In this article, instead of looking at a specific piano, we’re going to cover a much broader yet critical topic; how do you maintain an acoustic piano and keep your piano clean to guarantee the maximum life span and maximum enjoyment out of the instrument. Acoustic pianos are obviously not cheap, and just like a car, they require some care and attention to ensure the longest possible lifespan.
Acoustic Piano Mechanics:
With an acoustic piano, unlike certain musical instruments, the most important thing to keep in mind is that they are made of natural materials. Because they are made of natural materials, they react to things like temperature and humidity. With regard to temperature, it’s important to make sure that the room housing a piano has a relatively stable ambient temperature. Heat sources such as direct sunlight or a fireplace coming on and off are not going to do any favors to a piano.
In terms of the mechanics of a piano, every single acoustic piano without exception uses a wooden key-stick and because of this, one of the most important things to do in terms of humidity is to keep the humidity in the home to within the range 35% to 55% relative humidity. Piano keys have bushing material that is made of felt, and every single time the humidity goes up or down, the felt either poofs up or dries out and gets scratchy against the steel. Either way, this is something that leads to sticky keys. Sticky keys are one of those problems that occur very commonly on acoustic pianos, and the biggest cause is humidity being out of range.
The second reason it’s important to maintain the humidity is to keep the piano in tune. Whether an upright or grand piano, every acoustic piano’s soundboard is slightly bowed as the strings are stretched across it set at a particular angle, which is referred to as the crown. As the humidity goes up, the soundboard starts to push up against the strings and actually cause them to go sharp. If it’s too dry, the soundboard shrinks, pulls itself flatter, and the strings go flat.
Acoustic Piano Placement:
Another important consideration is the placement. For years, it was strongly advised to ensure that your piano was not placed against an outside wall. Homes weren’t very well insulated, so this was a genuine concern. These days, most homes are very well insulated, so this isn’t really a concern anymore in the majority of cases. Another common piece of advice was to make sure your piano wasn’t placed right next to a heat source; this piece of advice still holds true. If a piano is in the same room as a heat source, an external humidity unit may be required to offset the heat source.
Acoustic Piano Cleaning:
When it comes to cleaning an acoustic piano, the first thing that usually comes up is what materials are ideal and what if any chemicals should be used. The short answer in terms of spray is that you want to stay away from any type of a typical polishing or a typical home cleaning solution. This means no Pledge, no Windex, nothing with any acidity, nothing corrosive that would over time mess up the high-gloss or satin finish of an acoustic piano.
With that being said, there are piano polishes out there designed specifically for this purpose. Cory’s is one company that’s pretty common. Roland, the digital piano company actually makes a great piano care kit as well. They include mild cleaners, which not only remove fingerprints but also cut the grease really well. You’re not going to have to scrub too hard – It’s a quick couple of squirts, and it works beautifully for removing grime. If you don’t want to go down the route of purchasing a specialized cleaner, then just a damp cloth will do the trick.
Now, what are you spraying this stuff on to whether it’s just filtered water or a specialized cleaner? The answer is a Microfiber cloth. You don’t have to go and purchase a super expensive one, but just make sure that it’s really soft. You don’t want it to have any kind of a rough surface or something that over time might start to wear down the furniture polish finish. I get questions about toothpaste sometimes, which may sound odd, but it was kind of a “MacGyver” trick to fix CDs that were skipping; put toothpaste on the back because it fills in the cracks, the toothpaste dries and then stops the CD from skipping. Don’t do that! Not only will it not effectively fill the scratch, but you’re going to see it, especially on a black piano. If you’re at the point where the piano really does have deep scratches that need to be dealt with, there’s not really two ways about it. You are going to have to just go and find a furniture refinisher with a high-speed buffing wheel. It’s going to cost you a few hundred dollars in most markets, but you should be able to find someone who can do this very well.
Next, let’s look at cleaning piano keys. The same thing with the outside polish, you do not want to use any type of a harsh chemical or cleaner on top of the keys, whether it’s the white keys or black keys. There is instead specialized key cleaner for this purpose, often called key whitener or key brightener. Cory’s, which is a supplier that a lot of piano stores have access to, also sell this type of product. They call it Key-Brite, and it helps them stay nice and white, and it also helps to cut the grease. If you don’t have access to something like this you can do what my mom always used to do with my piano growing up. She would get a little bucket of warm water with a few dabs of dish soap, mix it up so that it was a little bit soapy, and then just lightly dab the keys with dry cloth/soft cloth. It doesn’t have to be microfiber, but I would still stick with microfiber.
One final thing about the keys; most, if not all new pianos come with a plastic key, rather than the ivory keys of the past. The technology in the plastic has got to the point where the keys are not yellowing nearly as much as they used to. It used to be a no-no to have the piano keyboard in direct sunlight because that was just a virtual guarantee that within a few years, those keys were going to start yellowing because of the effects of the sunlight on it. That’s not as much a concern as it once was from a discoloration perspective, but generally, it’s still a good idea to not have the piano in direct sunlight anyway due to the humidity related reasons mentioned above.
To sum everything up, an instrument made up of organic materials needs to be treated with a little more care – less like an appliance and more like a fine piece of art. Wood, felt, and metals all react to temperature, humidity, and moisture. The best practice is to keep your temperature with about a 5-degree span on either side of normal room temperature, 21.5 degrees, or 72 degrees Fahrenheit. In terms of moisture, you’re going to try and keep that at the very lowest to about 35 but high-30s is best, up to about mid to high-50s in the more humid seasons.
Try to keep the piano away from any localized sources of heat and any major localized sources of strong natural light. And when it comes to cleaning, there are tons of great, inexpensive, and specialized cleaning products and easy approaches to keeping your piano in good shape, like dusting the keys every few days with a feather duster and cleaning fingerprints with a microfiber cloth.