What to do when your piano has water damage

Posted by Sarah Czarnecki on

Humidity is bad. Water is worse.

If your piano gets wet, is it totaled? How much damage is too much, and can the instrument be salvaged?

What happens when a piano gets wet?

It's been said time and time again: moisture is bad for pianos.

Pianos are mostly made of wood, and wood doesn't like water. It swells when it becomes moist, then contracts when it dries. Worse, it doesn't always expand and contract exactly the same way. A piece of wood that's gotten wet and dried out just isn't the same as a piece that never got wet in the first place. 

Every acoustic piano has thousands of wooden pieces, each carefully calibrated, finely tuned, and customized for the unique instrument. Knowing what we now know about wood's behavior in damp weather, imagine the damage that can happen to a piano and its many moving parts!

How could a piano get wet?

You may have set your vase of flowers or a cup of coffee on the piano, then a cat came by and -- whoops! It happens way too often. 

Or worse, your roof started leaking. Maybe your home suffered a natural disaster like a hurricane or tropical storm.

Storing a piano in a tropical climate without any sort of humidity control system will cause damage. Major weather changes will damage a piano, too, so we always recommend using an internal climate control system like Dampp-Chaser. This kind of water damage is manageable, but it can cause long-term changes to your piano, especially if the humidity swings are extreme. 

Accidents and tragedies do occur. We hope they don't happen to you very often, but in the event that something wet and wild happens to your piano, we hope you're prepared for cleanup.

How wet is too wet?

A small amount of water -- a few ounces of water that overflowed from a potted plant, for example -- can be cleaned up with relative ease. Flooding, however, often causes irreparable damage.

Time is your enemy when it comes to water and wood. If you mop up a minor mess within minutes, you might escape serious damage. Ignore the issue for a week and you're doomed. Not only will it expand and contract the wood in a nasty way, but you're at risk for rot. Not good.

Piano style also plays a part in the extent of damage. Uprights are organized in such a way that almost any level of flooding will get into the action. The piano's structural integrity will be compromised by flooding, full stop.

Grands are a different story. If the water stayed below the keys, below the body of the piano, it might be okay. Legs can be replaced fairly easily, even on specialty or antique instruments. Of course, there's no guarantee that your piano will escape unscathed. Wood is wicking, so moisture probably crept into the action anyway, especially if the piano stood in water for any significant length of time.

And the damage can be pretty bad.

If the glue gets wet, it falls apart. Soggy hammers don't strike right. Felt rots, strings rust, tuning pins don't do their job, and veneers peel up.

Worse, the soundboard can be damaged. It's a huge, flat sheet of wood and the very sound of your piano depends on it being in good condition. When it becomes waterlogged, either by ambient humidity or direct water damage, the wood pushes against the bridge, puts pressure on the strings (especially the ones in the middle) and stresses the integrity of the entire instrument. Technically, you can replace a soundboard, but only technically. 

Without prompt lifesaving measures, a water damaged piano will never be the same again.

How to clean up minor water damage

First, remove the water as best you can, using a soft towel to absorb as much water as possible. Don't forget to check inside the piano for moisture, even if it was just a small spill on the outside. 

Next, aim a fan on the piano. Open the lid as much as you can, and for an upright, remove the panel. Set a fan on 'high' directed right at the piano and run it all day. Two days is even better. 

If you have any electrical components to your piano, like a player piano motor, lighting, or an ironic climate control system, always unplug the device right away. Electrocution is serious business.

What to do about catastrophic water damage

In addition to absorbing as much water as possible and setting a strong fan (this time running it for 2-3 days at minimum), you'll need to disinfect the wood. If you can do it safely, lightly mist the wood with a disinfectant or bleach solution to kill bacteria and mold. The finish will probably be trashed, but refinishing is easier than rebuilding. Make sure the climate stays stable in your home while your piano dries. Too hot, too cold, or too humid will make this process more difficult. If you have one, set up a dehumidifier in the room. 

If your poor piano has endured an unholy amount of water that you just can't clean up, you'll need to consider if it's even worth repairing. It's heartbreaking, we know, but do be aware that there does come a point where you'll need to let go. The full extent of water damage can take weeks or months to appear, however, so don't put the piano down right away. Do your best to dry it out, wait awhile, then contact your local piano tech to determine the extent of the damage. 

Your piano is an investment and may be quite valuable, so remember to file a claim with your insurance company. 

My piano is second-hand. How can I tell if it was water damaged?

After water, the wood can continue expanding and contracting. The rusting and the warping isn't an immediate effect, and neither is mold. A musty, moldy smell is a good indication that there was a water issue. Loose veneers, disintegrated glue, rust, bubbling finish, and -- the death knell -- a warped soundboard are all signs that your pre-owned piano went swimming.

If you can avoid it, don't buy a water damaged piano. But if you're ready for what may be a complex and costly repair job, much of a damaged piano can be replaced, repaired, or rebuilt. It's not impossible, but seriously not recommended. 

So... all is lost?

Not necessarily. It's definitely not a DIY job, but if you move quickly to take care of the water, call your local piano repair technician to assess the damage, and brace yourself for major repairs, your soggy piano might be salvageable. It won't be the same as it was, but there's a glimmer of hope.


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