5 – Tuning Your “Golden Oldie”
— by Wes Flinn RPT
About Tuning Those “Golden Oldies”
Recall that “older pianos” for this study are those manufactured before the year 1980.
The subject of this article truly is “tuning” those older pianos, and targets the main issue involved in the ability of any piano to receive and hold a “tuning”, which issue is the condition of its “pinblock”. Without a working “pinblock” you do not have a working piano.
This is absolutely and PAINFULLY true about older pianos — so, to understand much about tuning these “Golden Oldies”, we have to deal first with the biggest problem that all older pianos have to meet, and clearly describe what’s required to do this job of tuning older pianos — and this means that instead, we have to call this study:
“All About the Failing Pinblocks of Older Pianos”
(1) A piano is a machine, with more parts than any other invention –verticals have about 10,000 parts, spinets about 11,000, and grands 12,000 or more; and, that all acoustical pianos use a “pinblock” to tension the strings, which is a large, single piece of laminated wood about 4 feet wide, 8 inches tall and 2 inches thick — see the exploded view of a grand piano pinblock below, with pinblock showing as floating above the lid.
This pinblock holds about 225 tuning pins, with strings attached, that allow control of string tension of each of the piano strings.
(2) This “pinblock” device is an old and very proven design concept, starting out originally as a solid block of wood in early instruments; then by about the year 1900 most piano pinblocks had evolved into a laminated design, similar to plywood, to enhance their strength, and to extend their life expectancy, and were made out of several layers of hard natural woods (such as hard rock maple or beech), because no other natural materials or products available did the job as well.
(3) Before about 1975, all pinblocks designs were made only from natural woods; by the time 25 or so years had passed after manufacture, these natural wood pinblocks always began deteriorating due to age and temperature and humidity changes, and on a regular and expected basis would soften up enough to no longer hold string tensions, allowing a piano to go out of tune all by itself. This situation has always been a huge, vexing problem in the history of acoustic pianos. Many remedies and chemicals were tried over the years the world over to correct the problem, but usually with very limited success.
(4) The only really reliable remedy for correcting failing pinblocks in all pianos up until about 1980 was to replace the pinblock completely — Yes, “REPLACE” — which necessitated replacing the strings as well. By about 1970, world methods which incorporated man-made substances like resin, plus the use of thinner and multi-layer designs were coming into use; then, finally by about 1980, most all the world’s manufacturers had employed various kinds of technology and new pinblock designs which usually eliminated this general deterioration and failure of acoustic piano pinblock systems.
Below are shown 3 types of current pinblock constructions, and a grand pinblock:
The above exploded view of a grand piano shows all its major parts, with a pinblock shaped to fit a grand piano pictured floating up above the lid at top of picture, in front of its plate, which holds the 225 or more strings in a piano – look closely to see all the tuning pin holes. Pinblocks in vertical pianos are shaped almost exactly the same as in the grand piano, and operate exactly the same way, only in a vertical instead of horizontal position.
Below is a side view of a pinblock sample material with a tuning pin installed in it, along with a view of typical tuning pin layouts in both a grand and a vertical piano:
Here is the moral of our story:
Pre-1980 pianos that have been stored in locations without climate control are often completely ruined, and must either be totally restored or trashed. Replacing a pinblock necessarily involves the replacement of all the strings. In addition, to return a piano to useful service again can require making other weather-related repairs, such as repairing cracks in the soundboard, and re-gluing action parts, all of which services, just to make the piano work again, becomes increasingly expensive to do.
The worst problem of all is that these older pianos often may appear to be tunable; but when tuned, the pins break loose from oxidation holding them inside the pinblocks, and within days or weeks of a tuning can slip out of tune again worse than before a tuning was attempted. And the worst part of this story is that most all pianos out of the Golden Age of Piano, around 1860 to about 1960, with the beautiful and exotic and romantic cases which are still in our homes today the world over, all these have failed pinblocks and are simply no longer possible to tune or use – without repair, that is. I will no longer accept requests for tuning of pre-1980 pianos without including pinblock repair – these pianos have pinblocks that are either failing right now, or will fail with the next attempt to tune them.
A bright spot in this story is that we now have the use of a chemical pinblock treatment developed during the Korean war, which can be used to restore the original function of a pinblock; this chemical came into general use by piano technicians about 1995 – the chemical is known as “CA”, or “cyanoacrylate”, which is a derivative of the same chemical as used to make what we also know as “superglue”. From the beginnings of the piano in 1700, there have been many, many methods and treatments tried and developed to try to cure this pinblock deterioration problem, but there were never remedies developed with really dependable or consistent results until employment of the CA chemical came into use. Today most pinblocks can be restored to usefulness with the proper application of the CA technique – and, today, resumption of service in any make or type of a physical, acoustic piano is usually possible and affordable, eliminating the replacing of strings, and not impossible to accomplish.
This CA “wonder cure” does not, however, fix everything that is wrong with a piano. All older pianos should be thoroughly inspected and evaluated for the other work they may need besides tuning in order to return piano to becoming a useful and functional machine again. Regardless of how beautiful and appealing an old piano’s appearance might to the owner or buyer, its first purpose is to be a “service tool” that makes music for us, and all those 10,000 or more parts have to be working properly for it to do the job of music making that you are expecting of it.
Therefore, “Buyer beware” !! Owner beware !! Do not believe anyone other than an “RPT”, a “Registered Piano Technician”, on this subject. If a piano service person cannot explain this story to you, and explain how to fix the problem, help them find the door as fast as you can !!
Cost for package of work: pinblock repair with remedial tuning is about $325, any piano.
The links below here summarize the pinblock problem, and provide a picture essay which describes the nature and application of the pinblock procedure which uses the CA chemical to restore the wooden piano pinblock to usefulness again:
Pinblock Failure: https://www.wesflinnrpt.com/piano-definitions#PBFailure
Pinblock Repair: https://www.wesflinnrpt.com/Repair-PDFs/A-07a.10007-CA-Pblock.pdf