Lubrication of piano parts



When pianos are built, the builders concern themselves with lubrication of moving parts in a rather fundamental way. They are concerned with new material assembled under controlled atmospheric conditions and lubrication is a very minor consideration in construction process. Obvious friction points such as those in the trap work are greased or graphited. In that complicated mechanism called the action, many friction points are treated with a permanent lubrication such as burnished graphite or were designed to be self-lubricating through use of felt against metal or, more recently, teflon against metal.
When the pianos are completed and shipped, further thought is not given to lubrication since factory people generally have no other contact with the instruments. Once the pianos are sold, however, a whole new set of problems begins to develop, including wear and tear, atmospheric extremes, abuse, and neglect. Lubrication is also one of these problems.
The word “lubricate” comes from Latin lubricare, which means “to make slippery.” The trick with piano friction points is to make them slippery and keep them slippery for extended periods of time. A lack of lubrication creates two general problems – sluggish response of moving parts and noise in the form of squeaks.
The anatomy of the piano creates other problems. There are no reservoirs to store lubrication such as oil pans or grease cups. Instead, the lubricants often must function between dissimilar materials, usually as thin films while exposed to accumulating dust and dirt. They must hold well through periods of use, must break down during disuse, and must not react with the host materials by creating any chemical change.
With the above criteria in mind, let examine the materials used as piano part lubricants. They fall into two general categories: (1) Solids and powdered solids include soapstone, talc, graphite, and teflon. (2) Liquids include tallow, grease of various kinds, and liquids that utilize some of the powders in suspension. The list of liquids must be expanded to include the sprays available today that have proven to be useful and time saving.
Many years ago one of the standard lubricants for piano parts was mutton tallow into which was stirred a fair amount of talc or baby powder. With the demise of the neighbourhood butcher shop, mutton tallow has been difficult to acquire. However, if you know a butcher who can get you some mutton fat, you can make a life-time supply of mutton tallow lubricant very inexpensively. Simply put the raw fat in a frying pan and fry it at low heat until it turns to a liquid. Skim or strain the liquid so as to separate it from any fiber residue and allow it to cool. The tallow will be a white waxlike grease. An additional reheating and skimming will improve the quality by leaving behind any missed residue or poor-quality fat. Into this refined tallow stir as much Johnson’s baby powder as it will hold without losing its consistency as a grease.
A contemporary substitute for mutton tallow and talc is a mixture called VJ lube. This is made by heating a 7-l/2-ounce jar of Vaseline, and mixing in Johnson’s baby powder and a teaspoon of lanolin. It works well and all of its ingredients can be purchased at your local pharmacy. Other lubricants of this type that can be used are Lubriplate and Bendix brake grease. These products have the advantage of staying where you put them. They work well on metal to metal, metal to felt, metal to leather, and metal’ to wood. This makes the museful on friction points in all trap work and other spots such as the action frame guide pins, key frame soft pedal contact point, and grand action frame return spring. These products are carried easily, and work well on the job or around the shop.
The solid lubricants include soap-stone (actually magnesium metasilicate, a soft mineral with a soapy feel). French chalk, talc, and baby powder are ground varieties of this mineral. They work well in combination with other lubricants as noted above. Soapstone sticks are carried easily and can be purchased at any good hardware store. Talc is a little more difficult to carry around, but is very convenient as a dry lubricant. It burnishes well and lasts effectively; works well on key beds, key frames, and knuckles; and can be impregnated into felt if need be.
Graphite, another dry lubricant, is simply soft black native carbon. It is available in stick form, as a powder, or in liquid suspension. I prefer to confine my use of powdered graphite to the shop, where I can control the mess and clean up easily. This is not easily accomplished in home situations where spilling on rugs or upholstery can be a disaster. Nevertheless, the powder is a good lubricant, burnishing well on bridges, bushing cloth, small spring friction points, repetition lever cradle tops, keybed dags, and dowels. The liquid formulations make transportation easier and application more controlled than the use of powdered graphite. One of the best preparations of this type is called Dag 154. Don’t overlook the use of stick graphite in the form of a soft pencil lead; it is useful for quieting squeaky hammer springs.
The ubiquitous spray can, bane of the conservationists, has provided us with spray forms of teflon under the names of Slipspray and Emralon. (Emralon also comes in stick form.) These lubricants work well on almost everything, with the added advantage of either a shotgun delivery (in spray form) or rifle delivery (using the add-on tube). While application oft hese sprays is a distinct advantage, their use is not a cure-all. I prefer to use them as stop gap or emergency cures for noise or sluggishness. Once the liquid portion of the spray has evaporated, the lubricating residue of teflon is very slight and may not give prolonged relief from noise or friction.
A list of piano friction points and suggested lubricants follows:
1. Pedals: Metal to metal – Lubriplate, tallow and talc, VJ lube. Metal to wood – VJ lube, tallow and talc. Metal to bushing cloth – VJ lube, tallow and talc, graphite.
2. Trapwork Dowel Pins (vertical pianos): VJ lube, tallow and talc(thin film). 
3. Trapwork Pins (grands): VJ lube, tallow and talc.
4. Vertical Damper Lift Rail Hangers: VJ lube, tallow and talc (if rail is removed for lubrication and repair), Slipspray (if lubrication is made without rod removal).
5. Vertical Damper Lift Rail Surface: VJ lube, tallow and talc (thin film), Slipspray on damper lift felts.
6. Dummy Damper Lever: VJ lube, tallow and talc, Slipspray.
7. Vertical Hammer Spring Slots: Metal to wood – graphite in the form of soft lead pencil. Metal to felt -graphite pencil or Slipspray.
8. Key Bushings (vertical and grand): Slipspray.
9. Grand Damper Lift Rail Hangers: VJ lube, tallow and talc (if removed for lubrication), Slipspray with extension tube (emergency in-place lubrication).
10. Damper Guide Rail Bushings: Slipspray, Dag (graphite in liquid suspension).
11. Grand Keybed: Talc, Slipspray.
12. Grand Key Frame Guide Pins: Lubriplate, VJ lube, tallow and talc.
13. Grand Key Frame Glide. Bolts: VJ lube, tallow and talc (thin film).
14. Grand Key Frame Shift Return Spring: VJ lube, tallow and talc (thin film).
15. Grand Dags (key frame stops): Dag (graphite in liquid suspension.
16. Whippen Cushion Felt (contacts capstan screw): Slipspray.
17. Jack Tender: Dag (graphite in liquid suspension).
18. Jack Top: Dag (graphite in liquid suspension).
19. Repetition Lever Cutout (cradle): Dag (graphite in liquid suspension).
 20. Grand Hammer Shank Knuckles: Clean and dry, talc (in emergency).
21. For Pitch Raising: Lubricant forbearing points – WD40 mixed with silicone in 50/50 mixture (see later paragraph on silicone). Agraffes -V-bars.
In the above list I have not mentioned the pitman (damper lift rod) in the trap work of grand pianos. On Baldwins and some other pianos, this rod is pinned at top and bottom, goes through a large hole in the keybed, and causes no problems with malfunctioning or squeaks. On a number of other fine pianos (Steinway, Mason 81 Hamlin, Knabe, etc.), this dowel rides free in a felt bushed hole, rests on a leather pad on the bottom,and pushes against leather or felt on the underside of the damper lift rail. It will squeak.
Under ordinary circumstances, a thin film of VJ lube or tallow and talc on either end of the dowel will quiet the noise. Overzealous lubrication of the entire dowel often results in loading the bushing of the pit manhole, causing the dowel to hang up. The dowel (usually of wood, sometimes of brass) will then begin to glaze and will be very smooth and shiny, but sluggish in. the hole. A thorough cleaning with 4/O steel wool will relieve this situation for a while, but must be redone when sticking reoccurs.
If the leather pads on which the pitman rides are not solidly glued down (some are not), they can cause squeaks by riding across the damper tray or the trap level as the pedal is activated. When any of this trap work bumper cloth or leather becomes, it ceases to function efficiently and should be replaced.
I must say a few words about silicone (good and bad news). Silicone comes in a variety of forms – as oils, greases, and plastics. It is a polymeric organic silicon compound. We see it used as a water- and heat-resistant lubricant. It is also used in varnishes, polishes, binders, and plastics. The good news is that it is a marvellous lubricant; the bad news is that it has fantastic mechanical capillary action. In short, it creeps; it doesn’t stay put. Further, it is deadly to finishes, pin blocks, and bass strings, so it must be used with discretion.
In the friction points listed above I mentioned silicone mixed with WD40 for use on string bearing points prior to pitch raising. Use this sparingly -if you use it. Another way to use silicone safely is to add a little to 4/O steel wool and polish key pins (both front and balance rails), capstan screw tops, and brass pit mans. Be very careful where you dispose of the steel wool.
Because lubrication of piano parts often involves squeaks as well as malfunctions, it is essential that a number of cautions be observed:
1. Before applying lubrication, be sure that the problem is not caused by a loose part. (Example: A loose Norris spring will make a trap lever squeak. Tighten; don’t lubricate.)
2. Before lubricating, clean away all old lubricant. Scrape leather and felt pads and steel wool metal pins and parts until they are clean.
3. Replace felt and leather bushings or pads as they become worn, indented, or glazed beyond useful recovery.
4. Be sparing with lubricant – use thin films. More is not better; a glob will not solve what a film of lubricant failed to do. If a thin film doesn’t solve the problem, stop and take another look at it. You may have overlooked something.
Correct diagnosis of malfunctions or squeaks, coupled with the use of the correct lubricant, properly applied, will help you maintain carefree pianos and enhance your reputation as a technician.
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2 Comments

  1. Posted 9 October 2015 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting to be able to know all the different things that can be done to ensure that someone is getting the most out of their piano. I think that being able to have a great looking piano can only take you so far if it is not able to function. Hopefully this will be a great way to help those who are struggling with knowing how to get their piano back up and running to their beautiful sounds. Thank you for sharing. http://gjpianotuner.com/

  2. Posted 10 November 2016 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!

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