Simple Checks to Make When Buying a Used Piano:
One of the most interesting lectures I attended whilst studying at the Royal College of Music was a voluntary evening lecture given by the head piano tuner. There were four full-time piano tuners there at the time, charged with keeping the vast number of pianos the college had in pristine condition. They did a wonderful job, and in my four years there I have no recollection of playing any piano in need of tuning or repair.
The lecture began with a brief history of the piano, followed by a demonstration of a piano mechanism, and then some advice on buying used pianos. I would like to convey some of the important points I learnt then, and some things I have learnt since, to help anyone who is thinking of buying a second hand piano.
Iron Frame or Wooden Frame
Some old pianos have wooden frames. Always look inside the piano to make sure it has an iron frame. The frame is the part of the piano that the strings are attached to at each end, and if it's iron it will usually be painted gold (see the picture on the right). Open the lid of the piano, and if you can’t see an iron frame don’t buy it. The seller may try to convince you that the wooden-framed piano ‘just needs tuning’. A dealer might even throw in a free tune (it’s hard to imagine a reputable dealer selling a piano with a wooden frame). The fact is that a wooden-framed piano is not going to stay in tune for any length of time. There are many iron-framed pianos on the market so there is no reason to buy one with a wooden frame.
The soundboard is the piece of wood the piano strings are stretched across, behind the iron frame in the case of an upright piano, and under the iron frame in the case of a grand. Check this carefully for cracks. A crack is only going to get bigger, and affect the tone and tuning of the instrument. If there is a distinct buzz when notes are played quite loud, this is also an indication of a cracked soundboard. Although cracks can be repaired, it is a job for a skilled piano technician. With a cheaper piano, of just a few hundred pounds, it’s really not worth the time, trouble, and expense, and with a more expensive piano it’s still questionable as to whether the repair is worthwhile. Buying a piano with a cracked soundboard would be like buying a used car with a serious engine problem.
Straight strung and overstrung are the two most popular types of upright piano. The strings in an overstrung piano run diagonally and cross over eachother. Because they run diagonally it's possible to have longer strings, giving the piano a better tone. Check to see that all the strings are there (look for any obvious gaps). Also check for rust, as rusty strings will break easily. Rust is also a sign that the piano hasn’t been looked after very well.
When you press the keys on a piano, hammers inside hit the strings. These can be seen clearly with the lid of an upright piano opened. Check to see that the hammers are nicely inline. A hammer out-of-line indicates a problem that will need fixing. Also, look carefully at the felt covering the hammers. Deep grooves in the felt, where they have hit the strings, shows that the piano has been used a lot, and will have a detrimental effect on the tone (see the photo on the right). Ideally the felt should be serviced, and possibly even replaced. This is a job for a skilled piano technician. Depending on the condition and value of the piano the cost of this work may not be worthwhile.
Play all the keys on the piano to check to see if they work. Piano keys can stick for a variety of reasons, but if the piano is in reasonably good condition, sticking keys could be due to the piano being in a cold environment. If the air is cold and damp, moving parts within the piano can swell just enough to make the piano keys stick intermittently. An effective solution for this problem can be to have a special piano heater installed inside the piano. This is a small electric heater that gives a constant low-powered heat (typically 10-15w), enough to eliminate the problem. A skilled piano technician will install the right kind of heater in the right place. Don’t attempt this repair yourself.
If just one or two keys stick then this probably indicates that there is a fault with the key mechanism. Again, this will require repair from a skilled piano technician. The cost will vary depending on exactly what needs doing, but a sticking key doesn’t automatically mean an expensive repair bill.
Thoroughly check the piano for woodworm (you will see many small holes about ½mm in diameter). No matter how cheap, do not buy it as it is impossible to know the degree of infestation.
In the case of an upright piano, ask the owner to remove the lower panel. This is a simple procedure. The panel is usually held in place by a form of latch or clip at either side. Look inside the lower part of the piano. You should be able to see the pedal mechanism, and the bottom of the iron frame. Dust, and possibly a bit of rubbish, may have accumulated, but this can easily be cleaned up with a vacuum cleaner. Check for a watermark, a distinct line where the wood changes colour. The chances are you’re not going to find one, but it’s a very simple check so well worth doing. A piano that has been in a flood is likely to have many problems.
The information above is only intended as a very basic guide for buying a used piano. Ideally, buy from a reputable dealer, or in the case of a private sale, take along someone who is knowledgeable about the instrument, bearing in mind that just because someone can play the piano doesn’t necessarily mean they are knowledgeable about buying one.
Look at several pianos so that you can get an idea of what your money will buy. Don't buy a piano just because it's cheap, as you may only be buying firewood!
For a beginner it might be worth considering renting a piano at first. Some dealers will rent pianos and later deduct the rent from the selling price if you decide to buy the piano at a later stage.
Much as I love pianos I would have to say that in this day and age, if you have a severely limited budget, consider buying a second hand digital piano with weighted keys. These are much easier to move, maintain, and don’t need tuning.
See the related article Choosing a Keyboard.