Basic care – Keyboard instruments
Keyboard instruments include pianos, organs, harpsichords, clavichords and many variations on these basic types. An unassuming exterior often conceals very complex and delicate mechanisms that contain many parts. For example, there are over 40 individual pieces for each note of a modern piano action. Simpler systems, such as the suction-operated reed mechanism of pump organs, still contain working parts made of fragile materials that are subject to degradation.
Of all heritage objects in the home, keyboard instruments are among the most difficult to preserve effectively. The following notes can only give guidelines on very basic care. Beyond this, it is necessary to call in the expertise of conservators or keyboard specialists.
On this page:
- Care and cleaning
- Tuning and maintenance
Care and cleaning
The outer surfaces of all casework and other parts can be cleaned in the same way you would clean furnishings. For more information on cleaning wood, see the Canadian Conservation Institute Note 7/1, Care and Cleaning of Unfinished Wood. Where the finish is stable and in good condition, dusting followed by an occasional wax polishing (approximately twice per year) is appropriate. Light damp cleaning with a slightly moist clean cloth is also effective if the finish is modern and in good condition.
A keyboard instrument should not be operated or sounded unless you are certain that it is in working condition. Great damage can be done by incautious use, especially where components have been in a poor or unused condition for long periods of time.
The keyboard facings of most pianos and other instruments are either ivory or a synthetic substitute. Bone was sometimes used on earlier instruments. Ivory keys can be cleaned with a soft cloth or swab slightly dampened with water to which has been added a few drops of detergent. The keys should not become too wet because ivory occasionally reacts to water.
The same treatment can be used for synthetic keys. More care should be taken with bone key facings because bone is more reactive to moisture. It is not advisable to try bleaching piano keys. Although a bleach may be effective in making them whiter, the effect is only temporary, and bleaches can damage ivory. The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Note 6/1, Care of Ivory, Bone, Horn, and Antler, gives more guidelines on the care of ivory.
Interior of keyboard instruments
Access to the interiors of keyboard instruments is sometimes very difficult. Do not take covers off or remove components unless you are very sure of what you are doing. Interiors must be dusted very carefully because degraded parts can become loose or detached. Dusting can be done with a soft paint brush, brushing towards the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. In places where there are textile components, such as felts or ribbons, a piece of window screening gauze should be held over the parts being cleaned. This will prevent loose pieces from being sucked away. Keep all loose pieces in a safe place.
Be extremely careful when removing dust from pump organ reeds. The reeds are made of thin metal sheet that is especially shaped by filing and burnishing to give exactly the right pitch and timbre. Even the slightest contact can cause a perceptible musical change. Cleaning and adjustments are better left in the hands of a specialist.
The sound-producing parts of organ pipes are very sensitive. The pipes are made of a soft metal — either lead or a lead/tin alloy — and are manipulated during tuning to give the pipe the right "voice." Slight damages to these areas will affect the tone critically and may cause the pipe to cease sounding altogether. Pipes are heavy and very soft, two factors that make handling during cleaning a very cautious process.
Organ bellows are prone to leakage. Older bellows were made primarily of leather, while later, oilcloth and synthetic materials were used. It is unusual to find an old organ in good repair in the wind department. Effective repairs to the bellows usually entail entire removal and recovering, a process that quickly becomes complicated. Patching is occasionally done on small leaks, but it is only a stopgap measure at the best of times.
Keyboard instruments are heavy and awkward to move. They are further complicated by having many detachable or loose parts. It is not advisable to move them long distances without professional help. Moves within a building and on the same floor can be done provided all loose or movable pieces are secured. The casters attached to most keyboard instruments are inadequate and should not be relied upon. Padded dollies with smoothly running wheels should be used. Always check the route in advance and ensure that the passage is clear before beginning the move. Never move a pipe organ before removing or thoroughly securing all the pipes.
Tuning and maintenance
Unless you have expertise in this area, all maintenance work on keyboard instruments should be done by specialists. Not all piano or organ tuners are sensitive to the needs of historic instruments. It is very easy to remove and substitute non-working parts with new ones, but this may not always be appropriate. If the instrument is considered historically significant, qualified help should be sought.
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These resources were published by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). For comments or questions, including reproduction requests, contact the CCI.
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