Steinway Owners’ Magazine: Troubled Waters

As seen in the Issue One 2013 edition of the Steinway Owners' Magazine.

Pianos and water don’t mix. Or they shouldn’t. When they do come together, the effects can be disastrous. Inge Kjemtrup assesses the damage and finds out how you can protect your piano from the demon damp

Last October, Hurricane Sandy left a huge swath of devastation across the Caribbean and on America’s Eastern Seaboard. Houses were torn apart, trees ripped from their roots, streets flooded and parts of the New York subway were submerged in water. One memorable image of Manhattan showed almost all of the lower part of the island in darkness due to electrical outage. The loss of lives and property (the initial estimate for the US alone was $65.6 billion) from this storm is still being evaluated.

Bill Youse, Director, Technical Services and Special Projects for Steinway & Sons New York, witnessed some of the effects that a sudden influx of water has on pianos. “We have repaired several Steinways that were damaged by Sandy,” he says. “Most received minor damage and we replaced legs, pedals and pedal lyres. They had been in just a few inches of water and were removed very quickly so the damage was minimal. Two or three will need complete restoration and one was beyond repair.”

The circumstance that made that particular piano irreparable was pretty extreme. “The customer explained that the piano had been ‘hit by a boat that had crashed into and floated through his living room,’” says Youse.

David R Kirkland, Customer Service Administrator for Steinway & Sons New York, cites natural disasters such as Sandy, plumbing mishaps, leaking roofs and fire sprinkler systems as the leading causes of water damage. “Water damage can also occur when water is used by fire-fighters to extinguish a fire,” he adds. “There is also humidity damage, which can occur when a piano is exposed to tropical levels of humidity in excess of 75 per cent RH [relative humidity].”

Whether a piano can be restored after water damage depends on a number of factors, as Youse explains. “How much water, what type of water (fresh or salt) and where the water came from (above, below, steam or high humidity) can be sometimes just as important has long exposure to water.”

Stabilization is the name of the game. “The effects can take a while to manifest,” says David Widdicombe, Technical Services Manager, Steinway & Sons London. “We generally want the piano to dry naturally and be stabilized, and then we take a decision about what to do. It’s important for pianos to dry out slowly.” Kirkland suggests a drying period of three to six months before an assessment can be made.

“We have to preserve our reputation for quality, so we can’t take shortcuts,” says Widdicombe of the Steinway repairs process. This means that even a piano with a few damaged hammers might have to have all its hammers replaced. Happily, with a fine piano like a Steinway, even a seemingly expensive repair may balance out against replacement value.

Once stabilized, a piano must be closely inspected, ideally at the piano workshop rather than in situ, and it will be scrutinized from top to bottom. “The way the keyboard fits to the keybed has to be fairly precise,” Widdicombe says, “and the keybed needs to be flat and not warped.” A compromised keyboard can be replaced, but keybed damage can contribute to a piano being beyond repair.

“Mould and mildew can affect all of the wooden parts and can attack the felt on the hammers, changing their texture and thus the tonal qualities of the piano,” says Youse. “It could change the feel by attacking felt bushings throughout the action and pedal assemblies. Some of the chemicals to treat mould and mildew can cause damage of their own, so the best treatment is usually replacement of the affected parts.”

Minor rust is a cosmetic issue and can often be removed but, says Widdicombe, “bad corrosion can cause breaking strings. If strings are rusty as the result of water dripping, we advise replacement. The condition of the soundboard in this respect is also important.”

Pianos with modern polyester finishes are generally more water resistant, which is helpful against smaller-scale damage like drips from ceilings. But on grand pianos, the finish is almost irrelevant, as the hinge that opens the music stand is not watertight. “We have a piano where that happened — enough water on top of the piano got through and damaged the action,” says Widdicombe. “Funnily enough, the finish was not damaged. It was satin and could be fixed.”

Recommendations from Steinway & Sons

1. Buy a hygrometer for the room where your piano is located. You can buy a decent hygrometer for $30 to $40 at wine shops, hardware stores and technical equipment stores. This will give you an indication of the amount of moisture in the air.
2. Monitor the hygrometer to determine the highs and lows of humidity for your particular piano environment. According to established, institutional guidelines for piano maintenance, a humidity fluctuation range in excess of 30 points on the relative humidity (RH) scale is excessive for the piano. The result would be tuning instability, possible cracking of the soundboard, eventually loose tuning pins and sluggish or loose pivot points in the keys or action of the piano. Forty-five to 50 per cent RH is the optimum range for Steinway pianos.
3. Steinway & Sons recommends the use of climate control measures or a room humidifier as necessary during dry seasons. Whatever measures are used, the essential principle is to maintain as narrow a range of humidity fluctuation as possible and to safeguard the piano from sudden or drastic extremes of humidity fluctuation.
4. Treatment of mould or mildew requires professional attention, possibly restoration or replacement of parts, and relocation of the piano to a more suitable environment.

Steinway piano owners can only do so much to protect against extreme environmental events like Hurricane Sandy, but they can safeguard against humidity fluctuations through the regular use of a hygrometer to monitor relative humidity (see box). If needed, a humidifier or a dehumidifier or air conditioner can be added to control the overall environment in the piano room.

Widdicombe advises buying a room humidifier that has an outlet that goes to the outside rather than a built-in reservoir. He cites the case of a client whose dehumidifier was working just fine to keep the room stable — until he went away on holiday and the reservoir filled up and the dehumidifier stopped working.

Youse has a final warning for any rock stars contemplating pushing their piano into the pool. “We restore pianos from all over the world, so I see many different types of damage from many different types of environmental situations and I have seen many pianos that were beyond recovery,” he says. “Many people may not know this, but when a piano is submerged to the point where it floats (yes, pianos do float, albeit for a very short period of time) they flip over on their tops. Once you see that, the piano is pretty much unsalvageable.”

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