Piano Buying 101
May 3, 2014 8:03 PM   Subscribe

I have wanted a baby grand piano in my home for a really long time. The stars have aligned to make this happen. Now I have been tasked with researching how to go about purchasing a piano. Help!

We will use the piano. I played in college and want to get back into and we have two kiddos who if they show any interest at all, I would love for them to literally get their hands on it. So, issues here are brand and sound.

What the questions I should be asking about the piano and the kind of place to put it? Should I be concerned about humidity? Flooring? (seriously).

Also, where can I research the various brands and prices? Is there a Blue Book for pianos?
posted by tafetta, darling! to Shopping (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
When doing a similar search many years ago, I was advised to keep the humidity down (I'm in Florida), to keep it in a room where there is not a lot of temperature variation or direct sun on the piano, and to not let it get above 80 degrees in the room for any extended periods of time. I was not given advice on the lower register of temperatures.

As for which brand to buy and at what price, we spent a lot of time looking at University sales; the commercial, I recall, stated that all pianos available had been loaned to the school for a year and were now for sale. Not sure but I'd start by talking to your alma mater about piano/sales. They might be gearing up for one (they're usually held here around the end of the school year, the advertise on NPR).

We had a choice between a midrange baby grand and a high end upright and in the end we went with the high end upright. More room (otherwise goodbye dining room, really) and it sounds great.
posted by tilde at 8:32 PM on May 3, 2014

Take a look at Larry Fine's The Piano Book. I have a copy at home and I found it reasonably useful; it will almost certainly answer all of your flooring/humidity/placement etc. questions, and many others. If I remember, there's a Blue Book-y supplement with piano values by year, brand, size, etc., though I am not sure what is the piano community consensus on accuracy. You might check the Piano World forums for other resources.

Do you have space limitations? You'll want to figure out your size and budget constraints in advance; these parameters will really drive your purchase. I thought I was going to be in the baby grand range, but then I fell in love with a slightly larger piano (6'1", proper grand size) that was at the upper end of my budget range. They let me take home a paper cutout of the piano's footprint, which I laid in my living room to help visualize whether the piano would, in fact, be too big. (Spoilers: It was not!)

With respect to floors - I have wood floors so I bought a large rug for my piano, seems to work fine. I also have a humidifying (or de-humidifying?) device that plugs into the wall and does some kind of... humid/de-humid thing. (Came with the piano. I keep it plugged in because I trust the folks who recommended that I use it.)

Some other advice...

Do NOT be shy about trying out pianos. This is totally the best part of piano shopping, because then you will get to meet lots of pianos without having to lie when the staff gets uncomfortable because they wonder why you keep hanging out in a piano store like some kind of awkward piano-stalker who wants to touch all of the pianos. I was convinced I was going to end up with a Yamaha, just based on my piano experience and preferences (I grew up with a Yamaha upright and am enough of a fangirl to have taken the Yamaha piano factory tour in Hamamatsu, Japan - totally recommended, btw!) The Yamaha in my size/budget range was the first instrument I tried, and I was a bit underwhelmed. I'm glad I kept looking.

I found the sales staff at piano stores to be generally very friendly and accommodating, and (especially during weekdays when it was slow) they let me try all sorts of pianos that we all knew were out of my price range. The local Steinway dealer let me play a 9' behemoth that was seriously too much piano. Another piano dealer let me play a gorgeous Bluthner which gave me a new target for if I ever win a bazillion dollars. (The used Vogel they showed me was probably my second choice - I was totally unfamiliar with the brand, but the instrument played quite sweetly. At least, I think it was a Vogel. I still have my notes somewhere.)

If you have the time and inclination (and access; i.e. several nearby piano stores) to try lots of different types of pianos, I would recommend it if for no other reason than to help you start figuring out what you like and don't like about pianos. Think about the action. Listen to the tone. Sometimes pianos will blur together, but then sometimes, a piano will really jump out at you. Playing higher quality pianos, even if out of your price range, may help you identify your piano tastes.

If you don't have something memorized, consider bringing some sheet music so that you can play through at least part of a piece on the pianos, and don't feel self-conscious about it. I mean, playing through little scales is fine and all, but if you find a piano you like, it can help to play through something a little more substantive so you have a better idea of what the piano is really like. If you find a piano you like but you're still on the fence, they'll almost certainly let you come back with a bag full of piano music and spend some time auditioning the piano more thoroughly. (I did this with my piano. Well, actually, they told me to bring music with me when I called to make an appointment, so I did. I probably spent 30-45 minutes playing through different styles of pieces on the piano, getting a feel for it and comparing it with two other pianos also under consideration. It was pretty awesome.)

Like buying used cars, it may be useful to hire a technician to inspect the piano if you are buying a used instrument, especially if it's more like a Craigslist situation. (Not sure about university sales.) It can be a big investment, and you don't want to discover that the pretty Steinway you've bought needs extensive repairs to fix issues they didn't tell you about.

Congratulations, good luck, and have fun!
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 9:48 PM on May 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lots of great advice above. Humidity should be low-ish, and temperature should be kept relatively consistent. Though honestly the thing you'll notice most about temp changes is that you'll just have to have it tuned more often. However, lots of temperature or humidity adjustments will cause the wood to swell and shrink, and over time that can stress your instrument.

I would buy used, simply because, like a car, pianos take a hefty depreciation after the first owner. Unlike a car, however, a good piano will stay good for as long as you live and longer.

No two pianos are alike. Not even Steinways (maybe especially Steinways). So truly the most important thing you can do is play the pianos before you buy them. Do treat it like a car. Have a third party tech inspect it, test drive it, get a history.

As a pianist, I tend to favor Steinways and Yamahas, but really it is a personal preference thing.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:57 PM on May 3, 2014

We had a Knabe grand growing up. One thing I remember is that my mom had it tuned twice a year: once a month after the heat went on and a month after it went off.
posted by plinth at 3:48 AM on May 4, 2014

When I moved to my current house (London, UK), the first thing I did was start shopping for a piano. I found this man's site very useful for information about makers and models, as well as the Piano World forums. Ultimately, I ended up with an older refurbished Blüthner, which I love.

Steinway is the brand to which we all aspire, but they are a good deal more expensive than others, especially new. The big European makers are Blüthner, Bösendorfer and Bechstein, recently joined by the violently overpriced Fazioli. Then you get the Eastern makers, of which Yamaha is the best known.

A good second hand piano is a joy forever, but there are a few caveats. The first part of a piano to wear out is the pegboard, where all the little tuning pegs are: the sockets get worn so the pegs don't stay in place and your piano doesn't hold its tuning for as long. So ask the dealer whether the piano has been refurbished, and what parts have been replaced. Look for worn or moth-eaten felt, too: that's a common problem. (If you get clothes moths, find a place to put one of those closet moth killers under the lid).

Do you know which way your floor joists run? Usually it's the opposite way to the floorboards. My house is an old house, and my piano is largeish (6'7") so I got the builders to look at the floor joists and reinforce where needed. They told me it is better to position the piano so it goes across the joists rather than along them, so its weight is spread over more joists. Also, try not to place your piano near a heater, an AC vent or a window with a lot of direct sunlight. Drafts, heat and cold will all affect the wooden parts and the tuning. Humidity is absolutely a thing: 45-65% is ideal for a piano. I recommend getting a hygrometer just for peace of mind.

I have wood floors and no rug, but my piano's wheels are in little rubber cups. It does all right acoustically. When I want to move it, that's a two-person job: one to lift just enough for the other to pull the cup out from under the wheel.

Please, please teach your kids (and guests) respect for the piano. Don't let them put drinks on it: a spill can lead to an expensive repair job. Their hands should be clean when they play. They should remember to close the lid each evening (because dust is annoying).

But above all, enjoy your piano and have fun playing! Best of luck.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:55 AM on May 4, 2014

« Older Career suggestions for burnt-out Architect?   |   Adopted a dog and the original owner shows up -... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.