DO’s for Buyers
If possible take along a Registered Piano Technician and performing pianist with a good pair of ears to evaluate a used or new piano on the market. You can find a list of RPT members at your Piano Technicians’ Guild online site, or look in the business or Yellow Pages for the PTG in your area.
Check out the serial number of the piano under review by looking inside the piano on the cast iron plate. (It will usually consist of 6 or more numbers) If not found on the plate, the numbers might be located in the back of the instrument, or underneath the piano. (I’ve even seen them on the wood post that holds up a grand piano lid)
Once you’ve acquired the serial number, you can find the corresponding date of manufacture in the Pierce Piano Atlas, or On line at Bluebookof pianos.com where piano companies are conveniently listed in alphabetical order. Sometimes the numbers obtained will not truthfully reflect the piano’s age so don’t be surprised if this occasionally happens. Some companies may not have strictly adhered to chronological dating of their manufactured pianos, but just the same, there may be other clues to a piano’s age, such as its external appearance and internal workmanship. Your tuner should be able to cast some light on the subject if he’s has been around pianos for a long time.
Listen for a piano’s tonal resonance—a long, natural decay rate on notes without depressing the sustain pedal is preferred. But be sure you’re hearing the piano in a realistic sound environment. An acoustically artificial or inflated space in a church or warehouse can play tricks on your ears. When you take the same piano home it may dwindle in projection to half its size.
Test every key of the piano, and look for sticking, or dead notes (notes not sounding) Trust your ears to pick up “warbling” or very out of tune notes. If you press one key and hear two notes sounding, there’s definitely a problem. Your tuner companion should be able to address all these technical questions as they arise and explain what repairs are needed with an estimate of costs.
If all the notes are working, make sure there is a consistent feel from one key to another in all registers. You may prefer a heavier or lighter overall touch—but, regardless, look for consistency of touch.
If the seller claims that the keys are made of ivory, inspect closely to see if there is a horizontal demarcation at mid-point because the true ivory key is divided into a front and tail part. In many cases, the horizontal line is too faint to discern but if you look more closely you can usually see it. Ivory keys may provide a nicer feel for some, but more often than not it does not make such a big difference when compared to plastic. The important issue is the condition of ivory or plastic keys. Are they chipped or damaged in any way? Does this damage affect the feel of the piano at any point? Sometimes, a reputable tuner can file down marginally chipped ivories, or replace a few, if necessary.
Look inside the piano, with the lid up, and see the state of the hammers, strings, soundboard and cast iron plate. Ask your tuner/technician if the hammer grooves are deep or not. You definitely want to ascertain the amount of wear on them and if they need to be replaced in the short or long run. Ask your tuner if the hammers need to be filed down or reshaped to make better contact with the strings. If the piano has a great tone to start with, don’t risk filing hammers down, unnecessarily.
Let your tuner appraise the strings for rust and other defects, and have him assess the piano for Mice, Moths, Moisture, and mold (vertigris) damage.
MAKE SURE TO EVALUATE ANY CRACKS IN THE SOUNDBOARD OR CAST IRON PLATE! Your tuner would be the best person to identify and evaluate these.
Test the piano’s pedals out to see if they’re all working properly. Some instruments may have two—others, three. The right pedal releases the dampers and allows the tone to sustain. It is mistakenly called the “loud pedal,” but it just holds down notes.
If there are only two pedals, the one to the left is the sotto voce or soft pedal. Upon depression in grand pianos, less strings are struck by the hammers. The mechanism is different for vertical pianos. Have your piano technician show you the mechanics of the pedals in vertical and horizontal pianos as they apply. If there are any squeaks, your technician should investigate whether they’re coming from the pedal rod or from inside the action. Repair may involve replacing felt or leather at the tip of the pedal rod, or putting some graphite in the area of the action.
If there are three pedals, then the middle pedal is officially called the sostenuto pedal, and upon depression, after a note or notes are struck, it holds those down, but not any others. A real “sostenuto” pedal has this function in all registers but with most pianos, it is usually unreliable and is rarely used in piano performance.
Look carefully at the finish on your piano, and ask about its wood veneer. See if there are any cracks or defects and have your tuner or another expert evaluate them.
Find out the piano’s tuning and repair history by asking pertinent questions. “When was the piano last tuned, and before that time, how often was it tuned?” Are the hammers and strings, etc. original? Has the piano ever been restored, and what exactly was done? Who did the work, if known? If you can ascertain the tuner and/or re-builder’s name with contact information, then give that person a call and ask about the tuning and repair history of the piano. Ask if there is any paperwork available on the piano, and request a copy of it.
Ascertain if the piano is tuned up to 440 concert “A” pitch. Your tuner can advise in this matter. If not, purchase a tuning fork calibrated to 440 at a music store, and try to ascertain if the piano is flat (too low) or sharp (too high) You would ultimately want a tuner to inform you if he thinks the piano in its current condition can successfully hold a concert pitch tuning, or what compromises in pitch need to be made. A concert pitch tuning bears upon the use of the piano as accompaniment to other instruments. Or if you’re buying a second piano, you want both your instruments match up in pitch.
Ask how many previous owners the piano has had? And inquire if it has been moved a considerable distance during its lifetime (if known) The issue of variable climate, or storage under less than ideal conditions could have had an adverse impact on the piano.
When negotiating a price for the piano, check the newspapers for prevailing rates of pianos of the same vintage and model being sold in your area. Also look on Craigslist.com for pianos of your model and age and what they are selling for. You can also set up alerts on various search engines, such as Oodle.com to inform you about specific piano brand models (spinets, consoles, uprights, grands) with country-wide price comparisons. This gives you a good capsulized picture of the marketplace for pianos of all shapes and sizes. You might also check eBay to see price trends.
Make an offer on a piano that is realistic and affordable within your price range and be sure that the bench is included in the bill of purchase.
If you buy a piano at a dealership, MAKE SURE THE SERIAL NUMBER OF THE PIANO YOU’ve SELECTED IS ON YOUR INVOICE OR SALES SLIP. In addition, write down this serial number immediately, and compare it to the one stamped or engraved into the cast iron plate once your piano is delivered.
Purchase a piano sight unseen, on or off the Internet!
Buy a piano without the opinion of a registered piano technician and if possible, the additional assessment of a performing pianist or piano teacher who is member of the local Music Teachers Association or who has a known reputation as a fine musician..
For Sellers, DO’s
Have your piano tuned by a registered piano technician before it is put on the market. You want your instrument to make the best possible presentation. Keep the case dusted, and keys cleaned with a light soap solution. Have your piano technician remove any debris on the soundboard. (He can use soundboard steel with a cloth attached)
Learn as much as possible about your piano by researching the serial number and ascertaining from the prior owner what if any work had been performed on it. If you’ve had it restored or refurbished, keep a record of the work completed and have a copy made available for the buyer. If you have any purchase papers or billings, and/or literature on the piano, make these accessible to prospective buyers.
Advertise your piano on free listings that give it good exposure: Craig’s List, Oodle.com, Pennysaver.com, etc and if necessary pay for an ad in your local newspapers. You can also post in churches and on bulletin boards in shopping centers, schools, universities (music department areas) etc. in your community.
Be sure to provide accurate information about your piano’s brand name, model type, wood finish and serial number with date of manufacture. Saying it just needs a tuning may be a red flag, as it might require a lot more to be in playing condition.
Clean the inside of your piano with a vacuum cleaner because you can damage the inner assembly parts. Refer internal cleaning needs to a piano tuner.
Store your piano near a window where there is direct sunlight. The sun can bleach the wood finish.
Place your piano against or near a fireplace, radiator or swamp cooler. Keep it away from vents that create a draft.
Place your piano in an area with too much moisture. Make sure to monitor humidity levels with a temperature/humidity measurement gauge. If the room is too dry, you can always sprinkle the area with a few plants. If there’s too much moisture present, you can install a damp chaser inside your piano.
Store your piano in a hot or extremely cold garage, or another storage area that is not climate controlled, because it may damage your piano. In addition showcasing an instrument in an undesirable environment reflects negatively on how you care for and treat your piano!
PRICE your piano in the context of what other pianos of your size, brand, model and condition are going for. You can surf the INTERNET and assess sales of your piano on your local Craig’s list, and/or on any number of websites that include used piano listings by city. (Oodle.com, Pennysaver.com, etc.) You can also check EBay trends, if you can find a comparable piano for sale in your area. Keep in mind that a price search must take into account the economics of a particular city that may drive piano prices up or down. You might also compare your used piano sale price to that of a new one of the same brand being sold at the dealer as an enticement to draw an interested buyer. Depending on your piano’s condition, such a comparison might be useful or not.
ADDED recommmedations by a Boston piano technician:
“The technician checking out the piano should look at the bearing, the condition of the bridges, and the condition (tightness) of the tuning pins. If a Dampp-Chaser has been installed in a grand piano, they should make sure it’s a good installation and that there are no heater bars in the action cavity under any circumstances!
“Also, do make sure you have a technician and not a tuner – it’s more than a semantic difference. You don’t necessarily need an RPT as long as the tech is qualified and has good experience. (I’m not an RPT, but my client list includes local music conservatories and a very well known local symphony, and I take great pride in my work. That said, selecting an RPT will *ensure* that you get someone with a level of competence.”