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.
Why is it called a tuning "hammer?"
A great mystery of the piano tuning world for me has been why the tuning lever or wrench is so commonly referred to as a tuning hammer. The answer seems to be simply that the tool looks like a hammer, with its long handle and heavy end. It certainly is never used as a hammer to strike the pin. Pins do get hammered, though.
When a piano is built, the pins are hammered into holes drilled into the pin block. Even though the pin is subsequently turned to tune, the pin is not a screw. In some cases when a pin is loose, it can be hammered further into the pin block to tighten it. This is done with a special punch and mallet, or better yet with a special pin-setting tool and mallet. The pin-setting tool is really a highly-refined punch, which happens to look somewhat like a tuning lever. It has a socket to match the pin; the integrated punch element is struck with the mallet. The pin setting tool itself is not swung like a hammer.
Hammering pins deeper to solve looseness is best handled by a professional, by the way. If not done properly, it can damage the pin, or worse yet, the block. Damaging the block can lead to expensive repairs or effective ruin of the piano.
Tuning hammers that are used to strike as hammers do exist, but not for the piano. One example I found is the Tabla Tuning Hammer. The tabla is a type of drum from India, with heavy leather lashing attaching the drum head to the resonating chamber. The drum head is not perfectly symmetrical, so that different sections of the drum head produced different tones. These can be tuned by striking the leather lashing on the edge of the section to change the pitch of that part of the drum.
Perhaps these other uses of hammering in piano construction and care, or in other percussion instruments, has carried over into the sub-consciousness of the piano tuner profession, to give us the misleadingly-named piano tuning lever. It most clearly resembles a socket wrench. But to me tuning lever just sounds more elegant, more appropriate to the instrument in its care.
The term tuning hammer is likely to have come from the original tuning tool type, which was/is in the shape of a letter T. (Similar to the type used for harpsichords and harps today.) The two ends of the horizontal bar (handle)of the T can double as a hammer and some are still provided with metal tips for this purpose. Today in the piano world they are mainly used for stringing.
Scott replies: Thanks for the additional information.