Structural parts of a (grand) piano value assessme

There are three main elements of a piano: the acoustic system (iron frame, soundboard, stringing including a tuning peg, tuning pin), the mechanism with keyboard and case. Only the acoustic system, the mechanism and the keyboard are relevant for the purposes of playability or sound when examining the condition. When considering the current value of the instrument and any restoration costs, though, include the condition of the case as well.

Piano action upper damping under damping

Basically, under damping mechanisms were built after 1900 because they are better with regard to touch and damping behavior. But in my view, Ibach and Blüthner upper damping pianos from the period till 1920 will also play very well, because they had a special patented development of the upper damping. By the way, the under damping was made by Erard and Pleyel as early as 1850, for example. After that, the upper damping was favored in Germany, until it was replaced by the under damping again, due to better mechanical parts (esp. spring steel), and that is built even now.

Piano action photos

Action with upper damping Action with under damping

Viennese action or repetition

The grand piano had, like the piano, different types of action that were again differently realized by different manufacturers. They may be superficially categorized as the early bounce/push action (including the “Viennese action”) that allowed no quick repetition and, in the case of the Viennese action, had a more complex damping, and the subsequent double repetition action (“English action”). In the double repetition action that is still built nowadays, the whippen is moved across a capstan (connection between end of the key and the action). Some manufacturers fixed the connection between key and whippen, permitting a higher precision - but it is more difficult to refurbish and adjust. Although a refurbished instrument with Prellmechanik action may be nicely played, of course, we recommend the modern action type for contemporary playing. A notable exception is the Blüthner patent action that, if in good condition, permits a very fine play and also wonderfully repeats for high standards.

Pictures of a grand piano action

Schwander Prellmechanik action Renner double repetition action Blüthner patent action

Condition of the action piano hammers

The keyboard and the action are of great importance as they are the interface between piano player and acoustic system. Important questions with regard to the action are: For the piano - Is it an upper damping or lower damping action?

For the grand

Is it a Prellmechanik/Viennese action or a double repetition action?
Is it a branded action (Schwander, Renner, Keller, Langer, Flemming etc.)?
Is the action in original condition or has it already been revised?
Is the action worn down and/or were pests at work?

The hammer felts of older and much played instruments are occasionally worn down and may have deep grooves or even completely lost their original hammer shape (see sample photo) and do no longer produce a nice sound. In such cases, an overhaul of the action is necessary. Is the action adjusted or are touch point and key position very different? Very important: If the axes are worn down, you will recognize that by moving a finger (carefully) from left to right across the wooden ends of the hammers and find that they can easily moved laterally out of position. Worn axes are very disadvantageous for the touch and can produce noise. All these things can be amended by a piano-maker, of course - but expect costs of at least 1000 – 1500 € for a simple overhaul of the action.

 

Piano keyboard, ivory and Elfenit, keyboard

Is the keyboard cover made of complete original ivory* (mainly used till 1910) or already severely discolored or worn? Was an early kind of plastic used, such as Elfenit, Argolit or Clavoid (which are trade names of contemporary manufacturers), that is mostly dried up or displays cracks and dismembering or strong discoloration (see sample photo)? Such keyboards are hard to clean and must receive new covers, which is very hour-consuming. Is it a modern plastic keyboard, which is quite indestructible? How are the keys arranged? If you look at the height of the keyboard, all keys should be aligned and level. Also, the keys should have only a little bit of lateral shift. Expect adverse effects to the touch if the keyboard is too much worn, which may often happen in the medium tone area of older and much played instruments. If a keyboard is too much worn, it must be felted and adjusted anew. The new allocation of a keyboard with modern plastic will cost about 500 euros. The complete renovation of a keyboard costs about 1,000 -1,500 euros.

 

Ivory for piano keys

* A slight digression on this: Only few people are aware that in the golden age of piano making in the 1900s, more than 50,000 elephants were shot every year to get the ivory for (grand) piano keyboards. This was prohibited in Europe during the 1910s at least, then the artificial Elfenit appeared for the first time. During the last years, trade with ivory was limited even further, so that ivory in processed form will be affected under certain conditions, too. The import regulations of various countries may vary, so you should be careful before you think of exporting a piano when moving abroad. An American artist has created a very nice and thought-provoking piece of art on the subject of elephants and ivory on keyboards of famous manufacturers. You may buy this picture as a signed print if you contact us.


 

Cracks in the soundboard

Make sure that the soundboard has no cracks, in particular if the instrument is aged. Cracks will cause the curvature of the soundboard and thus the bridge pressure that the manufacturer intended to decrease or to disappear. Sound volume and clarity diminish, and noise may occur (rattling, muffled strings etc.). Older pianos often have cracks in the soundboard and yet can be played and sound very nicely. Consider the value of the instrument, however. Full cracks (you can really see through the crack) are in general more alarming than hairline cracks (running in the grain of the wood and not passing through). Cracks under the bridges are basically more alarming.


 

Cracks in the piano bridges or in the bass bridge

Cracks in the bridges are also very critical damages, especially transverse cracks in the bass bridge near the bridge pins, because the piano can then usually no longer be tuned and will generate noises. Check the bridges also at places that are hidden behind the action, because cracks may preferably appear in the crossing of the descant at the bridge ends.


 

(Grand) piano clasps

In addition, there are many other critical places in the piano where cracks or similar defects may have dramatic effects on tuning and sound – and thus its value. Here is an example of torn-out clasps in an otherwise high-quality Ibach piano.


 

Moths woodworm or mice in the (grand) piano

Three main types of pest infestation are dangerous for a piano: the woodworm, the moth and mice. Although these pests have been more frequent in the past, they may today as well enter the instrument unnoticed, even in the best kept households. It is true - an unplayed piano is more often visited by moths and mice than a played one. 






Woodworm infestation in the (grand) piano

Here is an example of the dramatic scale of woodworm infestation - in this case, even at the notch of the piano that otherwise would rarely be affected. We can hardly restore a piano in such condition with reasonable effort. Please pay attention to the condition of the wooden case when buying - severe woodworm damage to the structure may lie hidden. If you discover woodworm traces at any place, please examine the instrument most thoroughly because the woodworms will then have expanded to other places, mostly the softwood. Whether the worm is still active cannot always be identified from the presence of fresh wood-dust only. In any case, the statics of such an instrument must be assessed, too much damaged wood replaced, if required - and the whole instrument must be protected against woodworms.

 

Mouse and mouse nest in the (grand) piano

Because felts on hammers, dampers and strips etc. are made from natural hair - and sometimes a piano will be left unplayed (alas) -, mice prefer this refuge. Here is a bad example of instrument and owner - a mouse nest with two dead animals in it. But before, the critters left considerable damage to the action felts, the keyboard and the keyboard floor wood. Mouse urine wreaks great havoc in the sensitive instrument, too. So, if there is no eager cat in the house, other suitable means against the rodents are appropriate to maintain the value of the instrument.

 

Moth infestation and damage at the (grand) piano

The third pest are moths. These animals like felts as well and will often nest unnoticed in the piano. Unplayed pianos are again in worst danger. Moths are often introduced with old carpets or clothes. Or even just with the piano. So, pay close attention to the action when buying: moth traces and remains of chrysalis may be seen on the hammers, but sometimes only after the instrument was disassembled, at more hidden places.

 

Mothballs or moth protection for the piano

Such moth bags, lavender or similar, may often be found in old pianos. If the piano is potentially threatened by moths, use commercially available substances for prevention. A moth-infested piano can be thoroughly restored only by a piano-maker. All felts must be renewed then.

Therefore I recommend again: It is definitively worth to look for pianos at the second-hand market - but if you doubt, take an expert along or have photos sent across the distance and certain questions answered.

 

Piano tuning, grand tuning

One important aspect of financing (because you will have 2-3 tunings per year and not just one of them), but also if an instrument shall be made available for piano lessons and/or interaction with other instruments. Ask for when the instrument was tuned last time, how often it was tuned and to what pitch. The piano tuner will probably have said something about tuning stability that you should interrogate about. Make sure that the pin block has no cracks. We distinguish visible cracks in the often present cover wood and cracks in the actual pin block that may not be visible on the surface.

Cracks in the pin block of a (grand) piano

Here is an example of a well visible continuous crack in the bass area of a pin block. The tuning pins are not tightly fitting anymore and cannot maintain the string tension. In such cases, tuning is not possible without extensive repair. A renewal of the pin block is basically always possible - but requiring bigger investment. You may find further details on tuning below.

 

Cracks in the cast iron frame of a (grand) piano

A crack in the cast iron frame should be even more critically taken. Although tension cracks appeared sometimes already during the assembly of older instruments, the cast iron frame, that has an essential role in the statics of the instrument, should be undamaged. Here is an example of a crack in the cast iron frame of a 1930 piano. These cracks often appear in the weak spots of the cast iron frame, in crossings or corners. Potential causes for such cracks can be improper transport, wrong tuning or material weaknesses. Look always very carefully at the piano, in particular at the condition of the frame. Repair is possible, but very expensive.

 

(Grand) pianos from Asia and Eastern Europe

Pianos from the Asian or Eastern European regions are not necessarily worse than famous German instruments - there are also very good, good, but unfortunately also many less good instruments. But less good or even bad instruments are available from other parts of Europe or from America, too. It is not about the quality of piano builders - it is about the cost targets the mass productions set. A brand new standard piano is available at less than $1000 - how should that be a piano of higher quality and sustainability? Pianos from tropical lands that are not directly imported from the factory should be observed with regard to significant differences in humidity and possible effects on parts of the structure. You will find a lot of pianos, especially from the late 1960s to the 1980s, that are labeled with German or European names yet come from the Asian region and will be far below the original quality of the previous manufacturer. In case of doubt, consult an expert before buying.