Which Piano? - What you need to know when buying a piano.
Grand or Upright?
Grands and uprights are very different instruments. Most people will decide which they want on the basis of available space and cost. These are not criteria that will ensure you buy the right piano for your purpose. For example when you play an upright you probably face the wall and cannot see a person you may be accompanying so well. An upright is best located diagonally across a room corner where it is near an acoustic node and will excite favourable room frequencies. Few people spare the space for this orientation. A grand would fit into the same space and might be the better buy.
The escapement device in the action of traditional upright pianos does not reset reliably until the key has returned to rest. In consequence every repeat note has to be played by depressing the key from rest through its full stroke. It is less easy to control soft playing or a trill in these circumstances and therefore interpretation of the music or quiet playing is harder to achieve on an upright.
In the past two years a new action for uprights has been introduced which overcomes this problem. The escapement mechanism is reset at the right time by tiny magnets built into the action. Regulation (precision adjustment) and maintenance of magnetic actions requires skills that some technicians may not possess. The performance of these new actions is a huge technical advance. They achieve the long-standing objective of building an upright that feels like a grand to play. Magnetic actions on uprights have been pioneered by Steingraeber and are also offered by Sauter.
The piano action most favoured by professionals is made by Renner. It is a highly versatile piece of machinery and amazingly durable. With care and maintenance it will last for over a century. There has been little change in concept design of actions for over a century. Each manufacturer calls for modifications to make the Renner action fit his own piano. Keyboards for quality pianos mostly come from Kluege or Laukhuff. Parts such as hammers, shanks, levers and rollers of high quality are also offered by Abel for most makes of piano. Which of these two suppliers offers best quality at any one time changes, but the Author’s view is that both Companies offer good service and care about what they are doing. Very recently piano actions by Wessel Nickel and Gross in the USA made from moisture proof composites of glass, nylon and carbon fibres have been introduced. These are now available on Feurich and Steingraeber-Phoenix pianos. When fitted to steingraeber-Phoenix they are provided with moisture proof material in the bushings to replace woollen bushing cloth. Be vigilant if you buy a piano with a Renner action made in China under licence. The finish and precision may be inferior although good actions from China are available. The ultimate quality piano, Stuart, is fitted with an action not dissimilar to a Renner action, but with important detail improvements and changes researched and designed by Wayne Stuart himself. This includes incorporation of tiny, high strength samarium magnets in the action to reduce friction. Steingraeber still assemble their own actions using quality parts from the main action suppliers. The result is a fine action of great precision and balance assembled and finished to very high performance standards.
The taller the upright piano, the longer the strings and the better the bass will sound. Modern uprights are overstrung like grands, that is to say the strings in the bass overlap those for the treble register and thus lie diagonally across the instrument. This allows the bass strings to be longer. In a grand piano the dampers are above the string and the hammers strike the string from below at roughly the same place . This allows the damper and the hammer to be independently located in the optimum place to get both good sound and good damping. On an upright the hammer and the dampers are on the same side of the string. Ideally they should contact on the string at the same place to work best, as on a grand, but that is impossible on an upright. The compromise is usually to displace the dampers downwards to contact the strings just under the hammers. Damping is then less efficient, and some nasty harmonics can be generated. Pianos with the dampers above the hammers rarely function correctly and should be avoided. Over-dampers have been discontinued since the 1930’s , but some pianos from then still exist. Some uprights are fitted with extra (“fly”) dampers which operate above the hammer to reduce the incidence of the undesirable harmonics. A sensitive artist will feel the vibration from fly dampers through the key. The sensation is uncomfortable. Some makers offer extra long and thus heavier dampers or stronger springs to hold them against the strings more firmly to try to mask poor damping performance. Both these measures to some extent increase the finger effort needed to play the piano and thus degrade the touch feeling. The larger the upright instrument, the less percentage-wise is the error of location of the damper against the string, thus seriously poor damping performance is mostly a feature encountered on low height uprights. A piano that rings on or does not damp instantly is unpleasant to play or hear because of the jumble of clashing harmonics that persist
The larger the soundboard and the longer the strings, the better will be the bass and tenor sound of any piano. The largest upright made is 138 cms high (Steingraeber). The largest grands are 3 meters (Fazioli) and 2.9 meters Bosendorfer and Stuart. Grand pianos over about 200 cms can produce fine sound and some would say the balance between bass and treble sound is best on pianos of length between 200 and 225 cms. The most common height for uprights is about 130 cms, but some makers offer instruments as low as 100 centimeters. These latter cannot really produce acceptable piano sound and are only suitable for early stage learners finding their way around the keys. A genuine musician faced with one of these quickly becomes frustrated and bored by not being able to interpret. It is often said that a large upright is better than a baby grand. That may be true of the best uprights, but the generalisation is flawed. A 170 cm baby grand will probably have up to 30% more sound board area than a 130cm upright; and that can enhance its sound quality. There are good and bad baby grands and uprights. Most quality piano builders have in the past produced small uprights, but they tend to discontinue those models after a few years for fear of damage to their reputation through poor performance which cannot be corrected. There is modern technology that could improve the sound of small uprights but no maker has yet adopted this. For example bridge agraffes of the type now being used in the best grands eliminate pressure loads from the strings which gag the sound board from responding to input vibrations. A thin flexible carbon fibre sound board as has recently become available on Steingraeber grands would obviously enable an upright to perform better and be an interesting development. We expect this to be offered commercially within 18 months.
The action in small uprights can function without limitation from the size and can be as good as that in larger uprights. Therefore your child’s ability to learn will not be inhibited by giving him a small upright. Just don’t expect his performance to achieve a full complement of interpretation. By the time he reaches grade 5 he will need something better than a traditional upright without magnetic action.
New or Old?
Pianos suffer degradation with time, because the crystalline structure of the steel in the strings changes.
Strings over about 50 years old may develop a tendency to break due to metallurgical creep stress. The grip of the tuning pins in the wooden block that holds them (the wrest plank) may deteriorate over 25 to 40 years as the wood matures and the cells dry out. The upper surface of the bridge is subjected to continuous twisting loads from the bridge pins which tend to cause micro cracks with time . When this happens the sound quality of the affected note is lost and it will produce false frequency ..a kind of warbling sound. Another major cause of deterioration is collapse of the sound board under the pressure exerted by the strings which change angle by about 4 degrees as they pass over the bridge. With about 230 strings in continuous tension, that produces a force of around ½ tonne deforming the dome shape of the sound board. When the dome collapses, as it does in all traditional pianos with time, the contact between string and bridge is degraded and the piano loses performance. On most pianos that is the end of its prime life as a musical instrument. Pianos with a very thin sound board collapse sooner than those with a thick robust board. Pianos fitted with the new Phoenix bridge agraffe system have no downwards loads on the soundboard and therefore are not subject to collapse of the crown.
It is possible for any piano to be corrected for soundboard crown collapse and restored to as new condition. Unfortunately many rogue restorers have found cut price ways of masking problems and the author’s belief is that over 90% of the pianos they work on are destroyed as musical instruments, though they may have been polished to look clean and new. To restore a piano professionally costs around £8500. Such expenditure can only be justified on instruments from quality builders, e.g. Bosendorfer, Steingraeber Bluethner, Richard Lipp, larger Steinways from Hamburg only , Knauss, Knabe produced excellent pianos pre 2nd world war. These are worth restoration and may well turn out to sound better than a new piano from the same maker. There is always an uncertainty of prediction about the success of a restoration, not least because one does not know the performance of the piano when it was new. Generally it would be safer and better to buy new or at least only buy a restored piano after the work has been completed and then only from a dealer whom you can trust to do a full professional job. Insist on getting references preferably from professionals in the piano trade. A genuine skilled and honest restorer will not resent this being done.
Restored pianos need attention to such things as action parts wear, and damper felt degradation. There is a copious supply of cheap replacement parts(mostly from China) which will ensure any piano fitted with them is substandard. Insist on action parts and hammers from Abel Wessel Nickel and Gross or Renner and bass strings from a reputable supplier such as Heller or EKA. Roslau produce high quality steel strings. The type of key top is important for good finger grip. Mammoth tusk ivory is excellent and still available but expensive. There is a new semi absorbent ceramic based key top called Tharan which is favoured by most professional artists. If the key board is worn, then felt bushings are easily replaced, but there is a device which wedges the wood supporting the original felt to reduce clearance. This is a “quick fix method” which is both cheap and harmful. In a good quality rebuild the checks will be re-surfaced with doe skin. A critical item is dampers. With time the felt settles and hardens. If undisturbed it will function reasonably, but during rebuild positional disturbance cannot be avoided. Accurately cut damper felts are vital and some of the best available come from makers of mass produced instruments because they have learned that failed dampers needing correction on a production line eat into profits.
Lastly a restored piano must be regulated to feel and sound good. This is a highly skilled job and is time consuming and therefore expensive. Few “restored” pianos are sold in proper regulation. New hammers require the keyboard to be weighed off so the key weight (the static force down on the key needed to lift the hammer to set off ) is within say 1 gm on adjacent notes and is evenly graded for around 56 gm in the bass to 43 gm at the top treble. The best builders of pianos set the key weight on the black notes to ½ gm more than that of the white notes. At 440 Hz yhe key weight is typically set at between 47 and 52gm on a well regulated piano. In doing this work the technician must check the “up-weight” of the key (the restoring force for it to return to rest) because this is important for fast repetition. The difference between the down-weight and the up-weight is a measure of the action friction. It should not be more than about 23gm on a well regulated action. Key weighting should only be done once all sources of friction have been addressed and minimised. This is something indolent restorers tend to ignore.
Has the older piano you are considering been properly restored?
In verifying used and renovated pianos there are certain design features of different makes where faults may occur.
a) For example the action frames of Steinways are made from wood filled brass tubes. The tubes may sometimes split in humid conditions because the wood filling swells with uptake of moisture. In consequence precision of movement of the hammer is lost. Repair by replacement can be time consuming and very expensive. Steinway has a very thin , and therefore responsive soundboard. The downside is that it may collapse earlier in the life of the piano than one like Bosendorfer with a robust thick board
b) It is not uncommon to find cast frames on Bechsteins cracked on the underside of the break bars near the tuning pin block. This, if not severe, is repairable with care.
Both these faults a) and b) can arise because of exposure to excess humidity.
c) The underside of the detachable capodastra bar on Bosendorfer can become abraided by the strings and then the piano will develop false or weak notes.
d) Precise alignment of the dampers on Steinway is done by bending the lifting wires because , amazingly, there is no effective articulation built into the system. This is a time consuming operation that less reliable restorers will often not bother to complete satisfactorily. It is easier to open up big clearances in the damper rail bushings and hope the dampers do not jam in their guide bushes. Of course damping would be compromised when this is done.
At Hurstwood Farm Piano Studios we keep a chamber of horrors register from restored pianos. This includes :-
cracked sound boards where the crack has been filled with plastic wood and then stained and varnished to disguise what has been done;
detached sound board belly bars screwed back with large wood screws that have split the bars.
Frames replaced in pianos up to 2cms away from the correct location so the hammers have to be offset to contact the strings.
Loose legs fastened with undersize wood screws. (This can be very dangerous… even lethal to children if the leg collapses.
Many instances of cheap incorrect parts being fitted, sometimes with great ingenuity to get them in at all.
A complete repolyester job charged at high cost without the restorer-(a well known piano and most highly regarded builder) - preparing the piano without appropriate base coat or surface treatment. The top coat blistered and peeled off within a few weeks. We have two occurrences of this from the same source.
In the UK there are many under equipped, or incompetent and dishonest restorers offering renovation. Clients are tempted by fine sounding names, flashy premises or advertising with false claims of quality. These people know all the short cuts and have no concern for the quality of their work or the interests of their clients. Many find soundboard crown restoration too difficult or costly and omit doing it. Others avoid replacing degraded tuning pin blocks by using chemicals or resins to hold the pins from slipping after tuning. Pianos “restored” this way are more costly to restore correctly later and are usually only fit for scrap. Many cheat restorers omit weighing off the keyboard after new hammers are fitted because this is a time consuming and skilled job which can only be done correctly if the rest of the action is skilfully restored with quality parts. Pianos restored without weighing off cannot become satisfactory musical instruments because they are impossible to control.
Buying a restored piano is like walking blindfold across a minefield. Never- the- less if you can find a trustworthy and honest restorer you can achieve ownership of a fine instrument for your home by renovating an old but quality instrument. Timber improves in acoustic properties with time.
The cost of restoration of uprights or grands without a recognised name is unlikely to be reflected in increased value of the finished piano should you wish to sell later. The service life of a well restored piano is much the same as the life of a new instrument.
What make? For a new piano
Do not be influenced by the fact that a name is famous, well known to you or much advertised or often seen in prestige places. That is very dangerous. The fame of the Maker is no guide to what is best. The trade refer to a book called “The Piano Book by Larry Fines, (Available from Amazon on the Internet). Fines divides pianos into various grades called “tiers” on the basis of a statistical assessment made by a panel of many technicians. He considers:
Follow up service.
Appearance and finish,
Presentation on the market,
In Tier 1 for uprights, he lists Steingraeber, Bluethner, August Forster, Steinway (from Hamburg only), and Bösendorfer. These are beyond doubt the best pianos on offer, but they are quite costly. Price is no guide to quality it just reflects the financial director’s idea of what he can get away with and how much he wants the private buyer to subsidise sales to highly visible outlets which publicise the make name or how much he needs to put aside for paying people to recommend his make over the others. The ex-factory costs of all these instruments are similar. Tier 1 makes tend to hold their re-sale value best and it is only these makes that a serious musician should consider. The Author finds Steingraeber and Bosendorfer made before 2004 are the best of the Tier 1 pianos. For grand pianos Stuart and Fazioli also figure amongst the Tier 1 instrument makes alongside the names already listed. Stuart is arguably the best crafted piano in the history of piano building though its novel sound does not appeal to all artists. Fazioli is beautifully built but offers little competition to the makes that incorporate more of the modern science of acoustic engineering.
Pianos on offer from minor European manufacturers, usually classified in Tiers 2 and 3, are by comparison with those from The Far East…( Japan, Korea and China) …. far better instruments but most are priced roughly at the same level as tier 1 pianos and therefore are not best value for money. The Far East pianos are mass produced and precision made: they are a triumph of production engineering but mostly lack the qualities needed by a professional or a good amateur pianist, and may not last acoustically as well as European craftsman made instruments due to constraints arising from the speed of production. The probability is that these mass produced pianos, especially those from China will drive the European makers off the market because they are very low price. The commercial viability of producing uprights in Europe is already being questioned and famous name builders are ceasing production. Some European builders are sourcing parts or whole pianos in the Far East to try to protect their future. These instruments are no better than a piano openly offered as Chinese made, and should be avoided unless they have key parts sourced from Europe and have been finished in Europe. Several are labelled with famous names from the past to impart a false air of quality. Piano buyers should avoid these instruments if they seek ultimate quality. Some reasonable Chinese made upright pianos are however now offered and can be good value for money if you do not have a need for a fine cultured musical instrument for your home. We commend Wendl and Lung (a “borrowed” Austrian historical name) amongst these.
To protect yourself as a purchaser, insist on being told where your piano is made .. not just where it is assembled,…. and if possible visit the factory and see the work being done. Are there craftsmen employed or is it run using too high a proportion of cheap unskilled labour?
Selecting your Piano.
When you visit the shop, be aware that you will be asked to pay disproportionately extra for styling or wood finishes. A shiny black piano will reflect the colours in your room and will normally blend well.
Most dealers will offer a free matching stool with the piano if you insist.
You should also get free delivery and a free first service in your home plus 5 years warranty.
Prepare a piece you are confident you can pay well and use this to compare the response of different pianos. Don’t be embarrassed about playing the same piece all the time. You are not giving a recital. A competent salesman will know you are doing this to get comparison between the different pianos he has on offer and will respect you for your approach to the job in hand.