Buying a piano is a very personal matter and depends on many factors. For this reason we cannot present an absolutely foolproof purchasing strategy, but we can offer universally valid suggestions as to what should be considered beforehand, and point to the essential aspects to look for when purchasing a second-hand piano.
In this way, we hope to offer our know-how to prevent you from being taken advantage of. We also expect ourselves and our instruments to be assessed using the same criteria, so that, right from the beginning, you have the feeling that at Piano Palme you are in the right hands.
- Upright or grand piano?
- New or second-hand?
- What does an upright or a grand cost?
- What is the difference between an expensive and a cheap instrument?
- Is the size of an instrument important?
- Is the country of origin relevant? Are German instruments better than foreign makes?
- The question of age. How long can a piano last?
- What are the criteria for selecting a piano?
- The tone
- Is a cheap piano the right choice for a beginner?
- Buying privately or from a piano shop?
The answer depends on two main factors: how much room you have and how much you want to spend. Grand prices usually begin at the top end of upright prices.
Even though a grand needs more floor space than an upright, it is not confined to being placed on a wall, and can be positioned anywhere in the room. A further consideration is the expectations in regards to tone quality and touch. See also "is the size important?"
This question will always arise if the expense has to be considered.
Should one buy, for a certain sum, a very good top-quality instrument second-hand, or a brand-new medium- quality instrument? This is almost a question of faith, and the customer will, to a certain degree, follow his instincts in the final decision. Anyone who has paid for a second-hand car the equivalent of the price of a smaller but brand new one, is familiar with this dilemma.
Pianos usually live longer than cars, so here the decision is no less difficult. Our second-hand instruments are so carefully overhauled and repaired in our own workshop that you probably will hardly notice the difference from a new one.
What does an upright or a grand cost?
Today's cheapest upright pianos are available for a little under 1500.- €.
A concert piano can cost up to ten times this sum.
German makes are available from about 6,000.- €.
The price range for grand pianos is considerably larger. The cheapest grand costs just over 5,000.- €, whereas concert grands from well-known manufacturers can cost more than 75,000.- €.
These prices are for new instruments .
What is the difference between an expensive and a cheap instrument?
The enormous differences in price are certainly justified. The quality of the materials and the craftsmanship can vary drastically, which will show up in tone quality, ease of playing and the durability. A good quality instrument can last for generations whereas a piano of the lowest quality is unplayable after ten years at the latest.
Is the size of an instrument important?
Even if gentlemen like to insist that size is an irrelevant factor, the piano is a different matter. One can definitely say that, as a rule, a larger instrument not only sounds better, it is easier to play and lasts longer, presuming that the same quality materials are used and the same care is taken in the construction. The reason for this is that the constructor has to use more 'tricks' to extract from a smaller piano the same tonal quality as a large one; but these tricks can only be employed up to a certain point. Thus a large upright piano can sound better than a very small grand. For an upright, an important measurement is the height; for a grand, the length. Possible reduced tone quality with smaller instruments.
However, the rule alone is not the measure of all things. Despite what we have said before, a smaller, higher quality upright can sound and play better than a bigger one. The same can be said for a grand. If you want more detailed information we would be happy to explain by way of a demonstration in the workshop or salesroom.
Is the country of origin relevant? Are German instruments better than foreign makes?
Pianos are manufactured in most parts of world. We obviously cannot present a comprehensive view of the world market so we will limit ourselves to a few basic statements. German piano makers have an excellent reputation throughout the world for building instruments which meet the highest demands. Japanese instruments, long since recognised for being robust and good value for money, can also be recommended. Much the same can be said for South-Korean makes. The price advantage that Asian instruments have had in the past, has continuously lessened over the last few years. This is because the Asian manufacturers are now offering higher quality pianos, which require high-quality material. The percentage of wage costs in the retail price is less than is generally assumed. Material costs are generally the same; top-class materials have their price, even in Asia.
An important consideration is that the difference in quality between cheap and expensive instruments from the same manufacturer, is greater with Asian pianos as those produced in Germany. Finally, here it should be mentioned that behind some German-sounding names are instruments which have been built in factories from all over the world. For more information do not hesitate to call us or send an e-mail.
The question of age. How long can a piano last?
This depends mainly on two factors: how valuable it was when it was new, and how it has been treated over the years. Very well-preserved, hundred-year-old instruments are not uncommon. But even the best grand piano will suffer when poorly treated. Damp rooms, extreme temperature fluctuation, unskilled removal etc. can turn the instrument into a musical ruin in a relatively short space of time. On the other hand, the life of an extremely cheap instrument is limited to 10 years even with proper care and normal usage. A specialist will astonish you with what he has to say about the actual condition of a piano. You will be amazed.
What are the criteria for selecting a piano?
After deciding whether to buy an upright or grand, how much to spend, and how large the new piece of furniture can be, only one thing is important: the music. Decisive is how the piano feels and sounds subjectively when playing. The sound will be examined later. At first the instrument should be played. Don't limit yourself to listening to the salesman's demonstration; play something yourself. After all you are not buying for the salesman.
Even if your skill is not as perfect as you would like, shyness is not called for. If the salesman doesnt suggest it himself, ask to be left alone with the instrument for a while so as you can get to know the instrument without an audience. Most shops are understanding. The touch (feel of playing) must suit you as an individual; if it doesn't, it may hinder long-term enjoyment. This is what you should find out during your 'test drive'. Try out various instruments and rely on your feelings.
Apart from subjective considerations ( we all hear differently), it is possible that the piano sounds objectively different in your own four walls than it did in the shop. The acoustic properties of rooms vary considerably according to size, height and furnishings etc. This is no problem, as the tone of the piano can be adjusted, to a certain degree, to room conditions and personal taste by so-called voicing (or toning).
Is a cheap piano the right choice for a beginner?
Well, you don't have to begin with a 3-metre concert grand when learning to play. Nevertheless buying a dirt cheap instrument can not be recommended as the poor quality mechanical parts make it more difficult to play. Especially for a beginner, this can cause considerable frustration - surely something which no-one wants to be burdened with.
Buying privately or from a piano shop?
Only a specialist can make a true estimate of the age and quality of an instrument. Apart from this fact, when a piano changes hands it should be overhauled, or at least checked through. Also, it has to be moved and tuned in the new location. These costs often outweigh any financial advantage that may have been had by buying privately.
Furthermore, similar to car purchase, if any unforeseen deficiencies become evident after purchase, it is more difficult to take legal steps against a private individual than a specialist. What also should be mentioned is that at a piano shop offering a wide range of instruments there is a greater chance of finding the right piano for you.
What to look for when buying a second-hand upright or grand piano?
Pianos do not last for ever - but if treated well they can reach a considerable age.
Pianos, as we know them today, have been built in this way for the last 100 years. Piano making reached its peak in Western Europe between the turn of the last century and the First World War. Never again have so many pianos been manufactured.
It is not surprising that there is such a large number of 50 to 100 hundred-year-old instruments on the second-hand market. The condition of these pianos varies considerably.
Pianos are sold because 1) the owner wants a better instrument, or 2) he/she no longer needs it. For the buyer, case 2 is favourable because there is more chance that the piano is ok. In case 1, it is possible that deficiencies are the cause of wanting to replace it.
A common fault is poor tuning stability, i.e. the piano has to be tuned frequently in short intervals - an irritating and costly situation. Before considering further faults to be looked for when buying a used piano, it should be said the construction type can hardly be altered but almost any faults can be remedied by a piano technician.
There are three main causes of quality deterioration in a piano: wear and tear, ageing and environmental harm.
Wear affects the moving action parts - i.e. the complex structure responsible for striking the strings to produce a note when a black or white key is struck. When connecting parts move, friction occurs causing rub and wear.
The action materials are mainly wood, felt, metal and leather.All parts which touch the strings directly, i.e. the hammers and dampers are covered with felt.
Felt and leather are affected by ageing and the former can fall victim to moths, whose favourite meal is wool. Leather, as we all have experienced, becomes hard and brittle with age. Hammer felt possesses only a limited degree of elasticity, so that with time the strings press into the felt forming grooves,which, with time, prevent precise hammer/string contact
Ageing affects not only felt and leather but also wood. Wood is an organic substance which reacts to changes in temperature and humidity. It shrinks and expands, and in time cracks can develop.
Cracks in the wrest plankcause the tuning pins to loosen and the piano will constantly go out of tune. Cracks in the soundboardweaken the transference of the vibrations, thereby reducing the tone quality.
This includes environmental influence such as extreme temperature fluctuation, too low or too high humidity, direct sunlight, water damage or other liquids, as well as moth infestation or harm through mice.
The cabinet often offers clues to what the piano has been through. If the veneer is raised or loose, one can assume that water is the culprit. Mould or mildew marks on light-coloured surfaces indicate that the piano has been kept in damp rooms. Dust inside or on the back of the instrument is also a useful indicator. Traces of mould in the dust suggest that the piano has suffered from damp.
Cracks can develop after complete 'drying out'. A mouldy smell inside is a clue to unsuitable conditions. A glass of beer is often placed on a piano. Where beer is put down, a glass will often be knocked over and the beer will seep into the instrument. Look for ring marks and cigarette burns on the cabinet. Such traces suggest that the piano has spent time in a pub or restaurant. It will often retain its sour smell for years after, and you must decide whether you want to import this odour into your living room.
The condition of the keyboard, the condition of the felt and cloth
There are a number of things to look for on the keys. When you look across the keyboard from the side are the keys in a straight line or are you reminded of a big dipper? Uneven and crooked keys are a sign that the felt on which the keys rest are worn or moth-eaten.
Correct key function, crooked keys, unwanted noises
At first you should play each key. Obviously every key should produce a note. But also, at this stage, how much sideways play is there? This should be minimal; at least the keys should not touch each other. A comparison between often-played middle range keys and the bass or high treble section is useful. Check that the keys require roughly the same finger force, and whether unwanted noises occur.
As long as the key is held down, the note should reverberate. As soon as you let go the sound should cease immediately. If this is not the case then the damper mechanism is faulty.
The pedals also offer information on the condition of the instruments. Is the brass cap, especially on the right pedal, worn through to the iron underneath? If so, this indicates heavy use.
The pedals, too, should only have a minimum of play sideways and not cause excessive noise. The right pedal lifts the dampers, i.e. when the pedal is depressed the note played must resound even though the key has been allowed to return. If not, there is a problem with the dampers - something which can usually solved by a specialist.
The purpose of the dampers is to stop the note ringing after letting go of the key. How this works is explained here: (Technical terms). Some old pianos have so-called overdampers. This can be recognised by opening the lid and looking at the action. Instead of seeing the hammers, the overdampers are the first thing that meets the eye. They are lifted by long wires which has led to their American name: birdcage piano.
Only a few manufacturers have had satisfactory results with this system (e.g. Blüthner, Ibach or Steingraeber). Generally speaking they cannot be recommended because they fail to meet today's standards.
Even if a piano hasn't been tuned for several years, it still shouldn't have dropped more than a semitone in pitch - easily tested with a tuning fork. One should be especially wary if single notes are particularly out of tune. This is an indication of wrest plank cracks.This can be repaired but is expensive.
Like the wrest plank, the soundboard can also develop cracks over the years.The vibration transference is then lessened and tone quality is lost.
Soundboard cracks can be repaired by gluing narrow, wedge-shaped pieces of spruce into the cracks.Subsequently the surface is sanded smooth and re-varnished.
Let us assume that friends and acquaintances can be trusted; but what about buying from strangers, e.g. through an ad? Such instruments are usually described as being either almost brand new or of historical value. It is striking that instruments seldom fall between these extremes (according to the owners).
This, of course, cannot be true. Often a seller doesn't really know how old the piano is. Maybe he has bought it second-hand himself. Sometimes the age is deliberately falsified. A dealer can establish the age of a piano, fairly accurately, by consulting lists of serial numbers.
Buying an upright or grand is difficult enough. Hauling the goods home is a different matter altogether. You shouldn't try to move the piano yourself. Your back, and the staircase, and of course the piano will be grateful. For this task there are specialists, such as PIANO PALME who do this every day.
Moving is a tumultuous affair; also for a piano. It takes 2-4 weeks to recover, i.e. to become acclimatised to the new environment. It should be tuned after this period.
Position...where it shouldn't stand
Of course, you can put your piano where you want to. Nevertheless, a few rules should be followed to ensure lasting enjoyment. Direct sunlight is not good for the piano as it not only bleaches the finish but also causes the wood to dry out, resulting in cracks. Don't place the instrument in front of a radiator. Avoid damp or unheated rooms e.g. a cellar. If you have underfloor heating you should protect the underside of the piano from drying out with an Isofloor mat. We would be pleased to help with this. Some years ago there was a rule that pianos should never be placed on an outside wall. In today's well-insulated houses this rule can be ignored; in old buildings it is still valid. The ideal relative humidity in the 'music room' should be 50 - 60 %. One way of controlling the humidity is the installation of a humidifier which ensures the correct climatic conditions in the piano. Again we would be glad to help.
The piano tuner should come once a year. New instruments might have to be tuned more frequently because it is some time before the instrument 'settles down'. Remember that a tension of 15 - 20 tons is present in the instrument. If a piano is very badly out of tune, it is possible that it will need more than one tuning. This is a normal situation and is not an indication of the tuner's incompetence.
What else should I know? (general care, cleaning etc..)
How the cabinet should be treated depends on the type of finish. A dusting cloth can do no harm.
A polyester finish is best cleaned with a chamois leather dampened with water, to which a little white spirit and detergent has been added.
For French polish (shellac) there is a special cleaning product.
Never use water or household cleansers on shellac.
The keys can be wiped with a well-wrung chamois leather. Take care that no liquid runs down between the keys. You can also run a vacuum cleaner over the keys from time to time using the upholstery brush attachment.
Keep the vacuum cleaner away from the action. It is easy to cause considerable damage here.
If possible do not place flower vases or other potential 'water bombs' on the piano. Also, picture frames or clocks or other adornments can rattle and vibrate, which doesn't add to the enjoyment of the music.
For pets, the piano should be declared a taboo zone.
Finally, a tip: lavender or anti-moth paper (available at the chemists) placed within the cabinet will repel the piano's worst enemy.
It is important to sit on a suitable stool when playing the piano. An adjustable stool, which guarantees the correct seating position, can be recommended
We hope you have lots of fun playing your piano.
The PIANO PALME team