How to Buy a Used Piano

Posted by kghutson on October 23rd, 2010

A piano brings an element of class to one's home. From the 1800's forward a majority of families purchased a piano because music was the focal point of the home. Children (especially girls) were considered to be more refined if they studied piano and many family gatherings occurred around the piano.

At the turn of the 20th century there were well over 300 piano manufacturers in the United States. With piano being the major form of entertainment of the day these manufacturers were turning out pianos almost like Ford building cars today. Many well built pianos were crafted and of course like any product there were some that were average and some not so good.

As radio came on the scene and eventually television these entertainment sources became a more significant factor in households. The number of pianos sold diminished. Today there are many competing sources of entertainment, music is simply one of many choices people have now.

Many parents understand the value of piano study and want their children to have an appreciation for music, hoping they will eventually master a musical instrument. Extensive studies have proven that students who study piano make better grades, especially in math and science, become more self confident, have better concentration skills and are overall better disciplined.

At least half of people who are ready to shop for a piano seek a used one. New pianos are quite costly today, even for a not so well built instrument. I encourage a parent or an adult who wishes to study piano to purchase the best piano they can afford. This article will give guidance to those who are considering the purchase of one of the most versatile musical instruments ever developed.

Let's clarify something quickly. Don't have the attitude that we just need a practice piano; an old used junker will be fine. No, it won't. When learning to play the student will be developing touch that controls dynamics which is acquired by practice. Musical expression cannot be developed if the piano cannot transmit to the strings the students finger touch. If the instrument is not up to standard their practice is in vain. Over 70% of a student's technique is developed at home. So an inferior piano is out of the question.

Used piano prices are all over the map whether you seek one at private homes or piano dealers. However the better the quality the more it will cost generally, unless you stumble on a good deal. Many good buys can be found with private homes, churches but "buyer beware." We'll discuss a few crucial areas that can help you find a good piano.

Types of Pianos
Pianos come in various types, classified as a: Spinet, Console, Studio and Grand. While all pianos operate and may look the same the quality level of one may be 10 times better than the other. The finer the quality the better the tone, touch, tuning stability and lifespan. Of course the price is usually higher as well.

A new, lower quality console piano today will range in cost from about $1,900 to $2,900. This figure may vary a few hundred dollars either way but this is a range to expect for a new, lower quality piano. A medium quality console will begin from the $3,000 to approximately $5,900. Some medium level studio pianos will fit in this price category and present a better instrument musically since the cabinet is plain. Some families, if not concerned with the furniture aspect will opt to buy a studio as they know they are getting a better value.

Consoles and larger studios will range in price from a little over $6,000 and up to about $9,000 for the more refined quality. Grand pianos begin at about $4,900 on the low side and can range up to over $100,000! So you see there is a wide range in pricing.

The size of spinets begin at 36" in height, Consoles begin at about 41" in height, and studios from 45" up to about 55". Grand pianos begin at 4'7" in length and can reach 10' in length.

What Type of Piano Should I Buy?
If you are a beginner and money is no object then making a decision may not be an issue. However many prospective piano buyers may have limits on the amount they can spend.

If you or a child is beginning to take piano lessons it's important NOT to buy the cheapest piano. Yes there are dozens of old upright pianos that reached 5' in height, but these pianos were built over 100 years ago and, every piano has a useful lifespan before it should be junked or, if it's a quality piano rebuilt. Your best option may be to buy a pre-owned piano. But buyers beware. There are thousands of parts in a piano and you must be careful not to buy a piano without careful examination first. I've heard the story over and over from parties selling their piano...it doesn't have a scratch on it, yet the inside is horribly in disrepair. A piano is, first a musical instrument and furniture second. So, the internal parts, adjustments (regulation) and tuning must be up to par or the piano's value is greatly.

So what type and brand of piano should you buy? A console may be in order. They take up less space, fit nicely against a wall and you can usually find a nice instrument at an affordable price. The investment into a nice, average console piano can be in the $1,500 range, for brands such as Story & Clark, Kimball, Wurlitzer, Baldwin and a host of others. Consoles such as a Steinway can run up to about $6,000 used. Next, a better built used piano may run in the mid $2000 range, however the same piano new would be over double that.

If you have space for a grand you may consider one that's 5' to 6' in length. Used grands, such as the brands previously mentioned will average from $3,900 to $6,000. A rule of thumb; the larger the piano, the more it will cost. Better built grands such as Knabe, Sohmer, Chickering, Mason & Hamiln will run from about $4,900 to 6,900 (double if rebuilt).

So the size, brand and quality in theory will be relative to price. This is not to say you won't find a $20,000 piano for $2,000, it does happen but rarely.

If you're buying from a piano retailer be sure they have a good reputation. Check with area piano technicians for feedback about the dealer or area piano teachers. Talk to respected musicians in your community about their reputation. Whether buying from an individual or dealer you should have the piano thoroughly inspected by a reputable piano technician. Meanwhile you can do some leg work first. The following information will be helpful to help you eliminate the duds. Once you have followed the following steps and the piano appears to be a potentially good instrument you can pay a technician to check it out.

Finally the touch and tone of pianos vary. What one likes another may not. Do not be locked into what a professional musician or piano teacher suggests. Their preference is simply an opinion. They may like a piano that has a bright tone, while you may like mellow. Neither is necessarily correct, it's a matter of taste. I've seen many people miss a good buy because their teacher said the touch is too light, or the tone is too mellow etc.

Rebuilt Pianos
Rebuilt pianos can offer you incredible value. For instance you can acquire remanufactured pianos at half the cost of a comparable new one. I rebuilt a Mason & Hamlin 9' concert grand piano. The piano was totally rebuilt as new. The sales price was $40,000 however the same piano new was $90,000. If you like art case pianos then a good vintage Chickering, Sohmer, Knabe, Steinway etc can offer hand carved cases. When made like new you can save at least half that of a new comparable instrument.

What Do I Look For When Buying a Piano?
If you find a piano you like, whether at a piano dealer or private home be sure to check for the following:

Remove the Bottom Knee Board
Pull the bottom board from the piano. It's usually easy to remove; slip your fingers over the top edge of the board, press upward on a leaf type spring, while pressing up on the spring pull the board toward you. The board may have a piece of wood that turns away from the board so it will come forward.

The Bridges
Check the bridges. Do you see any splits around the pins where the strings cross? If so that's a major concern. If the notes sounded weak when you played the bass notes firmly try squatting down and while playing notes press against the bridge that the bass string cross. With the other hand press against the bridge. If the tone improves and noise disappears, the bridge is at least partially unglued from the soundboard, or its cap may be loose. This is another negative.

Soundboard
Do you see any splits in the soundboard? May or may not be of concern. If you hear a buzz it could be a drawback.

Is the tuning to pitch? If they haven't tuned the piano in years, then it will need to be pitch raised, then tuned. That will cost an average of $150.00. Or if the tuning pins are loose the pitch will drop. You may want to take a pitch pipe with you, or an electronic tuner, which you can buy for around $20.00 to check the pitch. If the pins are loose, this can be another negative.

Keys
Are the key covers tight? Check for side to side motion of the keys. You should perceive a very, very slight side to side play. Do any keys stick? If so it may be caused by moisture. Check to see if the keys are level. If you have to ask if they are then it probably is not a problem.

Strings
String and tuning pins. Is there any rust around the pins, on the strings? Have any been replaced? Usually some will look newer than others if any were replaced. Play the bass notes firmly. Do you hear any rattles? If so it's an indication the windings on the strings are loose. Usually bass strings can be "turned" to eliminate these rattles. Is there a separation on the wood section (top of the back, inside the pianos just behind the tuning pins)? If you see a gap of even 1/16" this should be noted. This is repairable but could be a symptom of a more serious problem and should be noted.

Cast Iron Plate
This is the "harp" where the strings are located. Do you see any cracks? If so stop here and don't buy the piano.

Action
This is the internal mechanism that, when the keys are depressed cause the hammers to strike the strings.
Are they flat on the face, with deep grooves? If so make sure there is no excessive side motion (left to right) of each hammer. You can check for side play by placing your middle finger on top of the hammer's wood molding, with a feather touch move it side to side. If there is perceptible movement the parts may need tightening or, if the side motion has worn the parts replacement will be necessary. Depending on how many are worn you may have a rather costly repair.

Moisture in the Action
Check for sluggishness of the hammers by holding down the right pedal, then gently pushing all the hammers toward the strings. They should fall back quickly. If any stay or fall back slowly then it will need to be treated for dampness. Some pianos have a build up of a grimy substance in the action and can be expensive to repair. A technician can tell you if it's moisture or something more serious. A fairly quick way to check is to press the right pedal down, then while holding it press and release the left pedal over and over again. While doing this operation look to see if all the hammers and all other parts are returning together. Try to look at the action to see if the cloth straps are all attached or if torn or missing. Then play each key several times to test if all are working. Also, try to view each hammer to check the felt on the underside, making sure it's glued tightly to the wood molding. You can easily check this by gently push each hammer forward. By doing this you can check the hammer of each consecutive note to be sure there is no separation. Make sure you check all 88 hammers.

Pedals
See if the pedals work correctly. When pressing the right pedal the notes should sustain (resonate and die slowly) when you release the keys. The center pedal usually sustains only the bass (in some pianos, especially Asian built pianos) the center pedal drops a strip of felt in front of the hammers to allow greatly reduced volume for quieter playing. If a pedal does not work look inside the bottom to see if there is a dowel at the end of the lever attached to the corresponding pedal. If it's missing don't worry. That's not expensive to replace. The left pedal in a console piano will move all the hammers toward the strings to reduce the volume when playing. Again if the hammers don't move the dowel may be missing.

Regulation
Is there lost motion in the keys before the hammers are engaged? When you strike a key does the hammer rebound from the strings and "catch"? If they dance back and forth it could be a result of lost motion in the keys or there are parts out of adjustment. You can expect that any piano you purchase will need regulation, or at least a few adjustments by a technician.

Finally, this article is not to replace the services of a competent piano technician but it may help you to eliminate the bad ones. When you find one that passes these elements then you can call a technician to examine one that passes this test.

While some pianos may have a number of problems better quality-built pianos may justify your investment into repairing what may be more serious problems. Good luck with your search for a piano.

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