Does My Piano Need New Hammers?

As my piano service matures, I find myself thinking more and more that many pianos need new hammers rather than just reshaping. The older felt is simply too hard and dense to work with anymore, it’s impossible to create a warm, welcoming sound in the music. There’s a few reasons for this:

  • Constantly striking the strings in the same location has compacted the felt
  • The closer to the hammer core, the more compressed the felt is to begin with
  • As wool ages it shrinks, becomes hard and brittle
  • Sometimes the glue adhering the hammer felt to the molding comes undone.

When you can’t achieve the sound you want, playing the piano becomes a self defeating endeavor. I don’t want to over prescribe this maintenance so I went searching for validation and below is an answer I found on a public message board validating my position.

Like everything else the hammer felts wear out. each time the hammer strikes the string it gets slightly compacted and wears grooves into the hammer felt. As the felts gets harder as a result of this the tone of the piano usually becomes harsher and more metalic. It’s a very gradual process so you won’t notice from one day (or even several months). For a concert grand I’d expect to replace or reshape the hammers about every 5 years. for someone’s home piano usually about every 15-20 years. 

A brush is the wrong tool for removing the grooves, instead you use fine sandpaper to take off one layer of felt at a time, while maintaining the shape of the hammer. Talk to your piano tech about what you want out of the repair and he’ll be able to help you out. Be aware that if this is 100+ year old piano the cost of a repair may end up being more than the cost of a nicer piano. (based on that kind of maintenance history there are probably also several other issues that should be addressed) Also Piano hammers don’t necessarily have to be replaced. You can usually reshape the hammers at least once, sometimes 2-3 times, It all depends on the condition of the felt. This removes the compacted and worn our part of the felt that has the grooves. It’s really impossible to give advice without actually being able to inspect it.

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How I got started

Anyone who works in a rather obscure field will be able to relate to the question “How did you get into that line of work?” I’m probably asked that on a weekly basis or more, but I don’t mind because I think my story is pretty good.

I’d like to begin with a little background on me which indirectly led to my work in the piano industry. I have been studying music for longer than my memories of early childhood allow me to recall. I’m fairly certain that I knew all the words to Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ by age 5 and definitely most of Billy Joel’s ‘Storm Front’ album by 7. I began trombone lessons in 4th grade and found a guitar sitting next to a dumpster in 6th but didn’t even touch a piano until late high school. It wouldn’t be until my junior year of college that I even thought seriously of playing piano, much less working in the industry.

At West Chester University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in music composition, I heard Dr. Vincent Craig play Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata, only the first movement, for one of my theory classes (as I recall, a G-sharp was out of tune in the bass). I was so taken by the performance that I just had to learn it. So I practiced for 3 hours a day when I should have been working on my required voice lesson material. This led to me getting my first piano.

I paid 6 guys chicken parmesan to move a 110 year old upright into my second floor, off-campus apartment. Half the keys didn’t work and the ones that did sounded awful. My wife would also tell you how ugly it was in our living room. I started fixing it with the materials available to a poor college student – there were #2 pencils in place of broken hammer shanks and rubber bands doing the work of missing springs. The project earned the piano a new name, MacGyver.

At this point I had an ugly piano that “worked.” It wasn’t until the following semester where I developed an interest in tuning. The name of the course was “Music of the Spheres” led by Dr. Mark Rimple. I learned a lot about pitch and temperament theories dating back to Pythagoras and following a western evolution to what is common practice today. If the course is offered again you should make an effort to take it! If you can’t, you should buy his book, A Companion to Boethius in Middle Ages.

Unfortunately, I never tuned that first piano, it wasn’t possible.

Onto graduation and finding myself unemployed during the worst economic crisis for a few generations. I took a job I knew I wouldn’t like as a teller in a bank. It paid the bills and I had the opportunity to begin teaching myself a trade. Then finally, a stroke of luck! A local piano tech came in to make a deposit for his business.

“I’m trying to get into that business,” I said.

“I’m trying to get out,” was his response.

So for the next 4-5 months I apprenticed by working with Donn Young during time off from the bank and calling out sick. I left the bank to have more availability for my new passion. It has been about 12 years since then. In 2015, I took over the business.

And here I am.

How did you get into your field?

C.J.’s Pianos
Chris LaBarre, RPT

C.J.’s Pianos