How To Get A FREE Piano

So you need a piano and your friend, neighbor, aunt, uncle, cousin, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, 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 you 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 paying the moving company or returning the favor when any of the aforementioned friends needs help in the form of manual labor. It seems that once you get it in the house there are more problems than you actually found when picking up the piano. Some keys stick or won't play, there is a strange smell coming from it, and the finish is worn and cracked. No problem, the piano was free after all. Tomorrow, you will call the local piano tuner to tune it so your daughter, son, or partner can become the artist you know they can be!

Well, the piano tuner comes to the door at the appointed time and after a few pleasantries, you take them to your "new piano." You can tell by the look on his/her face as they survey the instrument that all may not be well with your free piano. 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 -80 -90 years old and needs more than just a tuning." They test 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 needs regulating, the odd smell is a mouse nest under the keys - and the mice used some of the felt to make their nest, hammers need to be filed and voiced, there seem to be loose ribs creating a buzz somewhere, the bridges need to be repaired, te bass strings are really dull, there may be loose key tops that need to be regulated or replaced, moths may have damaged some of the felt that needs to be replaced, and the pitch is low. Maybe it can be tuned to "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-$1500 to bring it up to USABLE condition, or worse, the 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 more times than we care to consider. The point of this entire article is that a "free piano" is rarely free. More often than not, there is a reason that piano was "free" to begin with. If a piano has any value, folks generally sell them 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 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 that things aren't as they seem. Ask yourself a few simple questions:

A) Why are you giving this piano away? Possibly a piano tuner has already told them that the piano has no value, it needs significant repair, and they need to get it out of the house. Stop right there! You do not want this headache.

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

C) Has this piano been serviced regularly? Having a piano tuned regularly is like having a mechanic check your car on a regular basis. Most competent piano technicians will be able to spot any issues 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, STOP and think about what it will cost YOU to get it in shape.

D) Finally, and probably the first thing you should do, if the piano passes all of the above considerations, ask you donor if you can have a piano technician 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 - 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 avoid wasting their hard-earned money. 

Some further observations:

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

- Not all "baby grand" pianos are 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 moth-proofing. 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 local piano stores, churches,  or a nearby school of music. These folks generally use the best piano tuners around. It is always a good idea to ask for references once locating a piano tuner.

- Spinet pianos (36" tall) are generally the least expensive but most piano teachers do not really like them. Console (42"-44" tall), Studio (45" tall), or professional upright (48" - 52" tall) pianos are preferable.

- Grand pianos should be at least 5'1" in length or longer. If you purchase a piano less than 5' long, you might as well buy a Spinet - it will probably sound better.

Okay, here is 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! It is best to call us before you go get that free piano so we can help you make the right choice.

Oh yeah, about the pianos you buy off of websites like Amazon or Ebay...that will take another epistle. Thank you for taking the time to read this article.

Steve Garrett

Case Brothers

1-800-622-5150