What to look for when buying a piano
If you are looking for a piano or grand piano, you’ll have much of a choice.
It’s important that you choose an instrument that meets your wishes: the desired sound, color and so on. This is all personal and a matter of taste.
Once you have made your choice, it is wise to learn more about the vital parts of the instrument, especially when buying a used piano. A piano contains over 12,000 parts, 10,000 of which are moving parts. And those parts need maintenance. A piano that has been regularly tuned and maintained will arrive in a better condition than an instrument that has been neglected for years. Also, a higher quality piano means higher quality parts that won’t degrade as quickly over time.
In this blog I’ll guide you through these parts and explain why they should be inspected before purchasing your instrument.
Soundboard and ribs
The soundboard is considered being the heart of the piano. It is made of spruce wood and transmits the vibrating strings into a rich sound. Wood only amplifies lower-frequency sounds and absorbs (recudes) the higher frequencies. resulting in the characteristic piano sound .
In an upright piano the soundboard is located at the back of the instrument. In a grand piano the soundboard is part of the case at the bottom of the instrument. Look carefully for cracks in the wood. A small crack in the soundboard does not necessarily mean a disaster, but multiple and long cracks can indicate that the piano has suffered great climatic extremes. The piano will no longer reach its volume and you’ll most likely hear big differences in sound color between the keys. If the cracks have been filled with wooden shims, this indicates that the piano was rebuilt and repaired. If this is done in a professional way, it’s not necessarily a big problem.
The ribs should be glued securely on to the soundboard. So make sure they are. If a crack in the soundboard occurs but the rib is still holding on both sides of the crack, repair is likely to be unnecessary. If however the rib only holds just on one side, this will cause a tremendous loss of tone. Most likely you will hear a strange buzz or cough on certain notes.
The hammer head is a crucial part of the piano. When a key is pushed, the hammer is set into motion which travels towards the string to strike it into vibration. The strings’ vibration spreads to the air aroud them inside the instrument causing reverberations that create the familiar piano sound. The size of the hammers increases steadily from treble to bass: the hammers on the bass end are the largest because they must have a larger mass in order to move the heavier bass strings. The hammer head is made of tightly compacted felt that is pressed tightly around the so-called head molding. The hammer head repeatedly strikes the wire strings. As a result of this, the hammer felt becomes even more tightly compacted which, in the end, creates an unpleasant, harsh tone. If the hammer heads have very clear grooves, they should be sanded and smoothed in order to make the hammer head hits all strings are again simultaneously and with the same amount of force.
Make sure the hammer head is shaped like a water drop. The part of the hammer head that hits the strings should be round. If it hasn’t got that shape anymore, the hammer head is skewed and will cause a huge loss of sound quality: sharp and dull tones can be heard interchangeably. This means that the hammer heads have to be replaced and that is a costly affair.
Tuning pins – also called wrest pins – are cilinders made of steel that are used to bring the piano string into proper tune. The string goes through a hole in the pin and then wraps around this pin in three or four coils. A tuning hammer is used to rotate such a pin. As a result, the string tension changes and with this the pitch gets raised or lowered. The tuning pin tightly grips the pinblock. This is a wooden plank made of layers of wood that stretches the full keyboard width of the piano. The tuning pins are driven into holes in the pinblock, which must grip the pins and keep them from turning. A loose tuning pin will not hold pitch since a turning pin will cause the tension of the string to change. If you see damaged, stripped or tapered tuning pins (most likely caused by an ill-fitting tuning lever), or if you see the tuning pins pointing out at different angles, then I do not recommend buying this instrument.
Unfortunately, the pinblock itself is not visible from the outside, so its condition cannot be determined without using a descent tuning lever. I once tuned a piano where I could rotate a tuning pin using only my forefinger and thumb (!). Then you know enough.
A piano has an average of 88 keys and around 230 steel iron strings. For tenor and treble notes, three strings are strung for each key. Bass notes have only one or two. Strings become shorter in lenght going from low-pitched notes to high. Strings for bass notes are wound with copper wire. Look closely at the pins and strings for any signs of rust or corrosion. Also make sure that the strings are free of burrs and imperfections. When strings rust, they become brittle and this has two unpleasant consequences: the sound becomes duller and the risk of breaking a string increases. So always take a good look at the condition of the strings.
If you happen to see white chalk marks on the tips of tuning pins, they are often a reminder for the piano tuner that these are loose tuning pins. And this white chalk should be judged by you as a red flag because the strings attached to these tuning pins will not hold tuning. Now you know the piano needs considerable work: replacing a single string will set you back at about 20 to 30 EUR, so do the math. Replacing a bass string is even more expensive because it is wounded with copper and has to be made customized. Strings that are in good condition will last a very long time.
Do you see shiny new strings near the old ones and do you think this is a sign that the piano has been maintained? False. It will tell you that the old ones are weak and breaking. Replacing a string is really not a bad thing, but you have to take note of the overall view. For missing strings apply the same principles.
Bridges transmit the vibration from the string to the soundboard. If there are cracks in it, the vibration transmission will be disturbed. You will hear this immediately. Moreover, a piano with a broken bridge can no longer be tuned. Restoration is expensive.
If the bridge comes with cracks, if it’s incomplete (missing parts of wood) or if it has come off the soundboard: don’t buy it.
Sit, play and listen
Not only your eyes can give you important information about the condition of the instrument, your ears can too. Play the piano and listen carefully to what you hear: do you hear strange buzzes, ‘coughs’, differences between the keys?
Does the instrument play predictably and is the response to all keys almost the same and adequate? And do the keys all come up at the same time when releasing your finger of the key? Then the piano mechanism runs smoothly and your instrument is sufficiently adjusted.
Do you experience big differences? Or do you hear a lot of crackles, buzzes, strange noises and ‘coughs’? Then this could be an indication of hidden problems. When in doubt: don’t purchase it.
If you buy a piano from a private person, it is always wise to ask who tuned and maintained the piano lately. They can give you more information about the (recent) history of the instrument.
I hope the information is of assistance to you.
If you have any questions or if you want my help as a purchase guide, please contact me. I’m here for you.