How to Clean an Electronic Piano, Part I
Of all the repairs and restorations we do on vintage keyboards, cleaning them is by far the most important step. As much as we prefer recapping amps to scraping mouse poo out of them, cleaning is what transforms a gross piece of junk into a beautiful, functional instrument that will neither give you a disease nor make your studio smell like a thrift store. After all, excessive hum and out-of-tune reeds might be annoying, but they never gave anyone hantavirus.
If you're going to restore your own Wurlitzer or Rhodes, do your lungs a favor and clean it out first, no matter where it came from. Did you find it in someone’s basement? Gross. Clean it. Did you find it in an old lady’s living room? She may have Pine-Sol’d the outside religiously, but we guarantee that there's dust dating to 1971 underneath the keys. Clean it. Did the guy you bought it from on Craigslist insist that he cleaned it already? He didn't. Open it up and clean it yourself.
About that last point: We’ve bought gear from many people, a majority of whom claimed that they “did some cleaning” before we came to pick it up. Guess how many of those keyboards ultimately made us want to crawl inside a Hazmat suit and never come out? All of them.
We’re not complaining: we consider cleaning part of the job, and in many cases prefer to clean the instrument ourselves because inexpert cleaning can damage irreplaceable parts. The point is that people have different standards for cleaning, and if you're buying a keyboard - particularly one in unrestored condition - you can't just take the seller’s word for it that it's clean. For your own health, you should open it up and check underneath the keys. That's where most of the dust collects. Just because you can hit a key without literally seeing little mushroom clouds of vintage skin cells and cat hair fly out, don't think that dust isn’t slowly escaping into your studio and entering your body.
So! Let's get cleaning!
Step One: Collect your supplies. There's nothing quite like needing an extra pair of gloves in a hurry, realizing that you’re fresh out, and having to pick up something really gross with your bare hands. Collect everything you need in advance, including plenty of gloves, respirator masks, lint-free shop towels and garbage bags. Other useful supplies include a mild detergent in a spray bottle, a separate bottle with plain water, 400-grit sandpaper, and microfiber towels.
Step Two: Find a well-ventilated, uncluttered workspace. Imagine opening up the keyboard for the first time, and an avalanche of live centipedes falls out. How would your workspace perform in that scenario? We’ve thankfully never encountered any major infestations of live insects inside a vintage keyboard, but because it's definitely a possibility, the Centipede Test guides our decision on where we choose to remove the lid for the first time. At the very least, if you know for a fact that your Wurlitzer was sourced from a garage, shed, basement, or hoarder house, consider taking it outside to open up the lid for the first time. If nothing horrifying flies out at you, move it back inside and proceed without fear of inviting the eighth plague into your home or studio.
Step Three: Remove everything from inside the Wurlitzer. Removing everything from the Wurlitzer is crucial, because you will never achieve an adequate level of cleanliness by just cleaning around the components. If you have a plastic-top 200-series Wurlitzer, you can remove pretty much whatever you want with the confidence that it will go right back in. (Just don't lose the screws.) If you have a 100-series Wurlitzer, you need to be a little more strategic. Wurlitzer 112 and 120 pianos in particular can be very difficult to put back together once taken apart.
As you take the Wurlitzer apart, clean up any large dust bunnies or other debris that you uncover. The longer huge clumps of dust are exposed to the environment, the more of it will end up in the room, on your clothes, and in your lungs. To avoid kicking up unnecessary amounts of debris, remove parts slowly and carefully.
Remove the keys as soon as possible. Because dust tends to accumulate underneath them, this is usually the dirtiest part of the piano. Some Wurlitzers are so dusty underneath the keys that you can no longer see the felts. Don't accidentally vacuum them up. Even if you ultimately replace them, you should take a photo of their original configuration, noting which felts had paper shims underneath. The shims help level the keys, and while your piano may need a different amount of shims, your photo will serve as a starting point.
Before attempting to remove the amplifier, double-check that it is unplugged. While handling the amp, always be careful not to touch any component leads. The capacitors may still hold a charge and you could get shocked. On a 100-series Wurlitzer, you can lift the amplifier up by the metal part of both transformers, or by holding on to the power transformer and the outer part of the chassis. On a 200-series Wurlitzer, you can pick it up by holding the transformer and the amp rail. Of course, make sure that the transformers are screwed down and do not feel wobbly before you pick up the amp. Wear gloves, because the transformers might be rusty and could have sharp edges.
Note that while the transformer is generally safe to touch, please use your best judgement and always pay close attention to the conditions inside your Wurlitzer. If something seems really sketchy about the inside of your keyboard - for instance, if the transformer seems oddly loose or if it is inexplicably wrapped in bare wires or if there’s some other mysterious red flag that is so atypical of basic Wurlitzer use that we could never possibly predict it - stop what you’re doing and call a professional.
Once the keys and the amp are removed, you can move on to the action assembly. On a 200-series Wurlitzer, the action assembly is straightforward to remove. Note that, if you are removing the entire assembly at once, there is a hidden screw that requires removing the centermost damper to access. As mentioned earlier, the action parts of a 100-series Wurlitzer require some caution. Wurlitzer 112 and 120 hammers must be positioned in a certain way with respect to the whips, or they won’t move properly.
Finally, unscrew the keybed, making note of the positioning of the paper shims underneath. We usually discard them and make new ones by cutting up a sheet of paper of the same thickness.
Step Four: Clean! Remove all debris from inside the case of the Wurlitzer. Wipe it down with a mild detergent and not too much liquid. Clean mechanical parts as needed. Have fun!
Visit Part II of our guide for more on how to clean specific messes, like mold, mouse droppings, and water damage.
Apprehensive about cleaning? Visit our guide on what not to clean.
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