By Gregory Cheng, RPT
A common call technicians receive is one from someone who has just purchased a “new to them” piano that needs “just” a tuning. However, upon arrival, they find a piano that is unserviceable and unsalvageable. This unfortunate situation can be avoided with some preparation and planning before a bad purchase is made. This article will guide prospective piano owners through a simple evaluation process to prevent another dead piano from changing hands.
Never consider a free piano.
Never consider a piano over 40 years old or one that has issues.
Always hire a professional technician to perform a final inspection before purchasing to evaluate what you cannot see or feel in a used piano.
The Facts about Free Pianos
Simply put, avoid free pianos. If you own something of value, would you give it away for free? A piano is an instrument and a fine piece of furniture - why would it be free? Most of the time, a free piano has not been serviced or played in a long time and is far beyond repair. Some technicians won’t even bother providing a service appointment for free pianos. If a piano is of no value, then it is also of no value to you.
The inside of a "free" piano showing signs of mice infestation. Free pianos are often kept in garages where rodents and insects find a perfect home.
Older does not mean “better.”
The saying, “They just don’t make them like they use to,” is true. And it’s a good thing. Pianos are made better today than they ever were. Manufacturing technology has come a long way in the last 60 years. Whether hand-made or manufactured, the piano makers of today use 21st-century technology in their process to enhance and refine the production of their instruments. This means today’s pianos are more consistent because of narrower tolerances and specifications. As a general rule, the younger the better.
Approximately 60 years ago there was a move in the industry to use universal parts. Older pianos have more proprietary parts that are impossible to replace because the original brand and manufacturer is now “extinct.” Modern pianos have parts based on a universal design that took the manufacturers 100 years to settle on. Piano parts are still make- and model-specific, but because they are of a universal design these parts are readily available.
Even older pianos that may have been well-built for their time have a lifespan. Materials in older pianos have decades of wear and tear, evidenced by weakened or separated glue joints, splitting wood, worn felt, and deteriorating action parts. Also, you may not know the true history of the piano, and you can’t rely on the seller to disclose it. If you are the second or third owner of a piano, you wouldn’t know if that 50+-year-old upright lived in a basement growing mold or if it has been routinely flooded.
The U.S. had approximately 70 or more piano manufacturers that came and went between 1890 and 1960. Between 1960 and 1996 a lot of these manufacturers catered to the entry-level market. Three U.S. manufacturers are still around today: Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, and Charles Walter. Asian companies have bought the rights to a lot of old defunct American brands and sell pianos under those names, but these pianos are nothing like their predecessors.
So, what should you look for in a piano?
Basically, age, brand name, history, and issues. If you buy a used piano, have it inspected by a qualified piano technician. It should be 40 years old or younger with a regular service history and a recognizable brand name, such as Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Yamaha, Kawai, Charles Walter, and Steinway. If the piano’s current owner can provide a service history of 1-4 times per year, great! Many technicians leave a card in the piano with the dates of their service. If the owner has the service history or has access to the previous technician they may be able to get the recent history.
Never buy a piano without seeing it in person first. There are too many possible hidden issues to trust a photo or verbal report to convey. Play every key on the piano and follow this list to get a preliminary idea of the condition of the piano:
The pitch of the piano (smartphone app can be okay for this). You want the fifth A from the bottom to be A440 Hz +/- 3 Hz. The closer to A440 the better! A reading at A that is less than 437Hz will require a pitch raise before it can be tuned. This translates to extra time and cost before the piano is stabilized and sounding good again.
Do any of the notes sound wildly out of tune or funny? This may be a sign of a loose pinblock.
Any stuck or slow-moving keys or parts?
Cupped keytops are a sign of water damage.
Do the keys repeat swiftly?
Do the pedals operate properly?
Are there any broken parts? Broken parts are a red flag. Whether or not those parts can be replaced with the original manufacturer parts or third party parts can only be determined by a technician.
Are there any missing parts? Missing parts are a big red flag. Some parts in the piano are sold as a set, so if you are missing even 1 hammer, you’d have to buy a set of hammers to replace them. The same applies to keytops and damper felts. These types of problems can get costly.
Are there any noises in the piano? It could be something simple, such as a pencil lodged in the piano, or something not-so-simple like a broken part in the piano.
A broken part laying inside in the piano.
Look underneath a grand and behind an upright to check for cracks or glue joint separation.
A separated rib and cracked soundboard.
Look inside the piano with a flashlight, do you see rust or discoloration?
Moldy, moth-eaten hammers.
Does the piano have an unpleasant odor?
White mold growing on a piano action.
Do you like the sound of the piano? A good rule of thumb is to avoid a piano if you don’t like it from the start.
Is it a spinet? The spinet piano was an entry-level upright piano about waist or table height (typically 40 inches or shorter). The last spinets were manufactured over 30 years ago and were discontinued entirely by the early ‘80s. They all suffer from broken belly work, wear and tear, and age. They were cheap, ill-made pianos that functioned as the precursor to the modern-day keyboard. Servicing them is expensive. Most qualified technicians will not service spinets today due to the issues and costs involved. These pianos should not even be a consideration today. They are not worth it. They are dead pianos.
Once you have seen and played the piano and it passes your inspection, it is time to hire a qualified piano technician to inspect the piano. The technician can check for loose tuning pins, cracked bridges, sluggish action parts, or mouse dirt, etc. The presence of any of these items could be indicative of an unserviceable piano. The cost to fix these items may outweigh the price you paid for the piano and may even be the cost of a nice new piano.
Should I buy privately or through a dealer?
We discussed the pitfalls to avoid and homework you have to do if you are buying privately. But, it can be done. Paying a technician to inspect the piano along with all the research involved may save you money in the long run but it will be a longer process than buying from a piano dealer.
Purchasing from a dealer has a few benefits. Usually, the dealer will clean and prepare the used piano for resale. Dealers usually offer warranties, trade-ins, or piano disposal as part of your purchase agreement. Dealer prices on used pianos are higher due to having a technician involved in prepping the piano before and after delivery. When buying from a dealer you have to understand that the price of the used piano will be commensurate with the piano’s quality and age. Purchasing a cheap piano with no warranty and no after-delivery service is not recommended. A low-quality piano will only last you a few years - if that. However, a piano with a 1-3 year warranty with an after-delivery service would be a good piano to purchase, but that cost is rolled into the price. The reason for this is the fact that dealers have the confidence to support their product with a warranty. I recommend asking what the coverage of the warranty spells out for clarity.
The salesperson should provide the age of a used piano and know whether it was from a recent trade-in, from an institution, or residence. You can request a view of the inside of the piano which will reveal the general condition of the internal workings of the piano. If a salesperson is unwilling to show you the inside of a piano, move on.
You can only buy a new piano through a dealer. New pianos typically come with a 5 to 10-year manufacturer’s warranty, but warranties vary by brand. Some manufacturer warranties are transferable, meaning if you sell or give the piano away the warranty will follow the piano to the next person during the initial warranty period, however, most manufacturers do not do this.
Dealers will have a wide variety of options when buying new. They will carry large, professional-level pianos and small, entry-level pianos for newcomers. Some dealers do trade-up programs where you get the full trade-in value of the piano for a larger, more expensive piano. Some dealers have a rental program if you are unsure if piano lessons will stick. Having all of that variety in one place means you get to choose an instrument with your preferred sound, feel, and look.
In the end, what you need to look for in a piano is simple:
Does it play well?
Is it serviceable?
Do you like the touch and tone?
Do you like how it looks?
If any or all of these answers are no, then you should move on.
If you have any questions please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to answer any questions.