Monday, November 02, 2009

Unsticking Piano Keys

© 2009 by Tom King (some rights reserved)


A lot of people get completely freaked out over fixing their piano – even when it’s a simple thing like stuck piano keys. Sticky keys can happen because of moisture from a nearby window or outside wall that seeps into the piano case and makes the closely packed hammers swell and stick. I couldn't afford the $300 bucks to fix mine, so I figured out how to do it myself.  If you are at all handy with tools and you work carefully, you shouldn't have much trouble with the job.


Now, I don’t know how to tune a piano and don’t have the equipment to do so. I might could figure it out with an instruction sheet and set of tuning forks, but I’ll leave that for someone with more experience who will tune it for a small fee. The sticky keys problem however, tend to be an expensive repair and being broke is the mother of invention.  If you have broken hammers, you may want to get some help unless you're very good with small woodworking projects like this.


The process is basically a detective job – a task of reverse engineering. I started out figuring out how to open up the top of the case. With an electric drill or screwdriver, the job is pretty straightforward. You shouldn’t have to remove the top lid after you open it. Don’t take off anything you don’t need to. That saves getting things out of alignment later. Look down in the open cover and you can see the strings and hammers. Don’t diddle with the strings or hammers any more than you have to. To unstick the keys you it’s likely you won’t have to.


First remove the keyboard cover – the part of the outside case that covers the area between the keys and the hammers. It didn’t take long for me to remove the cover and lift out the keyboard lid to expose the mechanism.



It was actually a simple matter to remove the keys. Before doing that, I identified which keys were sticking and tagged each of the sticky ones with a tiny Post-It ® note. I thens started working my way from left to right lifting the keys from the frame. The keys sit on top of a rod that acts as a fulcrum. Press down on the ivory part of the key and the other end of it tips the hammer which strikes the string. The keys are balanced so that the weight of the hammer end of the key is heavier than the ivory end and drops back into place of its own weight, restoring the key to its proper height.

DO NOT MIX UP THE KEYS.  Take the keys out and put them back the same way - left to right or right to left, it doesn't matter. Use a sharpie and mark the keys in an inconspicuous way with a number or the key name if you know what it is so that if, heaven forbid, you get them mixed up, you can put them back where they belong. Set aside a large flat table or other work surface for laying out the keyboard. Threaten anyone that comes by with death if they mess with the keys while they are lying loose on your work table.



One by one I set the keys on our pool table side by side in the same order I removed them. Then I took a small vacuum and removed any dust or dirt that had accumulated over the years inside the piano.

Next I cleaned the ivory (actually plastic) covered part of each key with alcohol and a rag to remove any dirt or oil and working from left to right again, began restoring them to their places on the keyboard. When I got to a sticky key I fixed them. Usually there are two or three together where a key has swollen from moisture getting into the cells of the wood. While this may not be the orthodox method, but since I couldn’t find instructions for how to fix sticky piano keys anywhere, I did what seemed logical.

I simply found where the key was rubbing against an adjacent key or the frame it sits in and sanded the contact point down. Just take a small bit of medium sandpaper and sand the sides at the point of contact. Work slowly and sand very carefully so that you only remove the essential amount of surface wood so as to unstick the key. Keep test fitting the key with the two adjacent keys in place on either side. Sand the adjacent key at the contact point as well. It’s best to alternate between the two keys until both keys move freely. Continue down the keyboard reinserting working keys and trimming the sticky ones until they work.


When all keys are clean and in place, simply replace the lid, screw the cover back in place, lower the top lid and put the trophies back on top and call a piano tuner. Your piano should work as good as new now.


WARNING:

Danger Will Robinson! I am not a professional piano guy. I may be revealing secrets that will get me assasinated by the secret guild of piano fixers, I don’t know. By the time you read this I may be dead. If not, I’d like to state for the record that this is just how I did it. I was successful, but that doesn’t mean you will be. If you break something, it’s not my fault and you can’t sue me for it because I’ve hereby warned you that


If you do pull it off successfully, though, drop me a note and let me know. I looked for hours on the Internet trying to find a description of how to do this and couldn’t find anything. Piano guys are a hush-mmouthed lot (unlike banjo players who, if you ask them how to fix your banjo, will rattle on for hours and you can’t shut them up). There are some pictures I didn’t get because I was busy and forgot to take them till it was too late. If I have to fix the piano again, I’ll add them later. The little woman likes the piano by the door which is a horrible source of moisture, but she’d rather it look good where it is than for it to play well, even though she has perfect pitch and hates it if the thing doesn’t play right.


What can you do?  I was born to repair stuff.


Tom King - twayneking@gmail.com
Flint, TX

14 comments:

  1. Ok, I am going to try this! The school's piano keys are sticking. The piano is old -- the price for fixing the keys is high, bad combo. But it is still in pretty good tune, oddly enough.

    If I can reciprocate with any toddler educational tips, do give a shout!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Kim,
    If the keys are just sticky you're in good shape. If they are broken, that's another. Most old pianos, if you keep 'em in tune and away from warm moist places, they'll hold up for a long time. I've had several folks try following my directions on old uprights and had good success. It's actually easier than it looks. Just make sure you don't mix up the keys. Having a place to lay them out in order is the whole key to getting it all back together. Took me most of a Sunday afternoon, but it was actually a lot of fun. I put on the VCR and got through two movies by the time I fixed the piano. Now all I've got to do is tune the thing.

    As for toddler education tips. I ran two day care centers for a total of 10 years. I'm pretty much up to my ears in toddler education tips - but thanks for the thought.

    Tom

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for your info! I just acquired an old upright for free with a few sticky keys. I've taken the wood apart, sanded the distraught wood and prepped for painting (it will become a brightly colored piano). I figured out how to take out the keys and was actually thinking of doing the little sand paper trick myself, but thought I'd research it first. Glad to know it works and I'll try my best to get this old piano working again. Luckily all my keys are numbered inside so putting them back should be a cinch. Thanks for the advice! Erin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Let me know how it comes out. - Tom

      Delete
  4. I am about to go and try this. I have three stuck keys in my upright and Moonlight Sonata Mvmt 1 doesnt sound the same when the keys are stuck down!! I'll let you know how I go :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you so much for posting this! When I got my piano (for free from pianoadoption.com), I had 1 stuck key. Over the course of one year, I had numerous keys that were stuck. It got to the point where I didn't want to even play anymore. I was about to break down and call someone to fix it for me. I am so glad I searched before doing that! It took me a little over an hour, and now I have no stuck keys!! The only thing I would suggest is that even if your keys are numbered, you renumber with a marker. There were a few numbers that I had difficulty reading. Again, thank you so very much!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. For those who follow your very helpful advice, but not very closely, and who remove the keys but do not keep them together in order reasoning instead that the little numbers on the keys will allow you to put them back in order, it is worth pointing out that 3 and 8 look a whole lot like each other. (Personal experience.) If some of the keys stick after being put back in, your readers may want to shine a bright light on the numbers and double-check the order.

    ReplyDelete
  7. my child was pounding on keys---left side and now about half the keys are sticking---any thoughts? thanks

    ReplyDelete
  8. You may have "kid gunk" between the keys - either that or someone's spilled water in them causing the keys to swell. I'd just go through the steps above and clean the keys - sand them where necessary so there's adequate clearance. There's no really easy way to do that, but to take an afternoon and disassemble the keyboard.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you SO much for posting this. I was actually looking for instructions on how to remove the keys. Your directions lead me in the right direction. I've been a proud piano owner for about a week now (facebook freebie). It's a 1943 Baldwin... old and neglected. I tried your trick with the alcohol on the keys (also not ivory). It got a lot of the gunk off, but not what I assume to be nicotine stains. I'm a former smoker and all too familiar with the yellow ick. I was using Murphy's Oil Soap on the wood and thought I'd give it a try. Came. Right. Off. Couldn't believe it. I did not let the soap sit there long at all. I've done a couple octaves for a stunning before and after. The keys are still yellow'd, but nothing like they were before. Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I couldn't afford to pay for a piano tech's trip to town, so thank you, thank you, thank you! I just finished taking my piano apart and sanding down two of the keys, and they're no longer sticking. Ntm I found a piece of a child's puzzle stuck in there as well. This weekend I'll take all the keys out and clean under them.
    You know, if someone had ever told me that one day I'd take a piano apart and fix it, I'd never have believed them. Thank you again.
    Kim J

    ReplyDelete
  11. Dear Tom, I must thank you for your sense of humor most of all. And the piano repair information sounds very possible. I have just received a free 1920s upright that has lived in a coastal garage for the last decade. Only 4 sticky keys and it's still in tune with itself. A lovely old piano sound. I will try your method and see if it helps. I suspect the blow dryer might also be useful. Again, thanks for your sense of humor. keep writing and sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Tom,

    Thanks much for this. Two of my piano keys were suddenly misbehaving. I lifted the fallboard and it came right out. I found a pencil where it didn't belong.

    Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete