PIANO MOVING & STORAGE

Excerpted from The Piano Book, Fourth Edition, by Larry Fine

Why Not to Move a Piano Yourself

Movers like to tell stories like this one:

A young woman asked her father to help her move a piano from one place to another in her house. Her father got a couple of his friends to come along and they brought a dolly. While they were lifting the piano — a full-size vertical — it tipped back too far and got away from them. While it was falling, its upper corner dug down through the wall. The trench it made was deep enough to sever an electric conduit, which shorted and began to burn. The "movers" were unable to stop the fire, which also spread to the floor below, another person's apartment. After the fire department was done, there was little left of the two apartments and the piano.

Obviously, this is an extreme example of the damage that can be inflicted when moving a piano in do-it-yourself fashion. But even if you don't burn down your house, there is a substantial risk of personal injury, not to mention damage to the piano.

Pianos are very heavy. The average spinet or console weighs in at from 300 to 500 pounds, full-size uprights at about 700, but sometimes as much as 1,000. Grands vary from about 500 to 1,000, though a concert grand may weigh close to a ton. If it were simply a matter of weight, though, all it would take would be enough strong people to do the job. Unfortunately, along with the weight come problems of balance and inertia, knowledge of which can make all the difference in doing a moving job safely and efficiently. Piano moving may conjure up images of men with monstrous arms and huge torsos, but actually two or three people of average build can do most piano moving jobs — even grands — if they have some brains, experience, the right equipment, and a knowledge of just when and where to apply a little force.

How Pianos Are Moved

FIGURE 1. Grand pianos are moved on their side, with legs and lyre removed. Anyone with even a little bit of curiosity inevitably wonders how pianos get moved. How do you fit a grand piano through a door? How do you get a piano up to the fifth floor?

As shown in Figure 1, a grand piano is moved on its side, straight side down, and almost always placed on a special skid called a piano board. First the lid and the pedal lyre are removed. Then the leg at the straight side of the piano is removed and the piano is carefully lowered down to the piano board. (Some movers unscrew and remove the lid hinges because they overhang the case side and would otherwise cause damage to the case when the piano is put on its side. Others prefer to position the piano so the hinges overhang the edge of the piano board.) After the remaining two legs are removed, the piano is covered with blankets and strapped to the board. Stripped down in this manner, a grand piano is quite thin and will actually fit through a door or other opening very easily.

If a grand piano is to be moved over a level surface for any distance, the piano board is put on a dolly — a small platform on wheels — and rolled to its destination, such as a truck or a stairway. At the stairway, the dolly is removed and the piano board is slid in a very slow and controlled manner up or down the stairs. Vertical pianos are also moved over a level surface on a dolly, but without a piano board. At a stairway, a vertical piano is removed from the dolly and carried by hand up or down the stairway.

FIGURE 2.  Hoisting is done with a crane. When the house is set too far back from a road or driveway or for some other reason the window isn't accessible to a crane, the piano can be rigged. Rigging involves using a block and tackle, supported from the window above or from the roof, to lift the piano.

When a piano must be moved to or from a floor other than the first, many movers prefer to hoist or rig it (Figure 2), or use a forklift, rather than move it up or down stairs. Believe it or not, moving a piano by stairs is actually more dangerous, both to the piano and to the movers, than hoisting it through an upper-story window with a crane or forklift. Most movers will consent to moving by stairs when only one flight is involved, or when no other alternative is possible. Of course, if the building has a freight elevator that can support the piano, that method is preferred over all others.

Basically, it is the customer's responsibility to make sure the piano will fit in its new location. This means not expecting a piano to be hoisted in a window that's too small or carried down a stairway with too low an overhang or moved around a corner that's too tight. Figure 3 shows how the dimensions of the piano relate to some common moving situations. Corners are the hardest to judge because they can't be easily measured. An experienced mover can usually judge these situations pretty accurately by eye and may prefer to visit the moving sites prior to moving day if there is any question about the difficulty of the job. This probably won't be possible if the move is a long-distance one. If the piano won't fit in its intended location, the customer will have to pay for its delivery back to its point of departure, to an alternate destination, or to storage.

Note that some movers may want to "keyboard" a vertical piano — that is, remove the front part (keybed, keys, action) — and set the piano on its end to get the piano around a tight corner when there is no other alternative. You should know that this is recommended only as a last resort, as it can sometimes result in damage to the piano.

Moving a Piano Around a Room

It's understandable that you might not want to hire a mover just to move a piano around a room, but these small moves can be surprisingly dangerous. With both grands and verticals, it's primarily the legs you want to watch out for. Breaking a leg — particularly on a grand — can be disastrous. I was once called twice in a single month to repair a grand piano that had been dragged across a floor. Both times a leg had gotten caught in the grate of a heating duct, causing the piano to crash to the floor. Of course, the pedal lyre broke too. Dragging a grand piano across carpeting can also be too much for the legs to handle. If you insist on moving the grand yourself, three to five strong people should gather around its circumference and lift while moving. Don't actually try to lift it off the floor; just relieve the strain on the legs.

At least two people should always move a vertical piano. Spinets and consoles with free-standing legs should have their legs protected by lifting or tilting the piano back ever so slightly while moving, keeping the legs from touching the floor. Yes, the legs may have casters, but don't use them. Also, remember that most of the weight of the piano is in its back, so be sure you have a firm grip on it and don't tilt so far that the piano is in danger of falling over. Larger verticals and smaller ones without legs can simply be rolled, although this may be hard to do on carpeting. Piano casters often get stuck unexpectedly, so move slowly with one person on each end of the piano. When making turns, keep the back of the piano on the inside of the turn. And be careful not to push a stubborn vertical piano over your helper's foot!

FIGURE 4. Grand pianos that are going to be moved around a lot can be mounted on a truck or carriage like the one shown at top. These are a bit ugly, though classier ones than that shown are available. The three-wheeled caster at right is less obtrusive. One of these casters under each grand piano leg will support the piano quite well. The truck shown at bottom is for vertical pianos Casters and trucks. If you're going to be moving a piano around a room or stage, or from room to room, often, be sure the piano is properly equipped. Grand pianos should be mounted on a piano truck — a special carrier designed for pianos that need to be moved often — or fitted with special casters. Small verticals are best not moved around much, but there are special piano trucks for them, too (see Figure 4). Larger verticals often come with heavy-duty casters, but casters that are too small or old cast-iron casters can be replaced by your piano technician with double rubber-wheel ones that move easily and don't mar the floor. (Note: These replacement casters may sometimes lift your piano an inch further off the floor, making the pedals hard to reach. A piece of thick carpeting or wood placed in front of the pedals for the heel of your foot to rest on will remedy this problem.)

FIGURE 3. The top drawings show the approximate dimensions of pianos on skids, which you might want to know if moving a piano through a window or a door. These dimensions vary by a few inches from piano to piano. Note that a grand piano on a skid is almost always very close to 60 inches tall, regardless of the length of the piano (remember, this is the keyboard end of the piano standing up). A standard-size window is also about 60 inches tall, so you will have to measure carefully here to avoid disappointment. Movers routinely remove window sashes, window frames, storm window frames, and just about anything else they have to, to get a piano through a window. However, pianos will not usually fit through garret or attic windows or windows with sashes that can't be removed. The bottom drawing shows a problem that can occur when moving a piano up or down a stairway. The important measurement is the minimum clearance between the edge of the steps and the ceiling, measured perpendicular to the plane of the stairs. The fact that people can walk down the stairs without hitting their head does not necessarily mean the piano will fit, because people do not walk perpendicular to the plane of the stairs! Grands and large verticals will not fit down cellar bulkhead stairways, except, sometimes, when the bulkhead stairs themselves are removable.

Hiring a Piano Mover for a Local Move

Finding a piano mover. As with most other services, the best way to find a piano mover is by word-of-mouth referral from another piano owner or from your piano technician. A piano dealer can also recommend an experienced mover. Some movers move pianos only; some move all kinds of household goods but specialize in piano moving, and some otherwise competent general movers don't know the first thing about piano moving. Since piano moving requires some specialized knowledge and equipment to do properly, always have the piano moved by a specialist.

Licensing and insurance. Most states require that anyone offering to move household goods for hire be licensed by the state department of public utilities or similar state regulatory agency. To get a license in those states that require one, a moving company must show that there is a need for its services, that it has the proper equipment, and that it has at least the minimum amount of cargo insurance required by state law. In addition, the mover's rates must be approved by the regulatory agency. We've all seen ads of the "two men and a truck — $40/hr." variety, but in most regulated states these ads are illegal unless the firm is licensed, and newspapers are not supposed to carry ads for unlicensed firms. Ads for licensed firms will usually be accompanied by their license number. Since the deregulation of the interstate trucking industry in 1980, there has been an increasing tendency on the part of the states to deregulate, too. You should therefore check with your state regulatory agency about the current status of moving regulation in your state.

Most regulated states require that movers carry around five or ten thousand dollars' worth of cargo insurance, the amount varying from state to state. But this is simply an upper limit or aggregate amount. It does not mean that each item moved is insured for that much. A careful reading of the moving contract will reveal that your piano (for instance) is insured for only so much per pound, the amount again varying from state to state, but usually somewhere between 50 cents and one dollar. This may be fine for your funky old upright, which is very heavy but not worth much, but won't help much if your expensive Baldwin grand is dropped from a third-story window.

To protect yourself against the latter kind of loss, you can buy extra insurance either from your insurance company or from the mover. The cost varies depending on whether the piano is insured for replacement value minus depreciation or full replacement value with no deduction for depreciation, and on what deductible is chosen, if any. An Internet search suggests that a typical cost for replacement-value insurance is $1 to $2 per $100 of value, depending on deductible. In many cases, your homeowner's insurance may provide the coverage you need; check with your insurance agent. Even if your instrument is insured for less than its full value, you still may be able to sue the mover for the unreimbursed part of the damage.

Some states may not require it, but you should also be sure that your mover carries personal liability and worker's compensation insurance. The former will protect you in case, for instance, your walls are damaged — a common occurrence. Without the latter, you may be responsible for hospital bills if a mover is hurt on your property. Don't just accept the mover's word that he's "fully insured;" ask to see his insurance certificates.

Prices. Some movers charge by the job. Others charge by time and mileage and are willing to give only a rough estimate of the total charge, if that. At least you should assume it's an estimate unless otherwise told. It's definitely worth getting several estimates for a piano moving job because prices often vary enormously, even among equally reputable movers in the same locality. However, be sure you are dealing with a skilled piano mover; the lowest estimate is not necessarily the best choice. Also, when comparing estimates, be sure you factor in insurance charges, as some movers include generous insurance coverage in their base price, whereas others include only the state-mandated coverage and charge extra for additional coverage.

The price of a moving job will depend on the type and size of piano and the complexity of the job, because the larger pianos and more complex jobs require more workers. Rates in big cities are often much higher than those in rural areas. A first-floor-to-first-floor move of a small vertical or small grand usually requires only two people. Moving a full-size vertical or a smaller grand piano up or down stairs requires three, and moving a large grand may require more than three.

Typical prices for first-floor-to-first-floor local moves are as follows: small vertical, $200–350; upright or small grand, $300–$400; medium grand, $350–500. Each staircase could add from $100 to $200 to the cost. Hoisting and rigging might cost twice as much plus, in some jurisdictions, the cost of permits and police detail. These are intended only as approximate figures and obviously don't include unusual situations and complications. (I've heard of hoisting charges over $1,000 in some cities.) Be aware that what to you may seem only "a few steps up" to the front door may be significant to a mover and could result in an extra charge. Also, some movers may have minimum charges.

Damage. Before the piano is moved, you and the mover should together inspect it carefully and note any pre-existing damage, such as scratches, dents, and loose veneer, on the bill of lading. Then, after the piano is moved to its destination, inspect it again and note any new damage on the bill of lading. Most damage to pianos in local moves is quite small and is repaired or touched up by the mover or by a piano technician or refinisher hired by the mover. Only in rare cases, or with some large interstate movers, will you need to file an insurance claim, but if you do, the mover is required to furnish you with the claim forms and process them for you (unless you obtained your insurance coverage independently).

Although damage to pianos from moving certainly does occur, piano owners also tend to imagine or suspect a lot of damage that doesn't exist. One reason is they probably examine their piano far more carefully after a move than at any other time in its life, and so discover scratches and marks that have been there for years unnoticed. This is why it's so important to agree on preexisting damage before the move. Another reason for the suspicion is simply a lack of knowledge about the technical and maintenance needs of pianos. When I tune a piano after a move, and in the process notice the need for some additional maintenance, I'm invariably asked if the need for the extra work wasn't, after all, caused by the movers and therefore subject to reimbursement by them. In most cases the maintenance was needed before the move, too, but was never mentioned or not noticed by previous technicians. Usually, a piano has to be handled quite roughly for internal damage to occur.

Interstate, Long-Distance, and Household Moves

Interstate movers must be licensed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and registered with the Department of Transportation (DOT), regulatory agencies of the U.S. government. As with the regulated states, applicants for an FMCSA license must have the proper equipment for the job, a minimum of $10,000 worth of cargo insurance, and $750,000 worth of liability insurance.

When you dial the phone number listed for a major van line, you're actually calling its local agent. The agents book the moves and own a fleet of trailers. They hire drivers, called owner-operators, who own tractors to pull those trailers. It's an owner-operator who actually hauls your goods. (Sometimes the agents own the tractors, too, and just hire drivers.) Since the partial deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, thousands of additional owner-operators have received FMCSA licenses.

Moving a piano alone a long distance is expensive. For instance, several movers quoted prices of $1,000 to $2,000 for moving a 1,000-pound piano (such as a large, crated grand) from New York to California. The price is computed from both the weight and the distance, but the higher the weight, the lower the price per pound. This means that a piano moved with a typical 8,000-pound load of household furniture might cost from less than one-third to one-half as much as when moved alone. Also, most long-distance movers have a minimum charge, usually based on a weight of 1,000 pounds, but the minimums could range from 500 to 2,500 pounds. If a piano being moved alone weighs less than the minimum, it will be charged at the rate for the minimum weight. If you live in New York and are considering sending your upright piano to your child in California, you might be better off selling it locally instead and sending your child the money to buy one in his or her area.

In addition to the rate quoted you for moving your piano long distance — with or without other household goods — there may be other hidden costs that you should inquire about. Because a piano often requires special packing, a handling charge is usually added on to the bill. In some cases the moving price includes only the trucking of the piano to a local dealer or freight depot and not the cost of moving it in and out of the house. This may be so when the long-distance mover is equipped to haul pianos but not to handle them and must hire local piano movers on both ends of the trip. You may be required to pay the piano movers directly, which could add several hundred dollars to the moving cost if you thought all this was included in the bill.

Many people contemplating a major move automatically call a major van line whose name is a household word. But in most localities there are also smaller moving companies, sometimes with many years of experience, that specialize in moves to certain regions of the country. For instance, in Boston there are companies that specialize in moves within the New York-New England area and others that specialize in moves to Florida, where many New Englanders spend the winter. These smaller firms sometimes offer more personal service, more flexible scheduling, and lower prices.

There are now several movers that specialize in cross-country piano moving. They are listed here for your convenience, but the listing should not be considered an endorsement or guarantee of satisfaction. Remember, when using their services, that you need to be flexible about pickup and arrival times. Call as far in advance as possible so the company can coordinate your move with that of others. Expect that the time from pickup to delivery can range from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.

Keyboard Carriage (Elizabethtown, KY, keyboardcarriage.com) and Walter Piano Transport (Elkhart, IN, walterpianotransport.com) warehouse and deliver pianos to dealers for most of the piano manufacturers who do business in the U.S. Both companies have large fleets of trucks constantly on the move around the country. Although both companies will also move pianos for consumers, Keyboard Carriage will move them only between dealers, moving companies, or other commercial entities whose facilities are capable of accommodating a full-size tractor trailer. They will not move a piano into or out of a home — you would have to make your own arrangements for that. Walter Piano Transport will move a piano into or out of a home, or will make arrangements to have that done by local piano movers on both ends of the move Modern Piano Moving (Sullivan, MO, modernpiano.com) has been moving pianos since 1935, cross-country moving since 1985. It has offices in Missouri, California, and Virginia. Their services include not only the cross-country hauling, but also the move into and out of the home or other location. They move only pianos.

If you are moving your household goods long distance yourself in a rented truck, the safest and most economical way to move the piano is to hire local piano movers at both ends to load and unload the piano and move it between the house and the truck

International Moving

Who does it? International moving is one of the services that many regular movers provide. The actual overseas shipping is done by a "freight forwarder," who consolidates the goods from a number of different customers or movers into containers (large metal boxes that are hauled by trucks, planes and ships) and deals with the carrier. Your mover may or may not be a freight forwarder, but if not, it will likely have a relationship with one. The mover will pick up your piano and deliver it to them; you don't have to deal directly with the freight forwarder unless you prefer to. The mover or freight forwarder will tell you (or you should ask) what carrier options you have, and what route your goods will take; the container number, flight number, or ship name; and dates of departure and arrival. Your mover does not need to have an FMCSA license to provide this service for you unless it will be moving your goods interstate in the process.

Some foreign manufacturers wrap their pianos in airtight plastic when shipping overseas to avoid having the pianos exposed to excess humidity. You should inquire of the mover whether airtight shipment would be possible for your instrument. In any case, you should request that they place a few packets of silica (a drying agent) inside a vertical piano or on the underside of a grand.

Shipping costs. International moving is priced either by weight or by volume. Pianos are heavy and so, where possible, should be priced by volume. My sources quoted from $800 to $1,500 to move most pianos overseas via ship, and twice that for air transport, depending on the size of the shipment and the destination port. However, crating, pickup, delivery, and brokerage charges could double the cost.

Import duties. While the shipping costs described above are considerable, higher still can be the import duties and taxes assessed by the foreign governments once the shipment has arrived. These duties vary from as little as a few percent to as much as 200% of the instrument's value. With these duties, governments seek to prevent the import of pianos for resale, presumably to protect their own local piano industry. Some countries have exclusions from duties for professionals in the music field, and some require proof of ownership of six months to two years to avoid duties. An Internet search or a call to any international mover will provide country-specific information on duties and taxes.

Insurance. Movers are not required to provide insurance coverage, but generally make it available. Insurance is always on the replacement value at the destination. One price quoted was $1 per $100 of value, with a minimum value of $1,000. A special point mentioned by my sources was that, when shipping by sea, the insurance should be an "all-risk marine policy," which includes what is known as a "general average clause." This will insure against any extra costs the shipper might otherwise have to pay if damage is sustained to the ship en route and the cargo is impounded in a port other than one that is scheduled. These extra costs can be huge.

Shipping times. Shipments to Europe and the Middle East are made from the East Coast, and to Australia and the Far East from the West Coast. Shipping charges from your locality will include "land bridge service" to one coast or the other as appropriate. "All-water" service may also be available, which allows goods to be shipped by sea anywhere in the world from either coast via the Panama Canal. Air shipments take only two to three days. Door-to-door shipping of a piano by sea, from the East Coast to Europe or from the West Coast to China, will usually take about 15 to 30 days. Shipping to Canada and Mexico is usually by land, although reaching certain coastal cities may sometimes be cheaper by sea. Overland shipping for pianos should be by air-suspended vans; rail flat-car shipping can be hard on pianos.

Arrival. The customer or the customer's designee will be notified by the shipper's agent when the piano has arrived at the destination port. The freight forwarder should have taken care of the paperwork and payment of duty, if any. If the customer is not at the destination when the piano arrives, it may have to be stored, which can be expensive. It's better to delay shipping the piano than to have it wait at the destination port.

Damage claims. If there is damage, the customer should file a claim form, available from the mover's claims personnel at either end of the move. The customer should also take pictures and carefully document the damage. The customer must also arrange to have the insurance agent inspect the damage, usually after delivery to the new residence, obtain an estimate for repairs from any qualified technician, and submit it to the claims personnel of either the mover or the insurer, depending on the usual procedure used by the mover. If the customer doesn't have any idea of whom to call for repair estimates, which could be the case in a foreign country, the names of local businesses are usually available from the insurance company or the mover.

Ivory Ban. Due to the international ban on the trafficking of ivory, if the piano being moved internationally has real ivory keytops, as many older pianos do, you may need a special permit, known as a CITES certificate, from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov), and from the corresponding government agency in the other country, to avoid trouble when the piano goes through customs. A permit is generally given when the ivory is a minor part of a musical instrument, or is part of a household move or inheritance. Allow at least 90 days to get these papers.

Storage

The best advice about storing a piano is not to do it if you can help it, or to lend the piano to a friend or relative who will use it and take good care of it. Storing a piano involves extra moving and an uncertain environment and certainly doesn't improve the instrument, to say the least. Still, there are times when storing a piano is unavoidable, such as when you have to move out of your house before the movers are scheduled for the long-distance haul (in which case they will pick up and store your goods for you) or when you arrive in a new city before you've found a permanent place to live.

Most cities and towns now have self-storage places that offer cubicles of various sizes for rent by the month. When choosing one, it's preferable that it be at least minimally heated, though an unheated space is by far better than one that is overheated. The smallest-size cubicle in which you can store the piano will probably be determined by the size of the door, rather than by the size of the cubicle. Typical cubicle sizes might be 5x5, 5x10, and 10x10 feet. An Internet search showed monthly rates for these sizes from $50 to $150. Smaller sizes may not have a big enough door.

Storage in an unheated space. Many people keep pianos in summer homes and wonder how to protect the piano in the winter when the place is unheated. The conventional wisdom is that pianos should never be allowed to freeze, but any technician will tell you that pianos left unheated year after year are often in better condition than those in well-heated houses, the latter usually suffering from the effects of overdryness. Some experts advise stuffing the piano with rolled-up newspaper to absorb the dampness that often accompanies low temperatures. But my sources in the Maine woods tell me that, more often than not, those newspapers just end up as nests for mice, and the torn up, soggy newsprint is hard to extricate from the piano come spring. Their advice? Place some mothballs in the piano (but don't let them touch the finish), close up the piano, and leave it as is.

The Effects of Moving and Storage

Tuning. The piano is hoisted out of a third-story window, trucked across the state, and later that day hoisted into a fifth-floor apartment. After the movers leave, the pianist sits down to play, and is surprised to find the piano in very good tune. Two weeks later, the piano sounds terrible. This common scenario occurs because it is not generally the physical moving of the piano that puts it out of tune — it is the change in humidity from one location to another, and this change takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to show its effect. For this reason, you should wait at least two weeks after moving before having the piano tuned. Only with some of the cheaper spinets and consoles will the actual physical moving affect the tuning directly.

Pedals. Grand piano pedals are frequently out of kilter after a move. Shims of leather or cardboard used to take up slack in the trapwork often fall out when the lyre is removed. Also, less careful movers sometimes mix up the order of the pedal rods that rise from the back of the pedals. These rods are not always equal in length and so may not be interchangeable. Pedal dowels in verticals also sometimes fall out of place. It is a fairly simple matter for your piano technician to correct these problems when he or she comes to tune the piano. Special note: If your grand piano has lyre braces (which it should), be sure the movers remember to put them back on. Movers often forget and leave them in the truck, never to be seen again

Other effects. The effects of moving, except those mentioned above, are very unpredictable, especially if there is a large difference in humidity between the old and new locations. Warning: A piano that has been in a damp or unheated place for many years should never be moved to a dry or well-heated location. Such pianos are known to self-destruct in a short time. Also, do not allow pianos with high-polish finishes to freeze; it may cause the finish to crack.

One additional item to check on a grand piano before moving: Because a grand is placed on its side to be moved, a narrow wooden rail called a key stop rail is mounted on top of the keys, behind the fallboard, to prevent the keys from falling off the key frame during moving. If the key stop rail is missing or not securely installed, as sometimes happens, the keys will be in terrible disarray and completely unplayable after moving. A technician can fix this, but it may take a while even to extricate the action from the piano. If you know you're going to be moving, have your technician check for the key stop rail before the move. Otherwise, see our article in the pianobuyer.com archives on inspecting a used piano before purchase for instructions on removing the grand fallboard to look inside. Although less common, a similar problem can occur in a vertical if it has to be upended to get it around a tight corner.

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