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.
Piano Tuning Lever Quality
A recent thread at PianoWorld.com forums refers to our Piano Tuning Tutorial. In it, one of the professional tuners mentions two things he does not like about our tutorial: the lever we use and the electronic tuner we use. Let's talk about piano tuning lever quality; more about the tuner in another blog post.
The criticism is this: "The tuning hammer that is is pictured is a piece of junk. Those $20 student levers are only going to cripple you from the start. Investing in a professional quality lever is a big advantage."
I will be the first to admit that the hammer I show in this tutorial is inexpensive. It seemed reasonably priced for my budget, about $40 at the time, from NewOctave. Being new to the tuning concept, I did not want to invest any more. In my defense, there are worse ones, like the unknown-maker goosenecks for $10.
I certainly recognize the importance of good tools. In the tutorial I stress seeking a quality tuning lever, staying away from junk. However, I disagree that a $150 professional wrench is absolutely necessary for the audience of our piano tuning tutorial.
Good tools have these qualities: precision, durability, and usability. Professional and amateur alike need the tool to be precise so that it fits properly without causing damage. A professional tool needs to be durable. It needs to last through many, many pianos without losing precision. A non-professional is unlikely to wear out a lever, though certainly we don't want one that will bend or break with a few uses. Finally, a professional tool needs to be usable, that is, comfortable with minimum strain on the tuner's body. The traditional levers is sufficient for many professionals, and certainly non-professionals. However, tuning is a repetitive activity requiring unnatural body positions hours every day; some professionals seek more specialized designs for long-term comfort.
With this in mind, I see five levels of tuning levers from a non-professional's perspective.
- Nearly Worthless, $10 to $40. Loose parts, bendy pot-metal and crude design make these truly worthless.
- Minimum quality, $40 to $70. Fit and finish sufficient for a starter. Won't cause damage, but may degrade over time, or have enough imprecision to interfere with fine tuning, particularly as the tuner's skills improve. NewOctave, for example, makes models in this range and the next.
- Good non-pro quality, $80 to 100. Fine for someone tuning a single piano, or a musician to have in the kit for a touch-up. The best NewOctaves probably fall in this range. Schaff is famous for its pro levers, but they offer several models in this range as well.
- Professional quality, traditional design, $100 to $200. These are the professional workhorses. Precise and durable. Many pros buy one of these, and it lasts their career. The more expensive models in this range have extendible handles. Schaff and Wanakabe are two respected brands.
- Professional quality, specialized design, $150 to $800. At this point, long-term usability becomes a consideration. These premium tools offer unique handle designs to maximize comfort and precise feel for a career professional. One design in particular is the "impact hammer," which uses a counterweighted handle to gently move the pin with minimum muscle movement, especially for upright pianos. Other designs have reinforced heads or specialized handle shapes. Most DIY tuners are not going to be able to make use of these designs.
For the Do-It-Yourself piano tuner, these quality levels imply this:
- Stay away from Level 1
- Level 2 will do in the short term
- Level 3 is the better initial choice for the amateur
- Level 4 is nice if you have the money, or are serious about tuning more than just your own piano.
- Level 5 is for the day when your income from tuning will pay for it (and you need the usability features).
A moderately-priced tool can be precise enough, and durable enough for one piano owner to tune his or her piano without damaging pins or breaking the tool when used properly. Long-term durability and usability of expensive levers are factors for the true professional.
Thank you for all the good information that you posted in this site. I really have learned a lot from it. I would like to know whether the level 3 tool as you described above for amateur initial choice would work on tuning a Stein Way & Son Grand piano. I was wondering if only the professional level of lever can be used to tune the Stein Way Grand due to its high quality. Also what size of the pin should be used? I wanted to start learning to turn my piano, but I don't want to cause any damage to my lovely Stein Way M model. Thank you very much!
Scott replies:The main concern is protecting your fine instrument. You'll not match the skill of a professional tuner any time soon. However, there's little harm in exploring if you observe our cautions. As always, avoid the cheap $20 hammers. The level 3 "good non-pro quality" hammers, in the $80 to $100 range, would probably be sufficient for a starter, if you wanted to save expense. It would take good care of the pins. However, if I had such a fine piano, I think I'd spend a little more for the next level up, the "professional quality, traditional design," though something $100-120 end of that price range would be enough. A #2 tip should work, though you may need an extra tip with a longer head (5" long) to clear the cabinet in the high treble, if you get that far.