HUMIDITY AND PIANOS
by Craig Brougher
Recently, I placed a piano in California which ended up in a seaside home. The new owner is about to take steps to protect it, but recently, during the time the piano was moved, it became saturated with humidity which spoiled the action and the expression, as well as saturating the hammers. I thought I might take up this issue on the MMD and warn all who may have a similar circumstance. I have an extremely good example to cite.
About 12 years ago I purchased a 7 ft. Steinway grand that spent its life in Florida in a seaside home. When I received it, I realized that this piano was special. I already knew it had been owned by the artist who, among other things was the accompanist for Heifitz, and the piano was obviously hand-picked by someone who knew an exceptional piano when he played one. So when it arrived, I was delighted.
It "rested" in my Missouri home for about 10 months before its restoration. It isn't particularly dry in Missouri either as most people can imagine, but I run my air conditioner to prevent moisture accumulation in the absorptive materials and plaster in my house, so this lowers the humidity as well. Besides, we do not leave the doors open on cool days. We drop the temperature with the air conditioner to keep relative humidity more constant. If we want to enjoy the fresh breezes and outdoor air, we go outside. This is the trick to keeping humidity from permanently ruining a piano, which otherwise it will do.
Although a technician can re-regulate a once-dry piano for damp conditions, he cannot help the soundboard. This piano had been stabilized and voiced over the years for wet conditions in Florida. It played gorgeously when it arrived. Whoever serviced the piano was to be commended. A true expert. But 10 months later, I set it up and played it again, and you could not tell what I was playing. When measuring the downbearing of this piano in the low treble, I got a negative downbearing of -.055. That meant the soundboard had collapsed and the strings were suspending the soundboard, rather than vice versa. Enough moisture had gradually left the board that the compressed wood collapsed under the pressure of the strings in the treble and bass, leaving the center of the board below flat with the strings.
When moisture enters wood from a humid environment year 'round it penetrates the wood totally, from both the top and the bottom of the wood. Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Wood wicks in moisture as the temperature fluctuates, just as though it were composed of zillions of little "water pumps." The moisture in turn has mass and takes room. That compresses the pores of the wood and they will stay compressed. This is also not to mention the terrible de-voicing the hammers receive from the same intrusive saturation. Unless they are re-voiced, they will stay that way-- mushy. For all practical purposes then, the seaside ruined this piano. ( I did restore it and it's back to its very special power and tone, once again, and I did it with the same soundboard wood. That was a large part of its special tone, but that's another story.)
I could also tell you of a Steinway AR that had the plate removed and the case stored in someone's relatively dry basement until I tried to restore it and replace the plate. The case had swollen so much that I could not get the plate back into the piano without notching the treble bend in the case. Even though the case had long dried, the swelling would be there forever. I don't think you can "un-swell" a piano case. The pinplank is a different story. Because it is so thoroughly perforated, it loses moisture again, just like the soundboard and a swollen action will do, and shrinks, just like the soundboard. This destroys the pin plank and soundboard when left long enough. Hopefully you can gradually dry it out and save it.
The secret to getting rid of moisture in a piano is to increase the vapor pressure of the wood in the piano. This has to be done slowly, however. If the piano is only a few degrees warmer generally than the surrounding air, this releases some moisture, slowly, to the air. It happens "10 times" more slowly than the wood accumulated the moisture in the first place. If you want to get rid of entrained moisture more quickly, start with several lamps under the grand or in an upright's bottom. 40 watts to start with is fine. A grand should have 2 lamps under it-- one under the keybed, and the other under the soundboard. Granted in player grands there's a lot of stuff in-between. That doesn't make any difference. As long as you don't have fans blowing in the area, the heat will gradually help.
After the piano has dried out over the course of 6 months or more, you will have to then re-regulate it completely, all over again. And then I suggest to buy two simple Damp-Chaser bars. One under the keybed, the other under the soundboard portion. Leave them on from that time forward. Plug both into a multi-receptacle inside the player, then plug your player into the receptacle too, and run a single cord down to the wall plug. That way you don't have 5 cords all hanging out of your piano, looking like some giant mutant jellyfish.
Additionally, uprights are much less susceptible to a damp environment than grands, and their actions are seldom affected at all. That's because their hammers sit only an inch off the vertical and the center of gravity, and fall into the string. Also, old, dry hammers cannot collect moisture like new felt does, and so are not going to be much affected by humidity. Another thing that protects pianos is a moderate climate having dry winters and hot summers. Dampness the year around, through hot and cold is what does the most harm, after the piano is moved into a moderate environment.
The very best solution of course is to buy an expensive central dehumidifier for the whole house and keep your doors and windows closed. Not everybody likes this ultimate solution, as it adds complexity and upkeep to the home's central air system, but it's still cheaper in the long run than destroying all your instruments. Remember, Sally sold sea shells at the sea shore, to help pay for the piano she had to give away.
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