Buying a used anything always has risks. But when you’re buying something that has a complex, and in places, a vulnerable build, the risks can be greater. There are over 6000 parts to a piano. Throughout their lifetime, some have been working very hard. You need to know what condition they are in.
So, the question is How to Buy a Used Piano. It is certainly a lot more difficult than buying a new one. But then that applies to just about everything. The key is knowing what to look for. If there is something majorly wrong with a piano, then you are quite likely to be able to see it. Or at least hear it.
That’s providing you know what to look and/or listen for…
The Great Names in Piano
There are brand names that, when uttered, do not need any explanation. They are recognized as being the best in the world and have been for a very long time. Bechstein was founded in Germany in 1853, the same year as Bluthner, also in Germany. Then there is Bosendorfer made just down the road in Vienna. Austria. The oldest manufacturer still in existence.
There seems to have been something in the water in 1853. That was also the year that another German, Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, opened up his Steinway factory in New York.
But then we move on to today. Go around the concert halls of the world, and you will find Yamaha and Kawai from Japan. Excellent quality, played by some of the great musicians, these are a force to be reckoned with.
Is Older Better?
Definitely not. This is not a Chateau Lafite Red Wine. They don’t get better with age. The reverse is true, unlike some instruments. The shop salesman might tell you the piano is an appreciating asset, but it isn’t.
Some instruments age well…
The Violin, of course, comes to mind, and the Viola or the Cello. If they were quality when they were made, then it is likely they have matured with age. Stradivarius and his creations are a good example. But pianos are not the same.
A piano is a machine with moving parts it relies on to make its sound. Those instruments have none of that. The moving parts on Violin, Viola, or Cello are minimal. Even some brass instruments that have moving parts can improve as the natural metals mature with age. But not so with the piano.
When it is delivered brand new, you may notice a slight improvement in the overall sound and how it plays. They can improve for the first three to five years. However, after that, they do start to deteriorate. A fifty-year-old piano is just not going to be as good as it once did; if it is older, then even less so.
The stresses and strains put on some of the materials, some of which are natural materials, cause them to break down over time. There are some piano parts that wear out quickly.
What You Should Looking For
Like most used items, there are specific things that can make or break the deal. Let’s get into some issues you should understand if you want to know how to buy a used piano.
We will start with the most obvious. External damage to the piano, in most cases, isn’t a problem. Over the years, it will have possibly have been moved between different places. It may have scratches and possibly even worse. But generally speaking, cosmetic damage doesn’t affect the way a piano sounds or plays.
One cosmetic aesthetic that is evident that does need to be looked at closely, though are the keys. You will need to look and see whether they have been chipped or damaged. If they are stained and have a yellowish tinge to them, they can be cleaned. But it does mean the piano has not had decent care and maintenance.
Checking the Bushings
This is a check you should do early in your inspection. If you want to know how to check piano bushings, push the keys from side to side. There should be a little movement, but not so much as it touches the key adjacent. If the key touches the next key, it is an indication that the bushings are worn out.
If that is the case, then the action will be quite loose, which causes a lack of control. A good player will have their performance severely affected. And even a starter will not have the “feel” from the keys that they should. Replacing the bushings can be an expensive business.
Piano keys have always historically been made from Ivory. However, in 2016 a near-global ban in using ivory for commercial enterprise came into being. This was especially significant in the US, where the next administration started to try and get that overturned. Fortunately, it didn’t happen.
If you buy a used piano with ivory keys, that is not illegal as they are already in place. Repairing them could be a problem in certain places as you won’t be able to import new ivory, which is illegal. Worth taking a good look at the state of the keys unless the piano has the artificial options.
Do the keys need leveling?
Have a good look at how the keys sit. Are they level, or are either black or white keys resting at varying heights? If that is the case, then it’s one of the signs a piano wasn’t maintained.
If they sit unevenly, they will need regulating. That means resetting some of the moving parts to allow the keys to sit in the right place. It also realigns how and where the small hammers strike the strings.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to be either a lengthy or expensive job. It will depend on how much regulation needs to be done. But it is something you should consider allowing for in any price negotiation.
Check the hammers
You will notice some indentations, and that is quite natural. After all, they have been striking the string for quite a few years. You may need to investigate them a bit further than just a look.
Touch the end of the hammers. They should still feel like felt. If they feel so hard that they don’t feel like felt anymore, that indicates they are extremely worn. They are then towards the end of their lifespan. If the felt on the hammer has gone hard, it will produce a very metallic sound when the piano is played.
Pianos have two kinds of strings that affect the sound. The mid-range and higher range strings are made from steel. This helps give a sharper sound. The lowercase strings are made from copper. These give a much warmer sound. A nice balance, of course. But both types of string can be vulnerable to corrosion and rust.
Take a bit of time to check the strings. Look for any discoloration on the metal and especially the evidence of any rust. Strings don’t last forever, and they will need replacing at some point in the life of the piano.
This is what generates most of the sound when you play and works in a similar way to a speaker. Therefore, it has an important role. On a grand piano, it is found underneath the metal plate and the strings, on an upright, at the back of the piano.
These can have cracks. Not all cracks, though, are critical to the piano’s performance. Can you hear buzzing when you play? If so, then it is an indication there is a crack crossing one of the internal bracing ribs. That could be a problem; It will be expensive to fix.
However, other cracks are not going to affect the sound. They appear just through age and wear. If in doubt, call someone in. But if you like the piano, then the appearance of a crack on the soundboard doesn’t necessarily kill the deal, especially if you are happy with how it sounds.
Check the Pinblock
That is the piece of wood, quite large, where the tuning pins are. If there is a crack there, that could be a problem. It can be a reason why a piano doesn’t stay in tune. You might get away with a crack on the Soundboard, depending on where it is. It is likely you won’t on the Pinblock.
Try to ascertain the age of the piano. If the owner doesn’t know or won’t tell you, you can usually find out from the serial number. A search on Google will provide the approximate year of manufacture.
If you are interested in the history of the piano and its place in society, Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History is a good read.
Decided that maybe a quality keyboard may be a better option?
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How to Buy a Used Piano – Final Thoughts
When you are buying a used piano, there is a lot that can be wrong with it. But only because there is so much in it. I have highlighted some of the more common things. But I haven’t covered all of them.
It is worth remembering that it is second-hand. It is likely to be quite old, and therefore it won’t be perfect. But then you shouldn’t be expecting that.
Just check to ensure the main things we have covered are fine. If so, it should be okay and give you years of music. Is there anything better?
Until next time, keep making music.