Guide to Buying a Used Piano

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There is no market for merchandise where a buyer can get “stung” like the used piano market. Yet, at the same time, you can get a terrific “deal,” simply because the owner of the piano did not know the true value of the instrument. In most cases, however, no one is giving anything away, and if you are trying to buy directly from a private owner, it is good business to know something about what you are buying.

The safest thing to do is to go to a reputable dealer. If anything goes wrong with the piano, you can always go back. But there is a large market for used pianos from private owners, so here is some advice on things to look for when shopping for the “perfect” used piano

What Are Your Needs

When you are looking for a piano, first determine your needs. Not everyone needs to have a concert grand or wants a big upright in their living room. If you’re just starting out, or you play occasionally for your own enjoyment, then a spinet, or console, or a small baby grand piano might fit your needs. However, if you are an accomplished player, you will want to get a larger piano, either a grand, or if space is limited, a console or studio piano.

The Grand or Vertical

There are two styles of pianos: the vertical or upright piano, and the grand piano. A vertical piano sits against the wall, and comes in several different heights; spinet: 36″ high, console: 42″ high, studio: 45″ high, and studio or old uprights: which can be as much as 55″ to 60″ tall. Grand pianos sit horizontally, and come in a variety of lengths, from 4’6″ baby grand pianos, 9’6″ concert grands.

In both types of pianos, vertical or grands, the longer the strings the bigger and better the sound. Strings are only as long as the piano is tall or long. Thus spinets and smaller grand pianos are going to have a smaller sound than big uprights or concert grand pianos.

Age, Color, Finish & Furniture Style

Pianos last approximately 75 to 100 years. Some pianos can last longer, but then some fall apart earlier. If you want a piano for only a few years, you can buy a piano that is 75 years old and still get a couple of years enjoyment out of it. However, if you want your piano to be a lifetime investment, the newer the piano is, the better.

The age of a piano is determined by the serial number. Most piano tuners and dealers have a book called the Pierce Piano Atlas, which lists most manufacturers. The serial number indicates which year the manufactured. On vertical pianos it is usually stamped on the inside, near the top of the piano. On some later models, this number is found on the back of the piano. On grand pianos, the number is found on the soundboard or on the plate.

After you have determined the age of the piano even though mechanically is has to be in good condition, your piano is going to be part of your décor and you’re going to look at it more than play it. So pick a color that you like, a furniture style that fits in your home, and a finish that is acceptable.

Inspecting the Vertical Piano

When you have found a piano in the color and furniture style you want, you need to examine the piano for technical and mechanical problems. First, look at the keys. There should not be any keytops or black keys missing. Look at the keys from the side. You should be able to lay a straight edge across them and not see any gaps bigger than 1/128″. Each key should go down about 3/8″. If the keys go down more than 3/8″ or if they are not “level”, it indicates that mice or insects have gotten in the piano and have eaten the felts under the keys.

Next, lift the top of the piano, and remove the “swing” panel that holds the music, and inspect the “action”, which is the playing mechanism of the piano. Make sure all the hammers are there. (The things that hit the strings). If they have little grooves in them where they hit the strings, the grooves should not be more than a 1/32″ deep. Play each note and make sure each key works. Look at the hammers, and see that they go straight forward and back, and do not wobble from side to side.

Check to see if all the “bridle straps” (red or brown tabs on a cloth strip, attached to a wire and the hammer mechanism) are attached and in good shape. The dampers are felts that lie against the strings and stop the sound when you stop playing. They should all be there and should not make a noise when they hit the strings. (There won’t be any dampers on the higher notes). The strings and tuning pins should be free of rust and dirt. A clean action will indicate that the piano has been well maintained and kept in a good environment. A dirty action will indicate the piano has been kept in a dirty, humid house, and should be avoided.

Below the keys is a large panel called the kick board, held in place by 1 or 2 springs. To remove the kick board push up on the springs and pull the top of the panel forward. Behind the kick board you will see the strings, which go over a long block of wood with pins in it, called the bridge. The strings should be free from rust, and there should not be any cracks in the bridge. Behind the strings is the soundboard. Although the sound board can have a crack or 2, they should not be big enough to see through.

Step on the pedals. The right one should make the sound of the piano continue. The left pedal is the “soft” pedal, which moves all the hammers closer to the strings. There are a number of different purposes for a middle pedal on a vertical piano, so do not concern yourself with it.

If it is possible, move the piano away from the wall, and with a flashlight look at the soundboard. Across the soundboard are thin slats of wood called ribs which are attached to the soundboard. If there are any cracks, push on the soundboard next to a rib. The soundboard should not separate from the rib. If it does, it can cause a buzzing sound when the piano is played.

Finally, play the piano a little and see if it is in generally good tune. All the notes should sound reasonably clear, and you should be able to recognize a song. If several notes close together sound very bad, that would indicate a bad pin block, which will make it impossible for the piano to stay in tune.

Inspecting the Grand Piano

There are only a few differences between grand and vertical pianos. Start by lifting the top lid and removing the music rack. This allows you to inspect the strings, the soundboard, and the bridges. Just as on a vertical piano, the strings should not be rusty, the soundboard should not have too many cracks in it, and the bridges should also be free of cracks.

In the front of the piano is where the strings are attached to the tuning pins. This whole area should be relatively clean and free from stains. A dark stain in the pin area indicates a liquid has been spilled on the piano, which will affect the pin block, which keeps the piano in tune. With a flashlight, get under the piano and look up at the soundboard. If there are any cracks, just as in the vertical piano, make sure the ribs are tight against the soundboard.

Only a qualified tuner/technician should remove the action of a grand piano because serious damage may be done if it is not done properly. But you can see a lot without removing the action. First make sure all the keys play, and that the piano is in generally good tune. All the notes should sound reasonably clear, and you should be able to recognize a song. And just like the vertical piano, if several notes close together sound very bad, that would indicate a bad pin block, or that the soundboard has too many cracks. Look through the strings at the hammers, and see that they are round on top, and not heavily grooved. Each hammer should strike only one set of strings.

There should not be any keytops or black keys missing. Look at the keys from the side. You should be able to lay a straight edge across them and not see any gaps bigger than 1/128″. Each key should go down about 3/8″. If the keys go down more than 3/8″ or if they are not “level”, it indicates that mice or insects have gotten in the piano and have eaten the felts under the keys.

Step on the pedals. The left one should shift the action. The right one should lift all the dampers, which should all rise and fall together. The middle pedal could do one of two things. It could either lift only the bass dampers, or it could be a sostonuto pedal. In this case, press the right pedal, then the middle, then let up on the right pedal. All the dampers should stay up. If they don’t, do not worry, because that is taken care of with a simple adjustment inside the piano.

The Restored, Reconditioned, and Rebuilt Piano

Older pianos, especially grand pianos, might have been restored, reconditioned or rebuilt. A restored piano has been put in generally good playing condition using the original parts. A reconditioned piano has had some of the parts replaced, but most of the piano is still in original condition, but has been put in good condition. A rebuilt piano has been completely taken apart, and reassembled with new strings, new pin block, new action parts, and refinished to be made to look like new. Although there is nothing wrong with a restored or reconditioned piano, don’t be led to believe it was rebuilt. Ask the seller for details of what has been done. If he/she is reluctant or unable to explain in detail what work has been done, you should get a piano technician to inspect the piano.

About a Piano Staying In Tune

Manufacturers recommended that a piano be tuned twice a year. However, most people get their piano tuned once a year. No matter what anyone tells you, however, there is no acoustic piano made that never needs tuning. Every time the temperature or humidity changes, the piano goes out of tune. It’s the changes in humidity and temperature cause a piano to go out of tune more than playing it. When a piano has not been tuned over an extended period of time of 2 or 3 years or longer, the strings stretch to the point that the whole piano will fall below pitch.

The piano was designed to play at its maximum efficiency and sound with the relative pitch of A above middle C at 440 beats per second, referred to as A440. When the pitch drops below that, the piano tuner has to “raise the pitch” back to A440. This puts a lot of strain on the soundboard and the strings, and the piano will fluctuate and become unstable. The piano tuner will then have to spend a considerable amount of time to stabilize the piano so that it will stay in tune. This will not only cost you more money, but it is not good for the piano either.

Appraising the Piano

Reasons for appraising a used piano.

There are basically 5 reasons why you should have a piano appraised.

  1. When you are selling a piano and you need to know how much it is worth.
  2. When you want to buy a piano, either from a private individual or a store and you want to know if the asking price is fair.
  3. For insurance purposes, especially when the insurance policy has a replacement value clause.
  4. After a disaster when the insurance company needs to know how much the piano was worth before the accident and how much it will be worth after it has been restored.
  5. When the piano is involved in a divorce or an estate settlement.

Before you buy any piano, it is highly recommend that the final inspection of the piano be done by a qualified piano tuner/technician. Only a piano tuner/technician can look at the action, the case, strings, and overall construction and determine if the piano is of good quality. It is expected that the piano technician is paid for this service.

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