How to get a free piano!

So you need a piano and your friend, neighbor, aunt, uncle, cousin, craigslist, newspaper, etc. has one that they will give you. After some inquiry and determining it “just needs tuning”, you make arrangements to have the instrument moved to your home. That ordeal is marginally difficult – either you call your friends and load it onto a waiting vehicle by sheer muscle or you call a professional moving company to transport it. Either way it cost you – by returning the favor when any of the aforementioned friends needs help in the form of manual labor – or in real money paid to the professional movers. It seems that when you get it in the house there are more problems than you actually found when you picked up the piano... some keys stick or don’t play, there is a strange smell coming from this thing and the finish is way more tired, worn and cracked than it was when you first looked at it. No problem – the piano was free after all. Tomorrow you will call the local piano tuner to come tune it and your daughter, son, spouse, or significant other will be on their way to becoming the artist you know they can be!

Well, the piano tuner comes to the door at the appointed time and after a few pleasantries is introduced to your free piano. You can tell by the look on his/her face as they survey the instrument that all may not be well with the world. Doing their due diligence the technician begins to disassemble the piano observing the pieces and parts that are visible. Finding the serial number and the actual manufacturer located on the piano, the technician begins to share information... Your piano is 30 – 40 – 50 – 60 80 – 90 years old and needs a little more than “just tuning”. He/she tests a few tuning pins and it seems that some in the bass are loose or slipping. The “few notes that won’t play” require various parts to play properly, the action need regulating, that odd smell is a mice nest under the keys and the mice have used some of the felt to make their nest; hammers need to be filed and voiced, there seem to be loose ribs or at least there is a buzz somewhere, the bridges need to be repaired, the bass strings are really dull sounding, there may be loose keytops that need to be reglued or replaced, there is moth damage and some of the felts need to be replaced, and the piano is low in pitch. Maybe it can be tuned “where it is” rather than at standard pitch – A440. That may only be a problem if you need to play the piano with other instruments. If you bring it up to standard pitch you risk breaking strings and even more expense. Herein lies the problem ... your free piano will cost you at least $500 to $1500 to bring up to usable condition – or worse – the pinblock is not repairable and the instrument has no value and will have to be disposed of requiring you to move it again with friends or professional movers.

As you are probably aware by now we have been involved with these scenarios many more times than we care to consider. The point of this entire article is that “free pianos” are rarely free. More often than not there is a very good reason the pianos are “free”. If they had any real value folks generally would sell these pianos rather than give them away. If you happen to be the person who actually gets a great piano for free that only needs tuning – consider yourself extremely blessed – you are the exception!

For anyone else considering getting a “free piano” we would offer some basic guidelines that will save you time, money and that nauseating feeling that you get when you realize things are not as they seem.

You may want to ask a few simple questions:
A) Why are you giving this piano away? Possibly a piano tuner has already told them the piano has no value or needs significant repair and they need to get it out of the house... stop right there – you do not need this headache.

B) How old is the piano? Pianos are generally designed to last roughly 75 years without major restoration. Age can generally be determined with your trusty Pierce Piano Atlas. Any legitimate piano dealer/tech will have one and can help you determine the age and quality of your potential “find”.

C) Has the piano been serviced regularly? Having a piano tuned regularly is like having a mechanic check your car on a regular basis. Most competent piano techs will spot problems on routine visits. Many will be addressed before they become major issues. Tuning regularly will also have the benefit of keeping the piano up to standard pitch, thereby insuring that “it only needs tuning”. If the piano has not been serviced in 20 or 30 years – THINK - this is going to cost $ to get it in shape.

D) Finally, and
probably should be the first thing you do, if the piano passes all of the above considerations, ask your donor if you can have a piano tech come evaluate the piano BEFORE you make arrangements to move it. Of course it will cost you a service charge, but that is cheap insurance compared to the cost of repairs. Ask for a written evaluation with associated costs for proposed repairs and the potential value of the instrument after the repairs are completed. Many pianos have negative value – that is the cost of the repairs far exceeds the value of the repaired piano.

We sincerely hope this exercise encourages you to be proactive in looking “gift horses in the mouth”. Our objective is that you acquire an instrument that you can enjoy. After many years in the piano industry and observing human nature we felt compelled to offer these insights to help piano seekers to avoid wasting their hard earned money.

Some further observations:

Square (rectangle) pianos do not make good practice instruments for piano students (or for pianists in general). While these may have significant aesthetic appeal they are temperamental instruments that cannot hold up to contemporary playing.

All “baby grand” pianos are not valuable. There are many brands of grand pianos that have very little or negative value (see item D above).

Old upright pianos rarely have significant value and can have harmful chemicals in them. The white dust under the keys many times is arsenic based mothproofing – do not disturb this powder.

Many “new” pianos with old traditional names may actually be inexpensive PSO’s (piano shaped objects) that are not suitable for actual use as a piano.

If you need a good piano tuner you can generally find the better ones in your area by contacting Piano stores or local Schools of Music and/or larger churches. These folks generally use the best piano tuners around. It is always a good idea to ask for references also.

Spinet pianos (36” tall) are generally the least expensive but most piano teachers don’t really like them. Console (42” to 44” tall), studio (45” tall) or professional upright (48” to 52” tall) pianos are preferable.

Grand pianos should be at least 5’1” long or longer. If you purchase a grand piano less than 5’ in length you might as well buy a spinet piano – it will sound better.

Ok, here’s the sales pitch, most reputable piano stores have a selection of good used pianos that have been serviced and are offered for sale at reasonable prices. Generally, reputable piano stores will offer warranties on their used pianos, and home delivery, as well as trade up policies, should you find you have a musical prodigy.

Case Brothers has been in the piano business over 100 years. I think I can say we have learned a few things over the years. If we can answer any questions or offer advice – contact us – we will try to help you – it’s best to call us BEFORE you go get that “free” piano.

Oh yes – about pianos you buy off the internet... That will take another epistle. Thanks for taking time to read this article.

Steve Garrett
Case Brothers