Pittsburgh Piano Tuning * pghpianotuning@yahoo.com (412) 881-0883

How To Self-Examine a Used Piano * Piano Tips * Interesting Piano Videos

1. How To Self-Examine a Used Piano

I do a lot of work on used pianos and have seen many instances where people bought used pianos on their own which were in bad condition and which required lots of work and follow-on expenses in order to get them functioning properly. This has become even more prevalent in the recent past, as people now have much more access to private sellers through the Internet, especially through pittsburgh.craigslist.org. or https://www.facebook.com/marketplace/. There are many good bargains to be had on used pianos via private sellers, but I have also seen many instances where seemingly good bargains turn into nightmares because the buyers purchase pianos with major issues. Often times, people buy used pianos for their children not thinking that the quality of the piano matters much since the children are just starting to learn how to play. What they don't realize is that children require a piano with very touch sensitive keys and good tone and that purchasing a quality piano will substantially increase a child's success in learning how to play. Regardless of whether the piano is purchased for a child or an adult, purchasing a quality used piano can save you lots of unnecessary expenses and headaches down the road.

So I decided to make the information available in order to show potential used piano buyers how to do a basic self-examination of a used piano prior to buying it. There are lots of used pianos out there and I hope that my website will help you stay away from problematic ones so that you are happy with your used piano purchase. Of course, the safest way to make sure you are getting a good piano is to ask an experienced piano technician to look at it. I can either perform a full on site piano evaluation for you for a reasonable fee or you can give me a call if you have questions and I might be able to answer over the phone, which I would be happy to do free of charge. But if you decide to do a used piano examination on your own, this website should help you.

In order to perform a piano evaluation you need to have the following:
1) Handheld electric lamp and 10-15 ft extension cord because pianos are often located in dark corners with no electrical outlets next to them. A flashlight is not as good as an electric lamp because it only lightens a small focus area and you might miss crucial details in your examination.
2) Small 1/8’ tip and large 5/16’ tip screwdriver for removing outer case parts, if needed.
3) Paper and pencil for taking notes.
4) Tape measure.
Bring all this equipment with you to examine the piano.

Step 1

1) Determine the age of the piano. The older the piano, the more chance there is that there will be some problems and the more careful you need to be in the rest of your examination. Also, although there are exceptions, a general rule of thumb is the older the piano, the less its market value. You can date most pianos with the brand name and the serial number. The serial number is usually stamped on the iron plate (the part that is painted gold) or stamped in the wood showing through a small window in the plate. On some grand pianos, the number is stamped in the soundboard underneath the strings. On upright pianos, you have to lift the top and look above the tuning pins. If you need more details around how to locate the serial number, click here. Once you know the serial number and the brand, go to the Piano Age Locator and type that information in.
2) Determine the piano location in order to estimate moving costs. Is the piano on the ground floor? If not, how many steps are there? Are there any special difficulties moving the piano? When buying a piano, many people do not factor in moving costs and are then surprised as this expense can get larger based on the location of the piano. Also, check to see if the piano is located near a heat register or another heat source or near a window. These locations can cause cracks in the wood portions of the piano so pay closer attention to these portions during the rest of your examination.
3) Look the piano over. Check for loose veneer. If any is found, it will need to be repaired. Also for upright pianos, check for signs of water damage along the bottom edge. This indicates that the piano could have been in a flood in the past, which could in turn cause rustiness on strings and sounding board cracks.
4) Check for structural problems. Make sure the case sides are not coming unglued from the vertical back structure. The front legs of spinets and consoles frequently become loose. Another serious problem is the presence of strange rattles or buzzes. The soundboard, which is the large wooden board you can see from the back of an upright piano or from underneath a grand, has ribs glued on it to strengthen it. Sometimes when the soundboard gets cracks in it, the ribs come unglued from it in places. This can allow the soundboard to rattle against the loose rib as it vibrates. This can sound like a speaker distorting when it is played too loudly. Sometimes, a piano can function normally even with a cracked soundboard. Unless you hear strange noises, you might not need to repair a cracked soundboard. However, if you find other structural problems or you hear strange noises, you might need to have these repaired.
5) Play every key from the left-most key all the way to the end of the keyboard three times each. If any key doesn’t make a sound, record it on the paper. If some keys sound badly out of tune, this indicates that there are loose tuning pins. Any issues will need to be repaired. Keys that don't play at all are often not a big problem. Usually, something has broken or come unglued which is easily fixed. If you press a key and it doesn’t make any sound, this means that the key is sticky. The key could be broken or something could be in the way of the moving parts. While the only visible symptom might be the sticking key, the problem could be with another part of the action (hammers, shanks, wippens, jacks, springs). Because of humidity or if the piano was not played for a long time, hammers, wippens and jacks flanges become sluggish and keys feel heavier, harder to play, and feel differently from one another. On older Steinway grand pianos sluggish keys happen because of green verges in the flanges. The best way to fix this will be to replace the parts. Pay attention to how level the keys are. Very often, you can see that some keys are lower or higher than the rest of them. This happens because the felt under the keys compresses from heavy playing and the keys need leveling. Some additional questions to ask: Are all the key tops attached or missing? What is the condition of the key tops? Are there any chipped fronts of white keys?
6) Does the piano bench match the piano color and style? This is more of an aesthetic item, but if you decide you need a new piano bench, that will be another expense to consider.

Step 2


If you like the piano so far, the next stop is to look inside. Ask the owner to remove anything that’s on the piano. Then open the top by doing the following:

Grand piano only:
If the front part of the lid is closed, fold it back onto the main lid. Caution: Before opening the lid, be sure the lid hinges are attached on the left and the hinge pins are in place, or the lid may fall. Very carefully open the lid, then prop the lid open with the lid support. Try removing the music desk by sliding it toward to you. Some music desks are held in place by a screw or hinge pins. If a music desk is too tight and difficult to slide, do not remove it.

All upright pianos:
Lift up the top. On all upright pianos, you should be able to lift the top panel. However, there are differences between piano designs on how to do this. On some brands like Baldwin Hamilton, the top and front panels are attached together. For these pianos, you have to grab the panel above the keyboard cover and after you lift it, you will see a support piece on the left side inside the front panel. Move the support peace and secure it on the side of the piano or have somebody hold it for you. Everett studio pianos have two machine screws on the back of the piano instead of moveable hinges and it is not very easy to take them out without a special tool. On most upright pianos, the top panel is separate from the front panel. If the piano you're looking at is like this, then try to remove the front panel. You should be able to see how the front panel is attached (eg some are held together with screws while others sit on hinges) and based on this, can figure out how to remove it. Next, remove the lower panel. The lower panel is usually held in place by a leaf spring or two. Simply press the spring up toward the keybed and pull the panel out. Sometimes a rotating wooden latch is used instead. When replacing the lower panel, be sure the bottom edge of the panel is lined up correctly with the bottom rail on which it sits. Now that you've opened the piano, use your lamp to look inside. You'll need to check out multiple items, as detailed

Step 3

7) Now that you’ve opened the piano, use your lamp to look inside. You’ll need to check out multiple items, as detailed in the steps below.

8) Check the hammers. How deep are the cuts from the strings? If the grooves are deep, then look at how much felt is left on the striking side of the hammers. Pay particular attention to the right side of the hammers, as there is often felt left on the left, but not the right side (upper register). If the hammers are badly grooved, that means the piano was played a lot and there could be problems with loose center pins, keys, and other action parts. Grooved hammers should be resurfaced or replaced.

9) Check the condition of bridal straps. If you find any which are broken or disconnected, they will need to be replaced.

10) Check the tuning pins. When the piano is new, the tuning pins are set so the coils are around 3/16’ away from the plate. If the coils are close to the plate, this means that the tuning pins were once loose and were hammered in towards the plate in order to tighten them, which could be a red flag. Also look around the tuning pins area for dark brown, oily looking stains that indicate the pin block has been chemically treated, another potential red flag.

The distance between the plate and the coil of wire around each tuning pin gives you a clue about the condition of the pinblock. The condition of the pinblock is crucial. If it is in good shape and holds the tuning pins tightly, the piano may have many years of life left. If the pinblock is bad and the tuning pins slip, the piano may not be tunable and the repairs could easily be more expensive than the value of the piano. This could mean that the piano is worth nearly nothing. When the pinblock goes bad, it can't hold the tuning pins tightly and a tuning pin will slip. This leaves one of the three strings very flat to the others. This is not just an out of tune honky-tonk sound, but it will sound like you are playing two distinct notes. If the pin block is in good condition, but the tuning pins are loose, it is possible to replace the original tuning pins with oversize tuning pins. However, a bad pinblock may very well be the end of that piano if it is not a good enough piano to warrant rebuilding. On a high quality piano such as a Steinway, Baldwin, or Mason & Hamlin, it may be worth doing a major rebuilding and replacing the pinblock, since these pianos are considerably more expensive if purchased new and would therefore warrant the work. There is also a special technique which can greatly extend the life of the piano by tightening tuning pins in the pinblock without replacing it. This technique can only be performed by an experience piano technician.

11)Check the strings. How rusty are the strings? Some very light coating of rust is normal for an old piano. However, heavy rust on the strings messes up the tone and can cause the strings to break during tuning. Look carefully at the strings to see if any are missing. Also, check to see how many newer looking (shinier) strings the piano has. Many new looking strings on the piano can indicate a possible string breakage problem (although strings sometimes break even if they aren’t rusty). Also, the presence of sliced bass strings (a new piece of wire is spliced to remains of a broken bass string) can indicate a similar problem. Note: in many cases, loose tuning pins and rusty strings make it impossible to tune a piano to concert pitch.

Lift up the top. On all upright pianos, you should be able to lift the top panel. However, there are differences between piano designs on how to do this. On some brands like Baldwin Hamilton, the top and front panels are attached together. For these pianos, you have to grab the panel above the keyboard cover and after you lift it, you will see a support piece on the left side inside the front panel. Move the support peace and secure it on the side of the piano or have somebody hold it for you. Everett studio pianos have two machine screws on the back of the piano instead of moveable hinges and it is not very easy to take them out without a special tool.

12) Check the treble and bass bridges. These bridges transfer the vibration of the strings to the soundboard. The treble bridge is generally in better condition than the bass, but you should check the treble bridge for any obvious signs of damage. The bass bridge has a strong tendency to form cracks around the bridge pins due to the side pressure of the strings. Follow the bass strings toward their far end to find the bass bridge. You need your light to look for cracks around bridge pins. It is very common to see some tiny cracks around some bridge pins. The problem occurs when the cracks get big enough so the bridge pins are actually pushed aside. This can cause loss of tone and make unnecessary noise. Such a bridge should be repaired or replaced. If while you were playing the bass keys, you found weak or muffled sound, the associated bass strings should be twisted or replaced, which is another expense to consider.

One other thing that you might want to do for your reference is to measure the piano. Grand pianos are measured from the front of the keys to the end of the lid. Upright pianos are measured from the floor to the top in inches. For upright pianos, 36’ is a spinet, 40’ is a console, and 55’ is a full upright piano.

If you follow the steps outlined above, this should help you determine whether the piano you are looking to purchase is in good or bad condition. “Free or “cheap” pianos can actually be the most expensive if the condition of the instrument will require rebuilding in order to be a playable instrument. Again, it is always a good idea to also get an opinion of an experienced piano technician prior to making the final purchase, after you look at the piano and determine it is something you are interested in. An investment of a service call before buying it can keep you from buying and moving a piano that won't be playable much less an instrument you can be proud to play and own. If you would like to utilize my services, I would be glad to use my 48 years of vast experience in pianos to help guide you in your decision. I can either perform a full on site piano evaluation for a reasonable fee or you can call or text me at 412-418-4008 if you have questions I might be able to answer over the phone, which I would be happy to do free of charge.

I want to wish you the best of luck in finding the used piano of your dreams!

2. Piano Tips

  • What goes into a piano tuning?

    Piano Tuning is the adjusting of each strings' tension so that the particular string is vibrating at exactly the correct frequency. There are approximately 220 strings on the average piano with a cumulative tension in excess of 20 tons. On one end, a string is attached to a hitch pin, and on the other end, it is wrapped around a tuning pin. By turning the tuning pin, a piano tuner can change the tension of a string and therefore change the string's pitch. All pianos are tuned to the world standard pitch of A440 unless I am instructed differently. Piano tuning can be a delicate job, and I treat all of my clients' pianos as if they were my own. Most pianos should be tuned at least once, but preferably twice each year, regardless of usage. Recording studios, concert halls, performance venues, bars and clubs, some schools and fine pianists often request tuning on a more frequent basis. If that can be done in accordance with seasonal changes. Not tuning the piano regularly will cause it to become unstable and make future tunings much harder. In fact, it might cost more to repair a neglected piano in the future than to care for it regularly. In addition to tuning, periodic regulation of the action, pedals, and keys is required to keep the piano in good shape.

  • What is a "pitch raise"?

    When the tension on the piano strings drops to where the musical pitch is one half a step flat (The note "A" sounds like an "A flat".) we say the pitch is 100 cents (100%) flat. I have found that pianos that are around 20 years old will normally drop in pitch about three to five cents in a year. (Newer pianos will probably drop in pitch faster.) When the pitch has dropped overaltl by twelve cents or more, it should have a "pitch raise" before the fine tuning is done. Let's assume the pitch of a string is twelve cents flat and I increase the tension to where it is at the correct pitch. In a matter of a few minutes the tension would decrease (sort of like a slow spring back) to make the pitch about four cents flat. In order to compensate for this drop, I must put an additional tension ("stretch" or "overpull") on the string. Thus when it loses some of the tension I put on it, it will drop down to the correct pitch rather than below the correct pitch. This process is called a pitch raise. Once the pitch raise is done, a fine tuning will make the final adjustment to each string. Pianos that have had a very large pitch raise will probably need another fine tuning within six months. Some technicians may refer to the process of a pitch raise and a fine tuning as a "double tuning". Also, some prefer to come back later for the fine tuning so they can charge for two tuning visits. I do the fine tuning immediately after pitch raise with concert quality tuning in one visit.

  • Why are the pianos getting out of tune?

    Pianos go out of tune for a variety of reasons. Pianos are sensitive to climate change, temperature and humidity levels. When moisture levels increase (such as in summer months) pianos often go sharp in pitch. This is because the strings are stretched from the tuning pin at the front of the piano to a hitch pin on the rigid cast iron plate or frame. Each string passes over a bridge (either treble or bass) and makes it's connection to the soundboard via the bridge. When the moisture content of the soundboard increases, the board rises in reaction because it has absorbed ambient moisture from the air. Pitch rises or becomes sharp as the string is tensioned by the enlarged soundboard which has a forward or diaphragmatic shape. The opposite is true when moisture levels decrease such as in the winter months and moisture leaves the soundboard. Pitch drops (or goes flat) as strings relax due to a decrease in soundboard profile. Pianos also go out of tune because of a condition where the pinblock (wood, usually a thick maple block under the tuning pins) becomes weak over time and loses the ability to hold a necessary amount of torque at the tuning pins to prevent slipping. A common reason for piano rebuilding is an inability of the piano to stay in tune because of pinblock failure. Pianos also go out of tune from frequent or hard playing as piano hammers impact the strings directly. Piano wire does also stretch for many years due to elasticity of the wire until a time at which it becomes more brittle and no longer stretches noticeably.

  • What is the best location to keep a piano?

    The best location for any piano is one where sudden changes in atmospheric conditions are minimized. Extreme changes in conditions such as temperature or humidity will cause harm to the piano. For this reason, it is best to keep the piano away from air vents, fireplaces, and radiators. In addition, it is better to keep the piano away from windows and doors which are frequently opened and closed. Since sunlight can damage the finish of a piano as well as the tuning, direct sunlight on a piano should be diffused with curtains or blinds. Overall, the piano should be kept in as stable environment as possible.

  • What Is Piano Regulation?

    The piano is a mechanical instrument. All machines require some sort of regular maintenance. Piano action regulation is putting all of the factory specifications back to their original condition and is the process of optimizing the piano action (moving parts, keyboard and mechanism) to provide the best response to our touch. Each note has approximately 32 steps to properly accomplish this. In a sense regulation is the optimization of touch and tone. A piano that is out of proper regulation can have sluggish repetition, uneven tone, touch, exhibit tonal irregularities and an inability to play gently or softly. A fine regulation will result in an even touch whereby the piano keys and action respond in a like manner throughout. Power and control are restored. We use words like aftertouch to describe the sensation at the end of the keystroke at the very moment of sound. Aftertouch provides a comfortable touch sensation for pianists a physical zone for parts rotation, travel completion and repetition of each note. Hammer voicing in conjunction with regulation improves tone and timbre (tone color) in this process. Our regulation procedure includes inspection, repair and cleaning of the piano keyframe, keybed and action. Necessary repairs are made, friction is measured and reduced as needed followed by adjustments of key height, dip and level, key travel and spacing, hammer shaping, alignment, spacing and travel, all major action alignments, timing and parts synchronization, repetition spring and repetition lever adjustments and a host of other fine alignment and related adjustments. Regulation improves touch , tone and responsiveness of the piano and provides the basis for a positive musical experiens. Most technicians will recommend minor regulation every 5 years or so depending on the piano and its use and condition.

  • Piano Repairs

    Piano repairs can include anything from replacing a broken string to fixing sticky or sluggish keys. Piano repair can also entail fixing broken or replacing missing parts and repairing minor regulation problems.

  • Piano Voicing

    Piano voicing is primarily, in simple terms, the changing of the tone of the piano by either hardening or softening the hammer to give the piano a mellower or brighter sound. For more information click here to learn about voicing.

  • Piano Estimates and Appraisals

    For piano appraisals I go over the entire piano to check age, mfg, type, size, case condition, action condition, strings, tuning pins, plate, bridges dampers, keys, etc. And then I give a value based on the current market. This is done for both insurance and resale values.

  • Piano Humidity Control System Installation

    Piano humidity control systems help control the expansion and contraction of the sound board. The constant moving of the sound board is the main reason the piano goes out of tune. The system also helps control the humidity around the piano to avoid rust, corrosion, sticking / sluggish keys and cracked sound boards.

  • Cleaning and Touch-Up

    Cleaning should be done before the piano is tuned. We will clean the soundboard, strings, keyboard, action, action cavity, cabinet, plate, tuning pin area and more. Hammer felts are vacuumed, brushed and sometimes filed to restore a clean surface. Light rust is removed from treble string surfaces. The sounboard is cleaned with a gentle solution and soft cloths are inserted between the strings to gain access to these hard-to-reach areas. The tuning pin area is carefully brushed with soft bristles and vacuumed. The keyboard and action are retracted from grand pianos to expose the inner keybed cavity where debris collects for years. The entire area is vacuumed, brushed and thoroughly cleaned. We can arrange to touch up, clean and polish the exterior cabinet in the home which includes fixing dents, chips, gouges, missing veneer and scratches in the piano and/or furniture finish. Pianos become dirty because of exposure to the atmosphere, indoor pollution from cooking oils, smoke, pet dander, spills and other accidents. It is normal for a piano to need cleaning after some period of time. Dirty pianos can pose a health risk, as common allergens collect for years including dust, mites, pet dander, smoke and mold. Some of these allergens become airborne as the piano is played. It is possible to see these effects as hammers strike strings.

    3. Interesting Videos

    Piano Manufacturer "Weissbrod" - History In Moving Pictures

    How it's made-Mason & Hamlin pianos

    Playing along with the Mozart effect

    Vladimir Horowitz performs Schumann's Traumerei in 1986 Moscow in one of his last performances

    Piano as sculpture: Fazioli M. Luminal looks as good as It sounds

    Dog and piano

    Nora The Piano Cat. CATcerto. Klaipeda Chamber Orchestra, conductor and composer Mindaugas Piecaitis.

    Upright pianos versus Grand pianos

    How to inspect the soundboard on upright piano from back

    How to buy a great used piano

    How inspect underneath bridges and soundboard

    How to inspect the hammers and tuning pins

    How to inspect the soundboard on upright piano from back

    How to inspect the grand piano easy before purchase