A few items you will find handy to have along when you go look at a piano are a good flashlight, a medium flat-head screwdriver and a medium Phillips screwdriver (these may be needed for opening the piano), and a small, soft brush for brushing away many years’ worth of dust inside the piano. Also very useful is a tuning fork or pitch pipe or even a harmonica, to determine if the piano is up to pitch, available at music stores.
To begin with, check the back of an upright piano to make sure the large main wooden frame does not have any structural problems. Make sure the frame is not separated from the vertical sides or coming apart in other places. Problems like these usually require major disassembly and repair.
Examine the entire area of the soundboard visible between the back posts. In a grand piano, crawl underneath and look up to see it, but make sure the piano’s legs look sturdy before you do so. (Later on you will see it from the other side as well.) Check for thin hairline cracks along the grain of the soundboard, and examine each area where a crack crosses under one of the supporting ribs which run across the grain. If the cracks are wide enough, there will often be many separations between the board and the ribs, and this could be a source of unpleasant buzzing, especially when low notes are sounded loudly. Check the entire perimeter of the board where it attaches to the frame to see if there are any separations there (such as at the end of a crack). Overall, even if a soundboard has a number of cracks and separations, it isn’t a great concern, unless the sound and tone of the instrument are exceptionally impaired because of it. The tone of the piano is therefore the first factor to really consider in judging the soundboard’s overall condition. Quite often, buzzing areas can be repaired at a reasonably low cost by installing screws and glue in the right places. If there are many cracks side-by-side, however, or cracks more than 1/8 inch wide, or if the piano buzzes extremely badly across much of the keyboard’s range, you should probably look for another piano.
Next, open the piano. If the owner seems to object, you could gently remind him that most people like to know something about a used car before buying it, and it’s the same with a piano. You may as well not buy something you can’t check out first. Have the owner remove any items from the top, if need be. For an upright or spinet piano, lift open the top lid, and remove the front panel with the music desk. Usually this is held on by two clips or sliding pins (inside, on the extreme left and right); a few might just lift out, and a few may need a flat-head or Phillips screwdriver. Other variations and unusual cases exist, but none are really difficult; you just need to use a little ingenuity to figure them out. One example is some Baldwin studio uprights (the “Hamilton”), in which the lid and music desk hinge up together. On a few pianos, the fallboard (which closes over the keys) may rest against the action when you remove the front panel. If so, remove it (many lift out, others need screws). As you remove screws, screw them temporarily back into their respective holes to avoid mixing them up. The panel under the keyboard (at the knees when you sit at the piano as if to play) is held in by one or two clips at the top edge, under the keyboard. Push up on them and the panel can be pulled forward and out. It’s usually good to make a quick inspection of the panels and other parts of the piano’s cabinet to check for badly warped panels or loose veneer (at the edges of larger boards), both indications of humidity damage. Watch out also for extensive evidence of water damage in the bottom of an upright piano.
If you’re looking at a grand piano, check the lid hinges before opening the large lid and propping it up, to avoid having it crash to the floor. On a grand piano, the music desk will slide forward or back and lift out, revealing the tuning pins. Also, it’s often helpful to remove the fallboard (the hinged board that covers the keys) from a grand piano. This may be a little too much work for some, and you can evaluate a lot even without removing it. With it in the open position, remove or loosen the two small screws, one at each end, lift up on the panel, and carefully slide it out. If you see no screws, it may just lift out, or it may come out with the blocks at each end of the keyboard. Those are loosened by unscrewing the screws under the keyboard. In those cases you also have to remove the “key slip”: the narrow strip of wood along the front of the keys, again, with screws from underneath. This reveals part of the action, and the underside of the pin block.
Look over the soundboard from the front of the piano (or top, in a grand). It is visible behind the iron plate. You may spot something you previously overlooked.
Inspect the cast-iron plate for cracks. The plate, usually painted gold, is the heaviest part of the piano, and it has the strings attached to it at both ends. In an upright, the action covers part of it. It is rare for it to develop cracks, but it is very important to check for them, as they are almost always irreparable. Of course, tiny surface cracks in the gold paint are of no consequence, only cracks in the cast iron itself. Areas to check are the entire area around and among the tuning pins, across struts and beams, and near large screws and bolts. If you find any cracks, don’t buy the piano.
While you are checking structural members, in an upright, examine the top beam behind the tuning pins. This area is often covered, but if you can see the pin block, check the laminations to make sure they’re not coming apart, or separating from the wood behind it. Though serious problems, these are not extremely common, and sometimes there are other measures that can be taken. A piano technician will be better able to tell. (The pin block is the large, laminated plank of wood directly behind the plate that the tuning pins are driven into. See the glossary for more.)
Check the strings to make sure they are not extremely rusty. If you can see spaces where strings are missing, or if you see a few shiny new strings among old, rusty ones, or if you see a new, shiny piece spliced to the old, rusty string, that implies more may be ready to break. When you play up and down the keyboard, notice if the bass strings (the lowest two and a half octaves) sound “dead” or dull, almost like a plucked bass in a jazz band, rather than “live” and natural. If the entire section sounds ‘dead,’ you may want to have it repaired. Sometimes the strings can be twisted to make them sound better, but it doesn’t always work. If the strings need replacing, that can also be done, but this is a more expensive repair, and may or may not be worth doing. Consult your piano technician for more information.
Play up and down the keyboard, and pay attention to the sound and tone quality of the notes themselves. Also evaluate how in-tune the piano sounds, since it’s hard to really assess the tone if the piano is considerably out of tune. Check the piano’s pitch using your pitch pipe or tuning fork. Whatever note the fork is (or whatever note you sound on the pipe), play the same letter-note on the piano, at several places on the keyboard. If it is even as much as a half-step flat (‘C’ sounds like ‘B’), it can often be brought back to pitch with some extra work and a little extra expense. There’s always a possibility of strings breaking during a pitch raise, which increases according to how low the pitch is, and how old and rusty the strings are.
If any notes are considerably below pitch as compared to the rest, or if some notes sound like two or three notes at once when you play a key (especially in one general area), this may imply a cracked pin block. A piano in this condition may not be able to stay in tune at all, and generally would need to be rebuilt in order to be repaired, since a piano must hold its tune in order to make music. If most or all the notes sound close to what they ought to sound like, it’s usually fairly safe to assume that the pin block has no major problems. But there are a few other ways you may be able to find clues about its condition.
In a grand piano, examine the underside of the pin block, visible if you removed the fallboard. Check here for separated laminations, or tuning pins which protrude out of their holes. You can also see if there are major cracks. Occasionally, you may see an upright which has part or all of the pin block’s front exposed to view. Again, check for large cracks (more than just surface cracks) and separations, and avoid them.
Inspect the tuning pins and the area around them. This may be your only way to gather clues about the pin block’s condition. If the pins are driven in so far that the bottom of the string coils almost touch the plate, the pins might be tight enough to hold the piano in tune, since driving the pins in is a repair that is sometimes done to tighten them a little. If that repair was done many years ago, however, the pins may be loose again, since the effects don’t always last long. Of course, if the string coils actually do touch the plate, strings may break more during tuning than if the coils did not touch. If you see stains among the tuning pins, implying someone applied a liquid to try to make the wood grip the pins better, that almost invariably means potential tuning problems.
A few loose pins are more common than actual cracks in the block, since other more-easily-repaired problems can contribute to looseness of the tuning pins. Sometimes, for example, the looseness is a result of an overly dry pin block, and the installation of a humidity control system in the piano may solve it. A piano technician can make a much better assessment of the pin block, by using a tuning lever or torque wrench to actually test how tight the pins are, and compare that with visual findings and past experience.
Examine the bridges. In a grand piano, you can easily inspect their entire lengths, but in an upright, the action covers the upper portion. In the latter case, use your flashlight to look down between the hammers and the strings at the treble end, where you may be able to see the top end of the bridge. What you are primarily inspecting is the condition of the wood around the bridge pins. Especially check the bridge for the bass strings. If there are bad splits in the wood along the little pins, or if the wooden shelf (if present) that holds the bass bridge is cracked and split, either of these could be another source of annoying buzzing. Additionally, these problems often contribute to tuning instability, and ideally should be repaired. Small cracks in the bridges may be of no concern, but they will often get progressively worse over time, so you may want to have them repaired. If they have combined to form long splits and the pins are pushed out of place, or if areas are actually coming apart, or if part of the bass bridge or its shelf are beginning to separate and shift slightly out of position, you may want to continue your piano search elsewhere, or anticipate some immediate repair costs. Often, but not always, you may notice that the tone of the bass notes is impaired due to these problems. Bad splits in the bridge may cause metallic buzzing noises, though there are other causes for such noise. If the bass notes sound “weak” or “nasal,” it is especially common to find the culprit to be separation between the bridge and its shelf or the soundboard. That can also sometimes be repaired with screws and glue, especially if the bridge itself is good. On the other hand, if the bridge, shelf, and soundboard are coming loose from each other, and if there are bad splits in the bridge pin rows, and the bridge shelf is all cracked, and the piano is very old, repairs may not be worth performing—the more problems there are, the greater expense to repair, as with any aspect of the piano’s condition.
Next, check the striking surface of the hammers to see how deep the grooves are. In an upright, this will be the part of the hammer felt facing away from you and toward the strings: look down on them from above to see the wear. In a grand piano, look down between the strings along the line of the dampers: the striking surface will be facing up at you as you peer down. Grooves in the striking surfaces of the hammers are normal wear from use, but if they are deeper than 1/8", or if you can tell the hammer felt has been sanded down almost to the wood core and new grooves have made significant headway in the resurfaced felt, you may want to consider some other piano, or consider some major expenses. Hammers that have been resurfaced by sanding usually look lighter-colored near the striking point than at the tail where the felt attaches to the wood. The shallower the grooves are, and the more felt on the fronts of the hammers, the better, because the hammers will have a tone closer to the intended sound when the piano was new. Additionally, less wear on the hammers may imply that the action is in better condition and state of regulation, and will need less attention to make it play well. If the hammers are extremely worn as described above, the action is usually just as worn and will need more work. In general, many pianos sound and work fairly well for the average owner, even with some slight to moderate grooves in the hammers. Further, sanding the hammers is a way to remove the effects of wear and restore the original shape and tone quality, and it is something you may consider, depending on the extent of the wear. One last note: you should especially avoid a piano in which the hammers are riddled with many little holes from moths, which often destroy most of the other felts as well.
Check the action (the complex mechanical linkage between the keys and the hammers): looking it over may provide some clues: are the parts fairly even and straight, or do hammers and other levers lean or tilt in different directions? Are any parts obviously missing? Are there loose parts caught inside the mechanism? Older actions and cheaper, newer actions often have somewhat misaligned parts, and this is not a big concern overall, unless many of the hammers don’t hit all their proper strings. Another good method to get a quick idea of the action’s condition is to play up and down the keyboard, several times, first loudly and then softly. This will reveal most problems, such as squeaks, clicks, keys that are loose and wobbly, notes that don’t sound, keys that stick, and the like. Most problems like sticking keys and notes that don’t work are inexpensive to repair. If the keys themselves have a lot of side-play, you might want to have the felt key bushings replaced, which is not a major repair. Broken or missing parts can also be replaced, often for a moderately low cost. Rattling noises and clicks can sometimes be stopped just by having your piano technician tighten all the little flange screws that secure the action parts in place: again, a fairly inexpensive repair. However, if the hammers wobble side-to-side considerably, especially if many of them have worn perfectly flat on the front surface rather than merely acquire grooves, that might be a little more serious problem. Sometimes it is eliminated by tightening flange screws, but other times, more work is needed.
I could go into much greater detail on all the many, many problems that older piano actions can acquire, but space does not permit. Most often, though, action problems are relatively insignificant and inexpensive to repair, compared to the more serious and less obvious problems I’ve mentioned in preceding paragraphs. They become more significant if many of the notes in the keyboard have problems or don’t work. How many of these problems you can live with depends on just how severe they are, as well as your own preferences; and many of them can often be repaired and eliminated. In fact, I would recommend getting the action in as good a condition as you can afford to do, if the piano is used for serious playing, including even beginning piano studies if the student is to be encouraged to continue. You can only be as good a pianist as your piano allows.
If you think to check the pedals and their mechanisms, keep in mind that the middle pedal can have a variety of functions; it really depends on the piano. Even if the pedals don’t seem to be working right, it usually is a simple matter to repair them.
One other thing you can do is play the piano, if you’re already musically able. This will give you an idea of how it sounds and how it feels to play. Or, you could have someone else play it, if possible.
Take note of the piano’s location. Is the piano in a living room or some other room of the house, or is it in an unheated basement or garage? In the latter locations, problems can arise or become severe quicker than if the piano is in a more stable environment. Humidity is the most critical and important element of the piano’s environment, and garages and cellars generally have extreme fluctuations. Of course, if a piano has major water damage inside, especially in the bottom of an upright, you should not buy it, since that usually accompanies major problems. A piano in a normal room may have been tuned, played, and cared for more than others, though this is not always the case.
Consider the piano’s overall look. Is the finish acceptable? Refinishing a piano is much more work than refinishing any other piece of furniture. How will the piano look in your own home? Are there any broken or missing keytops? A few missing ivories are easily replaced, and worn and faded black keys can be re-blacked with gloss black lacquer for a moderately low cost. Even if the entire set of white keytops needs replacing, that can also be accomplished for a moderate investment. These are all aspects which depend on your own personal preferences.
Many of the severe problems I have named in previous paragraphs (cracked soundboard, split bridges, cracked pin block, dead-sounding bass strings, severely worn hammers, worn-out action) would all be completely repaired if a piano is rebuilt or restored. This is an expensive process, however, and some pianos may not be worth it, but it restores a piano to look, sound, and work almost like new. Find a competent technician who specializes in it, and expect to pay in the thousands of dollars.
Among pianos for sale privately under $500, the price may bear no connection to the piano’s condition. A free piano need not be junk (though it often may be), and someone may be asking a lot for a piano that is not worth, in some cases, even taking for free. Don’t rule out a piano because it’s free or above your price. The seller may consent to a lower price, and a free one could be a good find. If you see problems that the seller most likely never knew about, you can use those to bargain for a lower price. Don’t take a piano for whatever cost without evaluating it first, and having a qualified piano technician inspect it first, if possible—that is my personal recommendation.
It is very important to have a piano technician evaluate a piano before you make that final decision, especially if you’re spending any amount of money on the piano or on the move. The piano technician will have more experience, techniques, and tools to check or see things you may have overlooked. When you consider how expensive repair costs can be, a simple pre-purchase evaluation fee is a small price to pay for peace of mind. I offer this service (within my area, of course), and I will meet you, the potential buyer, at the location, and then give you a written summary of my findings. But this guide that you are reading will at least help you to avoid the worst cases, and to narrow your search down to a few good choices.