Used pianos are everywhere. During the golden age of the piano, every home aspired to have one. Decades later, with recorded music at our fingertips, the popularity of pianos has plummeted, leaving many families with an unused piece of furniture weighing 600 pounds. For the beginner on a budget, these unwanted pianos are an excellent opportunity.

Pianos are incredibly complicated pieces of machinery with thousands of moving parts. That’s a lot of things that can go wrong. And no one other than a skilled technician can really check them all thoroughly. But for the inexperienced buyer it’s helpful to have a checklist of the main areas of a piano to inspect before purchasing.

The keys are the easiest parts of the piano to check. Just press every key to see if it works. The appearance of the keys is not as important. Better for a few ivories to be missing than to have a keys that don’t make a sound. The key must come up after pressing it. If it does not, then the piano has a problem somewhere.

Hammers are made of felt. This felt becomes compacted after years of use. The more compacted the felt, the worse the piano sounds. This is easy to spot, because the hammers will have deep grooves worn into their surfaces by the strings. A piano technician may revitalize the hammers by shaving the flattened felt off. If this is done too many times, however, the hammer may be reduced to nothing but the core of wood. When this happens, the sound of wood striking string is even worse than the dull sound of old, worn felt. This usually happens to the highest notes of the piano where the hammers are more delicately constructed. There is no way to fix this except buying a new set of hammers. This piano is not worth buying. In the image below, the second hammer is worn down to the wood and its neighbors are not far behind.Hammer felt worn completely down to the wooden core.

Strings are easy to check. If more than two or three strings are snapped, then the piano has probably had a lot of use and little care. They may also be covered in rust, which indicates the piano has been in a very humid environment. Strings are expensive. If the rust is noticeable, leave the piano behind. On the opposite side, don’t expect the strings on used pianos to gleam. the oxidation of age will darken them, but they will work just fine if they aren’t rusted or broken.

The soundboard will probably have some hairline cracks if the piano is more than a few decades old. The soundboard can be viewed from the back of the piano between the ribs. There is some debate over the importance of an un-cracked soundboard. If the soundboard buzzes because of the cracks, then the piano is not worth purchasing. If they cause no noticeable buzz or rattle, then don’t worry about them.

A minor crack in the lower left corner of the soundboard

Piano strings are stretched tightly over the bridge. Many little pins are wedged into the bridge to hold the strings in place. Because of the tension from the strings, these pins can cause cracks in the bridge. In the image below, many short cracks can be seen.

Small cracks on the bridge

If the piano stays in tune, then these cracks are tolerable. But if the bridge pins become too loose, the piano won’t hold a tune. Best to ask the owner when the piano was last tuned to check if it has stayed in tune.

Checking these five areas (Keys, hammers, strings, soundboard, and bridge) will help the prospective buyer be aware of many of the common issues that affect the quality of the piano. An older piano with some of these issues can be found for $100-200. The owners often have no idea of the value and may price it $600-800. If the piano is $500 or more, look for one without any of these problems. They are out there. Don’t settle.