommendation of a favorite eccentric customer, I made my first trial of ionizing a piano—or filling it with ozone gas. I tent the piano and place it with an industrial ionizer.

For this, I use an ozone generator that provides at least 10,000 mg/h of ozone (such as the Enerzen O-555). I run it for three hours, and then reset the timer and run it for another three. I believe six hours to be more than adequate—in fact, I think three is enough.

Ozone is very harmful to organic substances, so it’s best not to overdo it. You want to make certain you use enough to kill the invading mold, but not so much that items in the household start degrading. In particular, plastic and rubber will off-gas rather unpleasantly. You may have to replace rubber components inside the piano (notably the pedal attachments) sooner after this treatment. (To give you an idea of the hazards involved, I’ll provide that I once ran this ozone generator in my car. You should never do this, no matter how bad your vehicle smells. Your windows will coat with slime as the plastic in your vehicle off-gasses.)

During the ionization process, all living things must leave the home. Even houseplants should ideally be moved away from the generator. Ozone gas is irritating to lungs. In terms of the chemical effects, it’s similar to breathing ultraviolet light (if somebody could do such a thing). However, as ozone reacts with biological substances, it degrades into oxygen, which is harmless. Once the ozone generator has finished its cycle, leave the house unoccupied for at least an equivalent period of time (six further hours if you ran it for six hours) with, ideally, the windows open.

Finally, consider a humidity monitor. This is a tiny sensor installed inside the piano, which will operate on battery power, and will set off an alarm (in the form of an email or text message) if the relative humidity clears a certain threshold (such as 50%). You’ll get an immediate alert if there’s the potential for mold to grow inside the cabinet, and can correct it quickly. Most likely this would happen if the dehumidifier were unplugged.

This device allows us to trust that the dehumidifier is operating as intended. This is important, since you can’t actually see or hear the device, people might accidentally unplug it, and so forth.

What about mice?

Mice can do colossal damage, but seldom do in newer pianos because of their chemical mold treatments. In older pianos, if the colony nests inside the piano, the damage can be devastating.

The first response is a total cleaning and an evaluation of the damage to moving parts. Additionally, mouse urine can cause warping, sticking keys, and mold. Once all visible evidence is removed and parts are replaced, there are two possible forms of prevention.

Treating the house for mice is ideal. However, it this isn’t possible, the piano interior can be thoroughly scrubbed with a solution containing peppermint oil, and a saturated cloth left in the bottom. Another highly rated chemical repellent is Grandpa Gus’s Mouse Repellent. Any visible openings can then be covered with steel exclusion fabric.

Some customers use ultrasonic rodent repellent, but I have none of that I can recommend at this time. They do not seem to be effective as a long-term solution.

Can I polish the strings?

Sometimes, piano dealers polish the strings using 3M pads and steel wool. This can only be done to treble strings, not copper-wound bass strings, and will almost certainly throw the piano out of tune. If your strings are regularly breaking or are severely rusty, it might be worth considering having your piano restrung by a rebuilder.

Tuning FAQs

Why do pianos go out of tune?

Pianos go out of tune as humidity changes. Here in Maine (and New England in general), indoor humidity is highly unpredictable: Constant small fluctuations in humidity mean your piano can go out of tune even more quickly than in other parts of the country which experience only major seasonal changes.

These fluctuations can happen much faster if the piano is near a window, an air conditioner, a heat source, a humidifier or dehumidifier, an outside wall, or is in a drafty space. A piano placed in front of a baseboard heater can go out of tune in the matter of weeks, rather than months.

Major seasonal changes are not the primary reason a piano in our locale goes out of tune. Daily changes in humidity are the main factor. Fortunately, by controlling humidity, tuning stability can be improved.

Humidity is always changing. Your piano will go flatter as the air dries, and sharper as it gets more humid. And every time your piano’s tuning changes, some parts change at different rates than others. Eventually, the piano is out of tune with itself—that’s when it needs a tuning!

How often should I get my piano tuned?

I recommend tuning your piano a minimum of once every six months. If the piano is used for performances, is in a high-traffic and high-use environment like a church or a restaurant, or is very new, I recommend a minimum of once every three months.

If nobody plays the piano and you’re simply storing it, an annual tuning can be adequate if the piano is in a sufficiently stable space and doesn’t appear to be experiencing excessive humidity swings.

Why does my piano go out of tune so quickly?

The primary reason for a piano to go out of tune quickly is the environment and humidity changes in the environment the piano is kept. See “Where should the piano be positioned?”

Sometimes, loose pins can cause a piano to quickly sound dreadful, like two keys are being played at once. This usually happens in dry weather. However, some pianos with soundboard or bridge cracks can go out of tune very quickly. These will require more serious repair than can generally be performed in a home, and I can direct you to an experienced rebuilder.

If your piano is already in an ideal space and is still going out of tune quickly, or if you’re unable to move your piano to a better space, you might consider a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System™. These control the humidity inside the piano itself, and can considerably improve tuning stability in challenging environments, in addition to protecting the piano from dangerous humidity extremes.

Remember that chart up above? That’s just what’s happening in the room. Here’s what’s happening inside a piano protected by a Dampp-Chaser system. Yes, the humidity still changes, but much less than the room!

How long does a piano tuning take?

A newer piano that has been tuned within six months will usually take between 50 and 75 minutes. Some pianos can take up to two hours if they’re very far out of tune.

Should I wait to tune the piano after I move it?

If you’re just moving a piano a short distance within your house, the majority of pianos will not require any time to settle. The physical action of moving doesn’t generally alter tuning. However, changing the environment of a piano—moving it between houses or even towns—will almost certainly cause settling and adjustment. In these circumstances, I recommend waiting a minimum of two weeks before tuning. See my Piano Moving FAQs.

Will it cost more if it’s been a long time?

It depends. When a piano is dramatically out of tune, I’ll need to perform a “pitch adjustment.” A pitch adjustment is a very quick tuning designed to get the piano close to concert pitch before the actual tuning. This pre-tuning is necessary, as otherwise the piano will go out of tune as I tune it.

Pitch adjustments considerably change the tension within the piano. A piano that’s a half-step below concert pitch will undergo an overall internal change of almost one ton of tension during a tuning. This means the tuning does not last as long because the instrument will settle, and it also means the process of tuning it will take longer. You will want to consider getting it tuned a second time after about a month.

I do not charge extra if I can still tune it in my expected time frame of two hours, and I almost always can. However, the tuning itself will not last as long, and a follow-up will likely be necessary.

Do you tune by ear?

I tune using a Sanderson AccuTuner. After tuning, I will aurally evaluate the piano and will retune individual keys or perhaps a small section by ear if I think, for some reason, the machine’s “perfect” doesn’t match a human ear’s “perfect.” I do not, at this time, know of anyone in Maine who tunes primarily by ear, and if you know of one or are one please contact me!

What’s the difference between a fish and a piano?

You can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish.

Do you service players?

Players fall in two categories: Older player uprights, generally from the 1920s, and newer electronic players from the 80s onward. I can tune both, but the older 1920s players can present some unique challenges when regulating or repairing them. The player stack is heavy, and generally difficult to remove, and it sits between me and the action. You should expect this to take some extra time.

While I can help you set up your Yamaha Disklavier or other electronic system, I do NOT do repairs or rebuilding on the actual player mechanism, old or new. I do not currently have anyone to recommend for this work, and if you are such a person, please contact me.

My piano has a weird buzz. Can you fix that?

There are many possible reasons for a buzz. These range from debris on the soundboard, to poor string seating, to structural faults, to peeling glue on the edge of the soundboard. I will do my best to find the source of the problem in your piano and come up with a reasonable treatment.

Where do I find a teacher?

Funny you should ask: I have a handy list on my teachers page!

Are my ivories worth anything?

It is a federal crime to buy or sell ivory, and so the market value is zero. They are worthwhile to keep (or give to your technician) since they can be used to replace broken or missing ivories on other pianos.

Can you fix my broken music rack?

I do carry replacement hardware for music racks. If the music rack itself is broken, then the options depend on the piano: Upright pianos often have generic, easily replaceable music racks. If your music rack is hinged, I can almost certainly order a replacement readily. Grand piano repairs can be more complicated, but I do them. I might opt to work with a carpenter depending on the nature of the repair and the intricacy of the detail of your particular music rack.

My piano is too loud! What can I do?

If it’s a grand, you can leave the lid down. Another easy fix is putting a rug underneath the piano, which does a lot—especially for grands. If you have an upright, you can also cut a rectangular piece of foam insulation to set behind the piano. In this application, exposed foam does best.

It’s possible that your piano is too bright, and needs to be voiced down. Depending on the piano, this can be done by sanding the surface of the hammers, needling the hammers, or applying chemical hammer softener.

Where should the piano be positioned?

It should be positioned along on an inside wall away from doors and windows. Outside walls change temperature (and thus relative humidity) more quickly than inside walls.

Make sure it is in a large enough room. Small rooms change temperature and humidity quicker than large rooms because of the volume of air. The exception would be a small space with very well-controlled humidity.

Control the humidity in the room. Dehumidifiers or air conditions prevent the air from getting too humid in the summer, and humidifiers keep the piano from drying out in the winter. If you cannot control the humidity in the room, then I can install a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System™.

Our piano is in a building that isn’t heated in the winter. Do we need to do anything?

This is a pretty common situation here in Maine in churches and grange halls. Curiously, pianos exposed to colder temperatures tend to hold a better tune overall—this is because it’s largely the heating of the air that causes dryness in the winter, and cooler spaces maintain better humidity levels.

However, there is a tremendous risk of condensation forming on the strings and pins inside the piano and its action, which will initially cause rust and sluggishness and can eventually cause mold. Both rust and mold can become terminal conditions in a piano quickly, especially one that’s left unplayed and unattended to for months at a time. In this cases, my strategy is the installation of a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System™, or even just the Dampp-Chaser dehumidifier which is considerably less expensive than the complete system. See more about Dampp-Chasers.

The movers broke my pedals! Can you fix them?

It’s quite common for home movers unfamiliar with pianos to struggle when putting together the pedal assembly—this is one good reason to hire professional piano movers. Usually in these cases nothing is actually broken, and I can put the pedals back together in the same visit. However, in the case of major breaks, I can supply replacements (usually on a return visit) or can duplicate components (often with the help of a carpenter).

Something fell into my piano! Can you get it?

Yes. If a pen or pencil rolled in behind the fallboard or music rack, it is unlikely to do any damage other than making noise when you play a key—many times, my clients have no idea anything even fell in! However, if you notice a key no longer plays or feels stuck, or if the object fell into the action of your grand piano, give me a call and I’ll be by to remove it as soon as possible!

If it’s especially unreachable, I can hunt in hard to reach places using an endoscope.

My last tuner said the pins were too loose. Is this a problem?

A lot of tuners are not technicians—that is, they tune pianos but do not perform repairs. Tuning pins can often be sized up, or even just set deeper into the pinblock. However, if MANY tuning pins are loose or the pinblock itself is damaged (which is often difficult to judge in uprights), then the piano might be in need of a rebuild, which is extensive work done in a shop.

However, not everybody is looking to rebuild their piano. You might be looking for a solution that will work for the next few years, and is a whole lot cheaper. If the piano has dreadfully loose tuning pins, and another technician has already given up on it, there does exist one remaining (and interesting) solution: There’s an extremely viscous cyanoacrylate (sold by the brand name Hot Stuff Original Instant Glue) can be dripped around the tuning pins. It will wick into the pinblock and crystallize, swelling the wood. It takes approximately one bottle to treat a single piano. It does not bond the tuning pins to the pinblock, but rather swells the pinblock and consequently increases its grip on the pins.

This chemical wizardly can rescue pianos that otherwise seem quite far gone, although it’s not guaranteed if the pinblock is badly cracked or damaged. Nonetheless, I’ve had multiple situations where it seemed very nearly miraculous, and the customer was spared the cost of rebuilding the pianos for years.

If the piano is an upright, it’s necessary to lay the piano on its back before treating. (This typically requires a piano dolly unless you’re singularly gargantuan, and I’ve heard stories of such technicians.) Vacuum the area around the tuning pins so you don’t glue too much dog hair and other debris permanently in place. Leave the piano in this position until Hot Stuff has had adequate time to cure—you don’t want it to drop down the strings when you stand the piano back up. After an hour or so, the tuning pins should be set much more firmly, and tuning stability will likely be much improved.

In short, a piano with some loose pins is generally worth a second look by a technician, and about two thirds of the time I find I can correct the problem in-home.

Do you tune Mason & Hamlin Screw Stringers? Wegman’s? Square Grands? Birdcage Uprights? This unique thing I found in my basement I can’t find anywhere on the internet?

If your peculiar piano is in good condition, I’ll do my very best to tune it. And if I can’t, I’ll at least photograph it and look at it in wonder.

I can tune Mason & Hamlin screw stringers and birdcage uprights, if they’re otherwise in good condition. I’m always willing to take a look at something truly novel.

Most of the time, square grand pianos are not able to be tuned to anything resembling a modern tuning, and much of the time not even to themselves. This is because they are, by definition, very old, with most of them being from the 1850s and 1860s. They also simply weren’t built as ruggedly as pianos of even a few decades later, and mechanical issues typically abound. You’re better off completely rebuilding it if you’re passionate about the design.

Wegman uprights are real oddities, with their peculiar tuning pins. I can’t even find a picture of one on the internet to share here, so I’ll definitely come look at yours. When I first encountered one, I couldn’t find anyone else who had even seen such a thing. For the uninitiated, this is a design of piano that doesn’t use a pinblock: Metal tuning pins are placed through the cast iron plate, and then have a notch with a wedge driven in from the other side to hold them in place. They typically can be tuned, although replacing tuning pins is, essentially, machine work.

Moving FAQs

Who do I contact to move my piano?

There are two well-established piano movers here in Maine: The Piano Mover’s of Maine and Starbird Piano, both of which are based in Portland. Both, in my experience, are willing to travel pretty far.

Pricing for piano moving is quite variable, and you should have the following information ready: The location the piano is moving from and to; The number of steps at both locations; The size of the piano (length for a grand or height for an upright).

If you need an especially long distance move between states, reach out to Piano Movers Inc. They service all of New England, and come highly recommended as they’re the movers used by Londonderry Piano in New Hampshire.

Do I really need a professional mover?

Pianos weigh many hundreds of pounds (about 400 for the smallest spinets and 1200 for the largest grands). They can also move unpredictably because of their often dramatically uneven weight distribution. Although moving a piano poorly could damage it, the real risk is to the people and environment. On a flight of stairs, a piano can quickly transform into an unstoppable battering ram leaving a path of devastation behind it.

The typical rule of thumb is to call a professional if either you’re moving a grand piano, or if you’re moving an upright and more than three stairs are involved at either location.

Can I just use a regular moving company?

Typical household movers don’t have adequate experience taking pianos apart and putting them back together. They might be able to move an upright, but grands are another matter altogether. I regularly have to reinstall pedal lyres that were improperly installed by movers. I’ve also cleaned up after a number of piano drops (one of which trapped a person). These are nightmare experiences for everybody involved. These are typically caused by the piano moving in a way the mover didn’t expect, given their uneven weight distribution. If at all possible, choose somebody with substantial experience moving pianos!

I once was called in to help “experienced piano movers” remove the legs from a Steinway. They couldn’t figure out how they came off! I won’t name the company, but it was a large, local moving firm, and they’d begun attempting to remove the bolts holding the key bed to the rest of the cabinet when I arrived. If they’d succeeded, it would have been quite the insurance claim!