Used Piano Checklist
Use the items below to help you in finding a good used piano when searching privately. This is just some rough, general tips to remember when looking for a used piano. Please visit Larry Fine's website here for more information.
If you find a piano that you feel is in good shape according to this list be sure to have a technician check it out as well just to be sure of your purchase. We offer this service at Dan the Piano Man.
People in the market for a used piano often ask us to recommend specific brands. This is a problem, because the present condition of the piano, the kind of use you will be giving it, and the cost of the piano and repairs are far more important factors than the brand when considering the purchase of an older, used piano. Even a piano of the best brand, if poorly maintained or badly repaired, can be an unwise purchase. Time and wear are great levelers, and a piano of only average quality that has not been used much may be a much better buy.
Cabinet: Looks, Styling and Finish
Does it need refinishing? Can you live with it in your home? If not you might as well not go any further. Refinishing a piano with a smooth piano finish is much more work than refinishing other furniture.Has the cabinet been altered? Do parts line up and look good?Are there any missing parts or hardware?
Is the cabinet in good condition? Loose veneer and other loose cabinet parts indicate a piano which has been in too humid and then too dry. Both extreme dryness and extreme dampness can seriously damage a piano, particularly in regions where the weather annually swings from one extreme to the other and back again. Such regions include most of the United States and Canada.
Usually the most severe problems will show up during the dry season, in the form of cracked wooden parts, broken glues joints, and loose tuning pins that won't hold the piano in tune. These problems may be absent or disgused during the damp season, and may be especially severe when pianos previously stored in damp places or humid climates have been moved to drier places or climate. Mold also becomes an issue in a piano, but is a good indication of a piano that has been in a humid area. Often times just removing the bottom board and looking on the back of it or into the interior will tell you if the piano is moldy.
Many old pianos look terrible but are good musical instruments. So investigate it thoroughly. Please beware - pianos do just get old, and even a tuning will not help!
Pinblock and Tuning
For an upright piano, pull the piano away from the wall, to see if any glue joints of the back frame or cabinet are coming apart. It isn't unusual for main glue joints in the back to come apart. In extreme cases, the pinblock of an upright piano comes unglued and the string tension pulls it forward from the back of the structure. If the frame is falling apart, the main structural portions of the piano will need complete disassembly, major woodworking, and regluing. (Your money could be spent more wisely.)
Most pianos have the tuners card inside just under the top lid, usually they have written what the type of tuning, and when it was last tuned. Was it tuned to a standard pitch of A 440? If they indicate it was tuned lower, determine why! The following will help you with this!
Are the tuning pins too loose to hold a stable tuning? A good indication of the pins being too loose is that they have chalk marks on them, or that they are pounded into the cast plate, this was done to increase the pin torque by a tuner.
Look for at least 1/8" clearance between the coil on the tuning pin and the plate. Often the tuning pins have been pounded into the plate to increase the torque, once they have been tapped to the plate they can not go any further and would have to be replaced.
Does each note sound in tune with itself? Badly out of tune unisons may indicate loose tuning pins, especially if tuned within the last couple of years. If the pins are no longer holding as tightly as they once had, then you have to determine, if you are willing to spend money in the future to have the piano repinned with oversized tuning pins.
Is the pinblock cracked, sometimes you can view this in smaller upright pianos when you lift the lid, in large older uprights the pinblock is not always visible unless the top is taken off. In grands the fallboard can be removed and the pinblock is then visible from the underneath. The pinblock can be replaced, this option is costly and may be okay in some cases, grand pianos are usually worth putting this expense into.
Light rust is okay. Excessive rust, especially on coils or at bearing points, is a problem, and could lead to breakage.
Note if there are any new strings. If there are a lot it may indicate a breakage problem!
Do the bass strings give a rich full sound, or are they tubby sounding?
Hairline cracks around bridge pins are not abnormal.
Excessive cracks that cause dislocation of the bridge pins, especially on the bass bridge, are a big problem and indicate the need of a new bridge.
If the bass sound is poor at one end and not the other, this could indicate the bridge is not attached to the soundboard.
If the piano has an upper bearing point of wood, check for cracks.
Before lifting the lid on either a grand or upright, check for cracks and that the hinges are attached or the lid may come off.
Although very rare, check for cracks in the cast iron plate, both in the struts and in the tuning pin area. These are extremely difficult to repair properly, and very costly. If it is an older upright piano that has this problem we would suggest not purchasing it.
Look for delamination in the bottom edge of the rim on a grand, or in the back of the top horizontal beam of a vertical piano, this would indicate extremes between dryness and humidity.
Play each key separately from one end of the keyboard to the other listening for any buzzing or rattling sounds. Do not mistake these sounds with loose and worn action noises.
Look for excessive soundboard cracking. A few minor cracks are usually not a concern. Unless the ribs that hold the soundboard are also lifting. Check to see if the ribs are attached where they cross a crack. The problem this will create is these buzzing sounds.
Wooden shims in cracks indicate the piano has been rebuilt or at least repaired. Cracks beside the shims may need the shims removed and redone. Soundboard work done properly is more visible in a grand, ussually a old upright has screws and lost of glue for its repair.
Action, Keys, Hammers & Dampers
Make sure all keys play. Are parts missing, broken, or unglued? If there is broken parts these can be repaired, but if parts are sitting all over the place then this is a good indication of abuse. Check hammers to see if there is enough remaining felt. Move them left and right (not forward and back) to check tightness. Clicking sounds when played indicates loose screws or possible loose glue in joints. Look at all felt for moth damage or evidence of mice. Moth damage looks like small pinholes in the felt where the larvie have been. Mice damage, well it's not hard to tell when they have been inside a piano, they leave signs everywhere, and often leave a nest under the keys.
Are any keys sticking or sluggish? Indication of the piano being very dirty under the keys, or debris caught between keys, or humidity.
Are the keys evenly spaced, square with each other, and level? Move the keys to the left and right quickly. They should barely wiggle and should not rattle or click. If they do it is and indication of worn bushings, hard play and possible moth eaten under key felt.
Are keytops ivory or plastic. Are any missing, chipped or damaged? These can be replaced with either recycled ivory, or new plastic keytops.
Play all notes staccato (except where no dampers) to see if sound stops quickly. If not, dampers may need to be adjusted or replaced.
On the upright piano the key and hammer should move at the same time. Any delay of the hammer after the key is depressed is lost motion. This is quite common in even newer pianos, and is easily corrected when the piano is brought back into proper regulation.
When action parts are way out of regulation often the hammer will block against the strings or bobble hitting the strings a couple of times when the key is only played once. The backcheck is to catch the hammer from striking more than once. If caught too far from the string, repetition is compromised. If caught too early, the hammer may be blocked against the string. If the backcheck does not catch the hammer, the hammer will bobble.
The keyboard should be level (or rise slightly in the middle) from one end to the other. The keys should be square with the front keyslip. The depression of the key is called the keydip and the key should only depress so far, if the depression is too much the key will block against the string.
Play a number of keys as softly as possible. If the action fails to play reliably (i.e., skips or misses) while playing softly, the action probably needs regulating.
Right pedal, this pedal removes all the dampers from the strings, to allow an echo effect until the pedal is let off. The dampers should all lift in unison when this pedal is used.
The middle pedal if used in a grand piano is the sostenuto - depress the right pedal to lift dampers, then depress the middle pedal and keep depressed while releasing the right pedal. Dampers should remain raised. If it doesn't have a sostenuto, the middle pedal will act similar to the right pedal, but possibly for only part of the piano. In newer pianos this middle pedal will lock into place dropping in behind the hammers a mute rail. You will find this also in some older uprights as well. A nice added feature for quiet play.
The left pedal is called the soft pedal, it moves the hammers closer to strings in a vertical piano or shifts keyboard in grand to play quietly.
Is the grand pedal lyre coming apart at the glue joints? Are lyre braces in place? Does it feel secure when pedals are used? Or does it sway when used?
Age of the Piano
Copy down the name and serial number - send us the name of the piano and serial number and we'll tell you the age of the piano. We usually state that a piano over 100 years old, is soon going to need all new hammers, strings, etc..it gets very costly.