By Karen Lile
In my 31 years of experience as a piano appraiser and broker, and as a partner in a piano-rebuilding business, I have daily encountered people who are considering donating or otherwise disposing of their pianos. In this article, I outline some of the options available to those who have a piano they don’t want to keep or sell, but would like to see it go somewhere other than the dump or local landfill.
Because of the diversity of my clients — piano dealers, piano owners, antique-store owners, collectors, investors, banks, insurance companies, estate appraisers, courts, probate trustees, and nonprofit organizations — I have found it important to establish an effective framework for discussing and advising people about the transfer of a piano from one ownership and/or use to another. In particular, I have learned to separate discussions of the current condition and potential of a piano from the needs and desires of the people and organizations involved. This makes it possible for me to discuss with each party what is in its or their best interest.
Donating a Piano
Say, for example, someone wants to donate a piano to a nonprofit organization that can either use it or resell it for their tax-exempt purposes. The person making the donation may need the piano to be removed from its present location by a specific time, and have specific criteria as to which worthy causes they are willing to contribute. The nonprofit receiving the piano, however, may have specific criteria about how, when, and where they will receive a donated piano, as well as specific restrictions about its condition, quality of construction, durability, and appearance. This is because a piano is a big item that requires storage in a protected environment and access to skilled people to tune and repair it. Also, musicians have specific artistic requirements, and the piano will simply take up space and other resources if it can’t fulfill those requirements. The two parties’ criteria may or may not be a good match, and the nonprofit might turn down the donation. If the donor has waited until the last minute to decide to donate a piano, then his or her options will be much more limited than if time had been allowed for a nonprofit to consider the offer and, if appropriate, make arrangements for receiving the piano.
In order to make a good decision about where to donate the piano, it is recommended that you know its current condition and fair market value. A piano technician hired to inspect the piano can tell you its condition and value, and advise you on its potential uses, taking into account its quality of design and construction and its present condition. There are also some online services available for obtaining a ballpark estimate of its value, such as on PianoBuyer.com.
Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss which types and sizes of piano are appropriate for institutions and other nonprofits (see the accompanying article by Sally Phillips), if your piano can hold a tune, and has a consistent, uniform, and predictable response from key to key, then it is more likely to be a good instrument for students and musicians to practice and perform on, and a donation can be made either directly to the nonprofit that needs the piano, or to a nonprofit that can sell it and apply the money to a good cause that you want to support.
The types of organizations that might be interested in a donation of a good working piano are schools, social groups, clubs, senior centers, preschools, retirement homes, service clubs, after-school programs, recreation centers — any venue that has some type of formal or informal entertainment, or where groups meet for social occasions. (Note: Spinets and consoles with freestanding legs should be limited to use where they will not be moved frequently, as the legs are prone to breaking if the piano is moved often.)
If you would like to donate the piano to an organization that provides a valuable service to the public but lacks the tax-exempt status that would allow you to take a tax deduction for the donation, you might be able to find another organization, with tax-exempt status and a similar or complementary mission, that can give you the tax deduction while legally passing along the donation to your preferred group.
Although piano dealers usually have more than enough used pianos on hand, taken in trade for new ones, occasionally they may be able to find a new home for your older piano with a student or family who can’t afford to pay for one, or with a nonprofit organization.
You might also check to see if your city has an organization devoted to using donated pianos for public art purposes. An example is the Sing for Hope Foundation, which each year places 88 donated, repaired, and painted pianos in parks and public spaces throughout New York City for the public to play and enjoy. After their two-week display, the pianos are donated to underserved local schools, healthcare facilities, and community organizations. See their website at www.singforhope.org.
If your piano has not been well maintained, needs major repairs, and/or its cabinet does not look good, then it will be more difficult to find a nonprofit organization that will take the piano as a donation. The rest of this article discusses options for this type of piano.
The Piano Donation Project
Many pianos can have their touch and tone improved by a piano technician or be restored by a piano rebuilder. If the instrument was of high quality when manufactured, then repair or rebuilding are viable options that can result in superior looks, sound, feel, quality, and resale value. This is especially true of many vintage pianos of American and German origin; they were often built to last, and were constructed with high-quality woods that are scarce and expensive today.
My company, Piano Finders, has a Piano Donation Project that helps place pianos with nonprofit organizations. We don’t charge for the service, but offer it as a benefit to our clients, who have often paid us for an appraisal or consultation and are considering what to do with their pianos. This project helps save and restore pianos that are well built and still have market value, but are in need of minor to major repairs or rebuilding. If you have a piano that has not been tuned or maintained, or needs some work, but is a good instrument with value and potential, then we may be able to find a sponsor who will bring the condition of the instrument up to a state where it can be used or resold by a nonprofit to benefit its programs. A sponsor can be a piano rebuilder who performs the repair work, or an individual or organization that cares about music and pianos and pays to have the work done. From pianos offered for donation, Piano Finders selects those we feel will be good investments for the nonprofit organizations we work with. Once the work is completed, the piano is either sold to raise funds for the nonprofit organization or is put to use in the nonprofit’s programs. If sold, the piano receives a new life in the home of a family or individual who plays and appreciates the piano, or within a deserving organization. Piano Finders works with nonprofits across the country.
Converting a Piano to Furniture or Art
Even when the piano’s innards may be ready for disposal, its cabinet might be a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, with carvings and high-quality woods. If you think that parts of your piano’s case would make a beautiful piece of furniture, such as a desk, cabinet, or coffee table, you could hire a furniture builder or piano rebuilder to convert those parts into something that will be useful and a work of art. Included here are photos of some examples from the portfolio of craftsman Frank Bidinger, who has converted old uprights and square grands into beautiful works of furniture art. (Bidinger, a former employee of Piano Finders, now runs his own rebuilding business in San Ramon, California. He can be contacted through Piano Finders.)
Sometimes, the opposite is true: The cabinet may not be worth much, but the piano’s parts — hammers, keys, legs, strings, hardware — can be turned into imaginative pieces of art and sculpture. See www.pianoasart.com for impressive examples of this new art form.
A piano can be recycled by removing and breaking down its parts — wood, steel wire, screws, cast iron, etc. — for reuse. Recycling is usually done locally, as the cost of transporting a complete piano can be prohibitive; check to see if someone in your area recycles pianos. Sometimes, electronics recyclers also take pianos.
If your local recyclers don’t take pianos but will accept their disassembled parts, then you can take the piano apart yourself or, better yet, pay an expert to do it. (Piano parts can be heavy and strings are under high tension; unless you know what you’re doing, some danger is involved.) Companies that do building demolition and work with construction sites usually know who can take the cast-iron frame, the heaviest part of the piano. Wood can go to a piano shop or high school wood shop, to be used for making new things. Ivories can go to a piano technician or piano-rebuilding shop. Steel wire, copper, and hardware can often be recycled. However, finding out where to send the various parts of the piano for recycling can be time-consuming.
You could also ask a local service club — Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, etc. — if they’d be willing to do this as a service project. Advertise to the public a weekend of piano recycling, rent a workspace, and hire a piano rebuilder to work with the club’s volunteers to disassemble pianos. It often costs more to recycle than to send something to the trash — but if people care about the wood, ivory, and cast iron that went into a piano’s construction, and the many memories that a piano contributed to over its life, why not have a big party to celebrate its passage from life as a piano to a new life of helping to make other things of value? Local dealers, teachers, and technicians might decide to be sponsors of the event, which could be connected to a sale of new pianos, a concert by a local symphony, or another musical event happening in the community. The event could also be partnered with the city or county recycling programs, to promote the concept of recycling.
Karen Lile is co-owner, with Kendall Bean, of Piano Finders, a San Francisco Bay–area piano appraisal, brokerage, and rebuilding firm. See their website at www.PianoFinders.com.