Recently I’ve received an increasing number of inquiries from potential clients who have acquired a piano for free. The giveaway pianos I’ve worked on have all come from one of three sources: online (Craigslist, Facebook, etc.), yard/garage sales, or handed down from family. They are hauled to their new homes to serve as practice instruments for kids starting lessons or for their adult owners to learn on or play.
For the piano to perform adequately in either case, but especially for young students, two conditions must be met:
- The piano must be tuned and stable at the international standard pitch, A-440.
- The piano must be in good repair and properly regulated.
The expensive problem with free pianos is that most of them have sat neglected for years. They are far out of tune and will require three or more tunings over a year to stabilize pitch, at a cost approaching $500. Costs for repairs and action regulation to get them working well can range from $300 to thousands in some cases, amounts that far exceed any retail value of these instruments. In addition, many of these pianos belong in this group of pianos to avoid.
Two Piano Types to Avoid
Spinet is a marketing term for small upright pianos built from the 1940s into the 1980s. Spinet pianos average about 37 inches tall, measured from the floor to the top of the piano. They were sold by the thousands after World War II.
Several unfortunate design shortcuts were necessary to enable the compact size of spinet pianos. Soundboards were small and strings were short, compromising tone quality. Keys had to be short and parts made smaller, which affected the piano’s “feel” or touch response. The working part of the spinet – the action – was placed under the piano’s keybed, making access to repairs and adjustments challenging. Any extensive work required a technician’s contortion under the keybed or removal of the action, a complicated and time-consuming process.
Most spinet pianos have lived out their useful lives. Many technicians today (including me) refuse to do any work that can’t be accessed from above on a spinet piano, and some won’t work on them at all. I counsel owners of these pianos to invest the money they would have spent on expensive repairs toward replacement with a newer, larger, and better-quality piano.
These are American pianos built by the hundreds of thousands between roughly 1890 and 1920. They may look charming. Some have ivory keys and carved cabinets faced with beautiful wood veneers. And the one you have may be an heirloom, bought new by your great-grandparents, handed down in the family for generations, and now it’s in your living room.
The problem with these pianos is longevity. All of them are mechanical devices that are more than 100 years old, far exceeding their intended lifespan. Some of them were fine musical instruments, but that fact has no relevance today. It’s all about age and condition. With few exceptions, most of these pianos need extensive work to make them musically useable, and in some cases, repair is not feasible due to structural problems or the unavailability of replacement parts. The challenge for an old upright’s owner who chooses to improve the piano is when to stop improving. Work on these pianos, such as restringing and action rebuilding, can cost many thousands of dollars.
It’s difficult for me to condemn any client’s piano, especially one with deep family attachments, but you wouldn’t teach your child to drive in a 1918 Model T or an original 1954 Chevrolet with serious mechanical issues. The gift from an heirloom piano came from a family’s enjoyment of its music, not the piano itself. It’s challenging enough for a young student to learn to play on a piano that sounds musical and works well. Those are necessities for student success. You are not likely to get those qualities from a spinet or an old piano without a considerable investment of funds that would be better spent on a newer piano.
What to Look For
If you’re searching for a used piano:
- Remember this rule of thumb: All other things being equal, buy the tallest upright piano or longest grand piano your budget will allow. Taller than 45 inches for an upright and longer than 5’ 6” for a grand are good targets to shoot for.
- If you’re looking at an upright piano for sale by a private party, open it up and look inside. Figure out how to take case parts off and set them aside.
- The piano will likely be dusty, and that’s fine. Look to see that things are all there, that hammers and keys line up well and aren’t binding or missing. Look for gaps in the wire that indicate broken strings. Play up and down the keys with the piano apart to see if things work. Note what doesn’t or take a movie with your phone.
- Look for deep string cuts on the hammers. Deep cuts indicate heavy use and lack of maintenance.
- Look for rust on strings and tuning pins. If you see it, walk away.
- Put your nose up close and smell the piano. If it smells like mildew, walk away.
- Look for signs of rodent infestation. If you notice them, walk away. Mice can destroy a piano.
- Find the piano’s serial number and write it down or take a picture. Take other pictures of the piano, inside and out.
- Once you have your pictures and think you might have found a good piano, contact a registered piano technician to help you decide on your purchase. The technician can look at your pictures and find the age of the piano from its serial number. Be prepared to pay the tech to inspect the piano for you.
- Sometimes piano technicians have pianos for sale that they’ve purchased to fix and flip. And don’t forget to visit reliable retail dealers, who always carry good used pianos.