What to look for when buying a second-hand piano
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING A SECOND-HAND PIANO
The first decision is whether you want an upright or a grand piano and often the size and cost are determining factors in this choice.
In general, a larger piano with longer strings will sound better than a smaller instrument. Small pianos, both grand and upright, suffer from weak tone due to the small soundboard area and their short strings.
Modern upright and grand instruments are overstrung which means that the bass strings run diagonally across the piano crossing over the treble strings and this arrangement gives the longest possible string length for the size of the piano. Older instruments are sometimes straightstrung which means that the strings run parallel to each other which limits the length of the longest strings.
There are many types of actions found in older pianos which are now considered obsolete.
Modern upright pianos are underdamped which means that the dampers are located beneath the hammers where they are much more effective than overdampers. Many old pianos (pre 1930) were overdamped, meaning that the dampers sit against the strings above the level of the hammers. When looking in from the top in an overdamper action, the hammers are obscured from view by the wooden rail holding the dampers. This type of action is now obsolete and pianos with this type of action are old, worn out and should be avoided. Many overdampers were also straightstrung.
A good condition, straight strung overdamper piano made by one of the better piano manufacturers could be very good, however without an expert assessment, it is usually best to avoid them.
While the modern upright action is underdamped, underdamped grand actions are obsolete or only found in historical, period instruments. Overdamped upright actions are obsolete but all modern grands are effectively overdamped as the dampers sit on the strings.
The action of a grand piano can only be partially seen through the strings, beneath the music desk making it difficult to identify which of the several different types of action is fitted. Unqualified persons should never attempt to remove a grand action as there is danger of causing considerable damage. Some English grand pianos from the 1920s and 1930s have a spring and loop action (sometimes called a 'simplex' action) which is really no more than an upright action on its back. These are best avoided. You should look for a grand with a Roller or Repetition action for best performance.
It's a good idea to make a list when looking at pianos, noting the following general points:
- Will you like it in your house? (Case design and size considerations)
- Age of the instrument
- General condition — look inside if you get the chance
- Overstrung or straight-strung
- Overdamper or underdamper
- Make (in case you wish to compare another similar one)
- Is it at pitch? (Your tuner will be able to tell you this, or you could take a tuning fork with you, or download a tuning app, and compare one of these notes with the fork.)
If you are considering purchasing a minipiano and are looking at models by the firm Eavestaff, most are reasonable, however we strongly recommend that you avoid the ‘Eavestaff Minipiano’ where the tuning pins are under the keyboard. Due to the age of these pianos, the pins are very likely to be loose. They cannot be punched in to get a better grip since they go right through the wooden wrest plank (the block which holds the tuning pins). This means that these instruments cannot be made to stay in tune.
When you find an instrument that you like, we suggest that you look over the piano externally, play it and then look inside. The following points should help you decide whether an instrument is worth considering.
- Is the casework and appearance of the piano acceptable in its current condition? This is subjective and down to personal preference although it may have a bearing on the price.
- Are the keys level and evenly spaced?
- Play each note twice in quick succession. Did they all work?
Playing notes twice will show if any note (or the whole piano) has suffered from damp in the past. Do this over the whole compass, white keys and black keys, from the bottom note to the top note. A note which is tight usually won't repeat a second time as the hammer won't drop back to allow it to play again as it should.
- Was the sound even across the whole keyboard? Did any notes stand out louder/softer than their neighbour?
- Did the sound stop when the key was released or did it ring on?
- Did you hear any unusual noises (buzzes, clicks, squeaks, etc.) when the keys were played?
- Do the pedals work properly and silently?
Looking inside the piano:
- Does the action look clean?
- Are the component parts neatly aligned?
- Are there any signs of damage?
- Are any strings missing, or have some been replaced? (New strings will be a different colour from the rest)
- Can you see any broken or missing parts?
- Can you see any obvious signs of moths, woodworm or mice?
The iron frame can be seen most easily in the bottom of an upright piano, although it usually covers most of the area inside the piano. The strings are attached to the frame at the bottom and to the tuning pins at the top.
- Is there any sign of rust on the frame or strings?
- Is the iron frame cracked?
- Are there cracks in the wood between the tuning pins?
- Are some tuning pins leaning down more than others?
The soundboard is the varnished wooden panel which can be seen underneath the strings. The bridges are lengths of wood, glued to the soundboard, into which metal pins are driven. The strings run over the bridges and between the pins. The vibration of the strings is transmitted to the soundboard by the bridges, and this produces the sound you hear. It is vital that these parts are in good condition.
- Are there cracks in the soundboard?
- Are there splits in the bridges between the bridge pins? (An older piano may have a wooden bridge close to the tuning pins, in addition to those on the soundboard.)
- Are there and gaps between the bridges and the soundboard? (If so the sound will be of poor quality and there may be a rattling noise as the notes are played.)
If, after checking the points listed above, you have any concerns, these should be discussed with the person selling the piano. However to reduce any risk in buying a second-hand piano we suggest that you always take a qualified Tuner or Technician with you to look over any piano you may be considering buying.