By Gregory Cheng, RPT
The process of a thorough inspection of a piano should not be taken lightly. A detailed inspection is necessary for quality service, and from your notes and pictures, you should be able to know the piano fairly intimately from a serviceability standpoint and be able to make recommendations for an insurance claim, for a sale, or for further service. It is critical to inspect the piano thoroughly. Failure to do so can lead to misrepresentation of the piano and failure to meet expectations of a professional service.
This article references inspections of privately-owned pianos. Inspecting pianos in dealerships or other stores is a very different process. Keep an eye out for the next article in this series: Working With Dealerships.
Torque Wrench (Schaff, product #6010)
Pin size gauges (Schaff, product #44)
Downbearing gauge (Schaff, product #106)
Camera / Phone
Notepad with inspection form
A downloadable template for this procedure is provided here:
Photograph everything as you move through the inspection process. The first photo should be of the serial number. This will keep your photos organized on your device.
Start with the exterior of the piano, photo the piano open and completely closed. Notate (and photograph) the following:
The wood finish: walnut, mahogany, ebony, etc.
Sheen: High Gloss, Satin Luster, Satin, etc.
Finish: Lacquer, polyester, polyurethane
Photo damaged finish or veneer.
Photo the finish and notate if good or damaged (eg alligatored, chips, gouges, etc).
Faded or sun-damaged areas (on a grand closing the small lid on a wood finish piano will show faded and the non-faded area pretty easily).
Photo the legs, lyre, fallboard, keyslip, and cheekblocks, and inspect for damages.
Note the style of the legs:
Photo the trap work and note the functionality of the pedals and condition of the felts and leathers.
Photo the hinges and pedals, notate material (brass or nickel), and wear and tear.
Photo the keys and notate chips, cracks, and material (ivory vs plastic):
Look closely at the sharps, in older pianos, the side wear can be hidden under the white keys.
A note about ivory key pianos: There are still some people who are under the impression that ivory is a desirable feature on a piano. You should practice careful wording in your evaluation to fully educate customers about what it means to have ivory keytops. Pianos with ivory keys are too old to be of any value, which often comes with a host of serviceability issues:
Since 2016, the selling, trading, or transporting of anything with ivory is a legal obstacle that varies state-to-state in the U.S.
For the most part, ivory keys ceased to be placed on pianos since 1950s (with rare exception to Steinway Bs and Ds from 1987 - 1993)
Without exception, modern manufacturers use synthetic ivory or plastic.
You should know that if it is ever you versus the state regarding ivory trade, you will be seen as a monster elephant poacher. Play it safe and educate as best you can.
Inspect the belly work of the piano:
Photo the strings and tuning pins, notate rust, discoloration, broken strings etc.
Record the pitch of A4.
Use the Tuning Pin Size Gauge and note the size of the tuning pins.
Test the tuning pin torque on all Cs, and a few notes in the bass tenor break, alternate left, middle, and right strings:
Clean the unison if necessary. Accurate pitch is not necessary, you just need a clean unison. Mute the string to tune only 2 of the 3 string unison.
With the torque wrench, moving counter-clockwise only (lowering the pitch), watch the needle on the wrench.
While still applying force stop moving the pin when the needle stops on the wrench. This is your torque reading. With practice, you will get the feel of floating the wrench between moving the tuning pin and keeping the needle stopped. [See recommended tuning pin specs]
Inspect the agraffes, noting if any are broken.
Photo and inspect the treble and bass bridge for cracks or fissures along the bridge pins.
Use the downbearing gauge to determine if there is downbearing:
Place the three-pronged gauge on the middle string over the bridge pins. The middle prong should rest on the bridge, while the outer prongs should rock back and forth on the speaking and non-speaking sides.
If there is no downbearing, the gauge will not rock.
Photo the soundboard and notate any cracks.
Photo the plate and inspect for cracks and finish issues.
From underneath the piano:
Inspect the ribs:
Run the edge of the business card along each side of each rib. If there is a separation the business card will “fall” between the rib and soundboard.
Photo and note any separations.
Avoid using metal feeler gauges. While they may be accurate in machine work, they are thin leaves of metal, like a knife or razor blade. They may cut the rib and create a separation if not careful.
Inspect any cracks in the soundboard:
Use a business card to photo the crack from above and below.
Inspect for rib separation at any crack in the soundboard. Note: Compression ridges are not cracks.
Inspect the inner rim to soundboard glue joint using the same business card method.
Inspect any other glue joint under the soundboard, e.g. bass cut off.
Determine if there is crown in the soundboard:
Find the longest rib in the piano.
Using the plumb line, tape the ends closest to the rim on each end of the rim, pulling the line taut.
Using a flashlight to determine if there is space in the middle of the soundboard and plumb line. If there is space, there is crown. No space, no crown.
Inspect the pedals for looseness or side play.
Inside the piano:
Determine the quality of the regulation.
Record the current regulation measurements: hammer blow, let off, drop, key dip, key height, aftertouch, etc.
Check the function of the dampers.
Check the function of the shift pedal - note where the hammers stop under the strings, or extra noises.
Check the function of the sostenuto system: 1) Depress a section of keys and operate the pedal. The dampers should remain disengaged from the depressed section of keys. 2) Depress the pedal and operate keys, checking to see if any dampers catch. 3) With the damper pedal the right way and the wrong way.
Check the wippen assembly alignment, jack position, and repetition lever height.
Note any excessive friction in the hammer flanges. Remove the last hammer flange in the tenor section and do the swing test.
Note any excessive friction in the jacks. Trip each jack and determine if they are returning properly or too slowly
Test each screw for tightness/stripping. Turn each or every other flange screw and see if it can be tightened, or if it continues to spin.
Note the type of flange bushing being used (looking especially for teflon versus cloth in Steinways)
Check front and balance rail bushings for excessive side play in every direction. Keys that knock forward and backward on the balance rail is called chucking. A chucking key means that the balance hole is oblong.
Photo and inspect:
Hammer wear and tear: show hammer wear on notes 1-5 and 84-88, as well as overall section by section - this will also show alignment issues.
Check and photo any hammer felts that have popped off of the moldings.
Check for stripped screws between the action stack and keyframe.
Inspect the back rail cloths, and front and balance rail punchings.
Flip the keyframe up and inspect the underside of the keyframe for stripped screws, glue joints, and damage.
With the action removed:
Check the pinblock for delamination.
Check the flange to pinblock mating.
Run a business card along the flange. If the card “falls” upward between the block and the flange, the pinblock is not mated properly:
Using the camera on a smartphone you can photo any gaps from inside the piano, and also get a good look at the back side of the pinblock.
Use the pedal to operate the dampers.
Watch for slow or stuck dampers, or dampers that do not move up and down properly.
Check the sostenuto system.
Inspect the damper felts and string dampening:
Note dirty, bent, dancing, or ringing damper felts.
Inspect the damper tray components:
Screw tightness to belly rail
Inspect the damper underlevers for:
Broken glue joints
Pay attention to the cleanliness of the soundboard, action, and underneath. In some cases, you may see remnants of water damage or mold on the underside of the lid or underneath the piano. Always be on the lookout for mouse dirt or nests. All of these things should be noted.
When inspecting the piano, remember that you are inspecting the current condition of the piano. Resist the urge to make corrections regardless of how minor they may seem. A good inspection is a critical and very clinical inspection. Leave emotion out of the results and just report the facts.
You are comparing the piano against a fully functional and fully serviceable piano. Terms like “It's good for its age” doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Your findings should fall into these three categories: good, needs service, needs replacement.
If the part or series of parts is working 100% with absolutely no need for any correction or adjustment it is Good.
If the parts need regulation, repair, or any sort of adjustment they Need Service.
If the parts are beyond servicing or broken they Need Replacement.
Terms like excellent, fair, and poor are summary explanations regarding the piano as a whole.
Learning how to inspect a piano thoroughly takes practice. Your pictures are worth a thousand words, so make sure they are clear and depict exactly what information you are showing. Out of focus pictures are useless. The end goal between the photos and the report from your inspection is that someone should be able to tell the exact state of the piano without ever having seen it in person.
As an exercise, I encourage you to practice your inspection skills and send me your inspection form and pictures. If I can determine the quality of the overall piano based on your form and pictures, you’re doing a great job, if not, I can give pointers as to how to improve your process.