This piano tuning blog is a companion to our How to Tune a Piano Yourself tutorial. In this blog we expand on the tutorial with new information and perspectives on do-it-yourself piano tuning. If it is your first time here, visit the tutorial first.
A Tale of Two Levers
I've seen a lot of attention paid to tuning lever quality in my research on piano tuning. The tuning lever I bought when I decided to tune my own piano the first time was, shall we say, economical. It was not the cheapest, but nor was it priced like a professional tool. I have heard some negative comments about that lever from pro tuners viewing my site. Naturally, I feel a little defensive. I was proud to have spent what seemed like a nice chunk of change at the time on a dedicated tool. How bad is my piano tuning lever? I have decided to do some first-hand comparisons with a "better" lever.
Still being tight with funds, I declined purchasing a new rosewood Schaff lever or the like at this time. But I went with what I think is the next best thing: I secured a "vintage" Hale brand hammer. Hale was a maker of tuning levers before the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore's eye. The brand was eventually bought by Schaff. Hale tips and levers are still mentioned because it was used by so many for so long. To this day Hale tuning tips are interchangeable between Hale, Schaff and many other standard design levers.
Anyway, I bought the Hale hammer to compare it drectly to my inexpensive New Octave Global lever that came in a kit back in 2003. Both levers are fixed handles of similar size and style, neither extends. Both have unscrewable heads with fixed tips (from what I can tell).
The Hale in very good shape, no corrosion, with a nice used patina on the rosewood handle; I suspect it tuned many pianos in the hands of a professional years ago. Immediately I noticed it was heavier. Measurements on a postal scale show that my "cheap" hammer is 7.5 ounces; the Hale is 8.5 ounces, which represents a 15% increase. When I remove the heads, the extra weight feels like it is in metal shaft of handle.
The metal head itself is different in character, as well. It has a tool-steel finish, as opposed to the shiny chrome of the "cheap" lever. Of course, my cheap lever is newer, so shine is expected, but it's more than that. The Hale metal reminds me of a high-grade machine shop tool. I suspect it belies a higher quality metal. One complaint of cheap levers is that the metal is low grade and soft, the tip likely to distort its shape under the forces applied when tuning. I don't sense this Hale lever is vulnerable to that. The Hale also has knurling at the threaded tip of the shaft, which would make removing and tightening heads easier with less risk of scratching the finish should a tool be needed.
Another visible difference is the quality of the machining of the tip. In the cheap hammer, small grooves are visible in the metal around the star-shaped opening of the tip; the cut of the star opening itself is slightly rough. The Hale's tip is perfectly smooth in this area, the opening flawless, another indicator of the quality of the tool.
The final test is, of course, the use of the lever. Here I was a little disappointed. I was hoping to be wowed by the Hale, but the differences were subtle. The handle fastening is slightly different; the Hale handle looks more solidly constructed, though I could not feel a difference in use; that may be a durability issue for the long haul. The main difference in use that I felt was that the Hale seemed to fit slightly tighter onto the pin, but slightly. There was still some play. Other than that, the two levers seemed to handle about the same. My experience is quite limited, of course; a pro would probably be more sensitive to the differences in the way they handle. For me, the difference, though small, is enough that I will be using the Hale from now on. When it comes to touch, every little but helps, and the finer workmanship on a good lever can make a difference even for an amateur after they have some experience.
I suspect a significant difference that would be seen over the long term is due to the quality of the metal. The mid-grade lever's metal looks to be inferior, and is at more risk for distortion or breakage with heavy use by a professional. Any mechanic will tell you the same thing; I know I've had cheap screwdriver tips strip themselves to uselessness on the first tough screw. Some cheap tuning levers--the $20 goosenecks and the like--are more likely to arrive poorly machined or easy to break or bend. (I have had a reader say that their new lever would jam on the pins and not come off, likely due to a misshapen tip, so the problem is real.) But for use by one person to tune his own piano, I suspect a mid-grade will hold up well enough--but I would keep an eye on that tip to make sure it keeps its shape.
Bottom line: the more expensive the piano tuning lever, the better the quality, and you cannot go wrong spending more. Might was well buy a good tool and be confident, as opposed to wondering if a mediocre tool is holding you back. The obvious higher quality of the Hale lever should serve me well as I explore tuning further.