Pianos age the way houses or people do. When they are 60 or 80 years old, they always need a great deal of work, the cost of which will exceed the price of many new or newer entry level pianos: if a piano is going to be enjoyed inexpensively, then a newer instrument is a better candidate.
Most people buying old pianos focus primarily on the sound, forgetting all about the complex mechanical system controlled by the eighty-eight keys. This mechanism wears out and replacement components are expensive. The older the piano, the more probable it is that the machine is very worn, resulting in “touch” that is noisy and very inconsistent.
Any piano buying decision is a blend of three components:
- a good long-term musical instrument
- a piece of furniture you like or can accept
- an amount of money you are comfortable with spending
You may give up some of one component to get more of another, but remember a piano is something you must live with for a long time; it is important to be comfortable with it musically, financially, and cosmetically.
Most people pay too much for old pianos; the as-is value of old pianos is actually quite low. Unfortunately however, a naive buyer may see new vertical pianos for $5,000 and think an old one for $900 is a bargain. In reality they will probably pay $600 too much, particularly if it requires thousands of dollars worth of work.
Do not think that pianos age like violins and guitars. Unlike violins and guitars, the strings in a piano create literally tons of stress which eventually takes its toll on soundboards, bridges, and pin-blocks, aging a piano far more quickly than other strung instruments. Moreover, there is nothing between your fingers and the strings of a violin or guitar, but when you play a piano, you express yourself through a very complicated machine which, like any machine, wears out as it is used.
Many parents think any old piano will do for their children starting out. If these parents knew as much about pianos as they do bicycles, they would realize that their children were about to ride a bike with flat tires, a bent frame, and twisted wheels.
If you find an older piano, which is in fact in good condition for its age, bear in mind that even if you have been very lucky and found an instrument in excellent condition, it would cost at least $400-$700 to put it in a similar condition to one you’ll find at a reputable dealer or a piano technician’s collection. Unfortunately, most older pianos require far more expensive repair.
There have been great, mediocre and terrible pianos manufactured in the last 100 years. Age is not a reliable indicator of quality. The best pianos ever built are built today. Virtually all concert halls, recording studios and broadcast facilities either have late model pianos or are working to acquire new ones. All of the technologies involved in building a piano, especially wood curing and processing and metallurgy, have improved over the past 100 years. There are some fine older instruments, but they are not better than the best pianos built today.
Pianos are 85 percent wood, and therefore are subject to the effects of moisture over time. In the dry climates they shrink, in the humid climates they mold and rust, and in the Midwest, they shrink in the winter and swell in the summer, potentially causing cracking and warping.
However, there are many cases where a good used piano is better than a lesser grade new piano. The critical elements to check are:
- the Soundboard
- the Pinplank
- the Plate
- the Action
- the Hammers