Hundreds of second-hand pianos change hands privately every year. Only a mall number are in good playing condition. We know for buying second-hand pianos and preparing them for resale is an important part of our business. Of the many pianos offered to us we actually buy fewer than one in ten of them – and almost every one needs work on it to a greater or lesser extent
When looking for a piano it is important to remember two things.
Pianos are not all of the same quality.
Before 1914, in the boom years of piano sales, huge numbers were made in small workshops to satisfy the demand for cheap pianos. They were of poor quality when new and hundreds are still around, several generations later, in dreadful condition.
There were some excellent pianos made in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They are now 60,70,80, years old – nearly old age in the lifespan of a piano. If they have been well maintained during their life they can still be good instruments, but if they have been neglected or abused they will be tired, second rate pianos.
Some will be “the family heirloom” passed down through several generations, much loved but often unplayed and neglected. Such pianos may have sentimental value to their owners but their true worth, as a playing piano, may be nil.
Pianos do not last forever
A piano is made up of around 5000 parts many of which move. Although enormously strong and heavy it is very complicated and sensitive to damp, dryness, changes in temperature, wear and tear and neglect.
A good piano, well maintained, has much the same useful lifespan as a human – few are in really good shape after 80 years! Remember that the piano you buy will probably be the only one you ever buy so look for the youngest and best quality instrument you can find.
So What Should I Look For In A Second-hand Piano?
Very few people have any technical knowledge about pianos. The list below will give you an idea of some of the problems often found in second-hand pianos.
Sticking keys or hammers
This is usually the result of being in a damp atmosphere. The felt absorbs moisture, swells and movement is restricted. If only one or two notes are sticking it may be possible to ease them. If lots are sticking the action (i.e. the moving parts inside the piano) probably needs to be dismantled and rebuilt. Expensive!
Noisy keys or noise from the action
A sign of wear. A tuner may be able to make adjustments to lessen the unwanted noises but if it is badly worn a rebuild will be required.
Probably the result of worn and compressed hammer felts. If they are not too badly worn they may be able to be reshaped. Really heavily worn hammers cannot be treated in this way and new hammerheads need to be fitted.
Dull, dead tone
This may be partially due to worn hammers but is more likely to indicate that the piano strings have lost their original suppleness and need replacing. This is a major undertaking and only high quality pianos can justify the cost.
The dull tone may also be the result of splits having developed in the wooden soundboard. These can be repaired but, again, it is only worth doing this to really good pianos.
Out of tune
Every piano goes out of tune as the tension in the strings changes slightly. If the entire piano is out of tune it is probably because it has not been tuned for some time. Depending upon how far it has fallen below pitch one or more tunings should put this right.
If, However, only one section of a few notes is really very badly out of tune and is clearly very much worse than the rest of the piano, this signals really problems. IT si likely that the tuning plank has lost its ability to hold the tuning pins tightly enough to keep tension on the strings. It is common on pianos made before the 1960’s. They were not built to withstand the dry atmospheres created by modern central heating systems. The timber loses moisture and shrinks, the pins go slack and the piano is beyond economical repair and useless for playing purposes. Avoid at all costs.
More common in older pianos. They attack the timber – look for small holes and tiny heaps of wood dust. To check, the piano needs to be dismantled as far as practicable and closely examined with a torch. Look behind it and under the keyboard. Avoid anything that has or has had woodworm.
Moths and mice
Damage the felt hammers, dampers and key washers. Minor damage is not important but extensive damage is costly to put right.
The strings are carried on a cast iron frame. Examine the entire frame carefully with a torch. Although cracked frames are not common, should the frame be cracked the piano is a write off.
Uneven piano keys
Kneel down until your eyes are level with the piano keys. They should be level along the whole length. If they are not they will need to be adjusted by a skilled piano tuner to make the piano easier to play.
If the keys form an arc with either a rise or a depression in the centre it is probable that the wooden frame on which the keys sit has warped. Avoid.
Pedals not working
The pedals are connected to the action by levers. If the levers are dislodged the “loud” or “soft” pedals will not work. Relatively simple to put right but best done by a piano tuner.
The condition of the casework has no bearing on whether the piano plays properly or not. The heart of the piano is inside – the casework is largely decorative. A clean attractive case can conceal a total wreck inside. Never buy a second hand piano just because the case work looks good or will match your room.
If you do find a piano which plays well but has casework in poor condition remember that although pianos can be stripped and repolished the cost is such that only pianos of really good quality can ever justify the expense.
* Pianos with fretwork fronts – very old
* Pianos with candlesticks or candlestick marks (look carefully). They are likely to be at least 90 years old.
* Pianos with flowers and garlands inlaid. Pretty but again pre-1914.
* Pianos with heavily carved legs
* Pianos with wooden pedals with brass button ends
* Pianos advertised as “suit beginner”. They are almost without exception dreadful pianos which the owner wants to get rid of and are usually totally unsuitable for any pianist.
* Pianos with wooden frames.
* Pianos stored in garages or outhouses. We’ve yet to come across one in decent condition after being stored in an outhouse.
* Pianos which have not been tuned or played for years.
Buy if possible
Overstrung pianos i.e. the bass and treble strings cross over each other
Pianos which were new from the 1950’s on. They are best in central heating
Pianos which have been regularly tuned and maintained. Ask who the piano tuner is and check with him on the condition of the piano – he will remember it.
Remember that in addition to the cost of the piano you will have the expense of
* Following up any pianos offered (mileage, time and frustration!)
* Transport, especially if stairs are involved
* Tuning once in your home
* Essential repairs recommended by the tuner
Together this generally adds up to around £200 and my be very much more if your piano needs a lot of work.
The person selling the piano may genuinely be unaware of the faults in their piano (and some may well be aware but say nothing!) Before you buy privately please, please ask a reputable independent piano tuner to check the piano for you. He will charge you for this but may save you wasting money through buying a bad piano. We regret that because we may well be competing against you to purchase the piano in which you are interested we cannot be considered to be impartial and cannot provide this service.
How much should I pay?
An impossible question to answer since the value depends upon its original quality, present condition, age and how much it will cost to bring it into proper playing condition.
One word of advice though- never, ever buy a piano simply because it is cheap. Cheap pianos are cheap because they are usually worthless as playing instruments. There may be rare cases where good quality pianos are sold below their true market value but your chance of coming across this kind of bargain is about the same as winning the lottery.
Equally do not think that by paying more to a private seller that it guarantees that you are buying a good quality piano. Most piano owners have a greatly inflated idea of how much their piano is worth and ask a price which may have no relation to its age, condition or true value.
We have to repeat – before you part with money please get a report from an independent tuner.