What to look for in a cheap used piano?
March 9, 2006 9:14 AM   Subscribe

I've got about $500 to spend on buying, moving, and tuning an upright piano for my home. What should I be looking for?

I see a ton of cheap or free instruments each week on Craigslist (PDX), but we have a new baby (yes, she's grand) so I really don't want to waste time driving around to look at junk. I'm interested in the smaller uprights (spinet, console, or studio) due to space restrictions. Any advice on brands, years, features, etc.? Should I spend extra for a tuned instrument, or try to get the cheapest one possible assuming I'll have to tune it anyway?
posted by danblaker to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The physical move is gonna throw it outta tune. Bank on that.
posted by notsnot at 9:25 AM on March 9, 2006

Best answer: One of the laws of economics is that upright pianos, unless they are especially choice instruments, experience just about 100% depreciation the day you move them into your house. This is because the demand for them is fairly low, there are a lot of them around, and they are a bitch to move. When I wanted one, I found one at an estate sale, paid $100 to buy it, $200 to move it, and [I forget] to tune it, and a lot of elbow grease to clean off the prior owner's incredible tobacco stains. The result was very satisfactory. It was a Baldwin Acrosonic.
Don't worry whether it's tuned, but do make sure all the actions and strings work. And you don't want to have to restore the finish or anything. An instrument up to 20 or 30 years old should be fine. I'll leave brand recommendations to others. But I bet you can get a Steinway installed and tuned within your budget.
posted by beagle at 9:28 AM on March 9, 2006

I was looking at a small-format piano (1930s) and was warned that most piano-tuners don't like to work on those as they are built differently from standard-sized ones. So it might cost you a lot to get it tuned, and as notsnot says, the move will almost certainly throw it out of tune if it isn't already.

beagle - I bet he can't...
posted by altolinguistic at 9:32 AM on March 9, 2006

Pay attention to the bridge: if it's cracked (as happened to one of my father's pianos), the pegs will be shifted out of place and the piano won't be able to stay in tune.

Smaller uprights are more recent than the full-sized cabinet grands -- I believe they were an innovation of the 1940s or thereabouts, unless I'm mistaken -- so will be more recent by definition.

I agree that moving it will likely be a substantial portion of the cost. Not necessarily more, unless you get a really good bargain on the piano itself. I'm not sure how much tuning will cost; last time I saw a family piano being tuned, it ran around $80 or so (again, unless I'm mistaken), and that's a twice annual expenditure.

If you had more money for this, I might have pointed you at a new digital piano instead: lighter (easier to ship); never requires tuning; better key action than on an upright. (Or so the salesmen tell me.)

I can't suggest brands; all the brands I'm aware of are either Canadian and defunct (great for used, but the wrong region) or newer (so less likely to find used) and Asian (avoid Young Chang as a make, incidentally).
posted by mcwetboy at 9:35 AM on March 9, 2006

beagle - I bet he can't...
You're on. If I could get a Baldwin, he can get a Steinway.
posted by beagle at 9:36 AM on March 9, 2006

Best answer: I suggest making sure it's tunable before you get it. Poorly maintained pianos often have significant damage (warped soundboards, etc) that makes them useless for anything other than decorative purposes.

As far as brands go, off the top of my head I'd consider Steinway, Bosendorfer, Mason & Hamlin, Yamaha, Boston (Steinway's budget line), Baldwin and Kimball. (in roughly that order of preference)

I doubt you're going to get anything better than a Baldwin in your price range (unless the instrument is musically useless), but you might get lucky and get a Yamaha.
posted by I Love Tacos at 9:42 AM on March 9, 2006

In my experience, too, "more money" is a good first step.

I got a decent used piano for $300, paid $300 to move it, and since it was so out of tune had get a pitch-raise and THEN a tuning ($100 each). Oh, and it was missing a string (which I knew about when I bought it), so that had to be replaced. Of course, I do live in a pricier part of the country (Boston)...

You're definitely going to have to get it tuned when you move it, but if it's already in good tune then you can avoid the time and money of the pitch-raise (I had to wait for some number of weeks before the regular tuning, which was quite annoying).

You might want to find out how many previous owners it's had; fewer probably means it's in better shape.

Also, although the sound and feel are most important, it IS a piece of furniture as well, so think about how it will look with whatever else is in the room.

The brand I have is a Conn. I'd never heard of this brand beforehand, but it's just fine.
posted by tentacle at 9:44 AM on March 9, 2006

Best answer: 50-52" uprights are more desirable than the 42-48" spinets in terms of value. If you can find a good deal on a Kawai or Steinway, some models (can't remember which ones) use full-length bass strings which will give you a fuller sound out of the board than on some more value-priced models.

Key action on Steinways and Kawais also holds up very well over the years - the hammers very rarely need to be reworked (the felt can compress over the years) and they're solid investments. You might pay a little more, though.

Other brands you might consider - Yamaha (very good buy) Young Chang, Bosendorfer, some Kimballs, (I'm not a fan of Baldwins, but many people are) and Chickering.

Tuning will be entirely up to you. It may be that you're happy with the way a certain piano sounds slightly out of tune. Other people can't stand it. I don't mind so much, as the nuances often give the piano a unique sound and feel.
posted by TeamBilly at 9:44 AM on March 9, 2006

Oh and my money also says that he can't get a musically useful Steinway delivered for $500.

I'm willing to bet a dozen tacos.
posted by I Love Tacos at 9:45 AM on March 9, 2006

Should have previewed...

The environment it is stored in will be a giveaway. If it's humid, your chances of a warped soundboard are higher. A lot of pianos have built-in dehumidifers. This should be a factor. Look for rotting wood.

And I agree with altolinguistic - you're not gonna find a Steinway for the money you outlined. If you do, call me. :-)

McWetboy - Young Chang bought out Kurzweil a while back and continued to make their digital pianos/keyboards. I'm admittedly less familiar with their acoustic pianos (but I've played a couple and did like them) but the digital ones they make sound great to me.

Looking at this weeks Guitar Center ad, they've got a decent digital Casio model for $699 - if you like the key action on it, you might go that route.

And since digitals were recommended, (and they're not a bad option for you based on the other factors you listed) you oughta take a look at Yamaha (again), Kurzweil and Roland.
posted by TeamBilly at 9:51 AM on March 9, 2006

call the local universities and ask if they're selling any of their practice room pianos. chances are they've been well-maintained and were good quality to begin with. some time ago, my roommate got a great deal on a kawai that way.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:55 AM on March 9, 2006

I got an upright piano from a primary school for £200 - the finish was absolutely knackered from years of abuse (and we had to fish about a dozen pencils out of the bottom) but it sounded great. We moved it ourselves (Manchester to Edinburgh in a hire van! and then up three flights of stairs!) and got it tuned for about £40.

So, I second the idea of checking out schools, universities, etc, you can pick up a bargain but the finish will probably not be in top condition. Whatever you get will definitely need retuning after the move so I wouldn't worry about buying one that's perfectly in tune.

You might (if you're going to be playing with other instruments) want to check that it's somewhere near concert pitch though (use a tuning fork, pitch pipes, guitar tuner etc) as it's much more expensive to alter the pitch than to just get it in tune.
posted by primer_dimer at 10:46 AM on March 9, 2006

I'm gonna take a different tack: take your new baby with you and the money (and more) and go buy a new piano.

I did the same thing when my first daughter was born and I remember clearly trying out pianos with her in a backpack. I had an enormous upright grand that I'd paid $50 for and moved twice, but it was a horrible instrument. We went out and bought a new, Baldwin studio upright and took a few years to pay it off. Then about 10 years after that, we traded it in for 3 times it's initial value towards a really nice baby grand.

I think it's important for children to hear and learn on good instruments. And a good quality instrument can be an investment for a lifetime.
posted by cptnrandy at 10:52 AM on March 9, 2006

We decided to buy a new Roland digital after looking at all our options, including moving and tuning a used upright that is at my mother's house. More than one teacher told us not to bother with the used one, since it was unlikely to stay in tune. The store/studio where our kids take lessons has a rental program for the Rolands and we are going to buy it outright this spring. It is considerably more than 500, but considerably less than what we would pay for a Steinway grand, which is what is sampled on the Roland.
posted by Biblio at 12:02 PM on March 9, 2006

Response by poster: Great answers, all. The money was earmarked for a piano by my mother, and I have plenty of time to find the right instrument. She originally planned to give me her spinet and pay for moving (150 mi.) and tuning, but I figured I could find something locally for the same cost. I had considered throwing in some more cash and buying a new piano, but as beagle notes, uprights are easy to come by and hard to get rid of. Alas, we don't have room for anything bigger.

Aside from Steinway and Baldwin, I didn't know anything about the quality of the brands mentioned above by I Love Tacos and TeamBilly. Ideally, I'll find a motivated seller with the same lack of knowledge and take home a quality instrument with enough cash left over for the move and the tune-up.

As for the digital option, I'm not really into the look of digital pianos no matter how great they are. Nice old pianos are a pleasure to behold, and can be mic'ed in more interesting ways.

I'll be sure to come back and let y'all know what I find – I don't want all those tacos to go to waste.
posted by danblaker at 12:43 PM on March 9, 2006

Depending on your living arrangements and the number of burly friends you have you can rent a "piano dolly" to help with the moving. Its a two-part system with handles that fold out, wheels that drop down (up: moving mode, down: rolling mode) and straps to keep the system together.

Its a bit burly work, but who can resist saying they've moved a piano. Chances are pretty good if you've moved in a refrigerator or two you should be able to move a piano as well.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:56 PM on March 9, 2006

My sister just moved from Clackamas area to Newberg. I believe she sold her upright piano before the move. I'll double check though. I know she had it tuned, but I don't believe she ever had time to learn to use it.

I know she got it on the cheap. I'll see if I can find out later tonight where she got it and for how much around the PDX area. I'd just email, but the info might be useful to other future browsers of this question. So I'll post here when I find out.
posted by Phynix at 5:35 PM on March 9, 2006

Bah. She told me that she got it from a friend, and just suggested the usual Craigslist and maybe freecycle, or a new piano store that might have an old trade in they want to get rid of.

She did suggest that you pay for a tuner to look at the piano before you buy it. She didn't sell hers, but it's falling apart and rather useless. When she got it tuned, this is what the tuner suggested she should have done after he told her it's basically a sem-functional piece of junk. ;)
posted by Phynix at 6:07 PM on March 9, 2006

It never hurts to post a request on your local freecycle. There may be someone with a piano they don't need. My downstairs neighbors have a piano left behind by the previous tenants, who didn't want the hassle of moving it.
posted by theora55 at 8:00 PM on March 9, 2006

Response by poster: My piano search has come to a spectacular conclusion.

The first thing I did after this post was to head to the Multnomah Public Library to check out Larry Fine's Piano Book. In addition to valuable info about how to determine a piano's condition, it also includes a list of high-quality piano makers from the pre-Depression heyday of upright piano production. That list is reproduced in PianoWorld's "What's My Piano Worth" guide. The Piano Book also contains a much shorter list of high-quality "modern" pianos – pretty much the same pianos listed by I Love Tacos and TeamBilly. After reading the book, I visited a couple local piano showrooms to try out their used pianos and get a sense of what qualities the expensive models shared.

I started looking at Craigslist a couple times a week, with a few promising leads each week. Each time I contacted a seller, I asked for three pieces of data if it wasn't already in the listing: manufacturer, serial number, and a picture. I was usually able to get two of the three, which made it easier to determine if the piano was worth the trip to check out.

I ended up taking 8 or 9 trips. I was lucky to have a piano instructor friend who gladly accompanied me on my inspection visits; but after reading The Piano Book and trying out showroom models, it was pretty easy to judge the quality myself. Ultimately, none of the visits proved fruitful. One 1914 Kimball, offered for $150, was in amazing condition inside and out – but was missing the lower front panel that covers the soundboard. I was tempted, but my fatherly instincts won out (visions of my daughter's fingers stuck in piano strings...) There were other near-misses: a 60's Yamaha studio upright for $300 whose owner never emailed me back; a 1925 Chickering that had splotches of white paint on the finish... My wife was getting impatient with the project, and I was starting to lose my motivation.

Then three weeks ago, I finally found the perfect instrument: a Bush & Lane upright for $400. The photos showed a beautiful piano in great condition, and the serial number identified it as a 1920-21 model. Posters on the Piano Technicians Guild forum have called Bush & Lane pianos "instruments of the highest quality" and "the single best upright piano ever built". I quickly made an appointment to view the piano the coming weekend – I was the first respondent, so I had dibs!

The same week, I got a call from my mother-in-law saying she had located the old family piano, in Seattle. Her sister (who passed away three years ago) had lent it to a co-worker; but the note offering the piano's return was buried in a stack of miscellaneous condolences, and my ma-in-law hadn't given it any thought till now.

This was a bemusing development in my piano search. On one hand, I had finally found the perfect instrument to buy. On the other, my wife's family's piano (which had been played by her great-aunt Dorothy, our daughter's namesake) had mysteriously appeared; and it offered a great connection to the spirits of her foremothers. Yet, I suspected it was an inferior instrument to the gorgeous Bush & Lane.

What could I do? I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I didn't want to bring a mediocre instrument into the home. Crossing my fingers, I called the woman who had grandma-in-law's piano. She was effusive about both the piano and my wife's late aunt. It was a marvelous piano, she said, and her daughter had taken lessons on it for years before switching to voice and drama. (So far, so good.) And the brand? "Victor of Chicago".

If you happened to click through to the Piano Technician's Guild above, you already know the good news: Victor was the original name of the Bush & Lane Piano Company. A serial number lookup soon revealed the extent of the serendipity – this Victor piano was manufactured in 1921. I'm generally a skeptical person, but this was starting to seem like kismet.

As for the other Bush & Lane, I couldn't just let it go to some stranger. So I convinced our good friends (also new parents of a 4-month-old) to come look at it with me. We showed up, we inspected it, we played a tune or two, and it was indeed a great upright piano. My friend wrote a check to the man for $300. Now our children will have matching pianos.

Our Bush & Lane piano arrived last Saturday. The final cost for our new piano was $445 before tuning:
  • $130 to rent a one-way Budget moving truck (cheaper than U-Haul, and we got it for two days)
  • $40 for gas
  • $150 for Seattle piano movers
  • $125 for Portland piano movers.
Plus we got a visit from my wife's folks, who were thrilled to witness the family piano moving into a new home.

Even more thrilling was what happened next:

About an hour after the movers left, my neighbor knocked on our door. Turns out her boyfriend is a huge fan of classical piano music. Turns out he had spent the morning held up at the Canada/US border, delaying his drive from Vancouver to SF with a Polish piano virtuoso he had sponsored in her studies. The pianist, Kasha, was due to give a performance in SF the next evening, and they planned to drive all day Saturday. But after their border delay, their schedule was all off – so they stopped in Portland for lunch. And after lunch, they stopped at our house. My neighbor had convinced Kasha to give an impromptu recital in our living room.

The next 20 minutes were magical. The piano was a bit out of tune of course, but it didn't matter a bit. It was phenomenal. Kasha's playing was dramatic and sensitive, and that old piano shook with energy. My wife was overcome with tears – she later explained that during the performance she could smell the scent of her grandma's house coming from the piano. In fact, we were all teary-eyed and beaming. I have goosebumps writing about it now.

Kasha later remarked to my neighbor in broken English that she felt she was fated to play our piano that afternoon. Indeed, it seems that something powerful has brought this piano into our lives. I've been sitting at the piano with my daughter for a few minutes each day, and she plays it tenderly – no banging and surprisingly little dissonance.

Thanks for the tips, Mefi! We certainly got more than we were looking for in a cheap piano.
posted by danblaker at 10:43 AM on June 8, 2006 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: P.S. I never once saw a Steinway for less than $500, or even less than $1000. beagle, you might owe somebody some tacos.
posted by danblaker at 11:08 AM on June 8, 2006

Nice story! If anyone can find someone prepared to ship tacos to England, or pay my plane fare to the US, I will gladly eat my share.
posted by altolinguistic at 2:05 PM on June 8, 2006

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