Should You Buy That Old Upright Piano?
So, you have decided to buy a used piano. You're wondering how to determine if a given piano is a hero or a zero, aren't you? I'm here to help. Obviously, the safest way to ensure you get a good used piano is to hire a qualified piano technician to look at it beforehand, but perhaps that's not practical for you. Well, read on to find out how to evaluate a piano yourself and decrease the chances that you'll buy a dud.
A good place to start is to read my post What Happens to Pianos As They Age. If you are budget conscious, you may need to look at older pianos. You shouldn't be afraid of a piano simply because it is old. Build quality and condition are much more important than age (within reason). Most older pianos, pre-1970's, are built to a higher standard of quality. Around that time, quality declined as piano manufacturers fell on hard times and the industry consolidated. There are some very fine 40 to 70 year old instruments that are available at a reasonable price today.
A quality older piano will be made of solid wood. Some newer pianos use particleboard. Quality pianos have thick wood veneers rather than the paper thin veneer seen today. Examine the joints where wood parts meet. Remove the bottom panel and look inside of the cabinet at the joint where the soundboard meets the frame. Quality pianos don't have glue squeezed out of this joint. Good old pianos will have excellent fit and good woodwork. Look at the pedals. Solid brass pedals are a sign of quality. Cheap pianos often have pedals pressed out of sheet metal. Better quality pianos usually use long, full length hinges between wood panels. Cheap pianos often use small hinges. Quality hinges are usually made of brass, not plated metal. In short, the materials and fit and finish in a good quality piano are self evident.
Upright pianos come in various heights. Generally speaking, the taller the upright piano, the better. This is because the taller pianos generally have longer strings. Longer stringed instruments almost always sound better. Pianos are classified according to height. Spinets stand 35" to 39" tall. Consoles are 40" to 43" tall. Studios are 44" to 47" tall. Full Size or Professional Uprights are 48" to 60" tall. A good Professional upright will often sound better than a Baby Grand piano. The taller an upright piano is, the more desirable it usually is.
Look at the back of the piano to inspect it's frame. All frame joints must be square, well fit, and still solidly glued. Run away from any piano that shows any sort of integrity problem in the frame.
Soundboard (outside inspection)
Look at the back of the piano between the back posts and inspect the soundboard. Good pianos use solid spruce. Cheap pianos use plywood. You can tell solid wood because it has definite wood grain lines running parallel to one another, rather than the mottled grain of plywood. The soundboard of older pianos sometimes have cracks. Small short cracks (a few inches) are usually not a problem, but long cracks or cracks that have gaps between them are a warning sign. If any of the notes cause a buzzing sound when played, it is likely that a bad crack is in the soundboard. Be especially wary if any of the cracks run underneath any of the soundboard ribs or if the ribs themselves have become unglued.
Open the piano
Remove the top front board by sliding it upwards. Usually the front board is secured by metal fittings that fit over pins.
Soundboard (inside inspection)
Once the piano is open, look at the perimeter of the soundboard around the edges where it meets the cabinet. It should not be buckled, warped, or separated. There should be little or no glue squeezed out of the joint.
The pins are embedded in a laminated block of wood usually made of hard maple. Most of the time the metal plate, or harp, that serves to mount the strings covers the front of the pinblock. As a result, usually only the edges of the pinblock are visible. To see it, open the top of the cabinet and look at the top edge of the wood where the pins protrude from. Look for cracks and delaminations. If imperfections are present, it is very likely that the piano will not stay in tune. Stay away from any piano that has any visible damage to the pinblock. Play up and down the keyboard, a note at a time, and listen to the quality of the tone. If you hear what sounds like multiple notes of very different pitches when you play a single key, this may indicate a cracked pinblock. In an older piano that has not been recently tuned, it is expected that the note will not sound perfectly pure and in tune, but the strings for a given note should not be horrifically out of tune with one another. This is significant especially if multiple notes in the same region of the keyboard sound extremely out of tune with themselves.
Strings and Tuning Pins
If either are severely rusted, this is an indication that the piano has been in a humid environment. Some rust is normal, but the strings and pins should not be encrusted with rust.
As hammers wear, the strings cut grooves into the felt. Some grooving is normal, but if the grooves are more than about 1/8" deep, it is not a good thing. Hammers with deep grooves must be reshaped by a qualified technician. It takes a very good technician to reshape hammers that are deeply grooved. This job is not for the novice and an unqualified tech can easily destroy your hammers. So, it is best to acquire a piano that doesn't need hammer work in the first place. Sometimes previous hammer work has been done. Look for hammers that have been sanded down so far that the felt covering the wooden core is very thin. Note that the felts do get thinner for the higher registers of the piano. Condition of the hammers is also a reasonable indicator of the condition of the action. If hammers are heavily worn, it is a good bet that the action is as well. Hammers should be uniformly aligned with the space between hammers being more or less equal. All hammer shanks should rest on the hammer rail. If the spacing isn't right, it may indicate warped or bent hammers. Hammers should not wobble significantly when moved side to side.
The action is a complex mechanical device that must be aligned and adjusted to operate properly. Play up and down the keyboard loudly, then again softly. Listen for squeaks or unnatural sounds. This could mean connections between the parts are worn.
Ideally, all keys should work properly, but if a key or two is sluggish, this is not necessarily indicative of a bad piano. Most any tech can fix a slow key. Check each key. See if it returns quickly to its position when you release the key. Play notes repeatedly as fast as you can. A piano in good condition will repeat notes as fast as you can play them. Check each key to see if it double strikes the string, or if it "bobbles." Minor misalignment of keys or key height is not a huge problem and can be fixed by a technician, but it is best if they are not too far out of alignment to begin with.
Inspect every inch of the iron plate holding the strings. If you see the slightest hint of a crack, do not buy the piano. Cracks cannot be reliably repaired. Look especially closely around the tuning pins, where the struts cross one another, and near the holes where any bolts are fitted.
Check to see if some of the pins seem to be driven into the pinblock deeper than others. There should be some space between the string wrappings on the pin and the metal plate. If the pins are driven in so far that the string wrappings are almost touching the plate, this is not a good sign. When pins become loose, technicians sometimes drive them deeper into the pinblock to tighten them up. This technique is useful for dealing with loose pins, but if many pins are driven deeper, it indicates that the piano had loose pins once upon a time. If the pins are driven in and they become loose again, you have limited inexpensive repair options.
The bridges (one for treble, one for bass) are glued onto the soundboard. The strings run across the bridges before they terminate on the bottom of the plate. You can see them by taking off the bottom board and looking inside the piano from the front. The bridges must not have any pins missing. Nor should there be cracks or delaminations of the wooden bridges.
If you inspect these items carefully and the piano doesn't have any of the aforementioned problems, you can have pretty good confidence that the piano is a good one. Any used instrument might have some problems, but if one exhibits many of these problems be wary.
If you would like to read more about buying used pianos, Integrity Piano Service has a very good web page on this topic.
Buying a used piano is always a gamble, but if you regard the advice above, you should be safe. Just pay attention, inspect carefully, and take your time looking it over. Have you any idea how difficult and expensive it is to dispose of a junk piano? Don't buy one in the first place!