Cleaning FAQ – Alex's Piano Service

Cleaning FAQ

How do I clean my keys?

Carefully! The ideal cleaning substance is Cory Key-Brite, which can also be purchased at Starbird Piano in Portland or through me. Lacking this, the actual keytops can be cleaned with Windex on a cloth, provided that the cloth is only damp. You don’t want the keys to get wet, as that might cause keytops to come unglued or, if you get them quite wet, might cause warping.

Another good product is MusicNomad’s Key One Cleaner. This is a much thinner product than the Cory Key-Brite, and is used more like Windex. 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.

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. On other finishes, you can use Murphey’s Oil Soap if the piano needs a more serious cleaning. Cleaning underneath the strings of a grand piano is an involved process, generally taking two to three 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. (April 2021 update: 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!)

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.

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 quite effective in 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.

Moths are eating the felt in my piano. What now?

Moth larvae love piano felt, and they bore into it enthusiastically. The initial removal can be pretty difficult. Once the larvae are inside the felts and the hammers, they’ve already done quite a bit of damage and a proper solution would be an action rebuild. If this is unaffordable, the piano is older, and rebuilding is unlikely in the future, a product such as Fortefog Natural Protector can be set off in the same room with the piano with the case left open. The moisture in a fogger is not good for the piano, but it is considerably better than a live moth population.

Prevention includes wiping down the interior with cedar oil and hanging moth traps.

What can I do about mold?

Mold invades the felt and the 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. However, in any size invasion, the entire piano needs to be professionally cleaned and treated with the action and the keys removed. After this cleaning, you’ll want to completely dry out the piano, and the standard technique for this is leaving the piano open and exposed to direct sunlight for a period of several days.

We can’t clean the action (all the moving parts) as thoroughly as we’d like without simply replacing all the parts, because the inside of the wood and felt is as big a risk as the outside. So we do the best we can, blowing out the action and wiping down/vacuuming all surfaces that we can. When cleaning mold, I’ve found 12% hydrogen peroxide to be an optimal cleaner. I purchase 1-gallon containers of 12% peroxide. This stuff is devastating to mold, but needs to be handled with gloves, lab glasses, and caution. Most studies I’ve seen imply that returns rapidly diminish after 10%, so purchasing higher concentrations of peroxide simply endangers the user without more effectively killing mold. However, in addition to being highly effective against mold, peroxide ultimately leaves behind nothing but oxygen.

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. I tent the piano with an industrial ionizer, and let it run for a number of hours. It should be done when the space surrounding the piano is uninhabited by people or animals. Ionization is, essentially, like hitting all the surfaces of the piano with extreme ultraviolet light, or with hydrogen peroxide. In large doses, it causes very rapid aging and death of all biological substances. I can’t speak to the long-term efficacy yet with total confidence, but ionizers are regularly used in household mold remediation, and my results so far have been pretty promising. This is one valuable line of attack.

A dehumidification system must be installed directly inside the piano. The system I use is the Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver system, but you really only need the dehumidifier portion of the system. 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 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.