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MMD > Archives > April 2002 > 2002.04.01 > 07Prev  Next

Tuning a Piano With New Strings
By Craig Brougher

As a few more asides to stringing an old piano with new music wire,
I'd like to comment a bit more on some ideas mentioned here.

As I said in my first post, I have never had to tune a piano more than
once to get it stable after I strung it and chipped it about 20 cents
above pitch the first time.  I also said that a lot of tuners think
I'm crazy, and that it can't be done, and if it is, I will damage the
piano.  I have already proven my point with the letters so far
received.  It is exactly as I said it was.  I am referring to several
hundred of restored pianos, not merely dozens, because I restore pianos
for a living.  I don't tune for the public, which divides my full
attention from rebuilding.

The consensus is that strings have to "settle" first before they can
stabilize.  That is true, as I said.  But the wire itself is already a
constant, so it's everything else around the string that is making the
changes.  It is not the string.  If it were the wire, even partially so,
I would have the same problem  that a few others here seems to have.
I would need to keep tuning a newly strung piano.

It doesn't really matter to me that the PTG has as their official
position on the subject, that strings will always stretch somewhat
before they "stabilize," and can "settle in" and be tuned.  If that
were the case, then no matter what sort of preparation and techniques
one might add to his repertoire, everybody would be tuning a newly
strung piano at least 4 -6 times before it settled down and would hold
a tuning.  Since that isn't so, they are wrong.  I don't apologize for

As far as factory work is concerned, I am not impressed.  Factories do
not often bed the new pin planks perfectly because of the time involved
to do so, and since the strings exert between 20-35 tons of pull, the
bedding has to improve considerably before those instruments are going
to hold a tune.  The wood screws alone will not prevent the plank from
squirming under that sort of a load.

Wood screws.  Now there's another relevant subject in holding a tune,
but for another time, perhaps.

I rebuilt a Kimball grand once in which they had literally taken an
iron and a sledge hammer to the back of the plank and smashed it
unbelievably into its leading lip to get it to hold a tune.  American
craftsmanship at its worst.  They should have tried dropping it out of
a 5-story window, for all the good it did.  However, when I bed a pin
plank, it is 100% bedded and there is no movement at all.  Individual
rebuilders can do this economically, but factories can't.  Blaming
uncertainties in wire is a lot easier and more believable.  It just
isn't true, that's all.

Julian Dyer brought out a good point by Wolfenden, who said something
to the effect that "The bridge pins cause resistance in the wire,
preventing the whole string being at the same tension.  Typically the
wire behind the bridge will be 15 pounds lower in tension in a
well-designed piano, far worse in poorer designs."

This is why it is good to tune a piano by pounding in the note with the
key, instead of doing it all with the pin.  The shock waves sent up and
down the string equalize the tension across the string better.

Another problem with unstable tunings is the bridge coating.  Teflon
filled paint is not as good as graphite because it relies on a
(supposed) lower coefficient of friction only, but its static
coefficient of friction isn't that much lower than regular paint,
as that is what it contains.  A solid coating of graphite however,
is better because graphite's static coefficient is lower than Teflon
paint.  It is also more solid, like metal; it doesn't compress, and
it's laminar and slides within itself, like bearings.  No matter how
thick it is applied, it will not dent, so it will not anchor itself
into its own distortion.  You can't beat it.

"UK Weber pianos use graphite to lubricate the string path, clearly
part of Wolfenden's desire to have the lowest string resistance,"
said Julian Dyer.

On the other had, Eric Shoemaker quoted D.L. Bullock and wrote,  "I
have always patiently tuned my newly installed strings to the correct
pitch until they will stay there no matter how many times it takes.
I believe that this is why I've never shot off a new bass wire and had
to return one to either Schaff or Mapes.  Once more, D.L.  Bullock's
comments about stringing and prepping a new piano/restrung piano are
gospel to me and those procedures I incorporate into my own work."

Another reason Eric may have problems with bass string instability is,
first, he needs to squeeze the hitch eye down so that he has to force
it over the hitch pin.  That's how it's eventually going to end up,
anyway.  If not, then that piano's bass section is always going to be
unstable to a bit of a degree.

Bass strings are very unstable if their hitch eye is gradually
straightening out, which it will do over a period of weeks.  They'll
drive you nuts if they aren't clamped tight around the hitches to begin
with, because they cannot draw (slip) tight like individual hitch eyes
you make in treble string.  They are fixed.  The second thing is, he
needs to stop worrying that he's going to break a string by raising
it 20-30 cents or so sharp to seat, and again during the chip tuning
phase.  All he needs to do is study the tension charts of string wire
and see just how far he can go before breaking the string.  Usually
five or six half-steps.  Stop and think: According to the book on
string tension, some pianos, with any given wire size you mention,
tune up with 3 times more tension than other pianos.  And yet you can
still tune the highest tensioned pianos built 20 cents sharp without
any damage at all to the piano, bridges, or the wire.  Just go by the
principles.  They will not fail you.

The third possibility then is, after the strings are initially brought
up, the first thing to do is to bed the hitch eyes down smartly with a
screwdriver and a hammer.  Then,  re-squeeze the becket bends, straighten
the coils, and chip them up.  The only bass strings I have ever had to
replace are ones that were over-pickled and broke at the becket when I
was winding them.  So Eric's reason as to why he has never "shot off a
new bass wire" because he would never tune them above pitch, is in
error.  He wrote, "Extremely sharp tuning causes major stress to the
bridge pins, flattens the crown, and loosens the windings of the copper
coils in the bass section."

Hmm.  Just imagine all the high tension pianos, like Mason and Hamlin,
that must be a total wreck by now, using about twice the tension found
in a Steinway.

You see, none of this reasoning holds up.

Then Jon Page wrote, "New wire will stretch for a period until it is
stable.  Any wire pulling around a bearing point will not, in and of
itself, cause the string to go flat by the wire bending at a new point.
The natural curve of the wire remains until a force is applied to
sharpen this termination, then it will go flat."

Wolfenden however, said this (Julian Dyer): "Wolfenden says that's the
reason for the traditional wheel: it's not 'stretching' the speaking
length but drawing the wire across the bridge." The need to get the
wire into equilibrium first is the thing."

Stability of new wire is the crux of the PTG's fallacious argument, in
a nutshell.  The general belief is that new wire is not stable and will
stretch for a period until it is stable.  This is absolutely wrong, and
a physical impossibility.  As far as the bends required in the wire,
this is a given and does flatten the tone when the bend sharpens.  But
that isn't a problem, and it isn't an answer.

Regarding the supposed "chewing-gum syndrome" of new piano wire, if
the architect of the Golden Gate bridge and many other suspension
bridges around the world realized that their wire cables made from
thousands of miles of piano wire would first elongate and then remain
elongated until they became "stable" before the modulus of elasticity
law set in, the Golden Gate bridge and hundreds of others similarly
built would be presently sitting in the mud right now.  Lucky for us
that isn't actually the case.

But, pianos are different?  Naw, I don't really think so.

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Mon 1 Apr 2002, 17:58:33 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  New, Piano, Strings, Tuning

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