Purchasing and Caring For a Piano
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
and Nancy Ostromencki
piano is a major investment, just like a car. You should approach your purchase of a piano with at least as much care as you would in buying a car. Here we offer some general tips and information about buying, refurbishing and maintaining both new and used pianos and digital keyboards. A little time spent before the purchase and some basic maintenance afterward will pay dividends in great sound and an increase in the value of your instrument over time. If you're planning to move your piano, you'll find information on that topic on this page, as well.
We get many requests for recommendations of "starter pianos," especially around the holidays. While we can't tell anyone specifically what piano to buy or how much they should pay for it, there are some tips we can give which should help you be a more knowledgeable piano buyer.
The first bit of advice I always give is to seek the opinion of a competent piano technician, perhaps one belonging to the Piano Technicians Guild, regarding piano prices and availability--rather than a salesman. Look for a "registered piano technician" or RPT in the phone listings. A great many new pianos sold won't be reliable even for a beginner. You can also find cheap used pianos in the want-ads that, more often than not, turn into major disasters with rusty strings, cracked pin blocks, or other, often expensive, problems. If you're interested in such a used piano, remember that the true cost of the piano is the purchase price, plus whatever it costs to bring the piano up to at least a playable condition. It will really be worth the money to hire a professional to look first at whatever you might be considering, because buying a piano is a major investment and as hazardous as playing the stock market, unless you're an expert.
My second suggestion is to get a good consumer's guide. By far the best is "The
Piano Book", by Larry Fine. Visit the website
for information and samples. It's available on Amazon as well.
Other than that, it is simply not possible to suggest a specific make or model in a certain price range. Prices vary widely depending on individual circumstances and area. We strongly advise avoiding a spinet, though, because of the indirect or 'drop' action design. Try for at least a console (42" or higher). If you're considering a grand, avoid a "baby grand" (less than 5' 7"), which may have shorter strings and less soundboard area than a good upright.
For more tips on buying pianos of all types, see just below.
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A new piano can cost anywhere from $2000 for an inexpensive starter upright to over $80,000 for a Steinway concert grand. Thus, a piano purchase constitutes a major investment and should be done with care and as much preparation as you can do. Unfortunately, just as in car showrooms, many salesmen in piano showrooms are not knowledgeable and will sometimes try to steer you in the direction that leads to the largest commission for them. Your best defense in this situation is preparation and knowledge. It may well be worth your money to pay a piano technician to go with you to the showroom to help you evaluate the choices and prices. Investigate carefully the seller's warranty and ability to back the warranty locally. Check if you can "trade-up" a starter piano for full credit later on a better piano. Find out if you can return the piano to the seller for a full refund if you find the piano doesn't work for your needs after you get it home. Consider both the space you have available and the acoustics of the room you plan to place the piano in. A bright-sounding piano might be great for a heavily carpeted and curtained room, but sound terrible in an acoustically brighter room. An excellent and relatively inexpensive book that the new or used piano buyer should consult is Larry Fine's The Piano Book.
Grand Pianos: It's worth the extra time and effort to seek a grand piano made prior to World War II, and, if it has not been reconditioned/rebuilt, have this done. Brand names to look for: Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, Baldwin, Chickering. A good place to start looking for the older pianos is by contacting reputable dealers in pianos and making your desires known or consistently looking in the newspapers for these pianos. Also, estate sales can be a good source of piano treasures. A rebuilt classic piano is generally substantially cheaper than a new piano and, if properly rebuilt, may well be a better instrument than many new pianos. Rebuilt pianos of name manufacturers like those above have been increasing in value at as much as 50% per year recently, so they represent a good financial, as well as musical, investment.
Smaller pianos: Brand names we would recommend include the above mentioned pianos as well as Walters, Sohmer, Boston. We do not recommend grand pianos from the last three manufacturers. When purchasing any used piano, it is well worth your while before making any final purchase to get a technician to look at the piano, especially the guts of the instrument: the pinblock, sound board, strings, felts, pedals, etc. A piano that might look like a dream might need some major work done. If you are looking to play it immediately, then you might need to keep looking for a piano in better shape.
Determining the Age and Value of a Used Piano: To do both of these, you'll need the manufacturer's name and the serial number of the piano. The manufacturer's name is usually readily visible on the outside of the piano just below the keyboard. If not visible there, it can usually be found decaled on the sound board and, often, on the underside of a grand and on the back side of an upright. The serial number on an upright piano can usually be found engraved on the metal plate inside the piano and/or engraved on the pinblock. On grand pianos, the serial number is normally engraved into the portion of the plate nearest the keyboard, on the pinblock, and/or on the front part of the keyframe, though you will probably have to remove the keyslip to access this last location. Once you've found the manufacturer and serial number, you can find out the date of manufacture from references like the Pierce Piano Atlas, The Piano Book, or online at How Old Is My Piano? Piano World.
We cannot, and will not, tell you the value of a used piano, because many factors (manufacturer, date of manufacture, condition, location, method of sale, availability of qualified buyers, etc.) go into a realistic estimate of a piano's value in a given local market. Your best bet for determining the likely value of a used piano is to hire a qualified piano technician (i.e., a member of the Piano Technicians Guild) to appraise the piano for you, taking into account your local market. The books indicated above also provide useful information on valuing a piano. Your money will be well-spent in acquiring either or both of these books, if you're planning to buy a used piano in the near future.
To capture as much of the acoustical piano feel as possible, we suggest, in the ideal situation, a digital keyboard with the full 88 touch-sensitive keys and at least the damper pedal. Expect to pay $1000 or more for a keyboard of this type. Such a keyboard could reasonably be expected to satisfy your needs for the first year of lessons. Keep in mind that you can get an inexpensive starter acoustic piano for about $2000, so your decision to purchase an expensive digital piano or keyboard should be based more on its ability to be interfaced to a computer for learning and composing than the money you might save in the short term. In the long run, you will find that a digital keyboard is an adjunct to, rather than a substitute for, an acoustic piano.
For those considering a keyboard or synthesizer for MIDI recording on a computer, we can offer no better advice than that of Robert Finley, one of our Artist/Educator Interviewees and one of the world's finest authors of MIDI sequences for the piano. His interview has great tips on MIDI equipment and on getting started recording MIDI sequences. You can also read an excellent tutorial on writing MIDI sequences, also by Mr. Finley, on another part of The Piano Education Page.
If you're not sure of your or your children's level of interest in learning to play, or you want to try piano training software on your computer, or you simply don't want to spend a lot of money, a smaller, more inexpensive keyboard can suffice for a few months. These keyboards can be purchased for under $200. Typically, they will have 4 or 5 octaves (about half a full keyboard) and may or may not be touch sensitive. Some will have a rudimentary damper pedal. If you're considering this kind of keyboard, make sure that it is "MIDI compatible" and that it has MIDI in and MIDI out ports on the back, or alternatively, a single port for connection to the MIDI port of your sound card.
There are several hardware/software combinations available which provide such a simple keyboard, along with piano training software. These "all-in-one" solutions list for around $200-$250 and are readily available at several discount and computer stores, online computer software stores, etc. If you're a garage sale aficionado or you're willing to spend time reading the classified ads, you can often pick up these kinds of systems or keyboards for next to nothing. If you buy a keyboard used, make sure the keyboard works and that you get all the accompanying software and manuals, since the software disks may have proprietary MIDI drivers needed to get the keyboard to work properly with your computer. If the seller doesn't have the disks and/or manual, the keyboard may still work under Windows using Windows' native MIDI drivers, but you're taking a chance and should pay less. Most inexpensive keyboards provide the necessary cables for connection to your computer. Be sure to get them when you buy the keyboard. The cables can cost $30-$50 if you have to buy them separately. Although inexpensive keyboards and keyboard/software combinations have considerable limitations vis a vis larger keyboards, not to mention an acoustic piano, we have found that they work well with virtually all music software, so long as they are MIDI-compatible.
The pros and cons of using a digital keyboard or digital piano as a substitute for an acoustic piano in taking piano lessons are discussed in more detail in our article, Before You Start Lessons. A special, longer article for teachers, Digital Keyboards in Teaching and Learning, also covers this topic from the standpoint of the piano teacher. Finally, a long article for both teachers and students, Keyboards, Digital Pianos and Piano Lessons, discusses the advantages and trade-offs in using a digital piano vs. an acoustic piano for lessons.
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It is very foolish to be penny pinching your piano investment, even if it is a starter piano. A piano properly maintained and cared for will never decrease in value, it will maintain or increase its value. This is why some investors will purchase the better brand name pianos, perhaps loan them out to concert artists or concert halls, etc., keep them maintained and played enough to keep the parts working well, and have a pleasant profit made should they desire to sell the instrument in the future. Do not try to do repairs to a piano yourself; we have seen many pianos where Dad decided to save some money and fix the piano, only to create a bigger problem later on.
These three terms are used to describe various levels of restoration work on a piano. While there are no precise definitions of these terms and any given job may involve elements of all three, these are terms you need to know, especially if you intend to buy a used piano. Repairing a piano usually connotes fixing just isolated parts such as a broken string. It does not involve a general upgrade of the condition of the piano. Reconditioning a piano is generally understood to mean a general upgrade of the condition of the piano, but with as little actual replacement of parts as possible consistent with putting it in good working order. Rebuilding is, ideally, the highest level of restoration performed on a piano.
The purpose of a rebuild is to restore a quality older instrument (e.g. a Steinway or a Mason & Hamlin) to at or near factory condition. It can cost $10,000-$20,000 to do a complete rebuild of a piano depending on how thorough a job is done, thus explaining why it is usually only done to top-of-the-line older pianos. In a thorough rebuild, virtually all the working parts in the piano are replaced with new ones. In older Steinways, for example, even the soundboard is often replaced. Given the expense of a rebuild, you are highly advised to consult one (or more) registered piano technicians (not a "tuner!") regarding whether a piano is a good candidate for a rebuild, exactly what should be done, and who should do it. The rebuilder should be an individual or company with a proven track record of long experience in rebuilding fine instruments. Ask for references from the rebuilder and/or a list of recent customers in your area that you can give a call or go see the restored piano. In general, if you intend to buy a used piano or to rebuild one you should get a detailed, itemized list of any work that has been or will be done. A complete rebuild will involve, among other things, restringing the piano, replacing the pinblock, refelting the entire piano, replacing the hammers, and, possibly, repairing or replacing the soundboard. The piano is then regulated and tuned. A fine instrument rebuilt by an experienced rebuilder can equal or exceed the quality of a new instrument at considerably lower price, but it's worth your while to investigate thoroughly and get expert advice before you undertake the expense of the job.
It is a worthwhile investment to have your piano tuned twice a year by a technician/tuner. Good times to tune it are in fall, after the heat has been on for about one month and again in summer, after the air conditioning has been on for about one month. Using a technician/tuner means that not only can the person tune the piano, they can also fix any major or minor problems with the working parts of the piano. A technician/tuner is much like a mechanic vs. a person who just pumps the gas and takes the money at the cashier's booth. A good technician/tuner will give you a written estimate of any additional work that needs to be done on your piano before they do the work, and often, if the work needed is quite extensive, can do the work over a period of time. If you would like to learn more about how a piano is tuned, take a look at our article, Piano Tuning - How It Is Done and Who Should Do It.
Most pianos need regulation every 5-10 years, depending on the amount of use. You should also strongly consider having any used piano you buy regulated. The process of regulation is an extensive, time-consuming one of leveling the keyboard, filing the hammers, adjusting the travel and depression weight, and more. Following regulation, the piano is thoroughly retuned. Only a qualified technician should perform the regulation. Expect to pay anywhere from $1000-3000 for thorough regulation.
Generally, you want to locate the piano in a place which minimizes variations in temperature, humidity and lighting experienced by the piano. Do not place your piano against an outside wall. If however, that is the only space available, make sure there is at least 1 to 2 feet from the wall to the piano. Also, never let direct sunlight fall on the piano; keep all sunlight filtered or totally away from the piano. Exposure to direct sunlight can destroy the finish of the piano over time, and the heat from the sun can cause drastic changes in the soundboard, and pinblock, causing cracks and major problems. If you live at high altitude (over 5000 ft.), you must take special care with sunlight exposure, since the increased amount of UV in sunlight at high altitudes can be especially damaging.
It is a good idea to keep the humidity level at least at 40% year round. Too little or too much humidity can also cause cracks in the soundboard, pinblock, and do damage to the glues and felts on the piano. Use a humidifier or dehumidifier to maintain the humidity level at 40-50% relative humidity.
Most pianos made in the U.S. come with the traditional matte black (i.e. non-shiny) lacquer finish. However, modern polymer science has provided us with tougher, more stain resistant polymer finishes like various polyester-polyurethanes and polyurethanes. "Polymer" finishes (usually polyurethanes or polyester-polyurethanes) are particularly prevalent on pianos imported from Europe or Asia. These exhibit a hard, usually shiny finish which is virtually impervious to water and most stains, though they can be damaged with solvents like alcohols.
On a lacquer finish, we suggest using a liquid cleaner such as Old English Furniture Polish with Lemon Oil. It is a liquid furniture polish that you have to put on the piano and then rub into the finish. The result is worth every ounce and every bit of elbow grease. The moisturizer in the polish is great for maintaining the balance in the external wood. Do not use cheap spray waxes on your piano. Although it looks beautiful, do not place plants, flowers or any drinks on the piano unless you have a lot of towels, or other emergency equipment available in case water should spill on or into the piano. The finish on a piano can be ruined if water is spilled on it or condensed onto it from a cold drink; the soundboard and strings can be permanently damaged if beverages are spilled on them. If you need to clean the surface of the keys, use only a damp cloth and gently wipe the grime off the keys. Always make sure the fingers are clean when you play any piano. Do not touch the strings, felts or any internal parts of the piano with your hands; the oils from your fingers can leave a residue on these parts and can cause extensive damage. For more extensive information on cleaning and disinfecting the keys of a piano, see our article, Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio.
Polymer finishes need not be waxed or polished. Indeed, unless they become particularly dirty or fingerprinted, about the only care necessary is to wipe accumulated dust from them regularly. Microfiber cloths are well-suited for this, though any clean, soft cloth that you might use for dusting fine furniture will work. Should you need to clean a polymer finish, a very dilute solution of a mild detergent in clean water will work fine. As you clean an area of the finish with detergent solution, immediately wipe away moisture and detergent residues with a dry, clean soft cloth to prevent streaks, much as you might if you wash windows. Be particularly careful not to get water into the interior of the piano and anywhere between the keys. If you should do so and the water is accessible, wipe it away immediately. If the water is small in amount and not readily accessible, usually the best thing to do is to simply let it evaporate, rather than risk mechanical damage to the piano.
You should keep all strong chemicals and cleaners away from your piano. Bleach of any variety can damage the finish and the wood parts of the piano. Solvents like alcohols (and liquor!) and paint thinners can damage the finish and the key covers. Even some disinfectants like Purell and Lysol (in some formulations) are mostly alcohol or phenols and should be used well away from the piano.
Virtually all the major piano manufacturers offer cleaning and care instructions on their web sites. If you own a new or recent used piano (less than 10 years old), be sure to check those sites for additional information about the care of your piano.
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Because a piano represents such a large investment and is so unwieldy, it is unwise to try to move a piano yourself, for both health and financial reasons. Even if you have lots of help and some equipment to assist, all it takes is poor preparation or one small drop of the piano and you will be stuck with a large bill for refurbishing the piano. You are far better off to use piano moving professionals to prepare the piano for the move, load it, transport it and set it up at the new site. In this context, "piano moving professionals" may not necessarily include "professional movers." Some professional movers can and have handled pianos successfully, but you may be taking a greater chance using your regular mover to move the piano. If you plan to use your regular mover, speak in detail to them about the transport of the piano to satisfy yourself that they can do it safely.
Typically, any piano dealer in your area can recommend a good piano mover for local moves, based on their own experiences. Make sure the mover has insurance to cover damage to the piano, should it occur. Ask the mover for some references of people whose pianos they have moved. The cost of a local piano move varies widely over the country from about $50 to around $200, but it is cheap compared to the cost of a good piano.
If you're moving out of town, you may want to consider professional cross country piano movers, rather than the movers who move the rest of your household goods, for the job of transporting the piano from your town to the new one. One of the best and most experienced interstate piano transporters is Keyboard Carriage, Inc. (PO Box 625, Elizabethtown, KY 42702-0625. Tel: (502) 737-5797). Keyboard Carriage is widely used by dealers and manufacturers of pianos, so they have considerable experience moving pianos. Keyboard Carriage won't come to your home to pick up the piano or deliver it to the site at the other end, but they will move it from a piano dealer in your town to one in the new town. Most piano dealers are happy to handle a piano for you in this way if you make arrangements in advance. Then, you just arrange for a local mover to get the piano to the dealer site and have it picked up there by Keyboard Carriage. Have a local piano mover in the new town move it from the dealer there to your new home. This process is a little more complicated than an in-town move, but will help assure that your piano will arrive in the best possible condition. The cost of an interstate move varies with distance, but you should be able to do it for under $1000 in most cases.
Even with the best of moving professionals, you'll probably need to tune the piano at least, once you've given it a few weeks to adjust to the indoor climate at the new location. Better yet, have a registered piano technician give it a thorough checkup. Once that is done, you and your piano will be ready to make music again.
Excellent additional advice and information about the "care and feeding" of pianos can be found at:
You will probably find that these resources will not tell you what piano to buy, but will help you learn what questions to ask and what issues to think about.