By Russ Vitt
Most of us have seen or heard a humorous story of ordinary people attempting to move the heaviest thing ever made: a piano. Just thinking about it can give otherwise macho adults lower-back pain. A typical vertical piano weighs 300 to 500 pounds; some larger uprights can weigh over 800. Grand pianos typically weigh about 100 pounds per foot of length, but some concert grands weigh as much as 1,400 pounds. While pianos are abnormally heavy, with thousands of moving parts, they are also fragile. Additionally, many pianos have fine finishes that are sensitive to extremes of temperature and humidity. Then, to make things even more interesting, there are obstacles to maneuver, such as steps, turns, overhangs, hills, culs-de-sac, wet grass, and long gravel driveways. So, as someone who needs a piano moved, what are your options?
As the owner of a professional piano-moving company, I can’t recommend moving a piano yourself. Risk of personal injury and damage to the instrument outweigh the advantage of saving a few dollars. Here are just a few of the many mistakes people make, and the dangers that await you if you try to do it yourself:
Letting the piano get away from you: Gravity can be a powerful tool when used properly, but it’s dangerous if not respected. If someone slips or loses their grip, the piano will start moving by itself. In The Piano Book, Larry Fine tells the story of some friends who tried to move an upright piano. As they tipped the piano back, the bottom scooted away from them, causing the instrument to fall. The top edge gouged the wall and severed an electric cable, which started a fire that burned down the house. If something like this can happen in the home, imagine what gravity will do on steps or a steep outside grade. I’m sure you’ve seen those commercials in which a piano is being hoisted by crane and falls from a great height, breaking into smithereens. The truth, though, is that for many moves, particularly those above the second floor, hoisting by crane is much safer than moving a piano by hand. In some kinds of geography, additional equipment and creativity may be needed. One move we did in hilly San Francisco, on a street too steep for a truck to maneuver, required three professionals, two tow straps, an all-terrain vehicle, and an SUV! Don’t think you can do this yourself.
Moving a piano without securing it to the vehicle: A piano sitting on a truck may seem just fine in the driveway, but a piano is not like a refrigerator, which is heavy mostly at its base. An upright piano’s weight is evenly distributed from top to bottom, and some may even be top-heavy. Even a slight turn or grade can encourage a piano to jump ship. One story has the proud piano owner playing his instrument in the back of a pickup as they ride down the road. When the truck turned at a traffic light, the piano, motivated by inertia to keep going straight, did a back flip out of the truck, whereupon it ceased being in one piece.
Moving a grand piano without removing the legs and lyre: We delivered a grand to a customer who thought he was being helpful when he removed the entire sliding-door assembly from the family room. He didn’t realize that a grand piano is moved only after it’s been laid on its side and its legs and pedal lyre have been removed. The caster wheels attached to the legs are designed for minor adjustments of location in-room, not for the driveway or the yard. Stories abound of grand pianos being dragged over cement, gravel, grass, deep carpeting, or in-floor heating ducts, only to have the legs snap off and the instrument collapse. In addition, a grand must be protected by the proper special equipment before it can be moved. The piano is placed on its side on a special moving board, and secured with straps and blankets. The lid is either removed or positioned to protect it from damage.
Almost as scary as moving a piano yourself — or scarier, depending on the outcome — but without the cost savings, is finding a nonprofessional mover. Typically, this category includes anyone who will move anything anywhere for one low price. They can be found online at what seems like a cheap price, and some of them demand payment before pickup. To make matters worse, sometimes these folks are merely brokers and have no truck or workers. They take your money, then find someone to do the job. There’s a well-known saying: “The bitterness of poor service remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” This is very true of piano moving.
Professional furniture movers are a step better, but you run the risk of being assigned to a driver who has little training or experience in moving a piano. Many drivers hate to see a piano in a shipment because they know pianos require special care. When the largest household mover in the U.S. bought another large mover in the 1990s, the wife of one of their top managers hired my company to move her piano. She knew the system, and wanted the comfort of knowing that the crew moving her cherished instrument moved several pianos every day, not several a year.
The best way to avoid unprofessional service is to look for a professional piano mover. You can find good companies online. (Yellow Pages ads are old-school; some professional movers, particularly those who provide interstate service, don’t advertise in local books.) Just check a few important issues: The name of a company that specializes in moving pianos will most often include the word “piano” or “keyboard.” An interstate mover’s website should offer its Department of Transportation (DOT) number, which indicates that it is regulated and has the required insurance and authorization. Some states also regulate intrastate movers, and require them to publish their state registration number in advertisements. Regulated or not, a company should be able, on request, to show you proof of insurance. The company’s actual street address should accompany a local phone number. Check the company’s Better Business Bureau rating at www.BBB.org. Check for its membership status in the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), the American Moving and Storage Association (AMSA), or that the owner is a member of the Piano Technicians Guild (PTG). How long a company has been in business will suggest whether it has been able to weather economic storms while continuing to satisfy its customers. A positive reference from one or more friends, family, or a professional such as a piano dealer or technician is always helpful. I suggest you exercise a reasonable amount of due diligence, and try to use a company for which you have been given two or three referrals.
Long-distance moving presents its own set of options. Basic service involves a local piano mover picking up the piano and holding it in storage. Then the long-distance trucking company picks it up and takes it to the destination piano mover, who delivers it to the home. If you’re moving your own household goods in a rental truck, you should have the local piano mover at the point of origin move the piano from the house into the truck and properly secure it, then have the local mover at the destination remove it from the truck and move it into the house. This method is usually the cheapest, the downside being that there are two or three different companies to deal with.
Better still is working with one company from start to finish. The office folks, the logo on the truck, and the uniforms on the moving personnel remain the same throughout your piano’s travels. This way, you don’t have to worry about complex scheduling problems or liability issues. For example, what happens if your rental truck or moving van is delayed? Will the local movers at the points of origin and destination still be available when you need them? If damage is discovered after your piano is moved into your new home, which of the three parties is responsible?
The best companies offer custom trucks and trailers specifically designed to transport pianos. Air-ride suspension, which keeps road vibrations and pot holes from shaking your piano apart, has proven to give the best ride. Proper load control, lift gates, and ramps further ensure that your piano is getting special care. Climate control is critical during especially warm or cold seasons; some finishes can be ruined if allowed to freeze. A professional piano mover handles all these variables for you.
When calling a long-distance moving company, be as specific as possible about any known difficulties associated with the move, such as difficult truck access in a rural or urban area, a very steep driveway, or no cell-phone service. Verify that the price is all-inclusive (includes moving the piano between house and truck), and not just for curbside delivery. Ask about any additional charges that might apply if, for example, you later decide to have the piano delivered to the second floor instead of the first.
Check your budget and schedule to determine the level of service you need. For long-distance moves, typically allow 30 days for pickup and another 30 days for delivery. If the move needs to be done more quickly, it will likely cost more; if you can give the mover more time, it will cost less. Most companies accept credit cards, which can allow you to spread the cost over several payments if necessary. Then sit back and enjoy a professional experience. Although a little more expensive than the nonprofessional kind, it will be less stressful for both you and your piano.
Russ Vitt is owner of Modern Piano Moving, the country’s first door-to-door nationwide piano mover. The company has warehouse locations throughout the U.S., with headquarters in Sullivan, Missouri. For additional information, see its website at www.modernpiano.com.