Whitney's Music Studio

in Shallowater, Texas and Lubbock, Texas area

(806) 832-0531




Problems with Used Pianos

By Carol Thorne

From: Clavier Magazine

December 1997

Mark Foss, a piano rebuilder in Chicago's suburbs and a member of the Piano Technician's Guild, recently discussed the hazards of buying an old piano and having a technician rebuild it. While rebuilding an old piano that needed a whole new action, Foss had to find usable pieces from his store of old piano parts because there are no piano junkyards like there are for old car parts. Some technicians keep a stockpile of odd bits and pieces, but others say it is not worth the time to sort through a scrap pile to find one part that might work. Furthermore, it is rare that a technician has a part lying around that will actually fit.

Foss found a part of an action that would do for one particular piano, then discovered the part was discontinued; he needed 88 of them. Supply houses have universal parts that technicians can order, but all 88 would have to be altered or jerry-rigged to fit. An action has numerous parts, and a technician may have to spend four or five hours re-engineering the first key to make sure it works right. This can get quite expensive. Foss advises, "Unless the piano is in pretty good shape, don't do it. I always recommend that customers buy a new piano rather than mess with the many problems, some obvious and others not so obvious, with an old one."

Sometimes technicians take pieces off the actions of other keys at each extreme of the keyboard to use for the broken parts in the middle of the piano; technicians call this process cannibalizing. Most people that practice piano use the center keys, so it may not be a problem if the three or four keys at the top or bottom do not work.

When Foss first peruses and old piano to determine if it is worth buying and fixing, he looks carefully at the pedals. If they squeak or do not line up perfectly, there may be warped parts so nothing works efficiently, which can frustrate the performer and make practice time unnecessarily difficult.

Every technician talks about the crown, or curvature, of the soundboard. Foss claims that anyone can check if their soundboard crowns in the middle by stretching a string under a grand or on the back of an upright. If the string is held against the side edges, it should not be able to touch in the center. A piano without a crown sounds like a fortepiano without the ability to sustain sound; it also sounds much more percussive. Though it may appear that it is only the action that needs work, this is often deceiving. If there is not a crown on a decent hardwood soundboard, the instrument will not produce a good sound, even if the instrument has all new hammers and strings.

When Foss began evaluating used pianos, he was not as careful as he is now and learned many lessons the hard way on an old clunker. Foss thought he saw good possibilities for restoration on one particular instrument and recommended that the owners pay to have it move, but he later discovered plastic parts in the action that all had to be replaced for a high cost. Foss says he never made that mistake again.

Recently Foss burned three pianos because there was no crown on the soundboard. He explains, "I could have sold them, but I refuse to make money that way." One friend of his, a violinist, purchases old, low-quality violins and burns them so they are not sold to young students. Foss agrees with him: "Kids need all the encouragement they can get. They shouldn't have to struggle with something that doesn't work or doesn't sound right." He often sees pianos that are in bad shape, and these are the instruments many students use for practice. He recommends that customers not spend any more money on these old instruments, telling them, "Get rid of this thing and buy a new one. Stop sinking money into it."

Foss is appalled at the broken keys, uneven action, and other problems that so many students contend with as they try to learn music. "Nobody would ask a student to practice on a cello with a broken string." Some people only have their piano tuned for a recital being held in their home at the teacher's request.

Sometimes the instrument hasn't been tuned in years and the tuner will struggle to get it in shape for the performance. "It's difficult to practice a half hour every day on a piece of junk. People should not make their children practice on terrible instruments," says Foss. "We want to produce good musicians; we don't want them to fail because of inadequacies of the instrument. I see so many broken down pianos that children practice on, and it's such a shame."




"Let us come before Him with thanksgiving and extol Him with music and song." Psalms 95:2

"Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music." Psalms 98:4