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Buying a Used Piano

PURPOSE: When buying a used piano, always keep in mind the primary purpose for your purchase. The great majority of used pianos are purchased by people who want their child to take piano lessons. This is a very noble and responsible decision on the part of the parents as studies have shown that learning to play the piano can actually increase intelligence in children. This fact sheet has been prepared primarily for the person who wants a piano for his own musical enjoyment or for the musical education of his child.

TYPES: Pianos come in two varieties; horizontal and vertical. Horizontal pianos, commonly called "grand" pianos sit on three legs and have their strings parallel to the floor. If you have the floor space and the money, grand pianos are usually a better investment than vertical pianos. They generally have a better sound and a smooth working action. (The "action" is the mechanical part of the piano that transfers the downward motion on the front of the key to the hammer which strikes the string.)

JOINT DECISION: If at all possible, at least two people should participate in the buying decision. One may pay more attention to how the piano will look in the room it is to be placed in, or if it has a pretty sound. The other may pay closer attention to the mechanics, such as whether all the keys actually play, whether the pedals work, and how it will be moved. Each will bring different amounts of background knowledge into the decision making process

HISTORY: Whenever you are interested in a particular piano, be sure to ALWAYS ask if the piano has been maintained and tuned regularly by a qualified piano technician. If it has, get his name and phone number and consult with him before making a final decision. Unfortunately, many pianos are sold because they have NOT been used in a long time and therefore have NOT been maintained. Ask about its history, whether it was played hard or stored in an unregulated environment, each of which will shorten its useful life and value.

HOW IT LOOKS: Look at the piano at a distance and close up. Look at it from the side and the front. Imagine how it would look in the room where you will put it. If you are not satisfied with that, it doesnít even matter how it sounds or works. Go on to the next one. Look inside both the upper and lower half of the piano to see if it is clean, if it has signs of rodent or insect infestation, or if the felt hammers and dampers show moth damage. Look at the bass strings. They should look copper colored, not black or dark green which will probably make them sound dull or dead.

HOW IT SOUNDS: Play all of the keys, black and white. Each note should sound clearly when the key is pressed down firmly, and quit sounding when the key is released. If they donít, repairs are needed. All notes should have about the same loudness when the keys are struck with the same force. If there is a great difference between some notes and others, some type of repair or regulation is needed. If some notes sound twice or several times when the key is only pressed once lightly, the action need regulation. If there are loud clicking or clunking sounds when the key is released, the action felts are badly worn and need replacing. If the bass notes sound dead, the strings may need replacing, the soundboard may be cracked, or the bridge may have come unglued Ė all very expensive repairs.

HOW IT FEELS: The "touch" of a piano is important. Some people prefer a lighter touch, others a stiffer touch. Each note should sound when the key is pressed down firmly. No key should require an extra heavy push to get the same sound as the others. Sight along the tops of the white keys. They should be even. If not, some repairs are most likely needed, though this is not too critical in the first couple of years of piano lessons as long as all the keys function smoothly and equally. Be sure the piano has 88 keys! Old English pianos, which have only 85 keys, are pretty to look at but generally have serious tuning problems. Also check out the pedals. They should operate smoothly with your heel resting on the floor.

HOW MUCH IT COSTS: A used vertical piano over 30 years old, which looks, sounds, and feels good, can cost from $600 to $1200 depending on the brand name and the care it has received. Newer pianos will generally cost more. Older pianos in the upper price range have probably had some serious repair or restoration work done to them. Thatís good. Sometimes an old upright piano can be had for only the cost or trouble of moving it. While it may seem like a bargain, be sure that you check it out just as you would one which would cost $600 or more. I have found that pianos costing under $600 will often (not always) require an additional $200 to $400 in repairs to get them to an acceptable working condition. Other repairs may also be necessary later.
AGE AND BRANDS: There are still many pianos in use today that are between 50 and 100 years old, or more. The older a piano is, of course, the more likely it is to have problems, unless it has been properly maintained all along. At the turn of the century there were hundreds of piano manufacturers in the United States. Most of them have gone out of business, although their names may have been bought out by other companies. Some name brands from American piano manufactures are: Acrosonic, Baldwin, Cable-Nelson, Cable & Sons, Chickering, Emerson, Estey, Everett, Fischer, French & Sons, Grinnel Bros., Gulbransen, Haddorff, Haines Bros., Haines, Hallet & Davis, Hamilton, Hardman, Harrington, Hazelton Bros., Hinze, Howard, Huntington, Ivers & Pond, Janssen,, Kawai (Japanese built before 1988), Kimball, Knabe, Kohler & Campbell, Krakauer Bros., Kranich & Bach, Kroeger, Leonard & Co., Lester, Lyon & Healy, Marshall & Wendell, Mason, Mason & Hamlin, Mehlin & Son, Henry F. Miller, Milton, Milton, Nordheimer, Pease, Poole, Price & Teeple, Ricca & Son, Richmond, Rudolph, Schimmel, Schomacker, Shubert, Shumann, Sohmer & Co., P.A. Starck, Geo. Steck & Co., Steinway & Sons, Chas. M. Steiff, Stodart NY, Story & Clark, Straube, Stultz & Bauer, Stultz & Co., Temple, Vose & Sons, Waldorf, Waltham, Horace Waters, Weaver, Weber & Co., Wegman, Wellsmore, Weser, Whitney, P.S. Wick, inter, wissner & Sons, Woodbury, O.W. Wuertz, Wurlitzer, Yamaha (Japanese built before 1979), Young Chang (Korean).

TUNING AND MAINTENANCE: The piano is a mechanical instrument. All machines require some sort of regular maintenance. Following the initial repairs and tunings which your used piano may require, plan to have your piano tuned every 6 months. Tunings may cost between $65 and $75 each. Repairs and adjustments to the mechanical action are usually charged at an hourly rate, though some minor jobs may be included with the tuning fee, especially for regular customers. The purchase and installation of a humidity control system can be a big factor in helping your piano stay in better condition for more years. Your piano technician can help you with that.

MOVING: The combined string tension of a tuned piano is several thousand pounds. The plate onto which the strings are mounted is made of cast iron because it is strong and relatively inexpensive. However, it is also very heavy. Two strong men may be able to move a spinet piano without much trouble. (Be careful that belt buckles donít scratch the finish.) Larger pianos may require the help of additional men. If you rent a truck, also rent a furniture dolly and protective pads. It may be best to contact a professional mover with experience in moving pianos. Be sure that their insurance will cover damages that they may cause. Their services will usually cost between $100 and $200, depending on piano size, distance being moved, and whether it must be carried up stairs.

PLEASE CALL: I hope that this information has been helpful. I am available to help you evaluate a used piano before you purchase it and have a written appraisal form I will provide to you and the owner if you desire. Please call me if you desire regular service for your piano, or if you have any questions.