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How to Check Out a Pre-Owned Piano Before Buying

Shopping for a used piano is an exciting venture, and buyers should have a plan in mind to do a preliminary check of the instrument’s condition before purchasing. Ideally, the best option is to have a pre-owned piano entirely inspected by a trained technician, but often a buyer will take a first look at the instrument on their own. As a precaution, it is wise to take time to learn about the crucial aspects and mechanics of a piano to feel comfortable making an initial assessment.

Prepare for an Overall Evaluation

Plan to inspect your potential piano by bringing along a few items, such as a flashlight, a soft brush for sweeping away dust inside, a screwdriver, and a tuner to check the piano’s pitch. These small tools will prove helpful in looking at strings, the tuning block, bridges, and more to help you determine the condition of any used piano you consider buying.

Take notes about parts that appear too worn, broken, or unusual, and plan to discuss all of these with a skilled piano technician. Remember that a fully equipped professional technician should make the final evaluation since what seems acceptable to you could be a significant problem.

Consider Looks, Styling, and Finish that are Appealing

The first impression you will likely get from a potential piano is its appearance, style, and finish. If you cannot envision this instrument in your home because of aesthetic reasons, then do not purchase it. Changing the cabinetry or finish to suit your taste is possible but likely not worth the cost.

If you consider buying a piano that needs exterior work, know that refinishing it is a challenging and complex project for even the best do-it-yourself enthusiast. The mechanical parts are susceptible to damage if exterior work is rushed and done poorly.

While inspecting a piano’s cabinetry, be sure to check for broken hinges on the music stand, loose veneer from water damage, and any cracks. It is also imperative to avoid a piano restyled with nonstandard features like mirrors or alterations to its height.

Try Out the Piano by Playing It

A necessary step in any piano evaluation is playing it, testing each key, and ensuring the pedals work. If you are not comfortable playing, take a friend along who does play, and they can offer their opinion on how it feels and responds. If anything seems irregular, be sure to bring it up with your technician.

 Open the Lid to Examine Inside the Piano

Looking inside the piano is the next logical part of any inspection. Take time to watch a video regarding the correct way to raise and prop the lid of a grand piano if you are unfamiliar with how to do this. You might also consider removing the music stand and fallboard for a better interior view. The lids on vertical pianos open more simply and should not present a problem.

Do not be shy to ask the current owner to see the piano’s inside and to remove any decorative items before you open it. After all, seeing the internal condition is crucial before making a purchase.

Test the Pitch and Tuning

A vital consideration when checking a used piano is to see if it has held its pitch and tuning regardless of any recent maintenance. As you play a few keys, you will quickly discover if the piano is grossly out of tune or damaged or if any individual key produces multiple tones of slightly different pitches.

Next, test keys throughout the keyboard to see if they match the pitch of a tuning fork, pitch pipe, or electric tuner. Choose several keys and play them in octaves to see if they have matching tones. If most of the pitches are flat by more than a quarter step, the piano may have mechanical problems to discuss with a technician.

Investigate the Condition of the Pinblock

The average piano buyer may find assessing the condition of the pinblock, tuning pins, and their ability to hold the strings at their proper tension a bit challenging. Only a trained technician has the expertise and tools required to confirm the pinblock’s actual state and any needed repairs. However, there are a few indications that could point to potential problems.

A pinblock that is getting old or is perhaps faulty may have replacement pins slightly larger in diameter than the originals. Checking for uniformity among the pins is an essential clue to possible issues. The coils around the tuning pins should be checked, as seeing less than 3/16 inches of space between the coils and the plate might suggest a defect.

Also, examine the area around the tuning pins and plate for evidence of previous chemical use to tighten the pins, noticing any unusual dark brown or gummy stains. Lastly, do your best to look for any cracks associated with the pinblock.

Inspect Strings for Rust and Other Issues

With the piano lid open, you will need to inspect the strings. Although a small amount of tarnish or light rust is normal, observing heavy amounts on any strings could be questionable. Take notice of how many strings look newer or if bass strings appear spliced. Numerous replacement strings might signal an issue with previous string breakage.

Hearing muffled tones in the bass could be dirt buildup, and replacing the strings will likely improve the tone. The expense of restringing the entire instrument could prove worthwhile in some cases if a piano is otherwise in excellent condition.

Survey the Bridges for Damage

The treble and bass bridges inside the piano are responsible for transferring string vibrations to the soundboard, meaning they cannot have substantial cracks. Examining the bridges is an excellent time to use a flashlight and soft brush to remove dust and take a closer look. On a grand piano, follow the bass strings to their end to find the bridge, while on a vertical piano, you can locate the bridge at their bottom end. Any crack significant enough that it pushes the bridge pins sideways may reveal extensive deterioration.

A piano’s tone will be affected if the bass bridge has become loose or if there are cracks in the treble bridge. A professional technician will likely need to advise you if repairs would be reasonable or if it is best not to purchase the piano. Regardless, be cautious when considering any piano with severe cracks in the bridges.

Confirm the Structural Integrity of the Piano

The cast iron plate, supporting wooden case, posts, and beams are components necessary to keep a piano intact and playable. Although rare, a crack can conceivably develop in the plate, making the piano useless and often unrepairable. With an opened lid, the plate in a grand is easily seen and inspected for damage. Be sure to examine its legs, case, and other supports below. A vertical piano’s iron plate is more difficult to view because of its upright position. However, checking the outer structures is easy when moved away from the wall.

Look for any places where wooden structural parts or veneer may be unglued or separated, and check for loose hinges anywhere. These issues may not directly affect the piano’s tone but are potential safety issues.

Check for Problems with the Soundboard and Ribs

The piano’s soundboard should be assessed for visible damage since it plays an essential role in producing tones. A minor crack may not be critical, but an extensive one from extreme climate conditions will impact the piano’s life expectancy. Buyers should note any cracks fitted with wooden shims since they might denote a previous rebuild of the piano.

Running perpendicular to the soundboard are the piano’s ribs. You will want to confirm that each is still firmly glued to the soundboard and shows no signs of separation. Problems with the ribs can sometimes produce buzzing sounds while playing the piano.

Final Considerations

Most likely, your search for a used piano will require you to make an initial assessment on your own about its playing condition and possible damage. Knowing fundamental piano mechanics and structural parts will help you communicate effectively and intelligently with your chosen piano technician before you make a final purchase decision.

This article has touched on crucial aspects to look for when assessing a piano’s condition by yourself. We will continue our discussion in the next article with the piano’s action, keys, hammers, dampers, pedals, regulation, and serial numbers.

Hulme and Sweeney Piano Service is happy to assist you in your search for an excellent used piano and offers professional advice for any evaluations you may need.

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 West Simsbury, CT 06092
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