Be aware that when the donor, who probably has no technical knowledge of pianos, says that the piano needs only tuning, he or she may not understand that pianos of a certain age and compromised condition can no longer be tuned. The tuning pins may be too loose, or the strings may be too old, rusty, or fatigued. The cost of new strings, pinblock, and soundboard can easily run into five figures.
The same goes for the action — the mechanism that connects the keys to the hammers that strike the strings. There are thousands of parts in a piano action, and they may be worn out, moth-eaten, damaged by rodents, or have a history of moisture damage. The hammers may have sustained irreparable wear, making improvement in tone impossible unless the hammers are replaced. Some obscure older brands may have actions that are more expensive to repair because of the time-consuming difficulty of finding and fitting replacement parts. What may seem a simple complaint, such as “a few sticking keys,” could be simple to fix or very costly. The complete replacement of an action can run into thousands of dollars.
An older piano that has structural or mechanical problems, or hasn't been tuned in many years, has hidden liabilities in the costs of moving, tuning, and repairs that may easily total more than the piano is worth. If, before accepting a piano as a donation, you get a repair estimate and compare it to the cost and life expectancy of a new piano of similar quality, you'll often find that the new instrument is the better buy.
Rebuilding a Donated Piano
Rebuilding a piano takes months, and a rebuild of a performance-grade instrument will usually cost 20% to 50% of the cost of a new one. However, because the labor to rebuild is about the same regardless of the quality of the instrument, the cost of rebuilding a lesser-quality piano may exceed the cost of buying a new one. With few exceptions, premium grands such as those by Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, and Baldwin can be rebuilt with the certainty that rebuilding will be cost effective. But remember that a gift of a valuable old grand comes with the cost of rebuilding it. Just because it says Steinway on the fallboard doesn't mean that it's immune from wear, or that the technician can instantly bring it back to life. Strings on all brands of piano eventually need costly replacement. In most cases, any piano more than 20 years old is due for restringing for top professional use, and that makes most instruments of lesser quality a poor investment for anything beyond minor repairs. Also, don't fall into the trap of accepting an old Steinway or Mason & Hamlin grand that is too small for your performance space. If you've designated a 7' piano for the space, a 5' 1" will not do, no matter how prestigious the brand. This is where having a plan already in place can protect you.
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