When buying a used piano it’s important to keep in mind that one man’s “perfect working order” can be another man’s piano-shaped table, so you ought to do some research on what to look for before you hand over the cash and lug it home.
Fortunately, Annie Grieshop, a registered piano technician and piano columnist, is on hand to share her hard-earned knowledge of second-hand pianos.
The newest student needs the piano that plays and sounds best. So if you get an old clunker from somebody's basement, don't be surprised if you give up trying to make music on it. With that said, there are a few things to consider before you even look at a piano:
First, what size/style of piano are you looking for? Here's a basic chart of the differences. Now you know the correct terminology (regardless of what ads or sellers might say to the contrary). Most people really don't know anything about pianos, so you are already better prepared!
The easiest way to buy a piano is to go to a reputable music store and try out all their pianos. If you don't play, take along a friend who does. If you can't find anyone to go with you, ask the salesperson to play all of the pianos that interest you, so you can hear the difference in tone.
Music stores are almost always more expensive than private sales – they have to be, to pay their staff and the electric bill. But when you buy a piano privately, you don't get a warranty and can't take it back, so you have to know you're getting something good.
The best way to ensure you get something good is to take your piano technician with you to check out the piano. If your tech can't or won't go with you, find out who has been working on the piano for its current owners, and talk to that person. The owners don't remember who tuned it last? They haven't had it tuned "for a while"? Ah, well now you know something very important about the piano you're thinking about buying: it has not been maintained properly.
That might not be the kiss of death, although it should make you much more cautious. Some pianos are so well-made that they can survive abuse and neglect. Others can't. So now you need to know how to tell the difference…
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Here are 14 basic things to listen, look, and feel for when inspecting a used piano.
First off, look at the keys.
- Are they level from one end of the piano to the other? (A very slight arch in the middle is a good thing.) Any keys that are "bottomed out", just sitting there, have broken parts. Thank the nice people and leave....
- When you look at their vertical ends, do you see a square or a rectangle? The more square, the better.
- When you push them, do they go down about 3/8"? Any more than that, and the piano will be tiring to play and won't work correctly.
- Can you move the keys far enough sideways that they hit each other? That's a sign of dried-out or missing felt and will need fixing eventually.
- Play from one end to the other with a very light and consistent touch. Do all the notes make a sound? If not, the piano needs regulation, at least.
- Is the tuning pretty consistent from one end to the other? Play the same note in three or four different octaves simultaneously to really check for tuning consistency.
Now open the piano and examine the strings and action parts.
- Do the wooden parts of the keys look as though they have been chewed? Are there stains on the wood or the strings? Mice have been living in there.
- Are any strings missing?
- Does the piano have all its hammers and dampers? (Note, dampers only go so far up, and the top 20 or so notes don't have any.)
- Feel the hammers for softness (if they feel dry and hard, the sound will be thin and hard) and look for wear.
- Do the hammers look as though little bits of them are missing? Are there holes in the felt? That is insect damage. If they ate the hammers, they probably ate other felt parts and the piano has sat without being played for some time. Playing kills the bug eggs, and it's bug larvae that do the damage.
And finally, open the bottom of the piano and inspect the pedals, the bridges and the general condition of that area.
- Pedals should move freely and quietly. By the time you push down 1/2", you should feel resistance and see movement in the action (dampers lifting, the hammer rail moving).
- Look for any signs of mildew or water damage. If a piano has been flooded, this is where you'll find the evidence. It's more common than you might think....
- Finally, look up the piano's serial number so you really know how old it is. Owners usually know when the piano came into their household, but they rarely know its true age.
Where to find the serial number?
Upright piano: inside, near or on the top, near the tuning pins, often stamped into the wood. Newer pianos might have a metal plate on the end/inside or have the number stamped on the back/outside.
Grand piano: originally on the metal plate, near the tuning pins. If the plate has been repainted, the number might be gone. In that case, look on the soundboard, near the hinge closer to the keys. Not there? You'll need to remove a leg....
With the maker's name and the serial number, you can have your technician look it up.
Annie is the proprietor of Greishop Piano Service in Iowa, USA, she also writes for the Piano Technician’s Guild Journal, the Iowa Music Teacher and the Wapsipinicon Almanac. For more information check out allthingspiano.com.