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Evaluating an Antique American Upright Piano – Finding a Diamond in the Rough

by Wayne Jordan (07/23/12).

It’s easy to make a mistake when purchasing a old piano. A particular piano may look good—and even sound good—but hidden inside may be problems that are expensive to fix.

Old pianos are everywhere: in homes, institutions, churches and schools. Many of them are junk, but a fair number of them are marvelous instruments from the “Golden Age of the Piano (1890-1919) and are worthy of preservation. Old pianos can be purchased cheaply (compared to new pianos), and if you know what to look for, you can find one of these “diamonds in the rough.”

It’s easy to make a mistake when purchasing a piano, though. A particular piano may look good—and even sound good—but hidden inside may be problems that are expensive to fix. Unlike fine violins, guitars and other acoustic stringed instruments, pianos do not improve with age. Rather, they deteriorate. Pianos are mechanical; they are musical machines. Machines have moving parts that wear out and break. Pianos have more than 220 strings that pull across the frame and plate at a tension of more than 200 lbs. each. That’s more than 20 tons of tension pulling across a piano! Imagine what that much pressure can do to wood over the decades. Piano soundboards, bridges, tuning pin blocks and cast iron plates can (and often do) crack. Cracks in a piano may be expensive or impossible to repair.

Buying an older piano is much like buying a used car: you can tell a lot just by looking it over and taking it for a quick test drive. If your first impression is favorable, you can take the car to your mechanic for a closer look. What I will share with you here is how to give a piano an initial inspection so that you can decide if a closer look by a piano tuner is in order. This guide is restricted to upright pianos (those whose back goes up against a wall). I’m doing this for three reasons: first, uprights are the most popular piano because they take up the least floor space in a home. Secondly, carved-case and period-styled upright pianos are in demand by antique collectors. Lastly, upright pianos are the easiest type to inspect.

For your reference, here is a cutaway picture of a piano with the major parts listed.

Initial Considerations

Before you buy an older piano, it’s important to determine how you intend to use it. How often will it be played? Is the piano’s function is primarily decorative? Buyers expect a piano to play. Antique or not, if the piano doesn’t play, then it has no value as a musical instrument. Are you buying it to add to a collection of musical instruments or as an investment? Older pianos usually cannot stand up to being played hard or often without a complete restoration to like-new condition. Pianos in poor mechanical condition are not suitable for use by a beginning piano student; it’s difficult to learn how to play when the piano doesn’t work properly. On the other hand, if the piano will only be used occasionally, then it doesn’t need to be in perfect mechanical condition.

Does restoring a piano affect its value, as it does with some antique furniture? No. Consider a classic car: before restoration, it is junk. After restoration, it can sell for six figures or more. Restoring a fine piano improves its value.

What’s in a Name?

There have been hundreds of piano makers in America. Most 19th-century industrial cities had at least one piano manufacturer. Because pianos were heavy and expensive to move, most manufacturers sold their pianos regionally rather than nationally. Therefore, you will find more of certain brands of pianos in particular cities or regions. Stieff pianos, for example, are mostly found close to Baltimore, Md.; Ivers & Pond, on the other hand, are generally found near Boston. Companies with dedicated artist promotional departments like Steinway and Baldwin can be found nationwide because they entered into contracts with artists to provide them with pianos for their concerts nationwide in exchange for endorsements. The top turn-of-the-century pianos were (in no particular order): Steinway, Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, and Knabe. Also recognized as quality pianos were Sohmer, Stieff, Weber, Ivers & Pond, and Everett.

Size Matters

There are only two basic types of pianos: vertical and grand. All other nomenclature (“baby grand,” “studio grand,” upright, etc.) was developed for marketing purposes.

Originally, vertical (upright) pianos were deemed “Cabinet Grands,” and most were 50-inches tall or more. The strings were long and the soundboards were big. These pianos had a big, bold sound that compared favorably to smaller grand pianos. The most significant difference between grand pianos and vertical pianos was to be found in the piano action. When you press a key on a grand piano, the key only needs to return halfway before you can strike it again and sound another note (this is called double-escapement). On a vertical piano, the key must return all the way up in order for the action to recycle and ready the key to be struck again (single escapement). That’s why concerts are always performed on grand pianos: the pianist controls the key both up and down, which gives him/her more control.

As households became more mobile and middle-class houses became smaller, the size of pianos changed as well. Today, vertical pianos come in a variety of sizes: Upright, which refers to pianos 50-inches or taller, and includes most early 20th century models; Studio, which means pianos 45- to-50-inches in height; Console, which applies to pianos 40-43 inches, and Spinet, which covers pianos short than 40 inches. Most of what we consider “antique” pianos are uprights made before 1920.

First Impressions

Even an inexperienced buyer can get a good “read” on a piano in less than 15 minutes. Here’s how:

1. Examine the finish. Are you OK with it the way that it is, or will work need to be done? Refinishing a piano is NOT a do-it-yourself job. It needs to be done by a piano refinishing specialist, which is expensive. I’ve given expert testimony in several court cases where furniture refinishing shops were sued for ruining someone’s piano. If you don’t like the way the piano looks and you don’t want to spend the money to have it refinished by a professional, walk away.

A close-up of ivory keys. Notice the discoloration and the distinctive lines between the "tail" and the "top."

2. Open the keyboard cover (called a “fallboard”) and examine the keys Are the coverings ivory or plastic? Ivory is applied in three sections: the long, thin section that goes between the black keys (the “tail”), the broad area where the finger goes (the “top”) and the front, which is the vertical section on the front of the key. Real ivory has finger-print like grain that differs from key to key. Since it is organic, it will often discolor just as teeth do. And, since it is applied in three sections, there is a discernible line between the key top and tail. If a piano’s keyboard meets all three of these criteria, it is likely real ivory. If it does not meet all three criteria, it is plastic or faux ivory (“ivorine”). If the keyboard is ivory and you have missing tops or tails, they will be difficult to replace. It’s against the law to import ivory, and finding old ivory that will match your keyboard is almost impossible.

An open upright piano.

3. Take the front off of the piano. This is easy to do; simply open the lid, and find how the piano’s front panel is attached to the piano sides. It will either screw into place or there will be hooks that rest on pegs. Once unscrewed, the front lifts off. If the top front of the piano is covered by a mirror, don’t buy the piano; the case has been modified. During the Second World War, when piano production was halted, dealers stayed in business by re-styling old upright pianos. The re-styling often included a mirror to make the piano look more modern.

The name of the manufacturer is cast into the iron plate.

4. Check the name of the manufacturer that is cast into the iron plate. It should match the name on the front of the piano. If it doesn’t, you are looking at a “stencil” piano. Piano manufacturers often make pianos under several different names in order to sell more pianos in a particular market (this is still done today). For example, Aeolian Corporation sold pianos under about a dozen different names. If you find the name “Aeolian” stamped into the cast iron plate and “Wheelock” on the front of the piano, then the piano is a stencil. Pianos identical to the Wheelock have likely been sold under a half-dozen different names. Sometimes, names written on the front of a piano may be fraudulent. I have seen pianos with the name “Steinway and Sons” on the front that were not Steinway pianos.

5. Look around for signs of mouse or insect damage. Look at the felts and along the inside adjacent to the keys. There is plenty of nest-building material in a piano, and mice and insects can do considerable damage. If there’s a mouse nest and/or moth-eaten felts, don’t buy the piano; repairs may cost more than the piano is worth.

The dampers and hammers in an upright piano.

6. Play each key (black and white) several times all the way up the keyboard. If some keys stick or don’t work, don’t be too concerned; just make a note (no pun intended). Non-working keys may or may not be a significant problem. As you play the keys, watch the hammers move to hit the strings. Make note of hammers that are missing or which seem to wobble or are very loose (meaning they hit the adjacent hammers).

7. Work the piano’s pedals. Most upright pianos will have three pedals. The right pedal will lift the dampers from the strings (peek over the hammer felts and you will see the dampers). The left pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings. The center pedal lifts only the bass dampers. Make sure all the pedals work.

A piano's serial number will be will be printed on the cast iron plate or on the wood above plate, or in a window in the plate.

8. Find the piano’s serial number; you will be able to look this up to determine the year the piano was built. The serial number will be will be printed on the cast iron plate or on the wood above plate, or in a window in the plate. The serial number can be looked up in the Pierce Piano Atlas at your local library.

9. Inspect the inside bottom of the piano. The pianos bottom is easy to access. The board covering the bottom usually just clips into place. The clip can be found near the top of the board, just under the keyboard. Push it up to remove the bottom board. Once opened, you will see where the strings connect at the bottom of the cast iron plate. You will also see that the strings cross over wooden bridges that are glued to the soundboard. Look for cracks in the bridges and cracks in the soundboard. If you find cracks, you should have the piano inspected by a tuner to determine if the problem is repairable.

Once you have inspected the piano, if you find you are still interested in it, have it evaluated by a professional piano tuner. If you need a referral for a tuner, contact the Piano Technicians Guild; its members are tested and well qualified.

A Word of Caution: Don’t have your piano teacher evaluate an antique piano. Teachers are qualified to teach, not repair. Using the car analogy again, a teacher can take it for a test drive but they can’t pull the wheels and check the brakes.

Don’t forget to put the piano back together!

Now, how much should you pay for an antique upright piano?

Before discussing price, let’s talk about moving costs. Upright pianos are heavy; they can easily weigh 600-800 pounds. They don’t roll very well, because 100-year-old metal casters have usually seized up and don’t work. The proper way to move an upright piano is with a flat, four-wheeled furniture dolly. It will require a ramp to get it into a closed truck or cube van, and once in it should be tightly strapped to the back wall of the truck. Like refinishing, piano moving is not a do-it-yourself job. To make matters worse, most household moving companies are not qualified to move pianos (although all will tell you that they are). Your best bet is to call a local piano store and have them recommend a mover. Pickup will cost about $100, with extra charges being made for mileage, steps and special circumstances (like across a lawn) on both ends of the move.

Here are a few price guidelines. As a rule, Steinways in any condition sell for many times what other brands sell for.

Definitions of “rebuilt” and “restored” vary from tuner to tuner; there are no hard and fast rules. If the seller is asking a lot of money for a piano, get several opinions of its value. Antique upright pianos are rarely refinished and rebuilt (restored) unless they are Steinways or pianos with a fancy carved case.

Prices for Steinway Uprights

  • Steinway uprights, plain case, original condition, playable and tunable: $3,000 to $5,000;
  • Steinway uprights, fancy case, original condition, playable and tunable $5,000 to $8,500;
  • Steinway uprights, plain case, restored (refinished and rebuilt) $10,000 to $15,000;
  • Steinway uprights, fancy case, restored $15,000 to $30,000.

Prices for all Other Brands of Uprights

  • All other brands, plain case, original condition, playable and tunable: $300 to $1,200;
  • All other brands, fancy case, original condition, playable and tunable: $1,000 to $3,000;
  • All other brands, fancy case, restored (refinished and rebuilt) $7,500 to $15,000.

Any piano that is not in original condition, unplayable or cannot be tuned have no value; in fact, my customers regularly paid me to haul old pianos to the dump, for which I charged our normal moving fee plus whatever the dump fee was. Often, piano dealers will sell such pianos from their warehouse for a few hundred dollars, including the moving fee.

A piano that is not in original condition, unplayable or cannot be tuned has no value, other than for decorative purposes.

The trend in the piano business is away from vertical pianos; the industry is moving toward digital electronic pianos. Those who can find an antique piano from the “Golden Age of the Piano” will have a treasure indeed.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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8 Responses to “Evaluating an Antique American Upright Piano – Finding a Diamond in the Rough”

  1. Ted Walton says:

    Nice job on your article. Now I will have to take a look at our Steinway that’s been sitting for decades. Thanks. Also do you plan any articles on player pianos or are they passe?

    Ted

    • Wayne Jordan says:

      Thanks, Ted; glad you enjoyed the article.

      I don’t have any immediate plans for a player piano article, but I do have a Steinway article planned for the Fall. Is your Steinway a player?

      Keep in touch…

      Wayne

      • Ted Walton says:

        No, the Steinway is an upright. My wife’s parents purchased it the 40′s for her lessons. In the late 60′s we had it moved to our house for our kids to learn and had it tuned. My wife remembers (?)that the tuner said it was built in the 1880′s It’s not very assessable right now so I can’t get the serial number.

        I have a couple of player pianos. A Haines Bros. with an Ampico player mechanism from my grandfather in Lancaster, PA. He probably purchased it the 20′s when he had gas lights and no electricity in the house. As I remember it, when he had the house electrified in the late 30′s he had an electric pump installed in the piano. The other two players are of lesser quality(?) and also hard to get to.

        Will be looking forward to your other articles.
        Best regards,

        Ted

  2. Dana Caffrey says:

    We’re not a musically inclined family but we have a piano in our living room. I don’t know why, but I’ve learned that my mom is a frustrated pianist. The last time I check, it’s not in tune anymore. Can you please tell me where to bring our piano for a check-up? Thanks!

    • Wayne Jordan says:

      Hi, Dana;

      Fortunately, you won’t have to take your piano anywhere to have it serviced; a piano tuner will come to your home. To find a qualified tuner, Go to http://www.ptg.org, the website of the Piano Technicians Guild. There is a link on their homepage that says “Find a Registered Piano technician”. Click that link, and you will be able to do a zip code search to find a tuner.

      Thanks for reading the article!

  3. Tom Mannlein says:

    Have you ever heard of Piano labeled Manufactured for Wm. Rohlfing Co Milwaukee some dates on it are 1885. Very decorative. Tom Columbus wi 920-623-3596

  4. Billie Ortiz says:

    I just found out that the piano that has been in my storage unit for some time now is a Stultz & Bauer made in 1893 and now I don’t know what to do with it, Can you help ?

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