Since becoming a piano technician almost 30 years ago I have tuned, regulated, voiced, repaired, restrung, replaced hammers and action parts, reconditioned, and rebuilt numerous pianos. The point is I know pianos and the following is a guide for buying a used piano.
You can buy a Yamaha, Kawai, Young Chang, Samick, Baldwin, and lots more like them. The tips for buying a used piano are not hard to learn or you can just print this page and take it with you. These aren´t the high end stuff. These are the average pianos that 90% of people buy because the average person can not afford a Steinway, Bechstein, Bosendorfer, and many more you never heard of.
Here is how to buy a good used piano.
Deciding on What to Buy
1. Go to pianomart.com and see what the asking prices are for used pianos. These are pianos that people have placed on Pianomart for sale and Pianomart gets a commission. I think you need to know before you go looking how much money you’re willing to spend on a piano.
2. Craigslist or Kijiji are where to buy used pianos for sale in your local market. Just put either Craigslist or Kijiji in your browser’s search and click on your city. You will have more than enough to choose from.
3. Before you go and look at the physical condition of a used piano take a look on the ads on Craigslist and Kijiji and realize one very important thing. Most people that are selling a piano (not the dealers and piano technicians) do not have the foggiest idea what they are selling. They know little or nothing about how a piano works other than the keys go up and down and it looks nice. So their comments about how well it plays or its mechanical condition generally means nothing.
The first upright piano I looked at the ad on Kijiji said it was in excellent condition. When I went to look half of the keytops were missing and 1/3rd of the hammers were gone. He thought that was excellent!?
4. Before you inspect a used piano, call and find out the name and serial number. The serial number on most pianos will be inside the piano near the top above the tuning pins. Some pianos (very few) will have the serial number stamped on the frame at the back of the piano, or even inside on the pinblock. It will be a number (possibly including letters) that is at least 5 digits long. You can look most of these numbers up on the internet using the piano name and find the date it was built. Or you can call a used piano dealer and he may have a book that lists the hundreds of piano makes and their serial numbers showing the dates they were built. Many people have no idea when their piano was built and will therefore give you bogus information on how old it is.
5. Knowing the model number can also help you in learning the quality of the instrument. Generally, the taller the piano, the better the sound. A 3 foot tall piano is simply not as good as one that is 4 or 5 feet tall. The model number will usually be 2 to 5 digits long. Model numbers may contain the first letter of the name of the piano and the height of the piano in centimeters. So for instance, a Young Chang piano that is 121 centimeters tall from the floor to the top of the piano case could have a model number of YC121. Yamaha does not do this so it takes longer for you to figure out the height or length of a Yamaha. The U100 above is a 48″ tall piano
Having decided that the piano is in your price range and that it is not too old now you want to do a physical inspection. Take your camera (your phone camera will do) and a small paint brush with you so you can take pictures without the possible years of dust in the way. You want to inspect the frame, the cabinet, the trapwork which includes the pedals and connective links that the pedals are used for in playing. You also want to inspect the keys including the tops and the pins the keys are leveraged on. Following that you need to inspect the movable parts on the inside of the piano called the Acton.
The Physical Inspection
1. When you arrive to inspect the piano exlain to the piano owner that you would like their permission to 1) open the piano for an inspection and 2) to take pictures of the inside and outside. Ask them where you can place the parts such as leaning them against the wall, or lying flat on the floor, or perhaps on a couch. I feel it is impolite to just assume that an owner will let you do that. Some, in fact, may not. If they decline, respect their wishes, state that you can not really tell if the piano is any good without the inspection, and if they still will not give you permission, it is time to leave.
2. Ask the owner to remove all objects on the top of the piano. It is best they do this. You don’t want to be responsible for dropping a lamp or ornament that has some sentimental value.
3. Open the top of the piano and undo the top front of the piano. There will be some sort of latch at the extreme right and left of the piano just underneath the lid that once undone the entire front of the piano can be easily lifted off. Make sure that you hold on to the front so that it doesn’t fall off. When lifting the front off on a high gloss finished piano be aware that most pianos of this type the parts are very heavy because under the finish is particle board. Be extremely careful when moving the parts from the piano to wherever you are putting them so you don’t damage the finish.
On a grand you don’t have to remove the top lid, but just raise it as high as possible so you can see inside.
4. Remove the board above the pedals and under the keybed. It will be the same length as the top portion and usually is held in place by some sort of clamp at the top of the board directly above the pedals.
5. With both boards removed you can now take pictures of the tuning pins and action at the top of the piano as well as the pedal assembly, strings, and bridges at the bottom.
Pictures of the tuning pins need to be up close so you can see the windings of the strings on the tuning pins. The picture below looks good. The windings are about 1/16 to 1/4 inch from the where the pins enter the pinblock.
The picture at right is not good. Note that windings have no space between them and where the pins enter the pinblock. Also, if pins are not the same size it indicates the pins are now or have been loose. Also notice the two pins that are a different color and taller than the others. The windings are not well done but would be OK. The fact that these two pins are tall indicates that the original pins were loose and these larger pins have been put in. This piano should be considered with the understanding that some time in the future more pins will need to be replaced
Take pictures of the front of the hammers where they strike the strings, and a picture back further so you get a picture like the one below. You are looking for gouges in the front of the hammers which would indicate how much use the piano has had. The pictures like the one below will show if hammers are warped and the action is not symmetrical. Note in the picture below that the hammers are not straight across. This is easily rectified and involves what we call regulating the action.
Pictures should be taken of the tops of the keys to ascertain if they are chipped or cracked as well as a picture of all the keys so you can see if they are level.
Not only are the keys on the left not level, but they have multiple other problems. The ones on the right are how they should look.
Pictures under the keyboard should include the pedals so you can see if they are attached properly, pictures of the strings so you can see if there is any rust, and pictures of the bridges – particularly the large bridge closest to the pedals to make sure there are no cracks in the bridges next to the small pins that alter the direction of the strings. This is a piece of wood about 1″ wide and about 1 foot long where the strings go over – hence the word bridge. It’s like the bridge on a guitar only a lot thicker and longer.
In the picture here you can see the bass bridge above the pedals and it is about 1.5 feet long and is slightly curved.
6. While watching the hammers, play each key 2 or 3 times to ascertain if they all feel the same and to see if the parts of the action all move the same. If action parts wobble or do not hit the strings properly, there is work needed to be done. If the keys don’t feel the same there may be a problem in the action or the parts under the keys may need replacement. Also, listen as you play each key. Does each key make only one sound or more than one? If more than one, the piano may either be out of tune or the tuning pins may be loose.
7. Put everything back together and then take pictures of the outside of the piano on all sides as well as pictures of the bench.
8. If you know how to play the piano, give it a test run. You may want to take some music that you feel comfortable playing to use as a test to see how it feels when you play. Do the keys feel even? Do they feel too heavy or too light? Do the pedals operate the way they should?
At this point you should have a very good idea of whether this is the one or not. However, if you’re like me and feel pressured when other people are around, that’s where the pictures come in. You can take them home and carefully look at them or even show them to a piano technician.
Now Hire a Piano Technician
If you really like the piano you’ve found, now is the time to hire a piano technician to go and inspect it. He can tell by looking and playing a lot more than what I gave you above, but if you send a piano technician out to inspect all of the possibles, you’ll have a big bill. So – you do the initial finding and send the technician when you think you’ve found the one you want.
Do all of the above and I’ll guarantee you’ll have a great piano for a very reasonable price. Enjoy it – there’s nothing like playing the piano.