A Piano Shopping Guide
As a self-employed Piano Technician over the last 35 years, I have serviced thousands of pianos, over 100 brands, old and new. I have also observed the level of satisfaction that hundreds of my clients have experienced with their pianos.
This “guide” is intended to provide you with information, as well as my professional opinion, to aid you in the decision-making process in purchasing a piano, either new or used. After reading this, if you have any further questions, please contact me and I will be glad to talk to you personally.
– Rick Conder, Owner
Each individual has their own specific requirements and desires in the type of piano they wish to acquire. Good piano sources can range from piano stores and technicians to estate sales and the classifieds. Though the latter options may be more logistically difficult for the individual buyer, sometimes very good deals can be found. One of the first things to consider is the size and style of piano that you want.
Grand Pianos vs. Vertical (or Upright) Pianos
Grands have mechanisms (actions) that use weight and gravity to reset the action and determine the “touch” of the keys. This prevents variation over time, compared to vertical (upright) pianos, which use wire springs to reset the action. These springs weaken over time and drastically affect the “touch” of the piano. Also, grand keys can be depressed repeatedly without having to return to the starting position. The result is a fast-responding action. Upright keys, when played repeatedly, must rise to their original position before the action will re-engage. Grand pianos project their tone better. Their soundboard projects from underneath the piano, and the lid opens to allow the soundboard and strings to project upward unobstructed. Uprights are usually positioned with the back of the piano against a wall. In this position, the sound waves projected from the soundboard are obstructed by the wall on one side and the cabinet panels on the other. Although a grand piano makes a dramatic statement in a room, most people do not wish to dedicate the 40 – 60 square feet of floor space necessary to accommodate a piano of this size, and a vertical piano is an option that can be considerably less expensive.
The optimum style is the grand piano. Grand pianos range in length from 4’-6” to 9’-0” or more. Few situations require the larger concert grands, and the smallest grands have a lot of limitation in tone quality.
Depending on the quality of the piano, a full, clear tone is seldom obtained from a grand less than 5’-0” in length. In my opinion, the best tone quality grands are 5’-6” and longer. After 6’-0”, the main consideration would be that the fullness of the tone be suitable for the size of the room. For instance, a 2,000 SF room with a 15’ ceiling could require a 7’ to 9’ concert grand, because a 6’ grand would sound distant. However, a concert grand in a 300 SF room with an 8’ ceiling would be “overkill”.
Vertical pianos are the common alternative. Vertical pianos also come in different sizes. Although they all have similar footprints (approximately 26” deep X 58” wide), the height varies, depending on the style.
Spinets are the smallest, usually about 37” tall. The limited height requires that the action be lower than the keys, so each note has a few additional parts. Repairs can be more difficult, and like the smallest grands, there are limitations in tone quality.
Consoles are next, about 40” tall. The extra height allows the action to be above the keys, which makes it more durable, and also adds 150 square inches of sound board and additional string length, which translates into a better overall tone quality.
Studio Uprights are next, about 43” tall. Studios have the same advantages as consoles, only more so. Some studios have comparable tone quality to a small grand. They perform well in larger rooms. Studios are primarily designed for more institutional purposes. The cabinets are basic and sturdy, as opposed to the more stylish furniture qualities of the spinets and consoles.
Uprights are the largest of the vertical pianos. They range in height from 46” to 56”, and can have great tone fullness and quality. A few manufacturers have produced the larger uprights over the last few decades. However, they are not nearly as common as they were in the first 30 years of the 20th century (before they began building the spinets, consoles, and studios.) Unless they have been restored, you should always avoid the very old uprights. In many cases, the cost of repairs and service required to obtain reasonable performance from these pianos can far exceed the value of the piano. Older grand pianos, however, usually have a high enough marketable value to justify a complete Restoration and Refinishing when it becomes necessary.
New Pianos vs. Used Pianos
Buying a piano can be very tricky. New pianos can vary in quality from one to the next on the assembly line, and the same model of piano can vary drastically, depending on what year it was built. Most of the great names that built reputations building top quality pianos have been sold to other companies that build pianos today in other countries where labor is cheap, usually using cheaper quality materials. Then they put a name, like Baldwin, Kronich and Bach, Everett, etc. on the piano, and use the reputation built by the original companies to sell cheaply constructed pianos.
It is my opinion that pianos built in the first half of the 20th century, almost without exception, are of much higher quality than the pianos built in the last few decades. The older pianos incorporate more painstaking craftsmanship with higher quality materials, and the patience to allow the wood used to make the components to cure thoroughly before fabrication.
However, used pianos can be tricky to buy as well. The wrong environment or long periods of time between servicing can have devastating effects on even the best pianos. Under the proper conditions, quality pianos can have a life span of up to 100 years without requiring major rebuilding and restoration. A total restoration can cost much more than a new, inexpensive piano. However, 60 to 100-year-old pianos were usually built by family businesses who took great pride in their product, and were built to last as long as possible. In my experience, I have seen many pianos, when well cared for, after a century of use, have all the major components (sound board, bridges, etc.) in the exact condition as when they were new. Though no one can predict the future, it is my opinion that in those situations, history has proven that the piano will last another century if the mechanical components that do wear out are replaced with new ones, a quality piano with a viable foundation (as described above) can have a total Restoration and Refinishing and once again will look and perform like new.
Though expensive, this option is much more affordable than a new “high quality” piano. The piano should last for generations and could be passed down as a cherished family heirloom.
If you do not require a piano that lasts long enough to pass on to children or grandchildren, a newer, less expensive piano could be your best option. Though they don’t perform as well as a truly “high quality” piano, some of the newer pianos are so inexpensive, it’s truly mind-boggling.
Though we don’t sell new pianos, I must admit, some of the new, inexpensive pianos perform surprisingly well for the money. The main limitation that I have found with the newer pianos (with the exception of a very few brands such as Steinway) is longevity. After 20 or 30 years, most have started developing serious problems with strings, bridges, and other major components that not only ruin the performance of the piano, but usually don’t leave a viable foundation to justify a restoration. However, considering the affordable price of these pianos, they can be considered “disposable” every generation. Piano dealerships have an interest in promoting this theory, simply because they sell more pianos. Another consideration with new pianos is that, for a few years, they require service more often. The steel strings are still stretching, and the tuning pins are still settling in the pin block, so tunings do not hold very long. Also the felt in the action becomes compressed with use, affecting the regulation of the piano. After a few years, both of these problems diminish, as the piano settles. Other problems I frequently see in the first few years of a less expensive piano’s life are warping and cracking. The manufacturers of more expensive pianos usually have the patience to allow the wood used to fabricate the components in their pianos to cure thoroughly before construction. The more affordable pianos are usually built with “green” wood. As it cures, the wooden components, such as keys, action parts, etc., can warp, and cracks can appear in bridges and other important components.
Most of these problems happen within the first few years. New pianos have manufacturer’s warranties that cover serious problems such as these. However, I have seen many instances where the piano manufacturers sell out to other companies every few years, and the new company won’t be held responsible for problems with the pianos built by the previous companies. Often, a reputable dealership will work with their customers to rectify the problems, but only after all other possibilities are exhausted.
Most of the dealership associates that I know are genuinely good people, but none of them appreciate my usual suggestion to people that before buying a new piano of any kind, the best option, in my opinion, is to find one 5 to 10 years old. At that age, most of the potential problems mentioned above would have already occurred (if they were going to), and the stability of the tuning and regulation will be reaching its prime. Also, you could save from 10% to 25% off the cost of a comparable new piano. At that point, even the most inexpensive piano should still provide at least 20 years of reasonable performance.
When evaluating a new piano, sometimes potential problems can go undetected, even by a qualified Piano Technician. However, used pianos, after some use, can be more accurately evaluated. It is my suggestion that any used piano that you are considering for purchase be evaluated by a qualified Technician. It IS worth the cost. However, I have tried to provide enough information on this website at Repair/Regulation to allow you to do a pretty good preliminary evaluation yourself!
I realize that our selection is small and may not reflect your specific needs or taste, but I ask that you consider our pianos posted at Sales and Rentals. Our inventory is constantly changing. Please also keep us in mind for any service requirements you may have.
As the consumer, you should evaluate each piano that you are interested in on an individual basis and take your specific needs into consideration.