Part 1 of this blog, mentioned finding a piano that has ‘good bones’ or in other words, is fundamentally a good piano but may be in need of some work. What else can you look for to help you make this determination? What will a qualified piano technician look for? Remember, even a new piano can be problematic if the manufacturing process was subpar.
The structural components of the piano have to be sound. This includes the cabinet- frame, or ‘rim’ in a grand piano, soundboard, bridges and pinblock. If the wood has shrunk significantly and caused separation, or splitting, it may be very costly to repair. While a cracked or split soundboard may be repaired with shims, replacing a soundboard is not worth the cost (thousands of dollars) unless the piano is highly valued to begin with. What are some simple things you can do to help eliminate the possibility of buying a piano needing major repairs or rebuilding? If it is a beautiful piano but needing major repair, how can you factor this into the purchase price?
Some visual inspection can help. Where do I start you ask? If the back of the piano is visible (or underside of a grand), look for splits in the soundboard. Tap on it in various places. Does it have any resonance or boom? If it has a dead sound, it may not be doing its job anymore. To get an idea of what to listen for, do this on a new piano of a similar size.
If you can, remove the front top and bottom panels of an upright piano to see the soundboard from the front side, or lift the lid and see the topside of a grand. From here, you can inspect the bridges. The strings go over the bridges and create ‘downbearing’. The bearing on the bridges is what produces sustain and amplification. Listen closely to the tone of a few notes throughout the different registers of the instrument. The initial ‘attack’ should not be blunt sounding with little sustain. Rather, it should be comparatively warm with a residual singing tone. A mezzo to mezzo forte (medium to medium hard) striking of a note throughout most of the piano (except the top end) should sustain for 7-10 seconds. Look to see if any of the tiny bridge pins are skewed or out of line with the others because of cracks on the top side of the bridge. These cracks can be repaired if present but major cracks may necessitate a costly replacement of the bridge or bridge cap.
One other test you can listen for is to play each note individually. If any note is drastically out of tune in comparison with the others, it may be due to a loose tuning pin. The tuning pins need to have enough ‘hold’ from the pinblock which is hidden under the cast iron frame or harp inside the piano. If 1 or 2 pins are loose, they can be fixed fairly easily. If many are loose, or several alternating notes, there is a good chance that the pinblock has a severe crack and may need to be replaced. Again, this is a repair costing several thousand dollars.
In the end, an experienced independent piano tuner/technician is the best source of information when it comes to buying a piano. He can test the torque of a tuning pin, look at the complicated action and assess what adjustments or repairs need to be made. He will give you an opinion as to the quality of the piano based on his exposure to the many makes and models out there.
Be aware that good and bad pianos were made by virtually every manufacturer so a name brand is not always enough to go by. Find a piano, new or used, that ‘speaks’ to you personally. Then with some consultation, you can decide what it will cost you in the long run. Yes, it is possible that owning your dream piano will then become a reality.