Are digital pianos tunable

Buying a used piano: Tips from a professional

by Markus Thiel,

It doesn't always have to be expensive: If you want to buy a real piano made of wood, felt and steel, you don't have to move your own four wheels or grandma’s hereditary jewelry. With a little patience and luck, you can find your dream instrument on the second-hand market at moderate prices and buy a used piano. In the following article, piano maker Gerald Nahrgang gives valuable insider tips for a successful search.

As a trained piano and harpsichord maker, the multi-instrumentalist Gerald Nahrgang is an experienced expert in his field. As a permanent employee of the piano house Piano Faust in Wuppertal, he has been taking care of the well-strung keyboard instruments and their professional repair for years in the interests of his customers. In an interview with KEYBOARDS, Gerald explains which things you should pay attention to, especially when buying used pianos, and how you can avoid nasty and, as a result, usually expensive surprises in advance.

What am I looking for anyway?

Before buying a piano, you should be clear about the requirements that the instrument should ultimately meet. The song Imagine by John Lennon impressively proves that the objectively best piano does not always have to be the ideal instrument for its own purpose. Whoever thinks of the song immediately has John on this white grand piano in mind, but without taking into account the fact that the piano heard on the recording is a really awkward upright with many characteristic rough edges. For the sound of the song, however, it was the piano!

Despite all the differences, there are also overarching don’ts nowadays. The expert would generally advise against older, so-called upper mute pianos, in which the mutes, as the name suggests, rest on the strings above the hammer heads. These usually quite old pianos are usually very maintenance-intensive and susceptible. Even if they have very decorative and elaborately designed housings with candlesticks - they are more pieces of furniture than instruments to play with.

Risk a look

Even as a layperson, you can get a good impression. Playing the instrument is compulsory, you should also remove the wooden front and take a look at the mechanics and strings.

First of all, Gerald recommends the prospect to look for a uniform overall picture of the mechanics. If this is paired with a generally clean impression on the inside, it speaks for a fundamentally good maintenance condition of the instrument.

The next step should be to look at the condition of the hammer heads. For an instrument that is played regularly, it is completely normal for the typical slight grooving to appear on every hammer head. If, on the other hand, you can see that the playing surface is already deeply notched and protruding felt has broken out at the edges, you should be careful. Of course, such an instrument can also be rebuilt with completely new hammer heads, but you have to weigh the costs. Basically every five to ten years it is necessary to have the hammer heads removed by a specialist and costs up to 800 euros.


Another important criterion when buying a used piano, but unfortunately difficult for laypeople to check, is the condition of the so-called sound post. The pegs of the piano are anchored in this block of wood, hidden behind a cast layer of just a few millimeters in the frame. While modern instruments rely on a virtually unbreakable multiplex transverse construction, the soundpost on many older models is still made of classic solid wood. Not least because of the strong perforation (vortex holes), paired with almost 100 Newton meters of tensile force per string, this construction element is exposed to enormous loads.

Especially with pianos that have been left to stand too dry for a long period of time, the long-term stress ultimately leads to the (solid wood) sound post tearing. However, since this is covered in almost all cases either by the metal frame or, in the case of very old instruments, by a veneer panel, a torn sound post can tragically not be seen at all from a purely visual point of view.

On pianos that have not been tuned for a long time and have a cracked sound post, however, a characteristic detuning can usually be detected. If every second tone on the keyboard shows a more drastic detuning than the other tones, this could already be a first indication of a defective sound post. Basically, however, this is a matter for professionals.

Damage to the harp-like cast iron frame of the piano, which in practice should tame tensile forces of up to 20 tons, usually means a total write-off, as this element made using the gray cast iron process cannot be technically repaired due to its porous structure.

Deeper insights

Anyone who is technically well versed and who has the confidence to do so can risk taking a look at the soundboard behind by removing the mechanics, which are usually only fastened with three screws. If there is a crack here, according to Gerald, this is not yet a mandatory knockout criterion. If, for example, it is only a fine crack, this does not necessarily have to lead to major problems if the piano is placed in a room with constant humidity of almost 50%.

Since the tensile forces of the strings are transmitted to the body via the soundboard of a piano, similar to a guitar, this element, which is glued into the instrument under tension, also contributes significantly to the overall sound. A heavily cracked floor loses its tension and also its ability to resonate, which ultimately shows itself in phenomena such as a weak, thinned bass - an effect that can certainly have its appeal in terms of sound balance with a originally much too powerful sounding Histörchen.

However, the condition of the soundboard also has a significant influence on the tuning stability of an instrument. Since a professional repair is basically possible, but very time-consuming, you have to weigh the costs in relation to the total value.

With a little technical understanding, you can make minor corrections to the mechanics yourself.
Unevenly positioned mechanical elements usually mean more effort
The stop point of a precisely machined hammer head is precisely balanced and tailored to the individual instrument. A revision is something for professionals.
The condition of the sound post cannot be assessed optically, but only through a special functional test.


Even if the heart is bleeding for sellers of a used piano (which may even have been played by grandma), nowadays you should definitely not invest more than a three-digit sum when buying a conventional used piano from a private person. According to Gerald, pianos and grand pianos can be compared very well with other mechanically stressed devices such as a car. Even if the ideal value of an instrument is usually perceived as higher by the seller, it makes no sense to pay 1,500 euros for an 80-year-old piano when you get a brand new one at twice the price including a guarantee.

If you want to invest a little more, you shouldn't miss to check the used offers at the local piano dealer. In addition to competent advice, you get high-quality, refurbished and selected pianos including a guarantee at a new price.

Ultimately, in addition to your wallet and common sense, your own gut feeling should always play a major role when choosing a piano. In this sense, pianos are just as individual as the people who choose them.

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