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Cleaning Your Grand Piano

Cleaning Your Grand Piano

I would like to suggest a few things before we get started. You will need some supplies, and it would be a good idea to have a digital camera around to take pictures of the way things are before you do anything, both to have a before and after picture, as well as to assist you in reassembling the piano if you have to take it apart. You will also need a supply of patience. This procedure is suitable for most grand pianos, although you will get the best results when it's only dust and dried flowers or insects that you are dealing with. If there have been spills on the soundboard (the large piece of wood under the strings that is parallel to the floor), they will probably still show after you have cleaned the piano with this method. The other caution is that what you are doing is going to impact the tuning somewhat. The more you scrub the strings and tuning pin area, the more you will knock the strings out of tune. If you only blow the dust out, this will impact the tuning the least. However, this procedure is always best done just before the piano tuner comes, rather than after.

You need a good vacuum cleaner. A little hand-held one is not going to cut the mustard. A canister vac is best because we are going to use both the vacuum as well as the exhaust, and with this type you can usually reverse the hose to get both effects. If you have a good strong vacuum but cannot reverse the hose, you will need something else that blows a strong current of air, perhaps a hairdryer on the cool setting or a leaf blower. Even a fireplace bellows will work here. You also need a soft brush attachment. Horsehair is best. If you don't have the soft brush attachment, you can improvise with a soft paintbrush with long bristles. Again, it needs to be soft enough not to scratch, but stiff enough to disturb the grime of ages so that you can zoop it up with the vacuum.

The rest of the supply list is also essential: A dust mask, or two if you have an assistant (recommended); a fitted sheet of at least double bed size; several swiffer type dust attracting cloths; some wooden (not metal) shish kebab skewers; a long broomstick handle. Optional: 0000 steel wool, clear wax (Butcher's or similar), cotton cloth.

Prepare the room. You are going to raise a veritable mushroom cloud of dust. Cover or remove oil paintings, light colored draperies and white scatter rugs and stationery upholstered furniture, or put down a drop cloth over them. You get the idea.

Before you raise the lid, make sure that there is clearance with the wall, and if not, move the piano. If you have to move the piano, lift it as you move it (I know, it's very heavy, that's why you have an assistant!) so that you don't put pressure on the legs, because the wheels on most pianos are rusted and will not turn. Then, please make sure the lid hinge pins are securely in the lid hinges. Where are they? They are on the straight side of the piano. If it's a short grand, there will be two of them, and if it's a long grand (6'6" or longer), there will be two or three. It is absolutely essential that the hinge pins are in place. You are looking for something that is brass colored or nickel plated, which may have an L shape or which may end in a raised round capital. You may find that someone has inserted a nail in place of a lost hinge pin. That's alright as long as it's a tight fit. But something has to be there. If there's nothing there, the weight of the lid as it is being raised will tear out the screws in the remaining hinge and do incredible damage to the lid. The unsecured lid will travel in the direction you are raising it and go out the big picture window or the wall, destroying the wiring and causing a fire in the process. You can see why I am being so adamant about this!

Once you know the lid hinge pins are in place, raise the lid and prop it with the broomstick handle. It will be impossibly high, but this will give much better access to the inside of the piano than the regular propstick. You also want to remove the music desk, if you haven't already. Usually, these travel along glides attached to the inside rim. Sometimes they slide right off (pulling toward you), sometimes there is a notch on one or both of the glides which will allow you to lift the desk straight up at that place. With the music desk off (so you can get at the tuning pin area) and the lid up, you can start vacuuming the inside of the piano. Use the vacuum as much as possible here to get the loose dust and grime off anything you see. Use your soft brush here. Go in-between the tuning pins and along the strings going back and forth along their entire length. Scrub the felt that the strings rest on in the tuning pin area. You will see it turn into a real color like red, blue, green or purple! You can use one of the swiffer cloths to dust the plate, the dampers (wooden or painted black, they have felt blocks underneath that rest on top of the strings), and the inside of the rim.

At this point you should have removed whatever can be removed with the vacuum used in the conventional way. Now we get creative and the really messy fun begins!

Drape the piano lid with the fitted sheet, covering the area where the straight side meets the curved back of the piano as well as you can. Make sure you have your dust mask on and well fitted. We are going to blow the remaining dust on the soundboard toward the straight side, but try to contain it within the piano case. This is where you will reverse the hose of your canister vacuum and put it on the exhaust. Use the crevasse tool to concentrate the airflow. If your vacuum cleaner won't do this use one of the other options; e.g., hairdryer on cool setting, leaf blower, or bellows. There is going to be an awful mess. Clouds will rise up from the depths of the piano, and all the work you did to clean the piano will seem to have been in vain. But it wasn't. You got rid of most of it so that blowing it wouldn't be even worse!

Now, reverse the hose on your vacuum cleaner and surface dust the piano with it again. It should be much easier this time. You will now be able to remove the debris that you blew toward the straight side just by vacuuming using the soft brush attachment. Be very careful when brushing on the soundboard. It is made out of spruce on most pianos and will scratch very easily.

If you like the way the soundboard looks now, then you are done with this part of the cleaning. If you think you'd like to work at it some more and have a lot of patience, then take out the swiffer cloths and the wooden skewers. Great care will be needed here. You are going the use the skewers to manipulate the swiffer cloth below the strings to polish the soundboard. You must make enough of a pad with the cloth that the skewers won't penetrate and scratch the soundboard. It would also be a good idea to snip off or pad the ends of the skewers with something so they aren't quite so pointed. Ideally, you'll fish the pad in from the treble end and then keep moving it to collect what you couldn't get out with the vacuum. You will eventually end up at the straight side (bass) of the piano where you will be able to simply lift the pad out.

If you would like to, you may clean the damper heads with 0000 steel wool (super fine) to remove attached grime. Gently and lightly apply steel wool in a back and forth motion, trying not to take finish off of edges. Apply wax with cotton cloth according to directions and then polish off.

Finally, we'll clean the case. You probably have a product that you like to use when you are dusting. My preference is to stay completely away from spray products, but if you adore yours, please, do not ever spray it onto the piano. Stand well away from the piano and spray it onto your cloth Don't spray anything ever, anywhere near the piano. The propellant moves the stuff everywhere and it will get into the pinblock and contaminate the tuning pins so that they will not hold a tuning. Most modern finishes do not need and in fact want you to avoid using anything other than a just slightly damp (with water) cloth. For an older finish, stay away from products that have silicone in them. I would rather not mention specific products, although there are some nice ones (usually available at the hardware store, rather than the grocery store). If the case is really grimy (for instance, came from a home where there was smoking) and you want to get the stuff off, first scrub with mineral spirits or a wood cleaner until your rag no longer has grunge on it. Then use the good product. Remember to dispose of rags properly as they will be flammable until they are dry. That is, do not leave them scrunched up; let them air dry in a place with good circulation, preferably well away from your living area and away from any place where there might be a spark. (that is, not the furnace room!).

Elizabeth Atkins
rev. 11-29-13

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