Piano Care… and feeding?

When I was little, I would wake up every Sunday morning to the sound of my mother dusting the piano. Of course, she was dusting everything, (being my mom), but nothing else in the house made that familiar badum, badum, badum sound of her cleaning the keys. You might say that cleaning runs in the family: Not only did my mother keep a spotless house (even though she worked full-time – I’ll tell you her secret in a second), but, her youngest brother, my uncle Stan, owned a cleaning company.

I worked for Uncle Stan during the summer break when I was fifteen. He taught me two things: Have a system, and work to an end. I took to working with him like a duck takes to water because… I Love Cleaning. Therein lies the secret to my mom’s clean house. She had me as a son. As I say in my book, “Dear Mr. Musselwhite…”: “My mother use to call me Mr. Clean… because if she gave me a job, I would do it to an extreme. If she asked me to dust, I would take apart the lamps and fixtures to clean inside them. If I was asked to tidy, I would rearrange all the books in the shelves in alphabetical order. To my parents chagrin, this dedication never did extend to school work.”

I have cleaned many, many pianos since those early years, and I can say without a hint of Braggadocio that I know how to do it, and I’m pleased to be able to share the secret with you: Ask one of our specially trained technicians to do it. No, seriously, you can do a lot yourself, and it’s not difficult, or time- consuming. Leave the inside to a pro, but you can do the rest yourself. The first thing you need to know is what kind of finish your piano has. If you just bought your piano brand new, you can ask the dealer, but chances are great that it is finished in Polyester. How can you tell? Well, it looks like this:

Just kidding. Polyester is a synthetic polymer similar to plastic. It was first used as a piano finish by the European builders starting in the late 1970s, but it’s use has spread to almost all of the new pianos being made. It’s very hard, adheres to wood like a glue, (because, basically, it is a kind of glue), and can be polished to a mirror like reflection, or rubbed with special abrasives to make a silky satin sheen. It’s also highly toxic to produce and to apply, but who am I to judge?

You can tell if your piano is finished in polyester by finding a hidden part, like inside the kickboard, or the bottom of the bench seat, and make a tiny scratch with a razor blade. If it’s polyester, the scratch and the shavings will be white. You can clean polyester with plain old water, or Windex if it’s really dirty, but the secret is to wet a soft cloth (NOT the piano), and use a dry soft cloth right after to polish it. If you want a high polish, there are specific polishes made just for a poly finish. If there are scratches or chips in the finish, a Refinisher, specialized in polyester, can remove them. A few hours with a polishing machine in skilled hands can make a piano finished in polyester looking brand new. That’s the beauty of it.

If your piano was made before the 1980s, but after the 1930s, it’s probably finished in Nitrocellulose Lacquer. Remember the little scratch you made to test the finish? Lacquer scratches clear. Lacquer has the advantage of being repairable with just a little training and with minimal tools. It can even be bought in non-toxic water-based form, for you green people. Although lacquer can have a gloss shine, it doesn’t match the depth and clarity of Polyester, and it is a little tricky to apply it to raw wood. It’s main drawback is that it is extremely sensitive to damage, and especially sensitive to water and other liquids. If your piano is finished in lacquer, keep liquids away from it. Don’t use your piano as a drink coaster, or a display shelf for your flowers. If it does get even a little drop of water on it, dry it off immediately. It’s a good idea to be careful with everything you put on it, because it can be temperamental. It’s possible, under the right circumstances, for the finish to soften enough so that paper will stick to it, or conversely for it to become brittle enough to chip.

The secret to cleaning a lacquer finish is to not have to. Dust the piano often using a feather duster, and if you have to remove a smudge or a blot, use a slightly damp cloth, followed by a dry soft cloth. If there is a large buildup of dust, use a slightly damp cloth, quickly drying with a soft dry cloth. If it is really dirty, or if there is some kind of build up, use a little “Murphy’s Oil Soap” with warm (not hot) water in a bucket, wring the cloth out well, and do small areas at a time. Follow with clean cool water, and dry immediately. DO NOT RUB HARD! Never use any kind of over-the counter polishes like Pledge or Endust. I would also not recommend using any oils or polishes either, because although they may make the piano look shiny, it can cause the finish to soften, and can build up into a wax that is hard to remove.

Before the advent of Lacquer, Pianos were finished in French-Polished Shellac. This is an ancient, difficult finish to apply, but done properly, it is literally the most beautiful finish that you have ever seen – shinier than polyester, clear like glass, and creating an illusion of depth as if you are looking through a coating of water. If applied and cared for properly, French Polish Finishes can last for centuries. Go visit a museum if you don’t believe me. Although beautiful, it’s a very complicated and demanding finish to apply. It protects wood so well that it actually preserves it, but, it is also fragile, and very sensitive to abuse, humidity, extreme dryness, and temperature fluctuations. If French Polish is so great, why do so many old pianos look so terrible? It’s because they haven’t been properly cared for. Before I tell you how, I’ll tell you the incredibly interesting story behind French Polishing.

The Incredibly Interesting Story Behind French Polishing

French Polishing originated in the early 18th century, but its roots date back to many centuries before. The main ingredient in the finish is Shellac, which the Europeans “discovered”, during their nasty little visits to the East. Shellac is made from the dried sweat of the Female Lac Beetle, which lives in certain trees in India and Thailand. Until the end of the 19th century, village children were employed collecting the branches and bark of these trees, which would be laid out in the village square to dry. The children would then have a merry time in the hot sun, stamping on this collection, wearing flat bottomed wooden sandals, until everything was ground down to smallish chunks. This would then be swept up and put into large pierced drums, which would be turned over and over until a fine powder could be collected. The powder was then boiled until all that remained was a flaky resin. Depending on the type of tree, the resin flakes could be anything from a very light yellow, to a dark smokey brown. Mixed with alcohol, or other agents, the resin could be made into a variety of products, ranging from liquid shellac, to a mold-able material almost like glass. In fact, the early Victrola records were first made from shellac.


To French Polish, many thin layers of shellac are rubbed on by hand in a manner that not only spreads it thinly, but it polishes it as it is applied. French polishing even a small piece can take many hours, so you can imagine how long, and how hard it was to apply it on to a large object such as a piano. It’s no wonder then, that piano makers were so quick to jump onto the lacquer bandwagon. Today, French Polishing is all but a lost art. More than likely, if your piano was French Polished, you will see the effects of improper care of the finish. Old shellac finishes will have either a network of tiny cracks, or if it’s really bad, an effect known as leathering, where the finish has dried to the point where there are more cracks than not, and the surface literally looks like old leather. If the finish was applied well, all one would have to do to make sure that it forever looks like new, would be to keep it out of the sun, away from liquids, and regularly moisturize it with lemon oil. If your piano is just starting to show the signs of drying out, buy REAL lemon oil, (not a polish WITH lemon oil), apply the oil to a soft cloth, spread it over the finish, let sit for a few minutes, and then wipe it off with a clean, dry, soft cloth. If the finish is so bad that it has leathered, lemon oil might help a little, but, chances are, to make it look new, it will have to be refinished.

Cleaning the Keys

Remember my story about the noisy part of Mom’s dusting? That is part when she cleaned the keys. In general, the technique to clean both Ivory and Plastic keytops are the same: Spray a soft cloth with a little water or Windex, clean a small section at a time, and dry immediately with a dry cloth. Make sure you clean the sides of the black keys. Now, having said everything above, I should tell you, that all you really need to do to your piano on a regular basis, is dust with a Swiffer or feather duster, and wipe the keys from the back to the front with a soft cloth. Do this once a week, and you’ll only need to seriously clean your piano once a year (unless someone has dirty fingers, or an accident. That’s it! If you have ivory keytops, don’t close the keycover unless you need to protect them against marauders. Ivory yellows if not exposed to light. Plastic, on the other hand, especially the plastic keys made in the 1960s to the 1980, can turn yellowish if NOT kept covered. By the way, the main reason that keys get chipped is because something has been used to depress them other than fingers, ex: A toy car, or a G.I. Joe. Please remind every little pianist: “Fingers only on the keys, no toys, or feet, or elbows please!”

– Jamie Musselwhite