Concert piano tuner and Founder of the Piano Technology School, Steve Droy, discusses the trials and tribulations of dealing with a moth infestation
There are two types of people in the world – those who have had moths and those who haven’t.
It is one of the saddest duties a piano tuner has to perform when they inform a customer that their instrument has been infested with these winged devils. Those with no previous experience react to the news in a somewhat blasé fashion.
‘Oh dear, there appear to be moths inside the piano,’ I say.
‘Oh well,’ they casually reply. ‘They probably came in from the garden.’
‘No, they are living in the action felts,’ I respond.
‘That’s OK,’ they say. ‘It’s only for the kids to learn on; there are no concert pianists in this house, ha ha ha!’
Customers who have had experience of a moth infestation react quite differently, however. Usually, a stifled scream can be heard initially followed by mumblings of ‘I told him/her not to buy that rug/suit/old sofa from the charity shop/jumble sale etc. There then follows considerable flapping around and scrambling under the sink for some kind of noxious chemical or other ingenious mechanism of death. The truth is that when the customer asks what they can do about it, I lie.
‘You can get some spray or moth balls or perhaps some sticky moth traps,’ I say with a faint glimmer of hope.
What I really want to say is, ‘Well, you could burn your house down or move to a frozen wasteland or dress exclusively in synthetic fibres for the harsh reality is that once these fabric-munching monsters are in your house, they are extremely difficult to get rid of.’
Unfortunately, in recent years, there has been a sharp rise in numbers of the clothes moth or Tineola Bisselliella as its is properly known. Legend has it that their prevalence in North London stems from the Rag Trade, which was formerly based in the Hackney area. They are often referred to as the Hackney clothes moth. Once mating has occurred, the female moths can lay hundreds of eggs over a period of a few weeks and the larvae can live for an unusually long period of 50 days before they pupate. All the while, these destructive eating-machines are feeding on the fibres of the material in which they have been laid. Unfortunately for piano owners, they seem to target specific types of felt inside the instrument – particularly, cushion felts. Pianists can detect this as a distinct click as the finger lifts off the key after playing a note. This is caused by the jack, hitting the now unprotected wood at the bottom of the hammer butt. This being said, the little blighters are not averse to destroying any kind of material inside the piano if the infestation is severe enough. You may also detect small holes in your favourite cashmere or lambswool sweaters. Yes, they seem to have annoyingly expensive taste and to target materials which are soft but also hard-wearing.
The ramifications for owners of moth-infested pianos can be devastating. It is common for an old piano to be completely written off if the hammers or other expensive parts have been destroyed. The piano action and under the keys contain hundreds of felt and cloth components and, unless the instrument has a high value or sentimental significance, the cost of restoration soon outstrips the value, the correct advice being to scrap the piano and purchase a replacement. If one chooses to wage war with the winged enemy, then the best option is to start by fumigating the whole house. This can be done by professionals, who come in and fill the property with spray and then evacuate for several hours. You can also buy a DIY version but remember to remove any plants or tropical fish as this stuff kills everything in its path. After that, meticulous and constant hoovering of all fabrics in the house is recommended. Camphor moth balls or sandalwood blocks can be put inside the piano. They do not kill moths but deter further infestations as moths are repelled by the odour. Sticky moth traps can be hung up around the piano to check that there are no remaining pests still flying around.
Changes in weather patterns may have contributed to the rise in numbers but I can’t help thinking that perhaps the rise of sites like Ebay and Gumtree have played their part. Many prospective piano owners opt for the cheap and cheerful old banger starter piano option. The argument for buying a decent piano to start with is one for another day but, this aside, customers are always horrified when the tuner comes round to tune for the first time and shows the new owner the inside of the instrument. The action – particularly under the keys and inside the bottom door – can literally have a hundred years worth of hair, skin, soot and dust collected inside. Anyone with allergies can be unaware of the role the piano might be playing in their condition. At least a cheap piano bought from a dealer would normally be cleaned out – even if it hasn’t been restored. Cleaning inside a piano is a service job which has to be carried out by a technician so, even if the piano does hold in tune, there could be quite a hefty bill to pay on the first visit.
All in all, piano owners would be well advised to consider the whole moth issue seriously. Look out for the tell-tale signs: clicking notes, holes in woollens and, of course, little brown male moths buzzing around looking for a mate. If caught early, the problem can be nipped in the bud without too much cost. If not? Petrol, matches, boom!
About the author
Founder of the Piano Technology School, Steve Droy, is a concert piano tuner, course principal and programme designer.
He is a former lecturer on the Degree course at London Metropolitan University and, until September 2014, was the Director of Furtados Institute of Piano Technology in Mumbai, India, where he lectured and trained professional piano technicians to work across India as well as tuning pianos across Mumbai and beyond.