Buying a Used or Restored Piano
by Larry Fine
(This article is adapted from Chapter 5, "Buying a Used Piano," of The Piano Book, Fourth Edition, by Larry Fine. Steve Brady updated the depreciation schedule and used-piano pricing information. Before reading this article, be sure to read "Piano Buying Basics" — especially the section "New or Used?" — elsewhere in this publication.)
What to Buy: A Historical Overview
The piano was invented about 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord maker in Padua, Italy. Cristofori replaced the plucking-quill action of the harpsichord, which can pluck only with unvarying force and hence unvarying volume of sound, with a newly designed striking-hammer action, whose force could be precisely controlled by the player. Thus was born the gravicembalo col piano e forte (keyboard instrument with soft and loud). This name was later shortened to pianoforte, then fortepiano, and finally just piano. In the 1700s the new instrument, made mostly by craftsmen in their shops, spread quietly through upper-class Europe. A number of different forms of piano action and structure were invented, such as the Viennese action, the English action, the square piano, and so on. Replicas of early fortepianos are popular among certain musicians who prefer to play the music of that period on the original instruments for which that music was written.
In the 1800s the piano spread more quickly through the middle classes, and across the ocean to North America. Riding along with the Industrial Revolution, piano-making evolved from a craft into an industry. Many important changes took place during the 19th century: The upright piano was invented; the modern grand piano action was invented, incorporating the best aspects of the previous rival actions; the cast-iron plate was invented, vastly strengthening the structure and allowing the strings to be stretched at a higher tension, thus increasing the power and volume of sound; the range of the instrument was extended from about five octaves to the present seven-plus octaves; and, toward the end of the century, the square piano died out, leaving just grands of various sizes and the full-size upright. By 1880, most of these changes were in place; the pianos made today are not very different from those of a hundred or more years ago.
In your search for a piano, you're unlikely to run across instruments made before 1880, with two exceptions. The square piano, or square grand, as it is sometimes called, looks like a rectangular box on legs (see illustration), and was very popular as a home piano during the 19th century. Its ornate Victorian case makes very pretty furniture — but it also makes a terrible musical instrument for 21st-century playing and practicing. Tuning, servicing, and repair are difficult and expensive, very few piano technicians know how to do it, and parts are hard to come by. Even at their best, these instruments are unsuitable to practice on, even for beginners.
Another piano to avoid is a type of upright made primarily in Europe from the middle to the end of the 19th century. The dampers on these piano are positioned above the hammers and actuated by wires in front of the action — the reverse of a modern-day upright. This over-damper system has been nicknamed the "birdcage action" because the damper wires form an enclosure that resembles a bird cage. Besides being very difficult to tune and service through the "bird cage," these pianos are usually so worn out that they won't hold a tuning longer than about ten seconds, and their actions work erratically at best. Many of these pianos were cheaply made to begin with, but they often have ornate cabinets and fancy features, such as candlestick holders, that make them attractive to antique collectors.