Used Piano Checklist
From time to time I get a call from someone asking my opinion of an inexpensive or free piano they're considering buying, so I thought I'd put this page together to help you make your own at least somewhat educated decision. Of course, I'm still happy to take calls about these pianos.
There's a lot of information on this page, much of it very simplified, which I offer to help you make an informed decision about purchasing a used piano. However, it is not to serve as substitution for a proper in-person inspection by a qualified piano technician.
When critiquing a piano on the following points, keep in mind that pianos, as a category of instrument, are chock-full of anomaly. And, with regard to the findings, exceptions to the rules are sometimes made.
My advice is to hire a professional piano technician (yours truly, perhaps?) to inspect the piano before buying it. I know from experience, however, that many people, especially those shopping on a modest budget, will not. It is my pleasure to offer assistance, and I certainly appreciate all phone calls, but little can be known before I've inspected the piano in person. I'll outline out a few things that you can inspect on your own when checking out a piano. And, while I'm here to help, I am not responsible for your decision - it's up to you to decide if a certain piano's condition will serve your needs.
Try to be tolerant of some issues with respect to the price tag. While the occasional "good deals" can happen, we know that we often get what we pay for. A piano that has "hardly been played" can sometimes be a piano that hasn't been appreciated, and thus a piano that hasn't been maintained, or one that has even been abused. An old inexpensive piano is likely to be in or beyond it's last years, so don't expect things to be trouble-free from one of these. Still, some people might get a few years of "reasonable" use out of one, depending on their needs - be informed and realistic! Consider spending a little more on a better piano of a reputable maker. If you're in the market for a piano for your child but aren't certain of his/her commitment, consider that you can always sell a good used piano for around what you paid for it, while an inexpensive piano will be difficult to resell or get rid of when it's no longer useable.
I encourage you to study this and the following information so that you can make a more informed evaluation, and to determine whether or not you wish for further assistance in choosing used a piano. Again, I cannot stress the importance of having a used piano inspected by an experienced and professional technician - especially in the case of a very old piano.
Call me any time if you have questions.
A failing pinblock which can't maintain string tension, poor regulation, and problematic action components are only a few issues that can cripple a piano, degrading it, at best, to a mere piece of furniture. There is an abundance of attractive conversation pieces that come in the shape of a piano but do not function as such, and you should know what to look out for so that you don't end up with one. See "free pianos" below.
Is the piano in tune? "It sounds OK to me", and "it's not terrible" simply aren't accurate answers. Have some way of checking the tuning. The notes may be in tune relative to one another, but that does not mean that the piano is at A440. Several inexpensive and likely even free tuner apps are available for instruments such as guitar and cello, etc. A tuner app which displays increments of 1/100ths of a note (or smaller) called "cents" will be best (Peterson "iStroboSoft", for example) but really, most any tuner will do - but unless it is piano-specific software, will only measure the middle two octaves of a piano with reasonable accuracy. You can also use a pitch-pipe or tuning fork. Begin by checking all octaves of several notes. As a rule, if a piano is flat or sharp by more than about one-tenth of a semi-tone (10/100ths), the next tuning will not be stable and will require two tunings - or, a "pitch raise" or "pitch correction". If there are some notes that are drastically more out of tune than others, there may be other problems such as a bad pinblock. If there are buzzes or very poor tone, the bridges may be cracked or strings may need to be replaced - see the photos. In some cases there are inexpensive things which can be done to temporarily improve a bad pinblock condition, but worn out, cracked, or delaminating pinblock will cost several thousand dollars to replace, and bridge work be expensive as well.
The most commonly known among these inspection points is the soundboard. Soundboards can develop cracks, often several. The most common problems with a cracked soundboard is an annoying buzz originating from the site of the crack or against a loose rib, as well as a lack of sustain, particularly in the treble. Also, a soundboard which is stressed and has lost most of its crown and humidity content may not resonate as colorfully as a new one. Soundboard replacement is very costly. But if the piano is of good quality, all else checks out okay, and your budget is more limited, the piano could still be a relatively good instrument.
Still, remember what is most important: sound and playability.
Regulation is the adjustment of all the mechanical components that make up the piano's action. There are several points of adjustment - around two dozen per note on uprights, and three dozen on grands.
Regulation being a little out is expected and acceptable with a used piano, but if it's quite off, it will require several hours to correct. In severe cases, multiple visits are required as extreme changes will need playing time to settle and be readjusted. More on regulation here.
From one end of the keyboard, sight along the tops of the keys; they should be level, and not crooked. The naturals should depress about 3/8", perhaps an additional 1/16" or shade more. Measure from the top front edge of the depressed key to the same on the adjacent key. Sharps will depress slightly more, as these keys are shorter. Next, one at a time, gently try to wiggle a few keys from side to side. There should be very little play, almost none is ideal - but remember that if this is not a new piano, there will likely be some play. Now try fast repetitions on a single key. It should be able to keep up, but technique will play a role here. Do this on several different keys. Use fingers of both hands if you need to. The inability to produce fast repetitions by a good quality piano is likely due to the all too common dire need for regulation. Also, keep in mind that vertical pianos by design generally cannot produce repetitions as rapidly as grands, and any poorly designed piano certainly won't yield good results here.
Next, if this is a vertical piano, open the lid so that you can see the action. Do things seem to be fairly neat and uniform in their alignment? They should. While you've got the lid open, using your hand, gently push the hammers - all of them, in groups, toward the strings without depressing the keys. Release them and they should spring back to the rest rail quickly and at the same rate. Sluggishly returning hammers indicate tight action centers due to a moisture problem, corrosion, or some other contaminant, or all of the above. Sometimes a not so difficult thing to remedy, though an indication of neglect. In more severe cases, an almost entire disassembly and reassembly of the action is necessary to fix this. Expensive.
Uninspected free pianos are a gamble, and the odds of gaining anything but "big" and "heavy" are quite low. I receive many calls from people with questions about a free piano they've found in the classifieds. Something to keep in mind is that "free pianos" are very, very rarely in fact free. Especially when, after visits from several technicians who keep no magic wand in their tool case, it comes time to accept that said free piano, hauled into the living room - and likely by the brawn of loyal neighbors and friends, is in fact useless as a musical instrument in its present state and will remain so until it has absorbed several thousands of dollars. It happens all too often. What's more, is that it's unlikely any piano technician will want to work on one of these pianos unless it is one of quality design, and unless that work is to perform major work or even a complete restoration.
Features commonly found in free pianos:
With the exception of some vintage pianos, the pinblock is something that you generally can't see from the outside of a piano. It's purpose is to hold, with exact precision, the tuning pins and tension of approximately 230 strings. A bad pinblock is a common condition in many older pianos, and a piano with a bad pinblock will never again be in tune until it is replaced. Pinblock replacement is very costly and the job generally involves replacing much more than the pinblock alone. Tuning pins, strings, and much felt will also be replaced. And since the plate is removed, it may as well get a new coat of lacquer. A piano that is dramatically out of tune may have a failing pinblock.
Cracked bridges are also common in many older pianos, and even some not-so-old ones. This can be an expensive repair if not addressed in the early stages. Some small cracks, however, are no cause for concern - a good technician will know what to look for.
Broken strings, hammers and other action parts. These are the kinds of problems that often come in multiples. Meaning that sometimes, when there is a broken string or two, others may not be far behind. Broken or worn action parts often come in multiples as well and all problems may not be apparent at once.