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How to Check Out a Pre-Owned Piano Before Buying: Part Two

Equipping yourself with essential basic knowledge of piano parts, their function, and critical problems to look for will undoubtedly prove helpful while shopping for a pre-owned piano.

As we discussed in the previous article, you will likely make an initial assessment of a piano on your own while searching for the ideal instrument to purchase. This article continues the highlights of checking out a piano and gathering vital information to discuss with a professional technician before buying it.

Evaluate the Condition of the Action

Getting an overall view of the action is a crucial step to include in any piano evaluation. The action consists of numerous working parts within the mechanical assembly needed to make a piano playable, and these parts should appear evenly spaced and uniform.

The action parts of a vertical piano tend to be easily seen and inspected by looking inside. However, a grand piano’s action is more difficult to view without removing it, and we recommend leaving that to a professional. Once again, taking careful notes and discussing troubling issues with your chosen technician is best.

Test each key to ensure that it works without sticking and that each damper properly functions as it returns to the string. Moth damage, brittleness, broken parts, and signs of deterioration are all conditions that should flag your attention as possible problems. In some instances, action parts are easily replaceable and not costly. In contrast, if the action appears to be in deplorable condition with extensive breakage, it may not be worth repairing.

piano keys close up photo

Scan the Keys for Appearance and Irregularities

Examining the keys is a relatively straightforward part of checking out any piano. Identifying any missing, chipped, or damaged keys is essential, regardless of whether they might be plastic or ivory. Replacing keys is generally easy and relatively inexpensive if you are contemplating buying a piano that needs new ones.

Next, take time to press each key at its front and try to move it gently left and right, checking for looseness and odd noises. The key bushings, which are pieces of cloth that buffer the key wood from the guide pins, sustain the most wear in the center part of the keyboard. If they are excessively worn, repair work in this area is usually a moderate cost but creates a smoother and quieter key action.

Scrutinize the Hammers for Grooves and Alignment

The hammers are undoubtedly the most crucial part of a piano’s action mechanism since they directly strike the strings which create the sound. Looking closely at the surface of the hammer at the point it hits the strings will allow you to see any noticeable grooves. Deep grooves likely suggest the piano has seen tremendous use throughout the years and may need the hammer heads replaced to improve the piano’s tone quality. This decision could be somewhat dictated by who will be playing the piano, whether that is a beginner student or an advanced musician.

You can also check the alignment of the hammers by observing the appearance of three well-defined grooves that line up precisely with the three strings it strikes. View the hammers’ position by pushing them toward the strings to see if they move to the correct point. If numerous hammers are badly out of alignment, potential problems with breakage become a concern.

Another necessary inspection of the hammers includes checking for looseness. Poorly defined grooves or a broad, flat spot where the hammers strike indicates excessive side-to-side motion. A quick check you can do is to gently glide your fingers over the tops of the hammers, noting any that have unusual movement. In a final review of the hammers, be sure to test if any or all hammers respond sluggishly or make clicking noises.

If you observe problems, it is best to let your technician know and allow them to examine it more closely to determine the cost and scope of needed repairs.

piano action with hammers and wooden keys

Ensure that the Dampers Operate Correctly

The dampers in a piano are the recognizable wedges and felt pads that rest against the strings, preventing sound production until pressing a key. Dampers can be tested by playing each key on the piano and releasing it to ensure that the tone and string vibration immediately stop. Remember that the top portion of the treble side does not have dampers, and the strings will continue to ring until the sound disappears.

Try listening for buzzing sounds as the dampers return to the strings since that could indicate a need for new felts. You will also want to press the right-hand pedal to slowly lift the dampers and check for precision as they rise from the strings. Although problems with dampers can sometimes be tricky to solve, they are often not severe or too costly and likely will not sway your decision to buy a piano.

Inspect and Test Each Pedal

Assessing the condition of the pedals is another fundamental part of your piano inspection. The main observation will simply be to find out if they work and how they function. Vertical pianos possess a more straightforward pedal system and may have two or three pedals. However, if there is a middle pedal, it will likely not be a true sostenuto pedal as found on quality grand pianos. Check for cracking, bending, or disrepair in the board where the pedals attach.

Grand pianos have a more complicated pedal system, with some parts located behind the action mechanism. Once again, examine the points of attachment to ensure nothing is loose or falling apart. Be sure to test the middle pedal to see if it is a functioning sostenuto pedal if you desire this feature.

Piano pedals are sometimes noisy, loose, or missing a dowel, but overall, many issues can be fixed or adjusted at a relatively inexpensive cost. 

Gauge the Need for Regulation Service

All pianos suffer the effects of normal wear, humidity, and temperature changes impacting the wood and cloth parts of the action. Restoring the precision of the piano’s action to its original specifications is known as regulation. This maintenance expense can fluctuate widely and ultimately requires a professional evaluation to determine if it is necessary. Even so, as you check out a piano, you may try a couple of tests that indicate a potential need for this service.

Evaluating the keyboard’s repetitive ability is an excellent first assessment, helping discern if there is excess friction in the action parts. Press and hold the right pedal, then use alternating hands to repeat a single key observing how it responds and returns to its resting position. Make sure to try this on multiple keys across the keyboard. Secondly, try playing numerous keys as softly as possible. Irregularities, such as skips or misses in the sound, suggest that the piano might need regulating.

black and white close up photo of a piano hammer and stings

Find the Serial Number and Write it Down

Your piano inspection should include locating its serial number, generally found somewhere in the interior. This number usually contains four to eight digits and can be used to determine the piano’s manufacture date. Serial numbers are often printed near the tuning pins or on the plate or soundboard. Vertical pianos sometimes have serial numbers engraved on the top or back, while a grand piano might have its number on the front edge of its keyframe.

Try finding an online piano blue book source, enter the serial number, and discover the manufacture date of any instrument you consider purchasing. You can also consult with your preferred technician, who may have a printed guidebook of piano manufacturer information. Without the serial number, a piano’s case styling or unique technical details will likely help a technician determine its age.

Close the Piano Lid and Complete Your Assessment

With your examination of the piano’s interior now complete, close the lid in reverse order from previously opening it. Be sure to return the music stand and fallboard to their initial positions.

Take this last opportunity to play the piano again, carefully listening to its tonal quality, brightness, and volume. Pay attention to the transition of sound as you play the keyboard from its lowest to the highest end, recognizing anything muffled, significantly out of tune, or odd.

Remember that other factors, such as room acoustics or needed maintenance, might affect the sound but note anything unusual to discuss with your piano technician.

Final Reflections

We hope this brief guide provides helpful insights into examining the components of a piano and how to relay pertinent information to a professional piano technician. Feeling equipped with vital piano knowledge will inspire confidence in searching for and choosing a used piano.

The trained staff at Hulme and Sweeney are always ready to assist families as they explore options for an excellent piano and answer any questions about the instrument that best suits their needs.

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 West Simsbury, CT 06092
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