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Do’s and Don’ts for Piano Buyers and Sellers (Dream Piano’s last Chapter)

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 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 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 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,,, 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. (,, 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.”

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DREAM PIANO: Overview and Acknowledgments

My two-year long romp on the piano finding trail with York as my professional companion and consultant had been worth all the time spent in, around and under pianos. How else would I have acquired knowledge about the piano’s harp, or cast iron plate were it not for his having the bravado to dismantle it from the Proskch 1905 grand and haul it out to the College of the Sequoia’s welding department. In the face of technicians and others who mocked him for his efforts, he persevered; soda blasted the ugly looking frame and dragged it home for a second wind. Rebecca McGregor, a victim of her impulsive sight unseen Internet piano purchase and an unprincipled seller, had written me a thought provoking e-mail after she had hovered over the plate on full view in York’s driveway. It was a funereal scene.

She wrote, “I actually learned something at York’s, and I think you captured the essence of our meeting and the somber mood. Were we paying for his having tried to mend the plate, I would have stopped him, but with York’s willingness to take it on without payment, we’d have been fools not to let him proceed.” (This was before the plate cracked in two other places as York hauled it to his pick-up truck)

Rebecca had linked hands with Terry Barrett and York’s wife in a prayer vigil over the plate and then helped to flip it on its back to survey its underbelly.

The underside of inanimate things always sparked York’s curiosity and it invariably sent him nose diving under pianos to investigate anything from mice, moths and moisture to the storage of $$$ assets in the crannies of a Kawai.

To my educational advantage, he found it necessary to drag me along on his adventures to prove without a doubt that he had the lowdown on each and very piano he tuned, moth proofed and treated for rats.

And I can personally attest that his tattered, age worn diaries were evidence of his meticulous record keeping since 1948. These should someday be enshrined in the Smithsonian or at least in the PTG (Piano Technician’s Guild) Hall of Fame.

While Terry Barrett, RPT (Registered Piano Technician) argued that bridle straps had no importance in the assembly of uprights, and moths were basically harmless to pianos because they would die eating cyanide based hammer felts, York produced incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. He marched valiantly on his truth finding crusade and produced a Kimball made “Whitney” spinet without bridle straps that had a basic action defect, and he plucked a hammer from his pick-up truck that had the most perfect, moth drilled hole I had ever seen! Such was Mother Nature at work.

As an unofficial “apprentice” to the city’s senior piano tuner, I had acquired trade secrets that no piano technology school or correspondence course would ever impart. Would most “registered technicians” anywhere in the universe know to battle moths with a bottle of cloves? York was always far ahead of his time banishing moth balls from his tool box. “They cause cancer,” he said repeatedly when we stumbled upon pianos that were victims of merciless moth attacks. While I hadn’t yet seen examples of chewed up bridle straps from nest seeking rats, York had promised to phone me immediately if he had a scheduled DECON call at a church or elsewhere.

The master tuner without his formal “registration” in the Piano Technician’s Guild showed those who had somehow obtained it that he deserved at least the honorary title because of his decades long association with pianos. Thankfully, the local Fresno chapter honored York by giving him a podium to demonstrate piano restringing, and when he turned up at monthly PTG meetings as a devoted “associate member,” his colleagues always greeted him with a hearty slap on the back.

On the day I had shown up to interview “Laroy Edwards” retired Yamaha senior piano technician, and emissary for the company all over the world, York made his presence known by telling his full length account about the cat that had been trapped under a grand piano lid and miraculously, emerged alive and well, though hairless. York fleshed out, colorful new details each time he spun a piano related tale, though he sometimes forgot that he’d told the story one too many times.

Besides being York’s companion through our two year-long piano adventure, my having compiled these stories was a natural outcome of all the trips made to many homes containing used pianos of an infinite variety–some sold in estate sales and auctions.

And in the course of this learning driven journey, I had hoped that readers would willingly share their own piano memorabilia since a keyboard culture may be dying on the vine if not preserved.

The old upright stories should be written down and treasured. The genealogy of older pianos should be a relentless source of research. Piano owners should learn how to discover the age of their pianos by seeking out the serial numbers on the cast iron plate, and by consulting the Pierce Piano Atlas or the Bluebook of While it’s common for piano owners to throw up their hands and say,”I know virtually nothing about my piano,” it’s time for a new attitude to replace the old. Even “Alice” was exhilarated to know more about her “player piano without a name” when I enlisted her in the fact finding adventure. While the piano had been virtually un-played for 4 years since its purchase from an antique store for $125, she quickly became my “Dr. Watson” beaming a flash light on its cast iron plate; screaming in delight when she discovered the digits that might help date it. In the case of her particular piano, supplementary information acquired from Robert Furst’s Bluebook of led to its more conclusive identity.

Sharing a systemic approach to the whole research undertaking with Alice, I was able to enlist a new partisan in the preservation of old pianos. In fact, she became very reluctant to part with her stately upright once I had breathed life into it as a performing pianist. But at long last, it finally found a worthy owner who had promised to take good care of it and give it a new home.

Another piano, a table style Aeolian with three leaves underwent an equally intense identity crisis as its true birth date was pursued. I couldn’t thank Mr. York enough for his A-1 guesstimate and Terry Barrett for pulling the piano’s action and stumbling upon a note with the date “APR 1936” engraved in the wood. What a miraculous discovery!!

DREAM PIANO had been all about the exciting adventure of pursuing and finding pianos, primarily in the private party, used piano market and how these travels of mine had changed the hearts and minds of the many piano owners that I’d encountered. Just making a routine house call to check on a piano up for sale, I’d invited myself into the lives of so my people who possessed the kindness and generosity to share their piano stories. “Ralph Cato,” whom I’d met at the Guitar Center looking for a keyboard to give his daughter for Christmas shared a heart rending story about his first piano and how he stole into the night to pick the lock and play it. Even a US Olympic Team boxing trainer with the exterior of a lion, softened up to share a tender memoir.

“Caroline Scheer” opened her heart to me and finally imparted the reason she wanted to sell her beloved Knight piano. This had been a mystery all along, but when the truth spilled out one day during a taped phone interview, all the puzzle pieces fit together. I had learned that her father never kept his promise to buy her a grand piano, like the one she had seen at Delaware University, if she obtained all “A’s” on her report card. How many others would want a grand size piano in their home just because they had been deprived of one early in life.

In my travels, I had learned that pianos had a wide variety of meanings for different owners. For some, they were not musical instruments at all, but beautiful pieces of furniture to behold. But that might have been because the buyer or seller didn’t know where to begin in assessing the value of something that at one time had a playing life. And from the countless visits I’d made to homes with old pianos, just by playing them, they acquired a new value and meaning for their owners. Maybe there was an important message to heed. Why not bring a performing musician and piano technician to an establishment or home that housed a piano for sale. Why rely on a visual assessment of something that was meant to elicit tones, harmonics, and chords of beauty?

Perhaps the late Anne Meux, whose esteemed Fresno family had been memorialized in a landmark home preservation, experienced an awakening when her pianos came to life the afternoon I had played them. Prior to my impromptu visit, these musical treasures might well have been regarded as decorative furnishings, appreciated only for their external beauty.

Pianos I’d encountered that were pretty but without musical value:

So many piano owners found themselves with antiques of the square or parlor grand variety that were quite ornate looking but could not play worth a dime. And when it was time to sell them, they confronted the hard reality that as play-less instruments and artifacts of the past, that no one wanted them in the present or future. So what was purchased for $5,000 some years back would sell for $200 or less in the private party marketplace. Some of these age worn and ill maintained pianos might have had to be donated out to a favorite charity. As Terry Barrett poignantly said, “An antique piano was just a different animal.”

“Sam” Torcaso, owner of Chesterfield’s in Fresno, brought it home that the older uprights were just not selling and the whole marketplace of antique pianos was abysmal. She pointed to the bleak housing situation with foreclosures abounding and the dearth of interior decorators that would be consulted to design the insides of newly acquired homes as reflecting part of the problem. But despite her registered cynicism about the universe of antique pianos, she had always known to advise her customers to bring in a technician before they made any kind of “all sales final,” piano purchase at her establishment. This recommendation showed her respect and concern for those who would buy a piano from Chesterfields and then pass it to their children to learn on.

More stories from Dream Piano:

FUJIE had the patience to await the arrival of her dream Kawai K 15 studio upright model piano housed at California Piano,

and “Sharon Cooper” allowed me to include our clandestine tryst in the seedy parking lot beside Ag Hardware where a cash drop was made for a dream piano.

Not to forget Dan Bates, who stole off and bought a Petrof piano, while in the grip of his obsession over the Steinway 1968. May the best piano win!!

And who could forget the Dream Piano I fought for and won, a French Provincial Baldwin Artist Grand.

On the last lap of my journey, I also stumbled upon “Victor Thasia” who was the first person I had ever met who changed his mind about selling his piano, and was ready to love and cherish it forever. Thanks for sharing your epiphany!

And what an opportunity came my way to record on a Dream Piano compliments of the Visalia Piano Gallery:</a

To “Patricia Frederick,” of the Fredericks collection in Ashburnham, Mass., and Thomas Winter, early piano restorer, San Francisco, my sincere appreciation to you for having provided scholarly words of wisdom about period pianos. What a rare opportunity came my way to play a 19th Century Dream Piano that turned up at the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop.

And another period piece that was beautiful on the outside but proved to be a pathetic tonal disaster!

Concluding Bonus Chapter:

Extra: York’s World War II Musical Memoir

More People to Thank:

Terry Barrett, RPT, Fresno gave countless hours detailing pianos for me and helped me write about them from a more technical perspective. While he sometimes disagreed with York about the significance of moth damage and the value bridle straps, he contributed loads of piano related information that enhanced my stories and also assisted sellers in learning more about their pianos.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge all those piano students who gave me my first opportunity to help them find their first real, 88 note, playing pianos. “Michelle” now happily practices on a lovely Baldwin, 1970’s console that had its first tuning, and tweaking by YORK, and my youngest pupil, “Claudia” enjoys her resonating Yamaha studio upright 1992 that I found in the former, Old Hilton Hotel in Fresno where a salvaging company was selling it. I remember how I had managed to get there just at the right time before word got out that two practically new pianos were accumulating dust in a second floor banquet room. Oddly, the Yamaha sat for too long after it was purchased and couldn’t get down the elevator to the ground floor until inspections were made and certification papers filed with the County. In the end, when the piano descended to the first floor level for transport, it was shipped gratis to the base of steps leading to the new owner’s second floor apartment. That’s when a challenge arose! “Elaine,” Claudia’s mother could either pay a whopping $400 to move the piano up two flights of stairs or enlist the help of able bodied neighbors. I wish I could have been there to see how they managed to turn the corner on the landings and push the 700 plus pound piano into the apartment. It must have been quite a sight to behold!

Some piano owners had been luckier than others in moving their pianos. York had told me that the Salvaging company owner, who sold Elaine the Yamaha, tipped over a Kawai piano while he was steering it into another banquet room. “The whole thing just came crashin’ down all at once,” he said. I had dispatched him to give the Yamaha a once over appraisal before it was purchased, and according to YORK, “it passed with flyin’ colors.” While he was at the hotel, he happened to look at the action assembly of the neighboring Kawai console and discovered that the hammers were over-sized and not fitting right. York always knew his stuff when it came to pianos and their interiors. He was also an ace evaluator of piano finishes and could rub the tips of his thickly padded fingers against the grain and ascertain what percentage was veneer.

The old man had done just about everything where it came to pianos. He tuned, repaired, refinished, and moved them. He was quite the master of all trades and he allowed me a share of his knowledge under careful supervision!

Finally, thank you to those who might not have gotten into the pages of this book but who added to my knowledge about pianos of all shapes, sizes, and vintage. I am beholden to “Martin Sigley,” a brilliant player piano restorer who loves what he does like a poet who crafts every word as a jewel. I was so impressed by his little shop that housed an old Behr Player and an “Angelus Orchestral,” and how intensely he worked. The world should regard him as a heaven sent angel. In a universe that values big cars, and expansive, designer homes, there is sadly little room to think about old world type restorers who will someday vanish without the appreciation they deserved in life.

In conclusion, a warm and grateful hug for my 96 year old mother, Jessie Taft Smith who sat relentlessly on the phone in the wee hours of the morning and listened to each Dream Piano chapter as it unfolded and voiced hard fought criticism that drove some periodic changes in my writing. I couldn’t have done it without her.

PS Additional acknowledgments: Peter Wolf, recording engineer, Wolf Sound, Fresno, CA
Bill Sayre, owner, Fasttraxx recording studio, Fresno, CA Heyner Oviedo, Fresno Piano,
The late Anne Meux, Fresno, CA

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Piano Tuner, York on Mice, Rats, Moths and Cats (Video, part 2)

In this part two follow-up to York’s World War II Memoir, the seasoned piano tuner relaxes into his emblematic animated conversation, telling the world how to eradicate mice, rats, and moths from pianos. Oldsters watching better have a fresh pair of Depends, because York lets loose with some mighty over the top, funny lines.

Throw in a cat under the lid story, and you’re in for an unforgettable treat.

Finally, listen carefully to York’s concluding remarks, as he becomes philosopher and sage all in one. Live to the fullest, he says, and never stop learning! At 84, he’s gotta right to tell the rest of us how it’s done!

We close with York’s favorite song, “Waltzing Matilda” with a montage of photos rolling by. Be prepared to shed some tears. I did.