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 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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|I get a phone call from someone selling an old no-name upright in "decent" condition but that "hasn't been played or tuned for many years." I explain that there simply is no market for this kind of piano, and recommend junking it. The seller wants me to come out and examine the piano anyway, as he's convinced of its value. I agree to come out and evaluate it for $100. When I get there I confirm that, although the cabinet is ornate, the instrument is junk, and that the cost of repair would exceed by far the cost of a new piano.|
About three weeks later, I get a call from another person, who says she's just bought a really nice used piano, paid $300 to have it delivered, and now needs it tuned. We schedule the tuning, and when my technician gets there, he finds that the piano can't be tuned — the tuning pins are loose and the piano is unrepairable. When he describes the piano to me, I realize it's the same one I "condemned" a few weeks ago!
About a month later, I get a call from the music director of a small church half a mile from our store. One of their parishioners has donated a beautiful antique piano, and they need it tuned and some "minor" repairs made. You can guess what we found when we got there!!! The move cost them $275.
When I explain that the piano is junk, the music director tells me it's no problem — they'll have the pastor offer to sell it after the Sunday sermon, for the same $275, "on a first-come, first-served basis."
I bite my tongue and just say that I'm sorry I'm not able to give them better news.
You'd think a church would know when to administer "last rites," ‘cause that's what this piano needed!
— Steve Cohen, Jasons Music Center, Pasadena, Maryland
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