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Q: piano voicing ( Answered,   0 Comments )
Subject: piano voicing
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: cushings-ga
List Price: $25.00
Posted: 15 Sep 2002 07:03 PDT
Expires: 15 Oct 2002 07:03 PDT
Question ID: 65239
controversies regarding the best way to soften a hammer head to make the 
tone less bright/harsh

Request for Question Clarification by filian-ga on 15 Sep 2002 07:54 PDT

Do you need to know how to soften the hammer, or are you looking for
information on methods people have employed or arguments about the
practice? Do you want to do this to a piano, and if so, what brand of
piano is it? Please give as much detail as you can. Thanks!
Subject: Re: piano voicing
Answered By: rico-ga on 15 Sep 2002 11:04 PDT
Hi, cushings-ga,

Your question led to some interesting research, where I discovered
that while different methods of hardening piano hammers are indeed the
subject of high dispute, there seems to be two generally-agreed-upon
methods to soften the hammer head, "steaming" and "needling." I'm
going to ignore the procedure of putting tacks in the hammers to
produce a honky-tonk sound, but will be happy to provide that
information in a clarification if that's what you're looking for. My
research also revealed that there are some solutions (some containing,
believe it or not, fabric softner!) on the market that will supposedly
soften hammers, although almost all the articles and newsgroup
messages discounted the usefulness of those solutions, so I've
disregarded research in that area.  Again, I can provide that
information through a clarification if needed.

As I can infer from your subject line, you already know the art of
making hammers produce the desired sound is called, "voicing." The
most common reason to voice hammers is due to wear, although it is a
common practice to voice hammers to make them better suited to produce
the type of sound the pianist wants, as noted by a thread I found in
the at Google Groups...

"Steaming" will reputedly loosen hammers let them "bloom out" a bit,
and unpack the dense felt. However, steam only works on felt that has
been hardened and densified by heat and pressure (in other words,
steam isn't going to work on hammers that have been altered by some
other hammer-altering procedure). Steaming can be as simple as using
an electric teapot and holding each hammer over the spout for between
a half and one second (although, obviously, this should only be done
by someone familiar with the procedure). Needling requires a special
tool, where the technician "cuts" small strands of the tightly
stretched felt to soften the hammer felt overall. Here's an overview
of the art of needling itself, from a page by professional piano

"The traditional way of needling uses a tool holding three (or four)
needles and pushing them radially into the same surface that contact
the strings. The needles are pushed in pretty deeply going from below
the strike point down to the shoulders or lower. The three needles
were, originally, meant to parallel the three strings and to be pushed
in just below the strike point so as to lift the compacted felt just
below where the hammer contacts the strings. The technique evolved
from there."

My research indicates that because the end result is to get piano to
sound the way you want it to sound, a combination of -- rather than
any one procedure --is used until the "right" sound is produced. This
could include steaming first, needling (a more delicate and
potentially damaging procedure), and then, if needed, other methods to
harden the hammer until the right sound is produced.

For example, it's noted by a correspondent in this message...

"I like steam because it introduces a minimal amount of water that
drys in a   matter of minutes. If you overdo the steam, file off the
soft felt.  If needed, use needles after steaming to soften deeper
layers.  The steam expands the surface layers first and allows room
for deeper layers to expand  and make the air spaces larger buy

Steaming is usually noted as an temporary solution, where the hammers
will require repeated treatments, usually with less effect as time
passes. Needling appears a more "permanent" solution.  However, in
almost every article or newsgroup posting I read, "caution", was the
byword. As one writer noted, "Very few, if any, voicing techniques are
truly 'reversible.' All voicing procedures result in a permanent
change to the hammer characteristics.  As to whether or not you view
this as damage depends on whether or not the piano ends up sounding
the way you want it to sound."

You were looking for controversies/debates on the different
procedures, so I'm going to provide links to various threads on
newsgroups and forums...

On "Steaming"

Most of the fifteen threads there are relevant to your question.

On "needling"

There's about 88 messages (I'm not kidding :-)) in that search, not
all relevant.  I suggest looking at... start with, and you may see other Subject lines that provoke
your interest.

There was apparently a USENET newslist called "PianoTech" that had
postings archived at, which unfortunately doesn't appear
active. Many of the postings are worth looking at, and can archived
from a Google Search cache.  For example the link...


will bring up a search with about 40 listings on various discussions
of steaming and needling, although "controversies" is probably too
strong a word for it.  Again, note that you'll need to click on the
"Cached" link to view the message(s).
is a good example of the type of discussion you can review.



Search strategy: listed above

Request for Answer Clarification by cushings-ga on 16 Sep 2002 12:00 PDT
appreciate your prompt response; I would be interested in more information on
 the softening solutions, particularly problems associated with using them

Clarification of Answer by rico-ga on 16 Sep 2002 13:04 PDT
The "softening solutions" I referred to in my answer are a subject of
which there's not a lot of information on, cushings, past what I've
already noted that most people familar with voicing discounted their
effectiveness. However, let me see what additional information I can



Clarification of Answer by rico-ga on 17 Sep 2002 11:07 PDT
Hi again, cushings,

Let's start with information I've found regarding potential problems
using a softening solution...

Excerpts from

"Since I have seen mention of "hammer softening solution" in tech
catalogues, I can only assume that other people do this, too. But not
having seen positive tech articles on the subject, I would be afraid
to try it, uninformed.

I am somewhat skeptical for this reason: It is a long established tech
procedure to use a solution similar to what you mention to *shrink*
the felt in action centers. Yes, it swells initially, but when the
water evaporates, it shrinks. Also, having seen water damage in
pianos... the hammers come out not looking too good.

> He said that the alcohol acts as a wetting agent to get the
>water deep into the felt where it makes the felt swell.  Swollen felt
is a
>softer felt

Here's what I feel might be wrong with that idea: If it truly swells,
one of 2 things would have to occur. Either the hammer changes shape
and gets bigger (possibly tearing up fibres or ripping the glue joint
in the process), or it *doesn't* get bigger, meaning there is now
*more* tension, making the hammer *harder*.

FWIW, someone mentioned to me once the idea of applying Woolite as a
hammer softener. But I ain't tryin' that, either- unless I am
satisfied it is a good idea."


A general discussion on the use of such solutions...

Other information...


"Author's Subject: Old Hammers: From Honky Tonk to Wet Noodle You
Control It

In answer to the hammer softening question:

Yes the best way is to replace hammers, but there is another short
possibility.  I have used this for years, now.  It is mainly for
that need to sell low so more expensive work is not warranted.

In a squeeze bottle, preferably clear, make marks to divide the volume
into 8 equal parts.  Fill to the first bottom line with  (marked on
bottle:) "Regular Concentration" Downy Fabric Softener.  Then fill to
the top [not denatured alcohol but pharmaceutical drug store rubbing
alcohol with 90% marked on the bottle. -edit by rico from author's
followup message. See above links.] That gives you 1 part softener to
7 parts Alcohol.

If the tone is very bright you may have to do 2 or 3 treatments.  Use
the squeeze bottle to coat all the hammers from shoulder to shoulder.
There is not a problem getting it on the crown of the hammer.  Give
plenty, but know you can use too much and make those honky tonk
sound like wet noodles.  Let the piano dry overnight when done.  If
hammers are still bright after the first round do it again.

I never thought this was possible until I proved it to myself.

If the hammers have been hardened by the modern plastic keytop melted
into Acetone or by Lacquer this technique will not work so well.

I have been told how to get the plastic out of the hammers by soaking
them overnight in Acetone and slinging out the liquid.  Then you use
the compressor to blow out remaining liquid and plastic hardener.

This might work for Lacquer using Lacquer Thinner as well."


More discussion and opinions from....

"The fabric softener solution is: 8 parts of 90% isopropyl alcohol to
one part Downey. You should expect good results, especially if the
hammers are Renners. Even the older Baldwin hammers respond well to
this mixture. If the hammers are really hard and you deem it
necessary to apply it more than prepared to re-shape
the hammers if the solution causes any deformities in the hammer

I've used 7 parts of Isopropyl alcohol and 1 part of Downey. I usually
put it on with an artist's brush, spread lightly over the striking
point. You really don't want it to go too deep or you lose the power
that you want in that area right under the strike point. I'll look at
the hammer on the side and hope the liquid doesn't soak in any deeper
than 1mm. After I've applied it, I dry the hammers with a hair dryer
and put it back in to see what I have. So far, I haven't had to do a
second application, but I'd rather do it so lightly that a second
application was necessary rather than ask, "Where did the sound go?"

A good friend and RPT, uses a ratio of 16 parts Alcohol, 3 parts
water, and
1 partSoftener...preferably White, and fragrance-free. This method has
been workingwonders for him & myself. I use it now ONLY on the
shoulders, (both sides) about 1/2 eyedropper per side, and usually NOT
on the lowest & highest octave unless absolutely necessary. On rare
occasions, I will put a very small drop on  the strike point, for real
harsh sounding hammers.

A fellow tech tells me that he is NOT using snuggles any more, (for 
voicing) because he strongly believes that it damages/ruins hammers in
the long run. He now uses denatured alcohol and water..ONLY. The water
"puffs" up the felt, and  according to him it is every bit as
effective and lasts just as long, however, the effects  are not as
immediate as with Snuggles; takes about 20-30 minutes for the full
effect. He tells  me the ratio is 70%
denatured alcohol to 30% distilled water.

I have experimented with Isopropyl alcohol which you can get off the
at 70% alcohol, 30% water. It does soften the hammers but tends to
leave the hammer sort of  dead sounding. I'm not sure that it is any
more effective than steaming and you must let the hammer dry
thoroughly, preferably overnight. The jury is still out.

I simply use 70% Isopropyl alcohol straight out of the bottle, right
on the
striking surface.I sometimes combine this with a little needling once
the alcohol has broken up thehardness enough that the needles can be

Other excerpts from my research, with some commentary on potential
Susan EWallinger  rote, 5/24:
"<<I have followed up on pianos where fabric softener has been used
>sure what quantity). What a mess!   The hammers seem to attract a lot
of dirt and >reshaping is impossible.   After one (1) pass with the
sandpaper, it clogs up and can't be >used.>>

 In article <3A47664F.51254987@n.da>, Yogi Panda <YogiP@n.da> writes
>I have again been thinking of voicing the instrument down a little.
>much effort will it take to make the tonal difference between long
>short stick? How many hours of needling the hammers? Any other
>technique that can be applied?

There are 3 methods needles, steam and liquids (alcohol or fabric 
softener)  . the latter 2 are used for deep toning and the alcohol or
fabric softener have  been a result of the excessive  use of hammer
by some manufactures. Steam as been around just as long as needles and
great care must be taken when used.

"welltempered" <> wrote:
>my tuner suggested that, in order to make my piano sound more mellow,
>would voice it by getting the hammers wet with a solution of water
>alcohol. I have never heard of such practice. Is this normal? I'd
like to
>get comments from the pro's.

Well, hopefully he is a pro.

I have heard of this technique though have not attempted it. I have
used a bit of steam, however. I think the actual result you get will
depend on his experience and skill with this technique. I can imagine
if gross misjudgements are made it could cause some damage, because I
have seen moisture make hammer felts pop off their mouldings. But if
he seems like an experienced hand at it, it's probably OK to give it a
try. Conventional needle voicing is "invasive" itself, and not
foolproof. You can ruin hammers by the conventional methods as well.

One caution- I wouldn't expect every brand/style of hammer to react
well to this technique. For instance, I don't think I would try it on
Yamaha-style hammers or Renner Blues. So once again, judgement on your
tech's part is consideation #1.

>He injected the felt hammerheads with some sort of
> solution and let it set for 24 hours. This was supposed to soften up
> heads. I was amazed at the results! The tone warmed up tremendously
and was
> enjoyable for me to play. I would venture to say that voicing alone
> probably wouldn't have effected a change to this degree. However,
> change lasted about 6-8 months and began to revert to it's original
>     When asked, the tuner wouldn't say what the solution was, saying
it was
> a trade secret.
> I have asked several tuners and piano dealers about this and not one
> ever heard of it. Does anyone have any knowledge or experience with
> Is there any long term side effects, perhaps after repeated
applications? I
> would appreciate any input you could give.
>                                 Sincerely,
>                                         Cameron V.

Hi Cameron,

Most likely what your tuner used was a solution which is essentially
fabric softener, although it is impossible to say for sure. Some
use this method for softening hard hammers, but I¹m a little suspect
of it
myself. Personally, I would rather take the time to file and needle
hammers in the traditional way. I believe that it is much better for
hammers, although the ³Snuggles² method will work, albeit with
limited and short-lived results.

Product is call hammer softener and is available from piano parts
suppliers to the trade, comes in small bottles .

There are many techs that soften hammers by solutions.  In many cases,
is the only viable way. Repeated treatments will be less and less
A quick shot of steam will have similar effects, but a caution to the
do-it-yourselfers......A new set of hammers is an expensive
proposition,  if you are experimenting blindly,  best do it on a
junker piano for the first four or five times.

Hope that gives you enough background on softener solutions. Not to
beat it into the ground, as several of the writers note above, be
cautious, experiment on "junker" pianos first if you're a
do-it-yourselfer, and/or make you have confidence in your piano tech's
experience and abilities.

Oh, and during this last bout of research, I was able to locate the
Home Page of the Piano Technician's Guild as well as the archive of
the newsletters that I've quoted extensively from...


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