How does the instrument look?
How will it look in your home with your furniture? Will its size allow it to be moved into your home? (Consider any corners, stairs, wall space.) Does the piano have any missing hardware or veneer, or is the veneer lifting? If you don’t like the looks, you might as well stop looking at it at this point. Any piano can be refinished and/or restyled; however this can be very expensive ($2000 to $5000). Also ask if there is a bench (if one is not in sight).
Play the piano.
Play in all registers, both loud and soft, fast and slow, with pedals and without. Does everything work? Is the instrument up to pitch and in tune? Does the tone sound even in all registers? Do the keys repeat quickly? Do some keys travel deeper than others, or are there some keys that start out lower or higher than others when at rest? Do the notes stop ringing when you release the keys and pedal, or do some continue to ring on and on? Do you hear any sounds (like clicking, squeaks, buzzing or rattles) when you play? Do the pedals work smoothly and firmly? (If you do not play the piano, take along someone who does.)
Open the piano.
If there is anything on the instrument other than music, ask the owner to remove it. You are better off to have them risk breaking knickknacks, pictures, lamps, etc. It is usually fairly clear how to raise the lid of the piano, but first check to be sure that hinge pins are there, and that the hinges are solid so that you do not risk dropping or damaging the lid. Be careful that the lid does not hit a wall. Prop the lid open and slide the music desk out (on a grand) or remove the front board (on a vertical). You will see whether the front is held in place with screws or clips. Also remove the bottom board (usually held in place with a spring clip) to examine the bottom portion of the strings, soundboard and bridges. With the case now open, you can note the condition of the strings, tuning pins and action.
Check for the following:
- Cleanliness of the action
- Rust on strings and tuning pins
- Any missing strings, new strings (shinier than the others)
- Any pins that have string coils hammered down to the iron plate
- Missing hammers, worn out hammers (look for deep grooves where hammers strike the strings).
- Hammers that rub against neighbor hammers
- Do you see any large cracks in the soundboard, or are there cracks next to the pins where the strings cross over the bridges?
Name and Serial Number:
Before you close the instrument, copy the piano brand name and serial number. The brand name should be written on the iron plate, or fallboard (check to be sure they are the same) and the serial number (usually a five to eight digit number) should also be found on the iron plate. If not there, look on the back of the instrument. Different manufacturers put the number in different places, but it is usually in an obvious spot. Also note the model number, if possible. With this information, a piano technician should be able to tell the year of manufacture, as well as other pertinent information about the particular instrument.
How will the piano be moved?
Who will be responsible for moving the instrument, and how much will this cost?
If the piano passes these tests, then it is time to have your piano technician examine the instrument. At that time, more technical items can be addressed. I also highly recommend reading The Piano Book, by Larry Fine (Brookside Press), which is a book written for the express purpose of buying and owning a new or used piano. This book is available from GORDON’S PIANO TUNING.
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