Inspecting a used piano
At Helium Records, we’ve always wanted a real piano, so when a neighbour offered to – kinda indefinitely – lend us an upright he’d picked up, we gladly accepted.
We knew it would need some work before we’ could use it as a „daily driver“ and asked a professional piano builder/tuner to take a look at it, to assess how much it’d cost to get it up to spec.
This is an overview of what we learned in the process and of things to watch out for. Also, even if this is about an upright, most of it applies to grand pianos, too.
The soundboard on „our“ piano had split pretty much all the way from one side to the other. But, while practically negating any resale value, this wasn’t such a big deal – soundwise – since it didn’t rattle or buzz, even with a mic placed very close.
Apparently, this is a pretty common occurence in privately-owned pianos and shouldn’t be a dealbreaker if the instrument is in otherwise good condition.
All pianos need to be tuned from time to time, especially after they’ve been moved. It’s a good idea to let an instrument settle several days in a stable environment before tuning it.
This one had seen some serious moisture damage, as evidenced by massive mould buildup on the tuning pegs, and probably hadn’t been tuned in the last 10-20 years.
The piano tuner attempted to tune a couple of strings, but stopped, because there was a serious risk of breaking a string. And, once you break a string on a 90-year-old piano, be prepared to having to replace them all.
First of all, the hammers should only be moving along one axis: towards the string, or away from it.
Noticeable sideways movement of the hammer and shank is too much and will be very expensive to fix.
Next, depending on the piano’s age and how much it’s been played, the felt on the hammers will be worn down.
Ideally, there should be only the smallest area of contact between felt and string, but with time the felt will take on the shape of the string(s), making the sound less defined.
This is pretty much a routine job in piano restoration, where the felts are shaved down to once again provide a smooth and solid surface. The good news: older pianos have thicker felts, providing the restorator more material to work on.
This is another part of the piano that uses felt and which can also lose its original shape over time. The damping mechanism as a whole can be adjusted a bit, but the felts may also need work or replacement. When checking the state of the dampers, bear in mind that the topmost strings (highest octave) usually have no dampers at all.
We ended up passing on the offer, as we were facing spending at least CHF2500,- to prepare the piano for reliable, everyday use in a recording studio; the owner himself also excluding any further investment into the instrument further validated our decision.
We’d like to thank Andreas Stoffler and Eckhard Kirsch of Stoffler Musik in Basel for their precious help in this matter.