A commentary by David Burton
(originally posted on the Piano Forum, July 1999)
I have read through all the posts on these threads (referring to the
Piano Forum on Piano World) and noticed that a majority of the subjects are inquiries about various old pianos by brand, age or size with or without some question as to their monetary value. It has been suggested by some of the technicians who have responded that some information is available in various publications. If all those who have questions don't want to buy these books, they may find out at least some things about their piano from their local piano technicians who may have these books on hand. If one doesn't have them, try another. Try a public library to get these books for you.
Now the next point is what are these old instruments really worth? It has been said repeatedly by the technicians who have replied that their value are chiefly as musical instruments, not furniture. That will frustrate many of the 'art case' padlers out there I'm sure. That said, the next question is one of the market for pianos, or the market for old pianos.
I am coming at this from the perspective of a fairly widely traveled semiprofessional pianist who has known a fair number of people in the piano retail business and piano technical professions and is continually making contact with a few piano rebuilders because I just frankly love pianos. I have my favorites, have owned a few, new and old, etc. I am particularly interested in the craft of rebuilding old instruments. Sometimes this can be a rewarding thing to do if one owns the piano and knows what one can get from rebuilding it, someone who can really play the piano well enough to appreciate what a good piano rebuilt into an even better piano can really be.
What most people want to know are questions like this; Is my piano worth anything? Is it a good instrument? Was it ever a good instrument? Should I consider putting any money into it or going out and getting a new one and junking the old one? Here are some things to consider.
There would seem to be two types of pianos which were never intended to be very good to begin with; really short spinets and really short grands. On this last point some people think that there isn't any advantage to a 5'2" grand over a full upright because the bass end of the baby grand is never going to be that great. But on the other hand the upright action has some limitations that simply don't exist in a grand. So it is a tradeoff, one most people don't even know exists. Of course many new upright actions are better than the old grand's action is likely to be. However, this said, what is the resale value of a spinet or a really short grand which is something like 60 or more years old? Truth be told, probably next to nothing. Remember we are talking about value as a musical instrument. You can get real value in a new piano from many sources. And the used upright and grand markets offer many real steals.
OK, we have eliminated these kinds of pianos from consideration, now what's left? Well, there are upright pianos ranging in sizes from 48" all the way up beyond 6' tall and the grands. Let's talk about the uprights first.
The upright piano, if it is sufficiently large can provide much that a good sized grand can in sound in a space saving size. But the upright will never have the action of a grand, although they can sometimes come very close. The old pianos of 60 years old and more vintage that anyone may consider rebuilding are so numerous that they could actually cause something of a renaissance if and only if people start turning back to learning how to play the piano and sharing their performances with others rather than sitting there and watching TV. This is what people did before there was radio and TV which is why there were so many pianos made during the golden age of piano building.
There are a few rebuilders out there who are dedicated to restoring and rebuilding these old large upright pianos. I have seen some of their work and have been very impressed. They have made some improvements over the originals particularly when they have replaced the actions and made corrections for the string scaling. Many have cleaned and sometimes repaired the original soundboard. Very few that I have seen have replaced these old soundboards with new ones as they took on the piano to rebuild based on the structural soundness of the instrument, its soundboard being a key consideration. Therefore when anyone asks about their particular piano, the soundness of the soundboard as well as the size of the piano are key considerations. It will be obvious to some technicians that many of these very old large upright pianos will of course require new pinblocks when they are rebuilt. I have seen a few really bad rebuilds on old grands where this was not done and I have felt sick for the owners knowing that they will never really be able to keep their pianos tuned. Now what's the value of these old upright pianos, not rebuilt, in old 'as is' condition? I got a list of makers that are considered 'good possible rebuild' candidates. Don't worry if your piano maker's name is not on this list. You may still have a good instrument. Get a good honest 'hurt me' response from a hardheaded piano technician who has seen a lot of pianos. Also if you are out in the sticks you might not get as much for it as you might if you lived in town.
Here's the list; Steinway, Baldwin, Henry F. Miller, Knabe, Mason & Hamlin, Mason & Risch, Sohmer, Bush & Lane, McPhail, Haines Bros., Foster, Ivers & Pond, Hallet & Davis, Kranich & Bach, Decker, Gibbons & Stone. Again, there are so many more that if any were neglected, as there certainly were, since there were at one time many thousands of piano makes in the United States, you must again approach your local hardheaded technician to get a fair assessment. In most cases it will not be more than a few hundred dollars. If it wont even play it's not worth anything. A completely rebuilt upright of sufficient size; pinblock, action and rescaling with acceptable or excellent case will only fetch at most a few thousand dollars. And look at the competition. One can easily find a new piano, an upright, for comparable value even comparable actions to those that might be used in a rebuilt upright. It's a very competitive market.
Now lets consider the grands. A lot of the same names come up again but here are a few more, Kurtzman, Weber (old ones not the new oriental ones), Schomacker, Blasius, some Esteys (especially the larger ones), Fischer, Heintzman, Bennet, Schimmel, Sohmer, Stieff, George Steck. It should go without saying that a vintage Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, Knabe, Chickering and Baldwin, the last two the big grands mostly, make good rebuild candidates. Some like the old player grands. I don't for a number of reasons, but one is that I usually play them rather than listen to a machine play them. A large grand has many advantages to the true pianist but a few disadvantages also, like space. What's the market for them? There will probably always be a market for anything with Steinway on it despite my contention that there are just as many perfectly good pianos out there that aren't Steinways, many I would personally rather own. I might even prefer a new Boston to a new Steinway given the difference in price. But what about these old grands? Well the big points will be the action and the scaling, maybe the soundboard will need replacing, the keys may need new caps, the pinblock will of course be replaced. If you have a good vintage grand six feet or more or even five eight or more and you either own it and got it for nothing, an inheritance, or for very little, a few hundred dollars, you could well put several thousand into it and still come out ahead because a new grand of comparable size will cost as much if not more than your rebuild and your rebuild may have more character than anything new.
I have tried to get at the issue of the character of various pianos by make, how one describes what they feel and sound like, with various technicians. It is very hard to describe in words. I think a thread for this purpose should be started here.
I have put this lengthy piece in as the result of my own research into this fascinating business which has been for so long close to my heart. Not only have I played the piano all my life but I am also a composer. I am 48 years old.