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  • Writer's pictureelizabethhoenig

Not all pianos are created equally

People often contact me to offer me their unwanted piano, hoping I will take it off their hands. Unfortunately, most of the time I have to decline the offer. It's not something that I enjoy doing, but there comes a point when reality must be the deciding factor.

For as much as I believe in equality for all human beings, I can't say the same for all pianos. Some instruments are better quality, in better condition, and more desirable than others.

Hold on! Didn't I just claim in my previous post that we should save as many as we can? Yes, I did say that. It might seem like I'm contradicting myself. Allow me attempt to explain.

If you've ever visited an online marketplace, you've no doubt seen numerous people practically giving away pianos. For example, I just searched Facebook marketplace for "piano near me" and the piano pictured below was the first one that popped up.

The average person might see this piano, for example, and think, "My child needs a piano to practice on, and this one's only $80! What a deal! It appears to be in fairly decent condition from the looks of it, and the description says that all it needs is a tuning. Could this be a good piano for me?" ... Maybe. Maybe not.

When I look at this piano, I see something altogether different. Based on the model listed, I know that these types of pianos were last manufactured in the mid-1970s by the Kimball company. I work on a lot of Kimball pianos and I personally find them to be of mediocre quality at best, especially those produced in the latter half of the 20th century before Kimball went out of business. (My apologies to the Kimball owners reading this.)

This is what's called a spinet, which is the smallest fully-functioning piano ever made. Manufacturers began producing them after the Great Depression when people couldn't afford as much and needed smaller instruments to fit into smaller houses and apartments. Spinets were very prevalent for several decades until the 1980s. The trade-off came when cost and size were sacrificed for quality. As a result, I hardly ever recommend a spinet piano to anyone, unless I've personally inspected it and feel that it would be a good fit for someone.

There are four main things I look for when considering if a piano is worth saving.

  1. Size - The size of a piano is important to me because the larger a piano is, the longer its strings are, the larger its plate is, and, therefore, the better its sound is. There's a very good reason why professionals play a concert grand on stage instead of a small spinet like the one sitting in Grandma's living room. (No offense to grandmas, either.) Smaller pianos definitely have their place and I certainly understand why they are so prevalent - they're less expensive, easier to move, and fit into homes much better. After all, who has room for a 10' long piano in their home? And a better question is who can afford one?! Not many of us. However, as I mentioned before, the smaller pianos' quality is undeniably inferior.

  2. Age - The late 19th and early 20th centuries are considered the Golden Age of piano manufacturing. In the United States alone, there were thousands of independent piano companies in production, where as today there are only a handful - Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, and few other small manufacturers. Vertical (aka "upright") pianos manufactured around the turn of the 20th century through the beginning of the Great Depression typically measure between 50 and 60 inches high. In the piano world, we call these vintage uprights. By comparison, spinet pianos measure 38 inches or less in height. (See #1 - size.) Similarly, grand pianos from the turn of the century measured six to seven feet in length. It wasn't until the 1930s that baby grand pianos (those that measure less than six feet in length) began being produced for the same reasons the spinet piano came to be at that time - because they are smaller and less expensive. In addition to quality, another reason I find these earlier, larger pianos more desirable is due to the decorative aspects of their casework. The fine, ornate detail of these pianos is something at which I marvel. There was real craftsmanship involved. After these details were phased out of piano production, I personally find subsequently produced pianos less interesting visually.

  3. Cost - When I'm looking to purchase or acquire a project piano, the cost must be negligible in order for me to make a profit. Considering the cost of supplies and my labor to disassemble the piano, refinish the casework, replace or repair any broken or deteriorated parts, reassemble and adjust everything to proper working order, and move the piano, there's not much wiggle room for me to spend to obtain the piano in the first place. Even a free piano might not be worth it if there's no market for the finished product when I'm done with it.

  4. Condition - One of the drawbacks of pianos that are a hundred years old or more is that time has not been kind to these instruments. Almost always the original wooden and felt parts have become dried out and deteriorated to the point of no longer being useful and needing replacement. The original keytops are similarly either missing or badly chipped. Soundboards, bridges, and pinblocks have cracked. When the pinblock cracks and deteriorates, the piano will no longer stay in tune because the tuning pins aren't able to hold the strings at the necessary tension. However, in spite of these deficiencies, a piano that is otherwise desirable can still be saved. It will cost more to repair, of course, but to me it's still worth considering because the craftsmanship of these instruments cannot be replicated. Once these are gone, they're gone forever. Condition-wise, the only thing that would otherwise dissuade me from tackling a restoration project is if the cast-iron plate is cracked or damaged. In that case, a piano is no longer salvageable. Everything else can be replaced or repaired except the plate.

Let me show you what I mean. I recently worked a small 1990 Baldwin that would not stay in tune. Some of the plate bolts were loose, which is a major contributing factor in tuning stability. However, even after tightening the bolts and bringing some of the strings up to pitch, the tuning would not hold. While I was working on it, I could hear strange noises coming from the piano that sounded like wood separating and the strings made pinging noises, which you can hear in the video below. Regardless of how much you know about pianos, I assure you this is not normal. I actually thought the piano might explode on me, which would be very dangerous considering there are approximately 15 tons of tension on the strings that transfer to the 300-pound cast-iron plate. Having that come flying at me is not something I ever want to experience.

Pictured below is the inside of the same piano. You can see a dark brown piece of felt running the length of the piano that had been glued down on top of the pinblock, which sits behind the cast-iron plate. The tuning pins protrude from the pinblock on the front side of the plate. Once I peeled off the brown felt, it immediately became clear why this piano would not stay in tune - the pinblock was separating from the case, causing the plate to distort. Eventually, the plate cracked in three places and I, unfortunately, had to condemn the piano, even though it was only about 30 years old, which is not old at all compared to most pianos.

Pianos like this one are a dime a dozen. Some are better than others and occasionally a good one comes along, but there's are very good reasons they're free for the taking - poor quality, poor condition, and little to no value.

To put it simply, it's unlikely that I would restore a piano produced after the 1930s, unless specifically asked to do so by a client. I'm selective when it comes to most things in life, but especially when it comes to pianos.

I hope this gives you a good idea of what I'm looking for in a piano to restore and insight into why I chose my current project, the 1915 Starck vintage upright.

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